Sheila who must be obeyed

Men may be from Mars, but these girls are from Oz, where they do things a bit differently. Naomi West on the brash, busty, ballsy babes coming up from down under

APRIL 1ST, 1998 was the day when the unthinkable actually happened. Helen Daniels, the gran of all our hearts and of unfeasible numbers of Ramsay Street pubescents, finally met her maker. The blow was only softened by the circumstances surrounding her death - she passed away while watching Scott and Charlene's wedding video. The moment of inevitable nostalgia that meant curtains for Helen brought to the minds of British viewers the thought: "Hasn't Kylie done well for herself since then?"

And the answer would have to be a resounding yes. Our imaginations were captured early by the feisty Charlene Ramsay, and since then there has been an atmosphere of goodwill surrounding her career. It's as if we've always wanted her to be the gently witty, Manic Street Preachers-collaborating style icon she is today. The music is almost surplus to requirements - a needless validation of an appeal which straddles cultural boundaries whether she's doing slick pop or try-hard techno. It is the fact she can now stand up and poetically recite the lyrics of "I should be so lucky" to various chortling celebs that cements her in the star spectrum. And where she has gone, other sheilas follow.

Last weekend's No Worries weekend on LWT featured the talents of voluptous, unembarrassable Elle McFeast (real name Lisbeth Gorr), an Aussie stand- up comedienne recruited by the Oz health department to make a series of public education films on safe sex. And you have to hand it to her; only a sheila could probe the Royal Australian Airforce about anal sex and penis size. But then she comes from the land down under, where women something or other (we can't remember what, but it probably has to do with Vegamite) and men chunder. Despite cartoonist Jamie Hewlitt's claim that he only made Tank Girl Australian so he didn't have to draw so many buildings, it is conceivable that there are a few Tank Girl "two fingers to the rest of the world" genes built into every girl from Brisbane to Perth.

And if they're not tanned, foul-mouthed beauties, they're red-headed, passionate proto-feminists from the outback; witness Cate Blanchett, perfectly cast after a six-year search as the self-possessed Lucinda Leplastrier in Gillian Armstrong's adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. Or her earlier incarnation, Judy Davis in Armstrong's 1979 cult feminist classic My Brilliant Career. Blanchett has now successfully stormed Pommie thespian strongholds and been cast as Elizabeth I by director Shekhar Kapur for his film of the same name. A similarly spirited path has been cut by Toni Collette, who put on three stone to play the star of the acclaimed film, Muriel's Wedding.

Nicole Kidman is dwarfing her once more famous husband in more ways than one, with memorable performances in Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady and as the psychotic weather girl in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. The Australian Film Festival is currently providing an eyeful of burgeoning talent. Currently relishing her swift passage to fame, Frances O'Connor injects her "titillating blend of strength, beauty and intelligence" into Kiss or Kill and stars alongside Cate Blanchett in the dark slice of romantic comedy that is Thank God He Met Lizzie. Her passion for her craft is undeniable and thus she has come to wield considerable power both off and on screen.

We blame Romaine Rand. Back in the Sixties, when Tank Girl was not even a (wet) dream, Romaine was Clive James' next door neighbour at Cambridge. In his memoirs, he characterises the girl (later to become a prominent feminist) as a prolific writer, a glorious revue performer and a no less legendary sexual performer.

Summer, 20, is now half way through her degree in History at Cambridge. She came from Sydney to Britain in 1996: "I suppose the stereotype is still the surfie, sporty girl who's really laid back... which I'm not like at all. People find me easy to talk to because I'm more blunt, especially about the weird things English people do. There is nothing like the British class system in Australia and there are no real provincial elements to the culture - everything is much more fluid, people tend to move around a lot."

Australian women working in Britain have found people do see them differently. One media consultant speaks of having "a bit of a novelty factor to start with - people don't think you're up to it because London is a more sophisticated market. But we're not as reserved and we get straight to the point; we're also generally seen as hard working."

A London Office Manager corroborates this: "We're more driven - what takes a British person three hours would probably take us an hour and a half. We don't beat around the bush as much."

It is a similar down-to-earth quality that facilitated the rise of Natalie Imbruglia from the same bubble perm and stonewash soap sludge as Kylie. She arrived as a ready-made slouching siren and crept with charming self- deprecation into the usually hard hearts of the inkie music press and the cooler-than-thou style magazines. Their princess had come - even Dazed and Confused could not resist creating a fairytale pullout featuring fragments of Natalie in a bluebell wood.

The commercial and credible appeal of these genre-hopping young women could be ascribed to their close relationship with the public, the record buyers and magazine readers: they belong to us and we belong to them. Their attitude to changes in style and musical direction is open and positive - if they're into clothes they infiltrate the fashion world, if they enjoy clubbing they do dance music. Ministry magazine chose to put Kylie and Dannii Minogue on their third and fourth covers respectively. Tom Whitwell, their senior writer, explains, "They both come from a cheesy background, but through force of will they've turned themselves around. That's the type of thing we want to be associated with as a magazine."

Something about Aussie women is keeping them close to their chosen career curve. Indeed, their curves could have something to do with it, if last month's expanding FHM cover featuring an "Australian Babe Bonanza" is anything to go by. Isla Fisher (once the pert book-loving Shannen from Home and Away), Emma Harrison (who gave the memorably plasticine-featured potrayal of Jo in Neighbours) and Mimi Macpherson (Elle's sister and chief executive of, erm, a whale-watching business) are among the eight C-list celebs that talk about their sex lives, careers, and shared responsiblity for deflowering the Honey Monster. Ed Needham, FHM's editor, demands that these women are "in the public eye and look fantastic" and in return they relentlessly plug their future projects and appearances.

Call it Sheila Power, if you like. These women, who Alice in Wonderland envisaged walking around on their heads, have their feet firmly planted on the ground and their eyes locked on the holy grail of success. Ramsay Street is but a shadow of a stigma. And the dance on the grave of Helen Daniels has begun.

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