Peter Conrad on the return of Kylie Minogue

Next week, after a year battling against cancer, Kylie Minogue steps back into the spotlight. But which Kylie will she unveil? The former soap star turned uber-celebrity has endured countless reinventions over the past 20 years - often at the hands of men. Does she even know herself anymore? Here a fellow Australian analyses a cultural phenomenon, from Charlene to Showgirl

A 'kylie' is a boomerang. If you throw it, it is guaranteed to come twirling home, even though it may have felled a kangaroo or a kookaburra along the way. Kylie Minogue is as resilient as the wooden missile she was named after. After a year in oblivion, during her treatment for the breast cancer diagnosed in May 2005, she has now rebounded and will be interviewed on Sky One next Sunday. You can't - to paraphrase one of her chirpy anthems - get her out of your head; just when you think you have succeeded, she whizzes into view again and, like that runaway boomerang, thumps you behind the ears.

Performers who survive do so by practising the art of reincarnation. They are reborn without having to die; few of them confront the reality of extinction. In the Sky interview, Kylie remarks that, with her cancer in remission, she now has 'a second chance at life - a new life'.

She has notched up many lives, having spent the past 30 years ingeniously reinventing herself. First was the shrill moppet who rampaged on kiddy television in Melbourne, then the nubile adolescent who smooched with the Speedo-clad Jason Donovan in Neighbours. After her move to England in the 1990s, the succession of personae accelerated: Kylie the irrepressibly agile disco dervish, Kylie the slinky torch singer, Kylie the bedizened, ornamental diva.

By the time of her 'Showgirl' tour - which was suspended after she fell ill - the singing budgie, as she was once known, had been transformed into a pink fl amingo, fl aunting exotic plumage and tottering on stilted Manolo Blahnik heels. The makeover that followed was drastic, unexpected and unstylish. Garboesque dark glasses shielded agaunt, pinched face, and a scarf covered her hair loss after chemotherapy.

She recently re-emerged, with a resurgent smile and a jaunty tomboyish crop. She has even resumed the public duties of the celebrity, responsible for keeping up communal morale. Late last month, as Australia's team stumbled through the first round of the World Cup, Kylie was accused of treason - yes, that was the word - for supporting France, in deference to her lover Olivier Martinez. She issued an indignant statement insisting that she was 'right behind our boys'; the Socceroos lost anyway.

Deflecting curiosity in 2002, Kylie said she could not imagine writing her memoirs: 'I don't feel there's much of a story to tell.' Unintrospective on principle, she happily defines herself as 'a manufactured product', engineered by the marketers. Of course she is merchandise, and she exists to sell trinkets and trophies that have been graced by association with her. The impresario Pete Waterman, who hired her for his aptly-named Hit Factory in 1987, remarked when they met that, 'There was something about her. If you could bottle it, you'd be a billionaire.'

Evian eventually did bottle Kylie, dedicating a limited edition of its alpine water to her as the embodiment of health and youthful vitality. In his film Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann decanted her into a different bottle by casting her as the absinthe fairy - addictive, decadent, deranging.

The contrast tells you everything about the passive, eclectic Kylie: she is whatever label you affix to her. As a brand, she sells female underwear in tantalising black lace and T-shirts that sculpt the pecs of her gay male admirers. If you're pre-pubescent, you can wear a Smiley Kylie on your undeveloped chest while reading her book Showgirl Princess, shortly to be published by Puffin. She can be downloaded into your phone, which will do the locomotion or chant 'lalalala' or congratulate you on being 'lucky lucky lucky' whenever it rings. The veryessence of Kylie, vaporising as scent, can perfume your clothes, exuded from her drawer-liners; in the form of a candle, she will pervade the air you breathe.

Her appeal at first lay in her unapologetic ordinariness. In Neighbours she played an oil-smudged mechanic with no desire to better herself. Charlene was happy to spend her life grappling with the intestines of greasy cars; although Julie Burchill has acclaimed her as a doughty proletarian heroine, what the character actually symbolised was the poverty of working-class aspirations, an inability to think beyond the blithe culde- sac of Ramsay Street. Having myself escaped from a similar Australian deadend street, I always found Charlene's slovenly lack of ambition irritating. She implicitly assured the schoolkids who cut classes to watch Neighbours that there was no point in acquiring an education: why not be a grease monkey when you grew up? Even after Charlene married Scott, they merely moved to Brisbane - which, if you add a few palm trees and tropical storms, is like settling in Scunthorpe.

