What do Mae West, Olivia Newton John and Britney Spears have in common? They're all blondes, obviously. And they all sing, too – with varying degrees of competence. They also all feature in Denise Van Outen's new one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe, Blondes, "a celebration of golden goddesses, peroxide princesses and sun-kissed sirens".
In this unashamedly camp cabaret show, Van Outen examines the eternal appeal of lightly coloured hair via her musical idols, from virginal gold (Kylie) to screaming phosphorescent white (Marilyn Monroe) via brassy (Dolly Parton), sultry (Blondie) and, of course, Dusty.
Where does this endless fascination with hair colour come from? The legends have their roots far back in folklore and fairy tales with blond babies being snatched to be replaced by evil changelings and flaxen-haired damsels in distress using their tresses to escape peril. Then, in 1953, the modern myth-makers of Hollywood proclaimed that gentlemen prefer blondes and an archetype was born, with further shades – the icy Hitchcock Blonde and the airheaded Legally Blonde, to name but two – added to the palette of stereotypes over the years.
This week, Spears dying her hair back to the honeyed tones of her schoolgirl heyday hit headlines around the world. The singer, naturally, tweeted from the salon that, "Blondes do have more fun!", to which her new best friend, and also newly peroxided, Lindsay Lohan replied "I second that? he he!". Pedro Almodóvar's new film Broken Embraces also premiered this week, once again starring his favourite muse, Penelope Cruz. This time, he cast her as Lena, a call girl turned aspiring actress in vertiginous stilettos and an ash-blond Marilyn/Warhol wig. This, the hair seems to scream from photographs in every newspaper and magazine, is not just another Almodovar film: go and see it!
"Let's face it," says Van Outen at the start of her show, "being blond is not just a hair colour, it's a vocation." That's pushing it a little, but Blondes does highlight (excuse the pun) the heritage of a hair colour.
Witness the blond female pop star who dresses up as Monroe and breathily sings "Happy Birthday" to an elder statesman. Madonna based her early look on the tragic bombshell, while any new bleached talent struggles to escape the ghosts of her predecessors. Duffy? The new Dusty. Taylor Swift? Dolly for teens. That never happened to the raven-beehived Amy Winehouse or the flame-haired Florence Welch.
Still, it's a long line, which many singers (and women in general: according to one statistic in the show, sales of dye products have gone up by 67 per cent in 2009 as women have attempted to leaven the recession with a little light bleaching) are happy to join. Not least Van Outen herself, a brassy, ballsy Sylvia Young alumna, who has effected the transition from Essex girl, breakfast presenter and lads' mag favourite to West End and Broadway sensation (in Chicago) and respected reality television judge, all the while keeping her trademark platinum hair in place.
Dressed in a scarlet va-va-voom corset and pencil skirt, with matching Louboutin heels and carmine lips and nails, Van Outen slinks out on to the tiny stage, purring, "Come up and see me some time" before breaking off to tell a "dumb blonde" joke in her nasal Essex twang. As the Graham Norton voice-over reminds us at the start of the show, Van Outen arrives at this, her Fringe debut, "from the bright lights of Broadway via the bus stops of Basildon".
So Blondes is at once a musical showcase for Van Outen's talents and an entertaining, intimate, at times downright filthy, journey through her life and loves. From her ladette party days, to a much publicised break-up with Jay Kay of Jamiroquai (Bonnie Tyler's "It's a Heartache") and her happy-ever-after ending with marriage to Joseph musical star, Lee Mead, whom she met when she was judging the BBC talent show Any Dream Will Do (Springfield's "I close My Eyes and Count to Ten"). Along the way there are jokes, innuendoes, down-to-earth anecdotes about sunbeds and Dorothy Perkins, and homey photographs of her nan Mary, embarrassing childhood snapshots and candid paparazzi pictures of her drunk in the toilets at the Brit Awards with Gail Porter.
Performing songs by the various stars who have inspired her – Kylie in her teens, Dolly in her twenties, Britney in her thirties – Van Outen displays a fine talent for impersonating the vocal tics of her co-blondes as well as a good range. Occasionally she tips over a little too far into the expansive acting of her musical theatre background, and the Britney segment is a little overblown and downbeat as an ending. She's patently at home on the stage and at ease with the audience, leading them in a maudlin singalong to "It's a Heartache" and a more upbeat "Like a Prayer", and picking on one hapless male to feel the wrath of a hundred jilted women. It feels a bit like a giant hen night – which is what it will doubtless become if (or, most likely, when) it transfers to the West End.
In less experienced hands, the rather tacky set-up – neon lighting, some fairly shoddy graphics – could be disastrous, but Van Outen has the warmth to pull it off. She imitates her idols but never presumes to put herself on a level with them. Instead, she builds each star up before humanising them. Madonna, always the least approachable of pop stars, is "not really a favourite" of hers; Tyler, the melodramatic soundtrack to her break-ups, "sounds like she swallowed Rod Stewart"; Kylie, her teenage crush, turns out to be "absolutely bloody tiny. Like Thumbelina in a ra-ra skirt"; and as for Britney, "if I had just five minutes with her, I'd sort her out".
There you have it. In just over an hour, Den, the funny girl next door with a nice voice, cuts to the heart of the love affair with the bleach bottle. Not everyone can be a star, she tells us, but just about anyone can be a blonde.
To 31 Aug, Udderbelly's Pasture, Edinburgh (08445 458252)