September 2010

Arts & Letters

Sister act

By Peter Conrad
Kylie Minogue performs at the Fox Theatre, Oakland, California, on her first North American tour, September 2009. © AP Photo/Tony Avelar
The Minogue sisters

At the Royal Albert Hall in 1996, Kylie Minogue had an awe-inducing glimpse of the vacuum that she exists to fill. Nick Cave, after clubbing her to death in the video for ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, one of his Murder Ballads, had enticed her into appearing at the Poetry Olympics. Waiting for her entrance, she peeped out at the current performer – a blind, whiskery bard who declaimed a poem that his fingers read in Braille. “Nick,” Kylie said in a panic, “God is on stage! How am I supposed to follow that?” Cave said “Jesus did an OK job,” then pushed her out to face the gaping arena. Identified by a sticker with her name in capitals, rawly denuded of her usual ostrich feathers and dressed in unglamorous trackies, without the budgie tweet of her singing voice and the rhythmic camouflage of a band, she recited the fatuous lyrics of her song ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. She might have been booed for her inanity, but the crowd adored her. It was as if the Second Coming had happened there and then.

Following God is precisely what Kylie does. In place of the doddering Ancient of Days, whose death was long ago announced by Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, we now have a sky full of the twinkling airborne creatures we call celebrities – temporary deities who are up there on sufferance and can be tugged down to Earth whenever we tire of them. With her new album, Aphrodite, Kylie launches herself into orbit as a pagan love goddess, chirpily dismissing all her previous lovers, breathily demanding the services of a Cupid boy, and, in a sideways reversion to Christianity, looking for an angel. As always, her music is merely an excuse for a revision of her image, which happens in the video for ‘All the Lovers’: in the gulf of a Los Angeles boulevard, between cliffs of chilly steel and blank glass, she surmounts a scrum of grappling, entangled bodies, smiling down on an orgy of multicultural, polymorphous copulation.

Is she too cheekily cute, too unthreateningly matey to be in charge of so much venery? Are there still traces of Charlene, the greasy tomboy from Neighbours, in Kylie’s persona? If you think so, then the white goddess has a darker alter ego in her sister Dannii, an altogether more alarming figure – Parvati perhaps, her four arms flailing as she straddles a lion or tiger, her spiked heels jabbing its flanks. Dannii spoke from between her legs when she did a stint in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. But her authority does not end there. She is omnisexual: although Kylie, with her smudged garage overalls or her spangled hotpants, may have the reputation for androgyny, it was Dannii, referring to her ?adolescent apprenticeship in showbiz, who once gruffly claimed, “I worked my bollocks off.” For all her wiggling and flouncing, Kylie is endearingly frail; Dannii, like some rampantly fertile matriarch from the Hindu pantheon, keeps company with man-eating animals. In the video for her song ‘So under Pressure’ – a self-pitying lament about her stress after Kylie’s cancer diagnosis – she accessorises her outfits with a writhing albino python. Her idea of fun, according to Chas Newkey-Burden in his newly released Dannii Minogue: The Biography (John Blake Publishing, 288pp; $24.99), is to be caged and lowered into a shark tank, where she tantalises the slavering fish with her immaculate, inedible limbs.

Growing up in Melbourne, Kylie and Dannii shared a bedroom, with a border of string hung across the middle to mark the halves that were their small but exclusive realms. Now it’s the world that they divide between them, and, since celebrities beam their images around the globe by satellite, they seem to have the sky stitched up as well.

White Diamond, a documentary about the resumption of Kylie’s Showgirl tour after her recovery from cancer, begins with a scene in which she squeezes through a birth tunnel. A helper with a torch leads her along dark corridors and up a set of steep stairs; she follows nervously, wobbling on her vertiginous heels, the fronds of her headdress brushing the low ceiling, with another helper crouching behind to hold up her resplendent train. Finally, under her own power, she rises into the light, to be greeted by a roar of gratification. This is what she calls “my cosmic thing – a collision of energy between the audience and myself”: a galactic moment, when our prayers cause the sun to rise and our fervour propels an ordinary, undersized Melbourne teenager to stardom. But apotheosis is hard work. Later in the documentary, voiceless with the flu in Manchester, Kylie croaks apologetically through an a cappella medley of her ancient hits, while thousands of customers, refusing to feel short-changed because they can at least enjoy the sight of her, helpfully bellow “we love you, Kylie”. Behind the Sydney Entertainment Centre, in another scene, she edges warily towards a wire fence that holds back an old woman armed with a banner. “I’m legally blind, sweetheart,” says the frumpy fan: is she expecting an autograph or a cure? Either way, Kylie apparently feels obligated. As she says somewhere else in White Diamond, “a tour is a mission”.