Kylie, to her credit, had loftier ideas. She disposed of Charlene and quit Melbourne for London. She also binned those baggy dungarees and pretty soon shimmied into a pair of gold lamé hotpants which rode up when she danced and, to the alarm of her stylists and the delight of everyone else, threatened to slide irretrievably into the cleft of her bum.

Her musical career began accidentally - which is a polite way of saying that talent had little to do with it. Her sister Dannii was the singer in the family; but at a football fundraiser attended by the cast of Neighbours, Kylie gave an impromptu performance of 'The Locomotion', which persuaded a television producer that she was exploitable. Neighbours had taught her to be a docile employee, mumbling half-remembered lines as the cardboard sets shuddered. She was equally industrious when inducted into the Hit Factory. She squealed and jived to order, and the repetitiousness of her lyrics - all those 'lalalas' and 'luckys' - together with the synthesised backbeat turned her into a lubricious automaton.

After a few years she resigned from the Factory, joined the independent label deConstruction, and immediately began to deconstruct herself. 'I started,' she said, 'to experiment where I could: with image.' The experimentation was iconographic, not musical. Now the singing and dancing were a pretext for Kylie's self-presentation, and recording sessions became less important than photo shoots. Kylie conscientiously worked her way through a history of female archetypes. She preened in cashmere and pearls like Grace Kelly, but she also pouted like Monroe and flipped up her skimpy skirt like the tennis player in the 'Athena' calendar; she pretended to be a galactic courtesan like Jane Fonda's Barbarella, or messed up her hair and made herself look feral and lustful like Bardot.

The photographer Stephane Sednaoui, her lover for a while, dressed her as a geisha with a pin-cushion on her head, which officially transformed her into a sex toy. At the same time she butched up in army fatigues for the film Street Fighter, a woeful spin-off from an arcade game in which she does battle with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Since Kylie is only five feet tall, her paramilitary swaggering fails to daunt the steroid-boosted Belgian.

The roles she played jarringly contradicted each other, but Kylie took pride in her inauthenticity. One of her albums admitted as much in its title: it summed her up as an Impossible Princess. In a photo story for Australian Vogue, Luhrmann joked more dangerously about the nonentity that lay beneath this versatile shape-changing. Hiring Bert Stern as his photographer, he made Kylie act out the life story of an imaginary starlet. 'Who's that girl?' asked one of Luhrmann's made-up magazine headlines. No one knew, not even the girl herself.

The image was hers, but the imagemakers were men, who had agendas of their own - sometimes reverential, more often vindictive. Michael Hutchence, the Byronic lead singer of INXS, boasted during their raunchy aff air that his hobby was 'corrupting Kylie'. There were rumours of handcuff s setting off metal detectors at airports, and copulation in lavatories at 30,000 feet.

Having been depraved by Hutchence, she allowed herself to be slaughtered by Nick Cave, who in their duet 'Where The Wild Roses Grow' battered her with a rock, then stuck a crimson fl ower between her teeth.

Even more gruesome was the tribute paid to her by Sir Les Patterson, when she appeared with Barry Humphries at Cave's Meltdown Festival on the South Bank. Sir Les, dribbling as he fumbled in his stained Y-fronts, unfurled what can only be described as the phallic equivalent of an anaconda. He flourished this retractable penis at Kylie, who fled screaming.

In Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann made her look fiendish. The hallucinatory green pixie that wriggles out of the absinthe bottle bumps and grinds, expands into a chorus of lookalikes as the drug goes to work on Ewan McGregor, then screeches towards him, fangs bared and febrile wings buzzing like a manic mosquito.

No wonder that the ravaged Kylie decided to trust in the more gently fussy ministrations of William Baker. They met when he was a shop assistant in VivienneWestwood's boutique; before long she had enrolled him as her 'creative director'. Baker studied theology before he diverged into millinery, and - aware that celebrities are man-made gods - he made it his business to sanctify Kylie. For the video of 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head', he swathed her in a hooded shroud with slits up the legs. This, he believed, evoked 'the whole Virgin Mary thing', although the immaculate Kylie was also a 'modern Venus', a pagan hoyden who wrapped her thighs around a pole as she cavorted.

'Everyone should have a Willie,' Kylie once remarked with a naughty giggle. Willie himself has sometimes seemed to lack one: in his book about their friendship, he remembers shrieking round his fl at as he tried on some silicon boobs with adhesive nipples he had found for Kylie to wear. He creatively directed her to sway on spiky stilettos, with sequinned corsets slicing into her armpits and clamping her midriff while plumed headdresses nodded above her; as a result she began to resemble a drag queen impersonating Kylie. Baker adored her because he wanted to be her, and she consented to the usurpation with her usual good humour. But should a man really say - as Baker does when he refers to his discussions with Kylie about selling her line of lingerie - that 'the decision to move into knickers and bras was a long-term ambition for us both'? He saw her as an example of 'artifi cial femininity': it didn't occur to him, or for a while to Kylie herself, that gender might have as much to do with nature as with cosmetics and semiotics. 'In Kylie,' Baker bragged, 'I have the perfect canvas for my fantasies.'

