It was a below-par Brit awards this week. The biggest event in the rock calendar merely emphasised the slightly stale, conformist and corporate nature of rock music. But one performance did make the audience sit up. Kylie Minogue, the pop sex goddess of the moment, hip chick, gay icon, and a fair old belter out of a dance tune, made her entrance, as one does, suspended above the stage on a giant silver disc, in white mini-dress and thigh-length silver boots.
In case anyone watching was not aware that she is continually named "rear of the year", she lifted the back of her dress above one cheek in the style of the tennis player on the Athena poster. A girl who grew up in Melbourne, home of the Australian Open, likes to show her heritage every now and again. She crowned her night at the Brits with two awards, best album and best international female singer.
After a year that also saw her play the Absinthe Fairy in the film Moulin Rouge, a new career opportunity now beckons. Her album, Fever, is released in the US, where her current single, "Can't Get You Out Of My Head", her biggest seller ever in Britain and number one across western Europe, is at number 12 in the USA Hot 100. She will never have a better chance to break into the American market.
It's been a long but carefully measured journey for the girl who once sat in reception at the offices of pop svengali Pete Waterman, basket-weaving with her mum while Waterman and his partners, Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, decided on the lyrics for their protégée's next number. Kylie then was not a big enough star to be allowed to sit in the studio with them while they took her decisions for her.
Kylie Ann Minogue was born 33 years ago in Melbourne, the first child of Carol, a former ballet dancer, and Ron, an accountant. Kylie inherited her looks, blue eyes, wide smile and pop's most photographed legs from her Welsh mother. Both are exactly the same height, a millimetre or so over five feet. Between Kylie and sister Dannii was a brother, Brendan, who also works in London, but for an Australian TV company. They grew up in the affluent eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
Emulating her little sister was what drove the teenage Kylie to answer a press advert wanting young actors for a TV drama, The Henderson Kids. She had already had a couple of small parts on TV, but nothing to approach the fame of her younger sister Dannii, who was a national TV child star in Australia. Even now one of Kylie's websites – though perhaps these days with a hint of irony – is called "Dannii's Sister". Dannii,too, was later to become a pop star in Britain, though over here big sister has ruled the roost. The TV director Chris Langman, who cast Kylie her in The Henderson Kids, has recalled: "She was vulnerable and very shy, and it came across. At the time, Kylie was living in the shadow of her sister, Dannii. I think she found that hard, but it's possible to be shy, yet driven, and that was Kylie."
Though some tabloids have seized on Kylie's teenage years as a time when she went a bit wild with boys and drink, hers was a well cared for and happy childhood. Her father insisted she finish her exams before she leave school, but then, after her first two TV roles, she auditioned for Charlene, the frizzy-haired mechanic in Neighbours, and her elfin prettiness won her a huge following, not least in Britain. Soon, both she and Jason Donovan, her Neighbours co-star and, later, lover, decided to be pop stars as well as television stars.
In 1987 Pete Waterman was approached by someone from Mushroom records in Australia. They had just signed Kylie Minogue and wanted Waterman to loan them an engineer to help them get the Stock Aitken Waterman high-energy sound. Waterman sent Mike Duffy, who got Kylie to do a version of "The Locomotion". It went to number one, and Duffy advised Waterman to take the girl on full time. Waterman had never heard of Kylie Minogue. He had never watched Neighbours. He said he would take her on and then promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later he got a call from Mike Stock saying there was "a small Antipodean in reception expecting to do something with us now". Waterman retorted: "She should be so lucky" – which Stock immediately thought sounded like a song. And he started writing the lyrics. Yes, it really does sound like one of "those" pop stories. But the parties concerned maintain it is true. "I Should Be So Lucky" became Kylie's first British number one. The future Pop Idol judge began to realise he might have chanced on something special. Her debut album sold 14 million copies.
"I don't know if any pop star will ever be as popular as Kylie was back then," Waterman says now. In one sense he was right. She was being watched by 14 million viewers a day. Waterman formed his own record label to accommodate her first British single, and she more than helped make it the most successful independent record company in the world, with her releases over four years believed to have made £25m. She and her mum moved into Waterman's flat above the studio, and Waterman moved out and lived in a hotel. He spotted quickly that she changed when in front of a camera or on a stage.
"She just transformed from this innocent, non-worldly wise little girl into a star. She was a tiny 18-year-old girl, had a huge workload and was exhausted half the time, but as soon as she had to work, her whole personality would transform."
He, too, was aware of the need in her to match her sister: "Dannii already had her own clothing range and you could sense that Kylie always felt she had a lot to live up to. Some of the more outrageous images that Kylie came up with later on in her career were, I think, a result of trying to emulate the wild, rebellious personality of her sister." And if it wasn't her sister, Kylie always felt she had to live up to someone: "She was setting her sights on becoming the new Prince or Madonna," according to Waterman. "What I found amazing was that she was outselling Madonna four to one, but still wanted to be her."
