Kylie Minogue: Mighty Aphrodite
For as long as she can remember, her every smash success, personal failure and public tragedy has been devoured and documented by international tabloids. As she readies the release of her eleventh album, pop icon, fashion goddess and cancer survivor Kylie Minogue finds solace away from the media glare in (of all places) a Brooklyn coffee shop. Nick Haramis spends a few days getting to know the woman responsible for all those headlines. Check the exclusive, behind-the-scenes video of our June/July covershoot here.
I first encounter Kylie Minogue in the lobby at TriBeCa’s Greenwich Hotel. Seated on a couch, her slight frame is half-swallowed by its plush cushions. Her wavy, caramel hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail, and the clothes she’s wearing are similarly unfussy: gray tank top, black bra and dark jeans. Almost a year has passed since the 42-year-old Australian pop superstar embarked on her debut North American tour, and while she was trumpeted as Britain’s most powerful celebrity in a recent U.K. poll, not a single person in this room seems to recognize her. In London, where she’s now based, she can’t take a walk without being hounded by the swarms of paparazzi who camp nightly outside her house. Stateside, she says, “The anonymity is amazing.”
Minogue flew to New York from England to attend an event in support of DKMS, an organization that raises awareness about bone marrow transplants. Later this week, she’ll relocate to Los Angeles to film the music video for “All the Lovers,” the first single off her eleventh studio album, Aphrodite, due out in July. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the video re-imagines the works of Spencer Tunick, an American photographer who famously corrals thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of nude volunteers into public spaces such as the Zócalo in Mexico City and the steps of the Sydney Opera House. “The video came down to two treatments, including one that was a little gentler. But the general consensus was that we should go with the edgier option,” she says. Shaking her head, she adds, “I don’t exactly know how we’re going to pull it off.”
It’s the mass of people, not the prospect of a little skin, that has Minogue worried. This is, after all, a woman who regularly uses and markets her sexuality to her advantage—even if that means being taken less seriously. “I have big ambitions,” says Minogue, once the most-groped wax figure at Madame Tussauds’ famed London gallery. “But I’m really quiet about it. What’s that saying? ‘Never let people know how much you know.’” Although she’s a shrewd business mogul, it’s Minogue’s body, rather than her brain, that generates the most buzz. Take, for example, her career comeback at the turn of the millennium—thanks, in large part, to a revealing pair of gold booty shorts. Her backside had its own following way before Kim Kardashian came along, especially after she allowed herself to be pawed by Justin Timberlake during a live performance at the 2003 Brit Awards.
Still, Minogue has limits. “I did a commercial for Agent Provocateur a while ago,” says the Grammy winner, referring to a video she filmed in 2001 for the slinky lingerie brand. In it, Minogue rides a red velvet–covered mechanical bull to simulated, unrestrained orgasm. Though the BBC banned the spot, it went viral with more than 360 million YouTube views as of 2007. “I was so timid about that one,” she says. “I didn’t want to take my robe off, but then I passed through this chasm and on the other side of it was a professional who knew what she had to do. Next thing you know, the robe came off and there I was, riding that bull.”
The tension between modest girl-next-door and bronco-bucking vixen cuts to the heart of Minogue’s enduring worldwide appeal. She is at once a low maintenance innocent and, as she is more frequently portrayed in gossip rags, a relentless showgirl with an exhibitionist streak. The Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, her friend and collaborator, says, “Her on-stage persona is very true to who she is. To watch her perform is to get a glimpse into her soul.” But Minogue insists that her sexpot image isn’t the entire truth. “People know me from one angle, or two angles, but few people actually know me. That’s not my real world and yet it’s some kind of reality for me because I do it,” she says. “Sometimes I think, Did I really, actually do that?”
It wouldn’t be the first time Minogue, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, surprised herself—or her audience—by drastically flipping the script on her professional life. Her first risk-taking career choice came when Minogue skipped college at the age of 17 to seize her big break: the role of mechanic Charlene on the enduring Aussie series, Neighbours, a part that won her considerable acclaim. “Acting was the first thing I did when I left high school,” she says. “I signed up for the dole when I graduated, but I never got a check because I started working on Neighbours. Fame wasn’t the driving force, but I can’t say I didn’t aspire to it at all. I used to daydream as a kid that my neighbor was a record producer and that he would hear me singing.”
It wasn’t a neighbor, but rather a label executive at Mushroom Records who signed Minogue in 1987 after hearing her sing “The Loco-Motion” at a benefit concert with her television co-stars. Since that time, Minogue has released 10 albums, seven signature fragrances, three books (one for children), one documentary and even a line of bedsheets.
From award-winning soap star, to precocious teenybopper, to Michael Hutchence-dating bad girl, to dancefloor queen, Minogue has shed skins and changed images ever since she was first recruited, at 19, by English power-producers Stock, Aitken & Waterman. But the single biggest shift in the way people perceived her came when she transitioned gracefully from “Kylie: feverishly objectified music sensation” to “Kylie: cancer survivor.”
On May 17, 2005, when she canceled the Australian and Asian legs of her enormously successful Showgirl tour, Minogue released the startling news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The day before her public announcement, Minogue went for a walk with her brother, Brendan, and her then-boyfriend, actor Olivier Martinez. “It was the first time I’d felt such absolute terror,” she recalls. “We stopped at a café that day. I remember looking at everyone around me, watching how normal they all seemed, and thinking, These people don’t know now, but they will tomorrow.”
