Kylie Minogue: Pop Idol

She has long been Britain's favourite disco diva - and now she's cracked America too. But how is Kylie Minogue coping with life as a global superstar?
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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time, on 26 May 2003 to be exact, Kylie Minogue got an idea of how other people see her. The Spanish choreographer Rafael Bonachela, who worked on the pop princess's KylieFever2002 tour, had created a piece called 21 for Rambert Dance Company. It featured Kylie as a huge projection, looming over the dancers and the stage.

In Blah Blah Blah, a book largely concerned with the many faces of Kylie, her stylist, confidant and friend William Baker described her role in 21 as "an ethereal presence made up solely of light particles, an unreal archetype of loveliness. A symbol for celebrity, she is an illusion, a giant, blown out of all proportion."

In the book, Baker calls pop the new religion, with its worshipping of - and faith in - iconography. Kylie then described herself as a "watery icon". What on earth did she mean by that? She's not entirely sure.

"It's a strange thing to talk about yourself as an icon. It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, so ... I'm sure I meant that it's not that solid. It isn't thousands and thousands of years old. Although, yes, I've been doing this for a long time - for 15 years, and I think pop years are like dog years!"

Kylie graciously wrote a poem - about celebrity, and love, and life - for 21. It was one of the "more artistic endeavours that I dabble in," recalls Kylie, the kind that doesn't get noticed so much by pop-watchers. "But I do think that doing those things does affect the work that I do in the pop world."

Kylie attended the premier at Sadler's Wells theatre in London. She winces at the memory. "It made me feel really uncomfortable. 'Cause the idea of the show was to make you feel uncomfortable. And I was the main subject, used to represent celebrity as a whole. I was huge - that was the point. Are people gonna be drawn to a two-dimensional image of someone they think they know? Or to ..." As she is wont to do, Kylie trails off as another sentence crowds into her head. "And next to me the dancers were really tiny."

She's spent her life in front of cameras. She's seen images of herself a gazillion times, pored over contact sheets time and time again. She is used to other people projecting ideas and fantasies on to her tiny (5ft 1/2in) frame. But this was different.

"My assistant got a great photo afterwards," she continues. "Everyone was leaping on me, [asking] 'what d'you think, what d'you think?' I was totally dumbfounded. [Eventually I said] 'It was awful! I hated it!' And the picture is of them all around me, and I've got my hand on my head and the theatre's 'Silence' light was above me.

"That's how I felt: 'Gimme some space, I need to figure out what I think.' I guess it was a sign of a job well done because they did want people to leave and go, 'What was that about? What do I think? What are my emotions?' "

It wasn't like being hounded out of a pub by mad fans, as she and Baker were when they went for a drink after the performance. That was normal. In the theatre, for a rare moment, Britain's favourite pop star, the world's beloved disco-dolly, the sure-footed, seasoned pro, was confronted by the vast, almost unimaginable scale of her celebrity. She didn't like it.

AT 4PM on a blowy winter's day, Kylie Minogue stepped from the back seat of a silver Audi. She was on her own. She climbed the few steps to the door of a private members' club in Chelsea; she does most of her increasingly rare interviews here. It's near her long-standing London home and, for all the ephemera on the walls relating to Donald Campbell's attempts at speed records, the club's drawing room maintains an air of drowsy quiet.

The solitary waiter in attendance greeted her like an old friend. She beamed a 100-watt smile, ordered a cup of "builder's finest", and perched herself, neatly and expectantly, on the edge of a sofa - where, it has to be said, her short denim skirt did little to preserve her dignity. Kylie sipped her tea, oblivious.

She was here to talk about Body Language, her ninth album, the second single from which was soon to be released, and as little else as she could get away with. In the 15 years since she had her first Number 1 with "The Loco-Motion", Kylie Minogue has perfected the art of tactical circumspection. How else would she have maintained her privacy, and therefore her sanity? But not for her the thin-lipped stonewalling of the reluctant celebrity interviewee; she doesn't mouth well-drilled platitudes. Kylie's "trick" is to chat-chat-chat until the allotted time is up.

