Kylie Minogue: Can't get her out of our heads

Breast cancer has transformed the untouchable pop princess into every woman's champion
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When Kylie Minogue sent a message of thanks to an awards ceremony last week after being voted woman of the year by Glamour magazine, she noted wryly, "The last year has been my least public."

But arguably it's been the most important year of her life. Diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2005, the 38-year-old singer immediately issued a press statement and cancelled her Showgirl tour. We've had dance Kylie, electro-clash Kylie, retro Kylie, even indie Kylie, but the way she's handled her illness and treatment has been her most remarkable incarnation yet. Not only has she showed real dignity, she has refused to be turned into a triumph over tragedy story.

After a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the prognosis looks good. She is recording a new album and is tipped to headline at next year's Glastonbury Festival, but there is no talk of miracle cures; rather she insists she is taking "baby steps".

Nor is she about to rush up the aisle with her boyfriend of four years, film star Oliver Martinez. "I don't have that sense of urgency," she told an Australian newspaper last week, in her first interview since her illness. As for the gruesome fascination with her fertility, she says, "Yes, I feel broody - it's only natural. If and when it happens, then great."

As a pop star, Minogue's media exposure was strictly controlled. Glamorous photos were churned out but the singer rarely spoke to the press. Half- woman, half-cartoon, she was never a spokesperson for any cause. "What does Kylie actually think?" we wondered. That emptiness was also her enigma.

All the more commendable then, that faced with a brush with mortality, she has handled it so brilliantly. Few stars go public about cancer - especially one whose sexuality is so key to her image - but from the moment she was diagnosed, Minogue has been totally open.

Throughout her treatment, and mindful of her influence on other women, she has refused to endorse quack cures. Minogue has insisted that medical science should be at the heart, not just of her own treatment, but of that of any cancer sufferers who look to her as a role model.

In the past Minogue's freakishly perfect body (5ft 1in, with the world's most famous bottom) has been used as a stick to beat normal women. She has always been "other". But now for the first time, she's made herself part of the female constituency. "I think of all of my past images," she said last week, "and none of them are like me. I'm just like any girl and I have the same anxieties and issues."

Although Kylie has always embraced the market ("I think to a degree it's fair to say that you're a manufactured product"), her capacity for reinvention is staggering. There have been many cutting-edge collaborators, including the photographers Stephane Sedanoui, Wolfgang Tillmans and Pierre and Gilles, and the designer John Galliano, who described her as a "blend of Lolita and Barbarella".

Kylie Ann Minogue was born in Melbourne in 1968 to an Australian father and Welsh mother. Her younger sister, Dannii, is also a pop singer, her brother, Brendan, a news cameraman. The Minogue sisters began their careers as children on Australian television. At first Kylie was overshadowed by Dannii, but all that changed when she landed her role in soap opera Neighbours in 1986 (she played Charlene opposite her then boyfriend Jason Donovan).

The singing career happened by accident. During a charity event with the cast, Minogue performed "The Loco-Motion", which was later released and became a number one single in Australia. After its success, the Svengali-like Stock, Aitken and Waterman invited Minogue to London to work with them.

Her album Kylie sold seven million copies. At the age of 21, a romance with INX bad boy Michael Hutchence led her to take control of her image for the first time. In her 1990 video Better the Devil You Know, she cavorts with a posse of black dancers, presenting a more sexually aware image.

Feeling stifled by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, Kylie broke away and signed for indie label DeConstruction, where she collaborated with the Manic Street Preachers. In 1995 she recorded the ballad, "Where the Wild Roses Grow" with Nick Cave, and recited her hit "I Should Be So Lucky" as part of Poetry Jam at London's Royal Albert Hall.

The critics loved it, but the fans didn't warm to Indie Kylie. It wasn't until her comeback album with Parlophone in 2000, the Euro pop-inspired Fever, that she became cool again. "Spinning Around" was her first British number one in 10 years, and the video, with Minogue in gold hotpants, became a phenomenon. In 2000, Minogue sang at the Sydney Olympics, and Baz Luhrmann cast her as Absinthe, the Green Fairy, in Moulin Rouge! "Can't Get You Out of My Head" was Europe's top selling single of 2001.

Hardened critics melted. Paul Morley analysed her ability to be at once superstar, businesswoman, seductress and blank canvas, while Julie Burchill celebrated her mix of glitter and working-class blue-collar stock. Reading their articles now, they display a childlike belief that nothing bad could ever happen to Kylie. The pop princess released one more album of new material, Body Language, followed by a greatest hits album. Last May, everything stopped.

Pictured last week sporting a pixie crop, Kylie looks amazing. It will be fascinating to see how she styles herself for the new album, post-chemo. And will the tabloids feel able to objectify that perfect body again?

For 20 years, Kylie has had every day of her life mapped out. Now friends say she is enjoying a new spontaneity. She went partying in New York with Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters and ended up nipping into a studio to record a song.

When she split up with the model James Gooding, he described her as a "self-obsessed, virtually friendless control freak". These may be the words of a love rat, but even Kylie admitted, on Radio 2, that her schedule had led to her suffering a "small nervous breakdown".

During her treatment she surrounded herself with a loyal team. Her parents are involved in her career; her father is her financial adviser, her mother has joined her on each of her tours. And then there is Martinez.

But anyone desperate for a fairytale ending where Kylie resumes her peacock feathers and no one will mention cancer or pain again, will have to wait. Her illness, she says, has "been a long, hard road up to now". It would be impertinent to suggest it has politicised her, but she intends to protest against the building of a nuclear power plant on a small island near Melbourne, where she lived for part of last year.

The pop princess is growing up: more woman now than girl. "I'm not a great believer in looking back. I've always lived in the moment because I know more than most how things can suddenly drop from the sky and shake everything up."