A victim of the fantasies of others, she seemingly had no fantasies of her own. In her leisure, she told Elle a while ago, she likes to dust, or she gets her rubber gloves on and scours the sink.

Spiritually, she still resides in humdrum, squeaky-clean Ramsay Street. She revisited the Melbourne suburbs in 2004 as a guest on the brilliant Australian sitcom Kath & Kim, and gallantly volunteered to be derided. The pretentious Kath tells the fat slacker Kim that Kylie's coming over. 'Kylie who?' yawns Kim. When Kylie turns up, Kim offers her a glass of the wine she calls 'Cardonnay'. Kath corrects her pronunciation, but Kylie sweetly rescues Kim from humiliation: 'I've been to Paris,' she says, 'and the h is silent there'. In a dreamy preview of the future, she plays Kim's daughter, whose wedding dress salaciously restyles the one Kylie wore in Neighbours 16 years before. Eponee Raelene Kathleen Darlene Charlene gets married in a spangled G-string, diamanté garters and thigh-high vinyl boots, with a coy veil perched on her perm; she looks, someone gasps, just like 'a fairytale princess', but her vowels drone and drawl like a trapped blowfly. Reinvention, on this occasion, involved a retrieval of the remote, embarrassing past. But Kylie relishes a joke against herself, which attunes her to Australia's national habit of self-deprecation, and helps to explain her popularity. At the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics she abandoned her transvestite fi nery and rode triumphally into the arena on a fl ip-fl op the size of a Pacific atoll, attended by a choir of prawns that had escaped from a barbecue.

All the same, her irony could not save her from spasms of confusion as she watched her image take on its own infl ated, autonomous life. In a ballet he choreographed at Sadler's Wells, Rafael Bonachela projected her on to a gauze screen 30 feet high: she became - as Baker says with his customary mystical awe - 'an ethereal presence made up solely of light particles'. The show left Kylie feeling ill, dismayed by her inadequacy or her personal irrelevance. Others might want to instal her in the sky, but in her own opinion she was at best 'a watery icon' - diluted, adulterated, devalued by over-exposure. She began to complain of her estrangement from her most intimate assets. 'I mean,' she asked a little plaintively, 'what does my bum do? It's not like it can actually do anything - except wiggle.' Or wobble: she is now 38, and gravity inevitably drags our most upstart bits down to ground.

She kept going by the rigorous exercise of will. In her photographs, the face is a mask, as impervious as Ned Kelly's helmet, and the smile displays a double row of perfect teeth that could be an electrifi ed fence. She managed to combine self-display with a clenched, retentive withdrawal.

On stage she wore what Hutchence once described to her as an 'ego jacket': a persona that functioned like a bulletproof vest. Was the interior hollow? When she broke up with the male model James Gooding, he called her a friendless, robotic control freak. For one of her tours, Baker dehumanised her. Surrounded by silversuited astronauts, she stripped mechanistically somewhere in outer space, with the jerky movements of a cyborg.

Before her illness last year, she had begun to talk about 'reclaiming myself'. The phrase was a plaintive reminder that celebrities are owned by their fans, their minders, their merchandisers, and the photographers who spy on them, not by themselves. But reclamation is hard if you're not sure whether you possess a self in the fi rst place. Her earliest eff ort to be simply Kylie, with no help from feathered frippery or electronic decibels, was traumatic. At the Poetry Olympics in 1996, Cave persuaded her to recite the inane lyrics of 'I Should Be So Lucky' from the stage of the Albert Hall. It was an act of self-destruction performed in public; burbling to cover her distress, she called the ordeal 'beyond post-modern'.

More recently she has discovered that peace comes with self-obliteration. In Paris with Martinez, the monoglot Kylie cannot keep up with the voluble chatter of his friends and family, so she lets them talk and is relieved to be ignored. For someone who has always existed to be looked at, happiness means invisibility. 'I can observe and drift off ,' she has said in describing these domestic evenings.

During her year of medical treatment, she relied on a camera to cheer her up: she recorded a video diary chronicling her ups and downs, snippets from which will be shown in the Sky interview. Here she confides in the camera, rather than seeking to dazzle or deceive it; she reveals to it the fragile, damaged truth.