This occasionally (or in fact frequently) means non-sequiturs and cheerful, question-avoiding blethering. But it also fits perfectly with the girl-next-door image that she's had since she was Charlene, the tomboy mechanic in Neighbours. Kylie is no remote diva, nor icy confection. She is the nation's favourite, a kind of public institution loved from dads down to toddlers. She may be ultra-glam and dead fashionable, but she loves a cuppa and has the same problems wearing short skirts as the next woman. Everyone feels on first-name terms with Kylie.

Paradoxically, she has maintained this position for a decade and a half by keeping mum as much as possible. In an era when confessional interviews and purgative memoirs are a crucial part of marketing oneself, Kylie the superstar has kept herself largely to herself.

So, are Kylie fans really just followers of a mythic version of the singer? One that's all about her famous bum and Love Kylie underwear range and funky video choreography and stuff like that?

She pauses. "Um... Yes, but not only. I think it's impossible to portray a lie. Maybe not impossible, but it'd be very difficult to portray a lie for 15 years; I just don't think I'd have the stamina to do that. But I think a lot of what they get, yeah, it is a two-dimensional version. If you believe what's in the newspapers, my God, I'm a lot richer and a lot wilder..."

... And a lot more pregnant and engaged to be married ...

" ... and a lot better and a lot worse, depending on what you read. I've felt that [in the last] year, the stories [were] getting further and further away from who I am. I'm sure they were closer when I was 18 years old and I went on to Neighbours, sang a song, and wow, here I am in London ..." Another pause. "I don't think I was as guarded as I am now." f

Ask her if she would ever consider writing her autobiography - as, for example, boy-man Justin Timberlake, who today reaches the grand old age of 23, is already doing - and she screws up her face.

"It doesn't really appeal to me. I would feel forced to have to correct everything that was incorrect and replace that with ... other stories. I've got a terrible enough memory anyway, I'd have to make it up! I don't know. I'm just not that comfortable with the idea of doing that. I think I give enough already. I think I probably give more than I need to. Because I started so young, before I did know to be guarded or to be smart, it was a bit like being a street kid - I learnt on the job. There was no one like you have on Pop Idol and stuff, a team of people to advise you. In those days it was just, 'get out there'."

THESE DAYS, Kylie is taking things a little easier. Late last year, in an interview with Radio 2, she admitted that her work schedule had previously led to her suffering a "small nervous breakdown" while at home in Australia. With "Can't Get You Out Of My Head", the totemic modern pop standard that Kylie calls simply "La La La", she spectacularly broke America - until then, almost the only country in the world to have remained impervious to her charms. She was, at last, a global superstar, with a workload to match.

With Body Language, the work is proceeding at a more human pace. Fewer media engagements, no tour (as yet), one performance to launch the album worldwide (the TV-screened Money Can't Buy show), and one 30-minute press conference in London at which 250 international journalists were "serviced" in one fell swoop. Of course, when your last album (Fever) sold six million copies and its lead single ("Can't Get You Out Of My Head") was Number 1 in 21 countries, you can afford to put your feet up a bit.

She has, she says cheerfully, learnt to say "no", and the more relaxed approach is making her feel much better about everything.

"It really is," she grins. "There's only 24 hours in the day and there's only so much I can do in a working day. And it's not like I haven't done the groundwork. I think everyone knows [me]. I enjoy hard work, I really do like it, but if I had another two years like the previous two years, I might start to not like it so much. I could put on a brave face but people would [know] - I mean, the people at my record company and my management were like, 'We're exhausted so you must be really tired'."

Part of Kylie's newfound contentment can be ascribed to her boyfriend, Olivier Martinez. Apart from his amazingly handsome French-actor looks, what has he got that's special?

