Kylie is not quite the fragile instrument she may at first appear. She is almost the only one of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman roster, whose dizzy beats were the theme of the vapid late Eighties, to have survived to make a continuing, if so far bitty, career. Looking at her now - pale and self-contained, with an element of the diva - it's hard, too, to reconcile her with raw-faced, toothy Charlene, the tomboyish car mechanic who was for so long her Neighbours alter-ego. These, though, are the ways she's still remembered. The style media once hailed her as a kitsch trophy of the SAW era, a representative of the florid grotesquerie of "soap", and perhaps it's her efforts to put those things behind her that explain the tabloid vilification she's endured.
In the last year or two, though, the woman Australia still tartly calls "the singing budgie" has moved more than a few paces toward genuine credibility. She has linked up with rock's ubermeisters of cool - Tricky, the Manic Street Preachers, lugubrious goth genius Nick Cave - has surprised audiences with intelligent guest spots, and on 22 September will release an album for which, for the first time, she wrote the lyrics and most of the melodies. It's a mix of techno, rock, dance and drum 'n' bass and, if it wears its influences rather obviously, it remains a highly listenable departure. Unfortunately, it's already hit a pothole in that the title, Impossible Princess, has had to be dropped. The phrase is from a book by cult writer Billy Childish. "As soon as I heard about Diana, I thought, I don't know that this is... That title summarised so much for me, and I took to it so instantly, that I couldn't think of anything to replace it. So now the CD will just carry my name. Maybe in the future we could bracket it back. More direct that way, too. Kylie Minogue (Impossible Princess) - you know: her."
It's not so far-fetched to see something of Diana in Minogue, a woman once dominated by the firm she worked for, once irritatingly omnipresent and reviled by the press, taking a measure of control. There's a similar innocuous edge, a daffy habit of deflecting criticism by criticising herself first. Mention that, on the album, she sounds variously like Paula Abdul, Madonna, Bjork and Kate Bush and she admits: "Perhaps because I'd been given space, I went everywhere. I'm too inquisitive, like my parents' Jack Russell - if there's an opening there, I'll go have a look [snuffles doglike over the edge of the table] hmm... still, it's been a journey for me."
The real path to the light probably began in 1995 with "Where the Wild Roses Grow", the tar-black duet she sang with Nick Cave on his album Murder Ballads. Cave had been unhealthily preoccupied with Minogue for some time, keeping a Kylie promo bag in his writing den alongside shots of Karen Carpenter and James Ellroy, and the song gives her the sordid charisma of a bludgeoned Nancy Sinatra. The video was a vision of Southern swamp madness shot on location in Kent, and she exuberantly relates the details of lying, apparently dead, in a pool while the snake wrangler trained his client to slither along her torso, though this was as nothing compared to her regard for Herman the millipede, who'd come hotfoot from working with Depeche Mode.
In telling such stories, Kylie seems less like a 30-year-old veteran than a girl released from a heavily barred cage. Reasons become clear when she explains her reaction to her little sister's first LP, many moons ago. Kylie was already shackled to the SAW treadmill when the gruesomely- named Dannii called to say what a fine time she'd had. "I was shocked - `You mean, you were laughing and having fun in the studio?' " Kylie's experience had been rather the pit pony kind. Pete Waterman tells an apocryphal story about how her first single was recorded. Kylie has her own take. "I don't know clearly how it happened, because I didn't know anything then, but my manager and I came over with the intention to record a song. We were ignored for a week, and on our way to leave we arrived at their HQ . Apparently, they called through and said Kylie Minogue is here, which must seem an odd name if you've never heard it before. `Who? Who?' `Y'know, the girl from Australia, you were meant to ...' `Ah. Well, get her a cup of tea.' Meanwhile, they wrote this song in 10 minutes. I sang it, and left."
So began a five-year term of employment which, by all accounts, made the cramped hell of the Neighbours set seem a paradise. Did it feel like an office job? The response is judicious. "What did annoy me was that I was given no choice. It was just, this is the way the factory works. Looking back, I can see why they said the things they said. They're writing No 1 hit singles all the time. Why would they listen to this... girl... and her `Oh, I'd really like to write...' Why? Everything is going perfectly well. `Have you ever written before?' `No, but I...' `Well, then.' They'd say, `Here's the song, do it.' Though it worked, and I credit them with that, I've not been able to look back so fondly until now. It's taken me two years to do this album, and they'd knock them out so quickly, were so precise in what they did. They've got their place in the history books."
Catharsis was achieved at last year's Hip Mass, the poetry all- dayer at the Royal Albert Hall, where, on Cave's advice, Kylie turned the fatal "I Should Be So Lucky" into a Hamlet-style soliloquy. It brought the house down.
For non-poetry fans, her ticket to adulthood appeared to be the highly publicised 15-month affair with INXS rocker Michael Hutchence. The liaison looked incomprehensible, and when Hutchence drily observed that his hobby was "corrupting Kylie", it seemed he'd have his work cut out. Or possibly not.
"It was my first major heartbreak, but there has to be a first, and it might as well be Michael. I learnt so much from him, and it's a shame it's always boiled down to sexual stuff, though that was part of it - I was 21 when I started seeing him and my blinkers were suddenly removed." She furrows faint, blonde brows. "I've tried to imagine what it must have been like from his point of view, when he had this girl who was so eager to try everything."
Every man's nightmare, obviously.
Kylie is stern. "He probably found it quite frightening. He'd say, `You're changing in front of my eyes', but every change was for the better. As much as he is `man of rock and roll nature', he is very intelligent and well-read and poetic - all the good things."
Maybe, but Kylie's tsunami of unleashed sexuality expressed itself in a deluge of titillation. In 1991, she toured in a fish-net catsuit and G-string, clutching her behind. She posed naked for magazine covers, and a book of artful soft-porn snaps was circulated what felt like minutes after Madonna's Sex portfolio. "Now that I know myself better," she says, "I don't think I'll be making those kinds of mistakes again."
Can she help it? This year at the Melbourne Casino, she staged an entrance by leaping from the mouth of a giant clam. "It wasn't even my idea - it wasn't! And I thought, they really know what I'm about. It was like, `We were wondering - we don't know how you'll feel - but maybe you could go - Oh! A giant clam!" She throws her arms wide, blinks theatrically and gasps like a kittenish Monroe. It's in her bones, she says. "I should've been born in the heyday of Hollywood, and been the all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting - hey, I can skydive! - girl."
It's a frantic momentum, leaving little time for contemplation - perhaps of the fact that the catalysts in her life are still men, often with their own agenda, from the gay fanbase and its Kylie clones to the Manics, who had her in mind for "Little Baby Nothing", their song about a helpless starlet. Part of her remains a usable canvas, "but I like being that". Nevertheless, before we part (no handshake), Kylie admits to a new and interesting habit. "If I'm crying, sometimes I catch myself in a mirror.
Your skin is a different colour then, and your eyes are different. It's you without your mask, but it's a stranger. I'm getting quite intrigued "