It was not just in her professional life that Kylie wanted new directions. Around this time she took up with Michael Hutchence – the lead singer of the Australian band INXS who was to become Paula Yates's partner and was found hanged in his hotel room – Waterman recalls Minogue becoming "wilder" during that relationship. Hutchence boasted at the time that he "corrupted her", which was good for both their images, and which Minogue has laughed off since. Newspapers made much of an alleged incident when the two of them were reported to have had sex in an aeroplane while the then Australian prime minister Bob Hawke sat a couple of seats up the aisle. If the relationship was very passionate, she is capable of being amusingly dispassionate about Hutchence now, though she remains very fond of his memory. Interviewed recently, she said: "He was very Byronesque, and I remember smiling at his funeral because as the coffin came out the thunder and rain started right on cue. You couldn't have scripted it better."
She has also been linked to rock star Lenny Kravitz, the Green Shield Stamps heir Tim Jefferies and the South African male model Zane O'Donnell. Her current boyfriend is another male model, James Gooding. Appropriately, during her Nineties indie period she went out with the trendy videographer, Stephane Sednaoui.
Her time with Hutchence saw both her personal and professional life change, with Kylie making the courageous decision to leave Waterman, ditch her image and reinvent herself. It didn't go according to plan. The press devoted "Why oh why" spreads to her supposed decline when she was spotted out at a London restaurant with spiky, short hair, casual clothes, no make-up and no hit record.
She had signed with the indie dance label Deconstruction, wrote some of her own songs and brought out less poppy records, such as the breathy "Confide In Me". She chose interesting collaborators: James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers wrote for one of her albums. But her old fan base was unimpressed. By the end of 1994 Virgin Radio was running an advertising campaign with the slogan: '"We've done something to improve Kylie's records: we've banned them." Smash Hits readers voted her the "worst-dressed person, worst singer and second-most very horrible thing – after spiders".
The vulnerability these reports exposed helped to give Kylie a new fan base among the gay community; she was one of the star attractions on a Gay Pride rally. And, in signing to an independent label, writing her own songs and, for a time, looking more of an arty singer and less of a glamourpuss, she achieved a new street cred.
Sean Smith, whose biography of her will be published this spring, says: "It was a brave move by Kylie, and people tend to forget that what she produced was also very good. She is a very determined person and has a fierce inner drive. She makes no secret of the fact that her career is the most important thing in her life. The mid- Nineties Kylie wasn't her only reinvention. She reinvented herself in the late Nineties, when she signed to a major label, Parlophone and became the sex dance queen."
Not everyone sees her success as an encouraging sign for pop music. The rock historian Barney Hoskyns wrote in this paper yesterday: "Chart pop has become so redundant, so musically bankrupt, that the best we can do is collude with the mass delusion that a pocket-sized Oz automaton is a spunky sex goddess with a flawless sense of irony.'
It's a bit harsh. Kylie herself admitted recently: "To be honest, all my so-called sexiness is more like a Carry On film. End-of-the-pier fun. I have a flirtatious nature, and I guess I'm kind of vivacious. Just plain showy, really. I'm pretty overt about it."
Besides, an automaton wouldn't have taken valuable years out of her career to reinvent herself. And you can't make a pop video sliding up and down a pole in skin-tight golden hot pants, or survive Neighbours or a Brit awards ceremony suspended on a giant disc without a dash of irony in your soul.
Born: Kylie Ann Minogue, Melbourne, Australia, 28 May 1968.
Parents: Ron (an accountant) and Carol (whose family migrated from Wales in 1955).
Family: Younger brother Brendan; younger sister Dannii.
School: Camberwell High, Melbourne.
TV career: First role, at the age of 12, in The Henderson Kids, followed by The Sullivans and Skyways; joined Neighbours in 1985; appeared in 542 episodes before leaving in 1988.
Singles: "I Should Be so Lucky"; "The Locomotion"; "Especially for You" (with Jason Donovan); "Got to Be Certain"; "Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi"; "Hand on Your Heart"; "Never too Late"; "Tears on My Pillow"; "Confide in Me"; "Where the Wild Roses Grow" (with Nick Cave); "Spinning Around"; "Can't Get You out of My Head"; "In Your Eyes".
Albums: Kylie (1988); Enjoy Yourself (1989); Rhythm of Love (1990); Kylie Minogue (1994); Light Years (2000); Fever (2001); Confide in Me (2001)
Films: The Delinquents (1989); Streetfighter (1994); Moulin Rouge (2001).
Business: Her company Kaydeebee owns the rights to all her music; she launched the Love Kylie underwear range last year.
Awards: Australian TV Logie award for best actress (1986); best international female singer and best international album at the Brits 2002.
Worth: Approximately £13m.
Likes: Flake chocolate bars, flowers and Thai food.
Dislikes: Brussels sprouts, snails and rudeness.
She says: "When I donned the hot pants, I didn't expect that two years later it would be getting such attention."
They say: "From the first, I thought there was something about her, and if you could bottle it, you'd be a billionaire" – Pete Waterman.
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