"We just met at the right time and ... he's ... a man! And ... we come from very different cultures, which is always interesting. He doesn't know about this business. But he just knows how to help me. Which isn't sitting down and having counselling. He has incredible wisdom that I don't think he's even aware of. He's an old soul, and that's good for me- 'cause I'm probably a young one."

Martinez is 38, two years older than Kylie. Neither looks their age. (And for the record, sly inspection of Kylie reveals no immediate signs of nips or tucks; her neck is remarkably unpuckered, the areas around her eyes fresh and natural.)

Does having an old soul like Olivier's give you a young face?

"Maybe the young ones like me, we're running too fast!" she chuckles. "... 'Gotta get everything done, gotta get all the way over there, lots of things to do!' "

This go-getting attitude perhaps explains why, for all her work fatigue and domestic bliss, Kylie rush-released Body Language. Didn't she want to enjoy herself, and her new man, a bit longer?

"No I didn't!" she exclaims, as if it were a ludicrous suggestion. "When I first started recording, Parlophone [Kylie's record label] were great. They were tip-toeing around it: 'In your own time, what are you thinking [in terms of release dates]? Surely you want to take some time off?' And I did, by my standards, have some time off. But I was just eager to get back in [to the studio] really. Things fell into place pretty well and before we knew it we did have the album ..."

Perhaps she's addicted to performing. After all, she was a TV star in Australia at the age of nine. She lived much of her childhood in front of the TV cameras, and has spent her entire adulthood in the glare of pop. Maybe she's missed out on having a real, normal life.

She politely demurs. "I don't think I did, no. Obviously I can't really know because it's the only life that I have. But having said that, I'm glad I wasn't working [all the time] as a child - I mean, I did some work when I was nine, but then I went back to school till I was 16. [I] never did have - don't have - stage parents. Which seems unlikely when both my sister [the singer and actor Dannii] and I do what we do. But I've never had aaany pressure - 'Get up the front, smile, do that!' I don't consider myself to be a stage school kind of kid. I was quite shy at school, actually."

Really?

"Yeah! I didn't go in the school plays ... I was obviously the littlest and when it came time for the school photo, it's so easy to find me. Just go to the bottom line at the end, or I'm the one holding the [class/date] board."

Her happiness with Martinez could be reflected in the lyrics to her new single, "Red f Blooded Woman": "I wanna get down/I'm a red blooded woman/what's the point in hanging around/don't wanna keep turning it down/ when this girl wants to rock with you".

It's in contrast to the topsy-turvy times with her last boyfriend, the two-timing gadabout and male model James Gooding. He couldn't help spilling the beans to the press, it seemed. Kylie went through the mill with Gooding, often - against her will - in public. There are two songs on Body Language that would appear to refer to this period. "Promises" has the line: "Remember that I'm over you/I know that I will make it through/ Hope you never forget it". In "Obsession" she sings: "You don't need love ... so drawn to your own reflection". But Kylie denies that they're about the end of the troubled relationship.

"In fact, [with] 'Obsession', if it wasn't that I loved the song so much, it would not be on my album. 'Cause I just thought, 'Eugh, I know I'm gonna be asked about this.' I think it's a great track. But I don't think the guys who did the lyrics flipped through the newspapers each day and went, 'Hmm, what do we think she wants to say?' That's not my style at all."

Kylie is not one for airing her dirty laundry in public.

"Oh no," she shudders. "N-n-n-no. Ha ha!"

In general, Body Language is "still electro-pop, but with more curves. It's less angular than Fever was. There's a bit more of a funk influence. There's more depth to it." But for all the icy beats and Euro-cool of Body Language, she denies that it's a more serious album than its hard-partying predecessor.

"Erm ... I wouldn't describe it as more serious. I think it has more depth to it. Especially from the comments that I've had back - people like it at first but they really take a few listens. Then they seem more genuine and say, 'Now I really like it'. I think that's interesting for an album of mine because it's normally 'straight away, yeeeay, here it is'."

