Jason Donovan: Fame and misfortune

Jason Donovan was pop's blond bombshell and Kylie's boyfriend. She went on to global stardom, he's in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - as a holiday stand-in. But, he insists to Deborah Ross, he's not bitter
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The thing is: why? Why Robbie and not Gary? Why Ronan and not Keith? Why neither from Dollar? (Don't be silly.) And why Kylie but not Jason? Why does mega, humungous pop fame cosy up to some and so cruelly give others the heave-ho? What do you have to have, to keep it on your side? Perhaps Jason knows. Jason Donovan who, at his Eighties height, was the best-selling artist - one uses "artist" fairly loosely - in Europe. Jason, whose every public appearance led, it was reported at the time, to his young female fans fainting at a rate of one every 12 seconds. A newspaper even once ran a competition where readers could win a jar of his breath. Yum. Plus, there was Straight From The Heart, the Jason Donovan board game where players built a full-colour heart-shaped jigsaw of Jason by successfully answering questions about him. Favourite subject at school? Accounting. Favourite food? Garlic bread. "I used to call it Straight From The Arse," he says, "but it was the number-one board game for a week, and not everyone has had a number-one board game." At his lowest, Jason lost a televised busking contest to a Jack Russell dog, which attracted bigger crowds and more money. I don't know if Jason drew consolation from the fact that the dog's breath, as far as I can gather, was never offered as a competition prize.

Whatever, the fame thing is a tricky subject to broach because, however you put it, the question is pretty much going to come out as: so, Jason, my little poppet, how did Kylie manage to propel her image into adulthood? What does she have that you don't? And he's pretty pissed off with the whole Kylie association as it is. Just that morning, he'd appeared on breakfast TV, to promote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and what did they do? They played an extended clip of "Especially for You", which, he says, "was 80 per cent Kylie! Then the guy's first question is about Kylie. I wanted to say: 'My name is not Mr Fucking Jason Minogue. There's a lot of other things to talk about. Act positively.' I've got no problems with my past, but there are times when you feel the need to move on. I'm not trying to run away from those records. They've made me what I am today. But advertising Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a promo of Kylie? If they'd wanted to get the best out of me, they could have taken a little more thought." So, no point asking if she was a top shag, then.

From tomorrow, Jason will, indeed, be appearing as Caractacus Potts in the West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. He's doing a five-week stint, covering for Gary Wilmot, and is somewhat nervous. "It's a very technical show." He adds: "It's not more than I can chew, but my plate is full" (sweetly, he adores metaphors, the more the better, pile 'em high). And Jason now has a partner - Angela Malloch, a stage manager, whom he met while slogging around the provinces in The Rocky Horror Show - and two children: Jemma, three and Zac, two. He is looking forward to bringing the kids to the show. "It's cool for dad to be in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." How would you define "cool", I ask, nudging towards that question. "Cool. It's just a word. C-O-O-L." True enough. Well spelt. But what does it mean to be cool? "It's meaningless to me. My search for it wasn't really wasted, but it didn't really go anywhere. Now, in 2004, the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stuff is cool again. In 1991, it was totally naff. So how do you define what is cool? It's only cool to a certain generation at a certain moment in time. I'd rather jack than Fleetwood Mac, you know." I didn't know, but have since learnt it's a line from a song by the Reynolds Girls, a big-haired, Eighties duo from the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable. Not sure what it means. Better to live in the now than the past? Jason is keen on that. "I'm not a past-dweller," he confirms. "Onwards and upwards." A bit worrying, though, to base your philosophy on a Stock, Aitken and Waterman lyric.

Anyway, how does he appear these days? Well, I can't really comment on his hair-do, whether it's still lemon-juiced or not, because, throughout, he wears a tweed cap as usually worn by the sort of old men who drive Vauxhall Astras very, very slowly on Sundays, while sitting very, very low down on their seats. He says his hair is in a state. He had to grow it for some Australian TV role and "it's just too long at the moment. I find it really horrible." I say that whatever is going on under there, it's got to be better than the cheesy mega-mullet you once had. That mullet was, possibly, the mullet of mullets. Jason, you could have been king of Mullet Land! "Yeah. Right. What can I say?" That it was a really crap hair-do? "Yeah. Right." How do you feel at 35, looking back at yourself in photos from the 1980s? "I look very different. I'm older and a little more weathered than most. But the lines have certainly made me more of an interesting person." Is he a more interesting person? I suspect so. But then, I suppose, what was so remarkable about Jason was his unremarkableness, his text book boy-next-doorishness. It's almost what he was prized for. He'd have to try hard to be less interesting.

