Nena was born in the city of Hagen in North Rhine-Westphalia and began her musical career at the age of 19. Originally lead singer of little-known band The Stripes, her breakthrough came after she moved to West Berlin in the early eighties to form a band with some friends.
The group called itself, as well as its first album, “Nena”. One of the tracks on the 1983 album was “99 Luftballons”, a contemplative ballad containing a political message but ostensibly about scores of balloons drifting towards the horizon. It was to launch Gabriele Susanne Kerner to global stardom.
“99 Luftballons” shot straight to number one in the German charts. Buoyed by that success, Nena decided to release an English version of the track, which became the world-famous “99 red balloons”, which topped the British charts and went to number two in the United States.
The version released in the Anglophone world was far from a direct translation of the original German. The German Luftballon became ‘red balloon,’ inspiring lines such as ‘Panic lads, it’s a red alert’ absent from the original, where there was no emphasis on the colour of the 99 balloons.
Though none of the band’s subsequent songs matched the success of “99 red balloons”, Nena continued to release songs with the group until 1987 when she left to embark on a solo career.
In the same year, she began a relationship with Swiss actor Benedict Freitag, with whom she was to have children.
Tragedy befell the couple when their first child died at the age of just 11 months, an event which Nena said marked a changed in her outlook. In a 1994 interview with Spiegel TV, she said the death of her son marked a “new life” for her, one which was governed by a heightened awareness of the present. She took up yoga and began practicing mindfulness. In 1990, Nena gave birth to twins – a girl Larissa and boy Sakias.
Throughout the 1990’s, Nena released a number of solo albums and hosted Countdown Grand Prix, the competition to select a German entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998.
In 2010, at the age of 19, Larissa and Sakias, in an impressive display of twin-synchronicity, became first-time parents within days of each other – making Nena a two-time grandmother at the age of 50.
Nena consistently balanced the role of mother and grandmother with her musical career.
In 2002, she staged a successful comeback with the release of the album “Nena feat. Nena”, which showcased new arrangements of her hits from the 1980s. And in 2007 she released an album of cover hits called “Cover Me”.
Reluctant to let “99 red balloons” disappear into thin air however, Nena released yet another version of the hit in 2009, this time featuring lyrics in French.
Knowing how to ride on a high, Nena is a granny who continues to reach for the stars and was up until February of this year, continuing to grace German television screens – as a coach on talent show The Voice of Germany.