Dannii Minogue: ‘My queer dating show will be a time capsule for this country’

The pop star and TV personality talks to Adam White about being compared to Kylie, her traumatic years on ‘The X Factor’ and in the pop world, and why things are so different on her new dating show ‘I Kissed a Girl’

Tuesday 07 May 2024 09:44 BST
Dannii Minogue
Dannii Minogue (BBC/Twofour)

I will run to anything sparkly, rainbow, camp,” says Dannii Minogue, a megawatt ring light in the room lending her a beatific glow. “It must emanate from me. Gay people have always been the people who I’d be drawn to, who I’d want to hang out with. Everything in my world is queer and fabulous and I love it – even though I’m a straight girl.”

Minogue, pop music’s most famous sibling and the thinking person’s favourite X Factor judge, is talking to me about being both a gay icon and the host of Britain’s first queer dating show. I Kissed a Girl, a femme spin on last year’s I Kissed a Boy, begins on BBC Three tonight. It’s a series that fits her like a bedazzled glove: she swans into an Italian villa for a few minutes every episode, to the awed yelps of a parade of single lesbians looking for love, then flounces off home fabulously. But Minogue, dressed today in a teal power suit and a pair of hot-pink heels, is also passionate about what the show symbolises. She is happy that the casting is diverse – there are women from different backgrounds here, who sexually identify in different ways, and represent a number of different “tribes” of queer women – and she’s hopeful about what the show can achieve.

“It’s going to be a time capsule not only for this country, but for the world at the moment, and how these amazing young women are really affected by it on a day-to-day basis,” the 52-year-old says, firmly and earnestly. “They’re affected by what’s happening in government globally, who is in power and the tone that’s being set – and the ripple effects of all of that. But I like to think that instead of being scared – because there are so many people in the community who are scared right now, and particularly trans men and women – if you make something [like this show] with such good intentions, we can hopefully send a ripple effect going back.”

I first spy Minogue sorting through documents at the centre of a pool of managers and publicists – a star at work. But she quickly grows maternal once she spots me – the ring light is shining in my eyes so it has to go. I need water and sustenance imminently, she insists. A curious mix of otherworldly and ordinary, she has the air of a distant relative who’s also been on Top of the Pops once or twice. Most people from The X Factor are like this. At the peak of the show’s powers, when it turned five pipe-cleaner-limbed teenage boys into One Direction and everybody knew the name “Rachel Adedeji” because the show’s narrator pronounced it so dramatically, Minogue felt part of the cultural furniture. She was working constantly and gossiped about with vigour. You will have known at least a handful of women who copied her fringed bob haircut.

Today she remembers that period as a “white-knuckle ride”, one that led to a very public near-breakdown and, eventually, the decision to step back from such visible fame. She’d called London home for 22 years by the end of her X Factor tenure in 2010, before moving back to Melbourne, where she was born and raised. It’s where she lives to this day with her partner, the songwriter Adrian Newman, and her son from a previous relationship, 13-year-old Ethan.

The X Factor wasn’t the beginning of the scrutiny she’s experienced, though. “There was always a narrative that was pre-written before you’d even walked in the room,” she says. “It was that I was doing music because I was copying my sister. Then [the story] was that we were feuding, and it didn’t matter how many times we’d say it wasn’t true.”

We have to look back and admit that it wasn’t good enough, in order to change and make things better

It probably would have been less annoying if she wasn’t such a good pop star on her own terms. As any good Kylie fan will know, it was Dannii who was the first famous Minogue. A child star on Young Talent Time – think an Australian version of America’s Mickey Mouse Club, which birthed Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake – she was already a household name when she invited Kylie, three years her senior and then aged 16, to perform on the show. Their careers diverged from there, but they’ve always followed similar enough trajectories that comparisons have been inevitable. Dannii did Home and Away, The X Factor and slinky Europop; Kylie did Neighbours, The Voice and slinky Europop.

Minogue says she didn’t have an emotional connection to the “shiny pop” she performed early on. “I was happy for someone to say, ‘Here’s the song for you’, and then I’d just sing it,” she laughs. But around the mid-Nineties, and following a high-profile divorce from the actor Julian McMahon, she experienced a rebirth. Her third album, Girl, released in 1997, marked an image shake-up: she went bottle-blonde, oozed pop-star cool, and would regularly sing live on TV, combating the narrative that she couldn’t hold a note. Before I meet Minogue, I watch a clip of her performing a flawless acoustic version of “All I Wanna Do” – a glittery bit of electronica that remains one of her finest hours – on TFI Friday with Chris Evans. Evans treated her well, but he was an exception back then.

‘It must emanate from me’: oozing pop-star cool, Minogue performs at London’s GAY in 1998
‘It must emanate from me’: oozing pop-star cool, Minogue performs at London’s GAY in 1998 (Shutterstock)

“A lot of the shows then were lad-oriented,” she recalls. “And women in music were treated very particularly at that time. Chris knew me and I felt comfortable… but to do music back then, you had to do these shows and…” She is temporarily lost for words. “Females were treated very badly in a lot of scenarios.” A few years ago, she was asked to write the liner notes for a Girl re-release. She found it “a bit triggering – to go back to that time of ‘if you want to do music, how badly do you want to do it? Because this is what it looks like’.” Was she at all able to voice her discomfort back then? “There wasn’t the language or the space to voice it,” she sighs. “And who was gonna listen?”

