Her name is now synonymous with the Sydney Olympics but a few hours before the opening ceremony of the 2000 Games, few had heard of Nikki Webster.
A few hours after it, the 13-year-old was everywhere. Wearing a pink dress with white flowers, such was Webster starring role as the Hero Girl of the Sydney opening ceremony, her fame exploded overnight.
It caught Webster by surprise, but for her parents Tina and Mark it was a shock.
Though aware their young dancer, through a long audition process and months of rehearsals, would have a role in the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, they had been deliberately kept in the dark on the fact Nikki was playing a pivotal role.
Tina and Mark watched on in disbelief as Nikki, bathed in spotlight, skipped across the giant stage and soared through the air, but it was only on their very non-VIP trip home from ANZ Stadium – on the train – that it all hit home.
“On the way home, people were handing out free papers. Mum and Dad opened the paper and it was full of me,” she said.
Twenty years on, Webster can hardly believe the level of fame that settled on her so quickly.
But to land the part, she had to go up against thousands of hopefuls during an exhaustive audition process.
“I reckon if there was a reality show back then – it should have been about the Hero Girl auditions,” she said. “Every young girl that you could imagine was there, every girl you had auditioned against for musicals, for tv commercials, it was a massive casting call.”
The young Webster had worked in commercials and musicals, but ultimately, she said it was her confidence with heights that impressed artistic director David Atkins enough to give her an edge.
“The elimination process also meant going to the stadium [to see] if you were scared of heights,” she said. “I told David [Atkins] you can take me higher and I’m pretty sure that was the moment he went this is the girl I want.”
Webster went into the rehearsal process not knowing precisely what she would be doing on opening night, with the different segments of ceremony kept strictly secret.
“As the audition process went on and as time got closer to the Olympics… the idea of the Hero Girl developed, and she ended up connecting every single segment,” Webster said.
Webster’s parents also knew practically nothing about the role due to the secrecy surrounding the ceremony. And Nikki’s plan.
“They knew I was flying because of health and safety…but they didn’t really know anything else about what the Hero Girl was doing,” she said. “They’d drop me off, I’d have a child minder, I’d come home and they’d say how did you go, and I’d say ‘great yeah it was fun’.
“I did not give them a lot of detail because I wanted them to be proud and I wanted them to witness it just like an audience member.
“It definitely changed our lives, but it changed our lives for the better and we all went on the journey together wherever it took us.”
The aftermath of her moment in the Sydney spotlight was a whirlwind. Webster had record labels contacting her wanting to sign a deal, and on her first day back at school, a 60 Minutes crew tagged along for the day.
“The next few months were amazing,” she said. “I got to pick a record label and work with a producer that I met during the Olympics, who was composer of the nature segment, so I built up a relationship and made albums, it was every girl’s dream.”
Webster went on to release her single Strawberry Kisses and started a clothing label with Kmart.
The teenager also played Dorothy in an Australian stage performance of The Wizard of Oz which ran from 2001 to 2002.
“I can’t say it was a bad childhood, that’s for sure,” she said. “There was no written book on how to map out a child’s career in this country, so we were all just learning as we went and trying to make the best decisions and having some fun with it.”
Webster managed to stay in school after finding her newfound success but said the Sydney Olympic exposure came with some baggage. There were a few jealous friends in the artistic world, and the slightly weird consequence of people everywhere turning their heads and whispering ‘is that …?’.
“It got the point to the point where I would be out with my friends and they’d say ‘you know everyone is staring at you?’ she said. “And I went to a performing arts school so everybody at that school wanted to do what I was doing, so there were the really supportive ones and there were the ones that were jealous.”
Twenty years on, Webster is still recognised on the street from her role as the hero girl. The 33-year-old now has two kids of her own, aged six and two, and runs three performing arts studios in Sydney.
“I guess the best thing about it is being remembered for something so positive for our country, she said. “I still remember the first moment I got the role to the moment, to walking out onto the middle of the field, I remember every little bit…but then I look in the mirror and then I am like ‘oh yeah, I am getting older’.”
Webster said she opened performing arts studios in an effort to give other youngsters the same experiences she had been given as a kid, or up to a point at least. Gigs with a few hundred million people in the audience don’t come along every day.
“There wasn’t a lot of platforms for a performer when I was young, so to use my voice to make that happen and keep dancers and performers in this country instead of going overseas is something I am really passionate about,” she said.
“But to them – I’m Miss Nikki, I am not anyone famous, I’m just Miss Nikki that they come to when they need a shoulder or in the first row at their performances cheering them on.”
Sarah is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.