In earlier days, her mission was more devious or deviant. During their affair Michael Hutchence bragged that his hobby was “corrupting Kylie”; the paraphernalia he supposedly used included a set of handcuffs. Anxious to cast off the compulsory niceness of Neighbours, Kylie was avid for abuse. Nick Cave killed her, and Sir Les Patterson, having unreeled from inside his trouser leg the phallic equivalent of an anaconda, made her flee screaming from the stage of the Royal Festival Hall. Bottling her as the absinthe fairy in Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann turned her into a green pixie who screeches towards Ewan McGregor with fangs bared and febrile wings buzzing like a manic mosquito.

At first Kylie’s handlers joked about the religious frenzy she excited. The Kylie Bible, a promotional publication from 1994, gave her the opportunity to describe the view from on high. “What lays [sic] before me is beautiful, dangerous, breathtaking, seductive, challenging and inspiring,” she declared, presumably referring to the world she had created. Ten years later, the waxen Kylie at Madame Tussauds indulged in a little seasonal sacrilege. Her effigy hovered over the Beckhams: Kylie was the annunciating angel, with David and Victoria as the holy family. An enraged visitor lashed out at the blasphemy, beheading Posh in the process. Kylie, dangling high overhead, of course escaped damage.

Since then, her sanctification has progressed beyond parody. “She wanted to have something sacred,” says the choreographer Akram Khan when rehearsing Kylie’s troupe of go-go boys in White Diamond; he supplies it in a routine that turns the dancers into worshippers, fluttering around their tiny idol. The religious cult is managed by William Baker who, before he was Kylie’s stylist, creative director and cosily connubial “gay husband”, studied theology at the University of London. As well as fussing over her costumes – he once confided that “the decision to move into knickers and bras was a long-term ambition for us both” – Baker superintends her mystique or, as he calls it in his introduction to the touring exhibition of her glad rags, “the Kylie mythos”. For the video of ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, he wrapped her in a hooded smock sliced open to the thigh; his aim was to evoke “the whole Virgin Mary thing”, though it’s doubtful that Our Lady would have had slits in her smock. At the same time he saw Kylie as a “modern Venus”, a heathen hoyden who wrapped her legs round a pole as she cavorted. He has dressed her up as a succession of divas, the divinities manufactured by the cinema: Monroe dripping with diamonds, Bardot in heart-shaped shades, Garland balanced on a horned moon singing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. Kylie, tirelessly morphing as she sped through 40-second costume changes, adopted Baker’s combination of pious iconography and cheeky iconoclasm. “Believe in the sacred and break every rule,” she sings on the last track of her album Impossible Princess. She assumes that it is possible to do those two contradictory things at once because she knows that the sacred is just a trick of light. In 21, a dance performance choreographed by Rafael Bonachela at Sadler’s Wells, her image was projected onto a gauze screen 30-feet high. She became, as Baker said, “an ethereal presence made up solely of light particles” – a pixelated illusion, briefly scintillating in the darkness.

Astral beings such as Kylie no longer seem to be composed of flesh and blood; they are light-emission devices, magnified, as by Bonachela, or multiplied, as in the video clip for ‘Come into My World’, where she is cloned four times while dancing through a Paris street. Hence the tabloid suggestion that she might be an alien life-form: she treasures an article that seized on her “elfin features and small breasts”, along with her lobeless ears, to demonstrate that she was the perfect prototype for an extraterrestrial. During her KylieFever2002 tour she appeared as Kyborg, a humanoid robot swathed in silver armour and attended by a platoon of cybermen with chrome helmets. The chaste exoskeleton peeled off to reveal Kylie in a crystal mesh bra and miniskirt, strutting lace-up boots. “A vision of goddess-like perfection,” cooed Baker – or a nightmare in which the demonic dominatrix Silvanemesis took control of the world?

The object of all this hagiographic toil and trouble remains detached from it. Kylie’s inventory of the costumes she donated to the Victorian Arts Centre takes care to point out their fault lines: the safety pins, bulldog clips, industrial zips, quick hooks and clingy velcro that allow her persona to be pieced together and ripped apart. She once called herself “a watery icon”. It is a more interesting and touching phrase than any in her song lyrics, and a sly recognition that the images she projects are a mirage. Gods or goddesses don’t have to subscribe to their own religion; belief is for lesser mortals.