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A series of professional shifts occurred in the years after. She signed with a smaller dance label and released 2003’s Neon Nights, an album regarded today as a cult classic of club stompers such as “I Begin to Wonder” and the sweat-beaded “Put the Needle on It”. She played Lady Macbeth in an experimental theatre production at the Edinburgh Fringe, and began judging reality TV. Simon Cowell cast her on Australia’s Got Talent in 2007, then asked her to join the lineup at The X Factor. It was a bit of a poisoned chalice at first. “She’s there because of her looks and not for her contributions to the music industry,” her co-judge Sharon Osbourne insisted on The Graham Norton Show that year, before mocking Minogue’s appearance. The tabloids followed suit.

In recent years there has been a reckoning over the show’s treatment of a number of its contestants, its duty-of-care protocols and how it was edited – ITV has repeatedly stated that they are “committed to having in place suitable processes to protect the mental health and welfare of programme participants”. But I’m also curious to know if Minogue felt protected by the show. As a teenage X Factor obsessive at the time, I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable with the way she was treated by some of her colleagues. Was she ever offered any kind of duty-of-care while on The X Factor? “No,” she says. Should she have been? She wavers for a second. “It had never been something that hosts or judges had. I didn’t even think about it for me.”

‘White-knuckle ride’: Minogue alongside Louis Walsh, Cheryl and Simon Cowell on ‘The X Factor’ in 2010
‘White-knuckle ride’: Minogue alongside Louis Walsh, Cheryl and Simon Cowell on ‘The X Factor’ in 2010 (Shutterstock)

She says that her focus was on mentoring her contestants and making sure they always felt seen, heard and protected. “Once you’re in my group, it’s like you’re my children,” she says. “But we have to look back and admit that it wasn’t good enough, in order to change and make things better. If we look back and go, ‘Yeah, it was fine’, then we’re not gonna move forward. Things could have been better. But it just wasn’t that world.” As for her own mental health, she says that her longtime team – her manager, publicist and hair and makeup person – were her support network. “They had to take on so much, and I will always be so thankful. They’ve seen me in the lowest of lows. They had to become my care team.”

Everything came to a head towards the end of her first series of The X Factor, following months of negative press and comments by Osbourne and Louis Walsh. As she introduced one of her contestants during a live show, she suddenly broke down in tears. “I just had this feeling of wanting to stand up and walk off the show and run,” she says. She felt mortified. “It wasn’t my job to come on and spill my crap over the show. My job was to do my job. But I just broke. I completely broke.” She remembers plotting her next moves in her head. “I’ve signed a contract. My next call will be to [my team]. I’m going to be sued because I’d just walked out of a live show. But that’s what it had to be because I couldn’t take it any more.”

Unexpectedly, crying seemed to humanise her in the public eye. She had believed in the old motto that the show had to always go on, regardless of the toll it took on her – but her experiences on The X Factor helped her realise it was bogus. “I’d been told my whole life that if you wanted to be in entertainment, you had to be thick-skinned. But being thick-skinned isn’t nice. It isn’t comfortable. You don’t have real communication with people, because you’re just constantly guarded and closed off and locked down. I couldn’t live that way. I couldn’t walk around feeling like I needed an armour shield around me.”

‘New and wild for me’: Minogue on the BBC’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ – a femme spin on last year’s ‘I Kissed a Boy’
‘New and wild for me’: Minogue on the BBC’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ – a femme spin on last year’s ‘I Kissed a Boy’ (BBC/Twofour)

Minogue ultimately chose to stick around on the show (Osbourne, meanwhile, was replaced on the judging panel by Cheryl): she spent three more series mentoring contestants including series seven winner Matt Cardle and singer turned TV staple Stacey Solomon. By 2010, she was eager to slow down. “When you’ve been working that long for so many years and it gets to a pressure point where it wasn’t all roses – you need a break.”

Her experiences on The X Factor weighed heavily on her mind when she was asked to present I Kissed a Boy and I Kissed a Girl. “I said to the producers that I’m not signing on until I meet the care team. Because when you’re thrown out onto TV, and it’s the first queer dating show, there’s a big spotlight on you. I needed to know that these guys and these girls could handle it. I didn’t want them at breaking point. But they have care while they’re on the show and after the show, to a level that no other show has ever done. We’re hoping we’re setting the standards for that.”

She, too, was offered support. “I Kissed a Boy was the first time I was offered access to the care team at any time.” And if she ever felt emotional, or uncomfortable – like that time on The X Factor? “They said they’d stop the cameras for me and it’d all be fine. That was new and wild for me.”

Minogue admits to being in “mum mode” for the past 13 years, with music on the back burner. “I always used to sing around the house but as soon as Ethan could talk, he’d go, ‘Mummy, shhh – no singing’.” She erupts in laughter. “So you can have it out with him, because I literally stopped singing!” Pop still matters to her, though. Over the course of our conversation she mentions her love of Ariana Grande’s new album, and becomes giddy over the just-announced US Dance Charts position for a one-off dance track she’s released with the Sydney-based DJ/producer Autone. And last year she performed a surprise duet with Kylie at Sydney WorldPride – an event tantamount to a solar eclipse for gay Aussies. She will, she promises, release more in time. I ask if, especially after the well-received rereleases of Girl and Neon Nights in recent years, she feels respected as a pop star.

‘There is a lot of comparison’: Kylie and Dannii Minogue perform during Sydney WorldPride last year
‘There is a lot of comparison’: Kylie and Dannii Minogue perform during Sydney WorldPride last year (Getty Images)

“By my fans, absolutely,” she says. “But there will always be an amount of it that’s in the shadow of my sister. I never compare, but there is a lot of comparison – I can never stop that. But you have to enjoy it through the people who matter to you, who you’re getting good energy from. That’s all you can do.”

She breaks into a wide, well-earned smile.

“You’ve gotta focus on the good stuff.”

‘I Kissed a Girl’ is streaming on BBC iPlayer, with episodes broadcast on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC Three

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