The best way to celebrate a new life is by discarding the old one. Next February the Victoria and Albert Museum will exhibit Kylie's costumes, from the grubby overalls Charlene wore at the garage to the gladrags designed by Thierry Mugler, Julien Macdonald, Stella McCartney and the rest. These are her shed skins, which have been mothballed in a Melbourne storage vault: what better place for them than a museum, which is a kind of mausoleum?

Her clothes and accessories magnified her. Those four-inch heels were elevators, like the buskins on which actors strutted in the Greek theatre. Her hats were astral: on the 'Showgirl' tour she wore the horned moon on her head. Without these props, and without her cascade of curls, she has nowhere to hide. But the first glimpses of the new Kylie are encouraging. Instead of preening or smouldering, she looks loveable; her rabbity grin is ingratiating, not haughtily glamorous; and the shorn hair draws attention to her most underrated feature - a quirky eyebrow that arches upwards, signalling the quizzical, detached gaze of the ironist.

My favourite image of Kylie was taken in 1993 by Stern, to conclude Luhrmann's biography of that fabricated starlet. An elderly Kylie, with age entrenched on her face and a black wig glued to her skull, applies paint to her puffy lips; some crude retouching restores the line of a jaw that has turned jowly, and a hedge of feathers disguises a scrawny neck. Her complicity in this tells you everything about her, revealing both her matey modesty and her gnawing insecurity.

I am glad she's back. Now we can all grow old together.

· Peter Conrad is a fellow of Christ Church, Oxford. He has written a number of books including At Home in Australia (Thames & Hudson).

Steps back in time

1968 Born to Australian father Ron and Welsh mother Carol in Melbourne.

1986 After a childhood of acting, gets her big break in Neighbours.

1987 Her performance of Little Eva's 'The Loco-Motion' at a football charity event earns her a record deal and seven weeks at No 1 in Australia with the song. Snapped up by Stock, Aitken & Waterman, who pen 'I Should Be So Lucky', her first hit in the UK.

1993 Begins her indie phase on deConstruction Records, working with Pet Shop Boys, M People and Nick Cave.

1997 Collaborates with James Dean Bradfield on the Impossible Princess album, retitled Kylie Minogue in the UK following the death of Princess Diana.

1999 Moves to Parlophone, returning with a disco reinvention. 'Spinning Around' is her first UK No 1 in 10 years.

2000 Performs 'Dancing Queen' at the Sydney Olympics.

2005 Embarks on a greatest hits tour. Dates, including the headline slot at Glastonbury, are cancelled following her her breast cancer diagnosis.


Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Ally Carnwath looks back at three defining moment at the rock venue Astoria

As rock venue the Astoria closes its doors for the last time, Ally Carnwath looks back at three defining moments...

Ally Carnwath

11, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM

Pssst, Kylie. Wanna buy my pigeon-grey bra?

It is a tribute to the achievements of women in the world today that you can measure a celebrity's status by the price somebody will pay for her old bra. Kylie Minogue sold one of hers this week for an impressive £2,400.

Victoria Coren

13, Oct, 2002 @7:52 AM

Article image
Kylie: Aphrodite | CD review
Kylie Minogue wisely resists the temptation to compete with Lady Gaga on her new album, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

03, Jul, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
Kylie: Live in New York | Pop CD review

Ms Minogue releases a download-only album that delivers on sheer music power alone, says Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

20, Dec, 2009 @12:05 AM

Article image
Pop: Kylie, Belfast Odyssey Arena

Pop: Visual overkill leaves fans in a trance. But then, at last, pop's Cleopatra stands still and sings...

Killian Fox

05, Jul, 2008 @11:06 PM

Confide in me? If only Kylie would...

To acknowledge, or not to acknowledge - that's been the question for pop divas

Kitty Empire

25, Nov, 2007 @11:50 PM

CDs: Britney Spears, Blackout and Kylie Minogue, X

Only one of our biggest pop stars has managed to convey the crazy nature of her life. And it's not Kylie, says Peter Robinson.

Peter Robinson

11, Nov, 2007 @11:43 PM

Article image
Kylie Minogue review – rhinestone cowgirl delivers
Channelling heartache and Dolly Parton, Kylie is reborn as a double-denim country queen at the first outing of her multifaceted new album

Kitty Empire

17, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Kylie: Disco review – the ultimate rescue remedy
In these dark days, Kylie steps up and delivers a shimmering stream of dancefloor bangers

Michael Cragg

07, Nov, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Kiss Me Once review – Kylie Minogue's raunchy R&B reboot
While Kylie's sex-obsessed latest is more filler than killer, it's unlikely to disappoint the ageless pop princess's fans, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

16, Mar, 2014 @10:59 AM