Being a Gemini, Kylie automatically bifurcates herself. “You’re always dealing with at least two people!” she once wrote in GQ. The second person might be Dannii, her shadow side. Although Dannii rails against the assumption that they are “Siamese twins, some freak circus act”, they began as a composite, interchangeable creature. After the pubescent Kylie left The Sullivans, Dannii was drafted in to impersonate her in a retrospective dream sequence; when Dannii surged ahead in popularity on Young Talent Time, Kylie did secretarial duty by helping to autograph the pictures sent out to her sister’s fans.

They soon set about differentiating themselves. Dannii established their separate identities by casting them in a cartoon: “Kylie is a fluffy, purring pussycat and I’m like a bulldog.” After seeing Dannii in Grease, Kylie said she had done well as the slutty Rizzo, then added that personally she always wanted to play the demure, simpering Sandy, Olivia Newton-John’s role in the film with John Travolta. In 1999 they defined their disparity by their choice of Shakespearean heroines. Kylie played the naive Miranda in a production of The Tempest in Barbados, while at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Dannii played Lady Macbeth, whom she transformed, according to a reviewer, into a “disco-queen-from-hell”. Kylie sweetly wondered at the brave new world; Dannii relished Lady Macbeth’s manipulativeness, admired the careerist’s killer instincts and enjoyed the fact that she took the sexual initiative with her henpecked husband. Dannii once said “I spend all day every day working towards being famous.” Unless everyone had heard of her, she said, explaining her 1988 Kmart clothing range, “there’d be no way I could ever have my own fashion label”. Imagine a contemporary Lady Macbeth designing drawstring shorts and T-shirts for Kmart, with $17.98 as the top price: luckily the ballistic force of Dannii’s ambition was neutralised by the triviality of her goal, which may have spared the world another Margaret Thatcher.

Dannii has always seen herself as a global brand, and by her adolescence she had outgrown Australia. “The market there isn’t big enough,” she said. “I have to make it happen in Britain and the States.” While attempting to make it happen, she dispensed geopolitical aperçus. “The bombing in Downing Street freaked me out,” she whimpered in 1991, even though the IRA aimed no mortars at her. At large in New York, she shuddered during a research trip to the Bronx, where she was hoping to learn how to funk up her chirrupy sound. “There were no white people around,” she reported in alarm. Back home in 2002 she praised the French bigot Jean-Marie Le Pen, tut-tutted that Britain was “in an appalling state with the muggings and the car-jackings”, and censoriously noted that in Queensland “some of the street signs are in Asian!” By contrast, Kylie’s one recorded comment on international politics had her customary deft evasiveness. In South Africa in 1989, a year before Mandela’s release from prison, she was asked about apartheid. “I think they should stop killing the rhinos,” she said.

Though Kylie admits to being “a manufactured product”, she lets herself be sold rather than trying to do the selling. A cool irony, signalled by the quizzical arch of her left eyebrow, places her at a giggly distance from Dannii’s hustling. She knows that the product is cheap and easy to fake, so she finds herself outnumbered by imitators such as the drag queens who flock to ‘Kylie Nights’. “There are,” she has wearily conceded, “millions of Kylie clones and even Kylie dolls.” The recording impresario Pete Waterman noted the wistfulness of her own mimicry: “She was outselling Madonna four to one, but still wanted to be her. Everyone wanted to be Kylie Minogue except Kylie Minogue, who wanted to be Madonna.” When Kylie and Madonna met – of course at an awards ceremony, which is where celebrities constellate – Madonna was wearing a T-shirt that shouted “Kylie Minogue”. Who knows if it was an act of homage, or a postmodern put-down? There’s a kind of masochism to Kylie’s pliability, a willingness to suffer or to be derided so that others – Cave, Luhrmann, Sam Taylor-Wood, who filmed her naked mouthing to an aria sung by a male castrato, or Pedro Almodóvar, with whom she longs to work – can make art out of her. In 1996 she offered herself to any indie rockers who might want to use her in a collaboration. “It would be like giving ten sculptors a piece of rock,” she said. She was the rock, braced for the mallet and chisel. In Melbourne, on the Showgirl tour, the sisters appeared together one evening to perform the Robbie Williams’ hit ‘Kids’. Kylie, romping in leopard-skin print, informed Dannii that she was “dancing with the chairman of the board” and reminded her that “the purpose of a woman is to love her man”. In slinky black lingerie, Dannii offered Kylie a ride on her “12-cylinder symphony”, cocking a leg in fish-net stockings as if about to mount a motorbike. Kylie looks lovably infantile in the filmed recording of the gig, as if she were wearing her Dolce & Gabbana catsuit for a children’s party. Dannii, however, is a feral prowler, dangerous rather than playful.

