Vanessa Mae Nicholson was born in Singapore to a Thai father and Chinese mother. Following her parents' divorce, she moved with her mother to London, England, becoming a British citizen in the early 1990s. Her mother married an Englishman named Graham Nicholson in 1982, and he adopted Vanessa, giving her his surname. She began playing piano at age three and violin at age five, and began performing publicly shortly thereafter. She recorded her first album, titled Violin, in late 1990, and has been touring and recording every year since. In addition, she made her acting debut in The Violin Fantasy in 1998, and appeared in the American telefilm Arabian Nights in 2000.
Vanessa Mae continues to reside in London.