In keeping with the more sophisticated sounds on Body Language, the Kylie "look" in 2004 is all about toning down the thrusting sexuality. A little anyway. The famous bottom is less to the fore this time round, replaced by a leggings-clad, Kohl-eyed, Bardot-esque kitten-cum-vamp.

Researchers at the University of Colorado recently said that pop has become "cruder, more self-centred and sex-oriented". Does Kylie agree?

"Well, yes! But relative to how it's always been, it's probably the same. Society in general has become more obsessed with celebrity, with sex, everything's more accessible. You want a quicker fix and more bang for your buck. We'll still be saying this in 10 years' time, 20 years' time, 30 years' time. That response is probably as perennial as pop is. We love pop, we hate pop, we love pop ... it'll always come back in a different form. And for me, I didn't want to go any further than I'd already gone."

The researchers also said that, concomitantly, the use of the word "love" in pop songs had reached an all-time low. How has Kylie's faith in love stood up?

"Aahh," she exhales. "That's a big question. Pretty well, I'd say. In fact, I'd say very well. Even when it hasn't been great. 'Cause it's so powerful that it affects you all the time. And whatever's happened in my life with relationships, my family is so strong, and so that's the best tightrope - sorry, safety net! What I'm walking is a tightrope sometimes!"

Kylie isn't sure about touring again any time soon. She did do three tours in four years -and when Kylie goes on the road, it's a military campaign involving an ambitious theme for the whole tour, manifold costume changes and a cast of hundreds. The stress of the one-off Money Can't Buy reminded her of just how draining a Kylie show can be.

"You know what I would I love to do?" she announces. "I had a little experience of doing it [last] year at a party for [fashion label] Chloe in Paris: belting out old jazz standards. I loved it! I can't tell you how much I loved it! Belting them out, and feeling like I was in control of everything - people [were] yelling in front of me, I was like, 'Guys, take it over there!' I've always loved those songs and I find them actually easier to do than a lot of my songs."

A jazz club tour then?

"At the risk of sending chills down the spine of every jazz aficionado, yeah! Those kind of songs ... 'Peel Me A Grape' - there is so much joy in singing that song and the way to deliver it. It's unbelievable. Robbie [Williams] has done swing and if I was to do anything for personal satisfaction, I'd do songs like that. It was so interesting because they are standards and I had to play with how far you stray from the standard. Obviously I don't sound like the women who've sung them before. But they're such amazing songs I thought, 'If I can make them my own, they'll work for me.' And they did, and it was really enjoyable. I thought, 'God, my real work's much harder than this!' "

KYLIE MINOGUE put on her coat and buttoned it up to the neck in anticipation of the chill outside. Her silver Audi was already purring at the front door. The waiter approached. He had a pain au chocolate for her. French and attentive, he had clearly heard the much-heralded but throwaway quote from Kylie, wherein she said her new emotional contentment extended to an ease with her physical appearance (yes, it seems that even Kylie can get the fear when faced with a full-length mirror). So much so that she indulges in a chocolate croissant every morning.

She politely declined the offer to eat the pastry on the spot, but said she would love to take it with her.

If Kylie Minogue was your friend - a proper friend, not just an ethereal presence made up solely of light particles, an unreal archetype of loveliness - what kind of friend would she be?

"When I'm good, I'm very, very good!" she giggled coquettishly. "When I'm bad, I'm just useless! [People would say] 'She hasn't called, where is she?' I forgot your birthday present, I promise I'll get it to you in six months ... I'm a bit of a ditz sometimes, a bit scatty, all over the place..."

The heart's in the right place but the brain sometimes isn't?

"Yeah," grinned Kylie with a confessional nod. "But brain's got a lot to cope with, a lot of things to file ..."

She smiled the Kylie smile, retrieved her wrapped-up pain au chocolate, and glided out the door.

Kylie's new single, 'Red Blooded Woman' is released on 1 March (Parlophone)

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