If you had to choose a body part as a metonym for each of them, Kylie would have to be identified with her loco-motive rear end, so beloved in bottom-fixated Britain. She admired the sculpted buttocks of Jean-Claude Van Damme, with whom she appeared – playing Cammy, a fluffy paratrooper who guards an Asian dictator – in the film Street Fighter, and she was flattered when he taught her his exercise routine for callipygian trimming and tightening. But she tends to look over her shoulder at this asset as if it had a life of its own, and disparages its limited repertoire of moves. “I mean,” she once asked, “what does my bum do? It’s not like it can actually do anything – except wiggle.” Dannii’s defining feature is more upfront. In 1996 she allegedly spent more than US$5000 on boob-augmentation in New York. Asked about this by Piers Morgan in a recent television interview, she cupped the glands in question and aimed them at the camera like twin bazookas. “They’re good, aren’t they?” she snarled.

Maximising her appeal to all possible markets, Kylie likes to play at being a hermaphrodite. Her pictorial autobiography, Kylie: Evidence, includes a nude painting by Simon Henwood, which gives her girlish breasts and a boy’s shrinking genitals. In a winking allusion to William Baker, she once said, “Everyone should have a Willie”; as she well knew, the remark means something different if you lose the capitalisation. Dannii has less tolerance for this flirtatious blurring of identity. During her stint as a judge on The X Factor, a contestant called Danyl Johnson, who had outed himself as bisexual in a tabloid newspaper, performed Jennifer Hudson’s gynocratic tirade from Dreamgirls. Dannii complimented him for his success in “turning guys into girls”, then added: “No need to change the gender references, if we’re to believe everything we read in the press.” Four thousand viewers, whose lives were presumably otherwise empty, protested at her innuendo. Perhaps Dannii – born Danielle, though she precociously rebranded herself to ensure memorability – was irritated to find a man initially called Daniel encroaching on her self-invented terrain.

The wisecrack could not have been further from Kylie’s witty description of herself as “a very short drag queen” trapped “in a woman’s body”. Dannii has no patience with such self-deprecation; her default mode is attack, and you can often sense a metallic menace as she readies her weapons. After she broke up with Jacques Villeneuve – Homerically described by Newkey-Burden as “the Formula One hero” – the ribald Jonathan Ross asked her if she had exchanged him for one of his colleagues on the racing circuit. “I’m not a screwdriver,” Dannii snapped. The exchange occurred on the radio, but I could picture Ross nervously crossing his legs.

It all leads to an existential quandary: who or what are these mutant creatures – the products of a collective fantasy, alive only if the image of them is on show and on sale, or if they are gossiped and blogged about by the countless strangers who are their confidants and imaginary best friends? They began as human beings like the rest of us. Then at a certain point, by their own efforts or by our abject need, they were exempted from nature, hoisted off the earth.

So far Dannii has kept self-doubt at bay. She is currently partnered by the ex-rugby player Kris Smith. He models for Myer while she has a deal to sell her new clothing range through David Jones; the child of this corporate merger was born in July. During her early, brief marriage to Julian McMahon, Dannii was bemused by the biological chores that go with being human. “Where does a baby fit in?” she asked. “It’s not the kind of thing I can put in the luggage cart on the plane.” Organising the arrival of little Ethan Edward Smith, she announced that she would not interrupt her singing and dancing, her contest-judging and clothes-designing, her Tweeting and self-streaming: “I’ve got no plans to stop working and take time off – apart from the actual birth. I’ve heard I have to be at the birth, right?” Let’s hope she found time to put in an appearance at the happy event.

Kylie meanwhile, just before flying back from London to Melbourne to meet her infant nephew, filled in a spare hour by performing ‘All the Lovers’ atop a pyramid of writhing muscle men on Alan Carr’s television talk show. Afterwards Carr asked her about the cancer diagnosis, and the year of invisibility that she spent undergoing treatment (though of course she kept a video diary: for the Minogue sisters, the unfilmed life is not worth living). Kylie, who is thoughtful, paused for a moment. “It’s such a human experience,” she finally said, bearing down hard on the adjective. “It’s a reminder of humanity.” She seemed genuinely taken aback that her body had recalled her to membership of our infirm species, which is made of more perishable stuff than crystal mesh and sequins; afloat on her ‘cosmic thing’, Kylie needed to be reminded that she was human.

Watching, I felt suddenly sorry for this ageing waif, and also for the rest of us, so credulously fascinated by Dannii and Danyl, Jacko and Jackie O, J-Lo and SuBo, Posh and Paris. While God was alive, I certainly disliked him. Now that he has been replaced by our own inadequate inventions, I think it might be time to invite him back.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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