Still, he is not, I would say, naturally reflective or given to self-examination. I ask him: if the Jason today could give the younger Jason advice, what would it be? "Not a lot." Would you agree with John Updike, who once commented that fame is the mask that eats your own face? "I'll have to think about that for a few days. I'm fucked if I know." What's the most upsetting thing you've read about yourself? "Not a lot. Well, I was dead a few times, but that wasn't upsetting for me." After you won your libel case against The Face magazine, which wrongly claimed you were gay, is it true that you'd arrive at a party and be turned away? "Yeah. Sure." Ouch. "I just went to another party." Kylie's arse or J-Lo's? "Who cares. I mean, who cares?" The Heat-reading British public care quite a lot, I'm minded to say. I don't ask him what he thinks of Ben Affleck's arse.

I push him a little harder. OK, the Jason today has to give the younger Jason advice, on pain of death and having his children go to sleepovers at Michael Jackson's. Now, go. "Um, I think my path was pretty, you know... I think I was pretty focused. A lot happened to me because I had a lot of luck, was in the right place at the right time." He has particular views on luck. "Luck is only created by the opportunities you grasp while luck is in your hands."

But what would you say to the younger Jason? He says he'd possibly want to say something to his mid-Nineties, post-Joseph self, "when I was trying to look cool, and maybe went off the rails a little bit with artificial substances. I'd say to him that there's a lot more he could be doing with his time. However, I would also say that that's the course I took and I don't have any regrets. It's part of..." Oh-oh. I can sense a "life's rich tapestry" moment coming up. "...life's rich tapestry. To be honest, I've come to realise it isn't about being famous. The world is obsessed by celebrity and it turns me off a little bit. So long as I can earn good money and play good characters and get regular work, I'm happy to do things quietly with an air of respect. I think if you spend your entire life chasing that inevitable road to the greater depths of fame and fortune, that's great. I take my hat off to anyone who can achieve it, but you sacrifice other things." Fame, anyway, is largely over-rated. "I had one person who video-ed me from outside my house for two years. That's cool. That's fine. But you do start feeling a bit resentful. I don't think any sane human being could say they enjoy that." But Jason, some people aim for that; it's their ambition! "I'm not one of those people, maybe because I experienced it at such a young age. I had six to eight years riding the wave. I'm not angry about it in any way, shape or form. I've just moved on." However, I'm not sure that someone who can say "I'm not Mr Fucking Jason Minogue" is entirely anger-free. Jason's possibly got more problems with his past that he'll ever know, or is willing to know.

However, he may also be well used to having things and then not. Kylie, famously, left him for Michael Hutchence. His mother, a newsreader with the Australian Broadcasting Company, bolted when Jason was five, leaving him to be brought up by his father, a jobbing actor. He never really had any contact with her again until he was an adult. How did it feel, seeing your mum only on the telly? "No different than watching my dad, really." Come on. "I don't think too much about it." You must have felt rejected at some level, surely? "You might think that might be the case, but I don't." Whatever love Jason did not receive personally, he received on a massive scale globally. He became a huge star when barely out of his teens. First, Scott Robinson in Neighbours, then pop megastardom and jars of breath. But then, in 1992, after a hugely successful run in the West End starring in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he made what some still see as a fatal error amounting to professional suicide. He sued The Face. Does he regret it? "It needed to be addressed at the time and I took that course at the time." Onwards and forwards? "The only disappointing thing was the tabloid interpretation of what I was trying to achieve - that I was homophobic - which couldn't be further from the truth. But I did it. I got the result I wanted, and made people think about their actions." He wanted to be seen as cool, but sued the coolest mag around, the silly-billy. And from then on it was backwards and downwards.

His records flopped, his record company dumped him. He went from the glossiest of glossy, lemon- juiced boys to someone who fell over in nightclubs and had to be stretchered out. Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. It was his "artificial substance" phase. Cocaine, mostly, although not any more. He thinks Angela and his kids saved him. "Saved my life, probably. They've given it meaning, focus." Focus. Is that the key to the fame thing? "I don't know the formula. Maybe it is perseverance and focus, keeping your eye on the ball." He particularly admires Robbie Williams. "He's right on the money. You can go on stage and say, 'Thank you very much', or you can go on and say, 'Tonight, I am God.' He does that beautifully." The thing is, once you stop being one thing, you've got to think hard about what you are going to be next, and I'm not sure Jason has ever properly done that. Kylie nudged her image upwards and onwards by, largely, posing with absolute deliberation in black lacy underwear, while a loincloth in Joseph was not quite the same thing. Still, as he says, "you've gotta remember not everyone is successful 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. All careers go up and down. But one thing I've learnt is it only takes one great song or one great film and all the shit is forgotten." Like John Travolta and Pulp Fiction? "Yeah. Right." Whatever Jason might say, I think he is hoping for his own Pulp Fiction.

In the meantime, he has to go. "My family is waiting." One last question: is garlic bread still your favourite food? "I think my tastes have matured a little." Garlic bread with cheese, then? "Yeah. Right."

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