Vanessa-Mae was born on 27 October 1978 in Singapore, to a Singaporean mother and Thai Father. After adoption by a British Father, she moved to London at the age of 4 where she began playing the violin, having already started the piano in Singapore. At the age of eight Mae embarked upon an intensive period of study with Professor Lin Yao Ji at the National Conservatoire of Music in Beijing. Vanessa-Mae returned to London and entered London's Royal College of Music.
Her first pop-style album, The Violin Player, was released in 1995. She appeared on the 1997 Janet Jackson album The Velvet Rope playing a violin solo on the song "Velvet Rope".
Mae has occasionally recorded her own compositions. Her 1997 album China Girl: The Classical Album 2 included two pieces in which she shared a writing credit: Violin Fantasy on Puccini's 'Turandot' and Reunification Overture, marking the reunification of China and Hong Kong.
She was managed by her mother until Vanessa-Mae fired her in 1999.
On 7 March 2002 Vanessa-Mae performed a variation of Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons – "Summer: III. Presto" during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Paralympics.
In April 2006, Vanessa-Mae was ranked as the wealthiest young entertainer under 30 in the UK in the Sunday Times Rich List 2006, having an estimated fortune of about £32 million.
Vanessa-Mae stated that she "started skiing around the same time as I began playing the piano, at around four, before moving to the violin at five", and that it had been her "dream to be a ski bum since I was 14." In 2009 Vanessa-Mae took up residence in the Swiss alpine resort of Zermatt. In August 2010, she told The Telegraph, "I am British, but realistically there is no way I could represent my own country, but because my natural Father is Thai, they have accepted me." She registered as a Thai alpine skier.
In October 2011, Vanessa-Mae attended celebrations in Chechnya on the birthday of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov along with several other celebrities, "played a bit of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' utterly mechanically" according to The Moscow Times reporter Anna Malpas, and reportedly received $US500,000 for her performance. When asked where the money comes from to pay for performances, Kadyrov replied that "Allah gives it to us". Human rights groups, who had urged the celebrities to cancel their appearances because of human rights abuses carried out under Kadyrov, criticised her and other celebrities for attending the event.
The Hearing Panel issued a worldwide four year ban against Vanessa-Mae (that was lifted post-issuance – see Appeal decision), two-year ban against the Chief of Race Borut Hrobat, and one-year bans against the FIS Technical Delegate, Chief of Timing, Referee, and Starter. FIS President Gian-Franco Kasper commented to Associated Press concerning the violations: "Those who have been sanctioned have been sanctioned for good reason. At first we were laughing when we heard it. But then we realised it's quite a serious thing."
On 19 June 2015 the Court of Arbitration for Sport voided Vanakorn's four year ban, saying there was a lack of evidence that she herself manipulated the races; but the CAS dismissed her appeal to restore the qualifying results, confirming that the qualifying races "were so defective that their results and qualification points gained therefrom could not stand", and therefore "Vanessa Vanakorn remains ineligible to compete in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games".
In 2016, Vanakorn settled her lawsuit against the International Skiing Federation (FIS), in which the FIS made an "appropriate payment", the amount of which was not disclosed. The FIS issued an apology for its claims of race-fixing, and cited lax FIS rules for the questionable qualification races.
Vanakorn returned to skiing in 2017, to attempt to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Vanakorn withdrew from competition due to suffering a shoulder injury, in January 2018. With her withdrawal, the placement for Thailand would go to 21-year-old Alexia Schenkel.