Her adult life has been a deluge of rapt attention from the media, but it had never been so deeply intrusive, especially given her tenuous state. Overnight, paparazzi were stationed outside her parents’ house in Melbourne; photographers hounded her sister, Dannii, at the airport as she hurried home to be with her family; Australian Prime Minister John Howard issued a public statement of regret and support; newspapers across Europe ran front-page headlines like “Kylie’s Cancer Battle,” “I Am a Fighter” and “She Can Beat This.” Her cameraman brother works at an Australian news station, where his colleagues were assigned to capture video footage of his sick kid sister. “The guys told the network, ‘We can’t do this. You’re going to have to hire a freelancer,’” she says. Not that one extra television crew would have mattered at that point. “There were stacks of people camped outside the house.” Still, she’s loathe to wallow in self-pity and quietly keeps her personal struggles in perspective. “We’re all pretty realistic about what we do and what difficulties that brings,” she says. “We’ve all got stuff to deal with, so we deal with it.”
The next day, I meet Kylie Minogue at a photo studio just north of Canal Street. A hairstylist sprays her head with water, while a makeup artist rubs bronzer across her body. In the time it takes the bronzer to be applied smoothly over her skin, her hair dries considerably, which prompts a few more sprays from the bottle, which in turn causes the bronzer to run. It’s what her music videos might look like if directed by Samuel Beckett. But Minogue pays it no mind. Dressed in a white one-piece bathing suit and coral necklace, she shakes her hips and sings along with the lyrics to “The Girls” by Calvin Harris, with whom she has worked twice before. It’s a daring wardrobe choice for any woman in her forties—let alone a breast cancer survivor.
In 2006, Minogue was issued a clean bill of health, and with it came another personal high. The media attention to Minogue’s illness generated a significant spike in scheduled mammograms among Australian and British women, a phenomenon now dubbed The Kylie Effect. She eased back into the spotlight with a children’s book titled The Showgirl Princess and, in 2008, her tenth studio album, X. “That album had some great moments on it, but, as a whole, it wasn’t cohesive. I think people wanted to hear something with more gravitas considering what I’d just been through, but the most personal songs I’d written, like ‘Ruffle My Feathers,’ didn’t end up on the album. That one was about cancer: How could you do this to me? How could you ruffle my feathers? It’s symbolic, but also, very literally, cancer put an end to my Showgirl tour.”
Coming out the other side of such a terrible and terrifying ordeal forced Minogue to reevaluate her life and career. “When I came back after I’d healed, I realized, more than ever, that performing is what I do,” she says. “It’s what I love to do. Strangely, I’m less stressed about getting in front of an audience now, and so the shows have gotten better.”
Aphrodite, executive produced by Stuart Price, the go-to wunderkind for artists from Madonna to New Order, is an important album for Minogue. It’s her first release since she toured America in 2009, and expectations are high that this will finally be the record that breaks her through, once and for all, into the U.S. market. Although 2001’s Fever was a huge international success, going platinum in America and spawning her second-ever top-10 U.S. single with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” it never translated into lasting stateside success. (Her follow-up, 2003’s Body Language, moved only 177,000 copies in the U.S.)
More importantly, Aphrodite is her first release since the tepidly received X. Shears can relate to his friend’s predicament. His sophomore album with the Scissor Sisters in 2006, Ta-Dah, also fell flat. “Kylie and I are both in a similar spot right now,” he says. “I didn’t feel particularly connected to our last album, and I think she felt the same way about hers. If either of us puts out a bad record right now, we’re kind of toast.”
Although it’s a bit dramatic to suggest that Shears or Minogue has anything to prove at this point, both of them have invested considerable faith in Price’s magic touch. Minogue says, “I recently played Jake some of the new tracks on my iPod, and he was so ecstatic. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this about an album.” And it shows. “Although I’m not taking the title too literally,” she says, “Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and as far as the music goes, there’s a feeling of euphoria on this one.” Perhaps this new sound reflects her current state of mind? “Am I happy right now?” she asks. “What’s happy? I have moments of happiness and sometimes they’re even strung together, but I definitely have dark moments, too. Thankfully, those don’t last very long. I can go down very quickly, but I won’t stay there.”
To keep herself from spiraling into those dark places, Minogue is forever on the lookout for new challenges, which could mean a return to acting. Earlier in her career, she starred in a handful of movies, including Bio-Dome and Street Fighter, neither of which did much to galvanize her credibility as a serious actress. “The mid-’90s were a bad patch,” she admits. “But show me an actor who hasn’t done a few bad jobs. I have a deep desire to challenge myself with that again. As a ‘pop star,’ I’ve created this world for myself, and it becomes very natural to stay inside of it, but I’d love to do some independent films. It’s still very early, but I’m in the process of choosing between specific parts.”
With William Baker, her creative partner for the past 16 years, Minogue is also at work on a new Mamma Mia!–style musical, weaving together her songs and an original story. “We’ve been talking about doing it forever,” she says. “I would like to get a couple of writers involved. I think we’ll probably co-direct it.” Laughing at the absurd loftiness of it all, she adds, “Don’t let us get bored for five minutes—we’ll come up with another project! My dad has always said since the very beginning, ‘Kylie, you know you can say no to any of this. You can walk away from the whole thing if you want.’ But I’m a people-pleaser. ‘No’ doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Dusk looms over the Manhattan skyline on an unusually hot day in early May when I meet Kylie Minogue for the third time. She chose as our destination Supercore, an unassuming Japanese café with a backyard garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She looks rested, despite having co-hosted a small gathering the night before with her boyfriend of two years, Spanish model Andrés Velencoso. Hidden in plain sight among a crowd of animated locals, she beams when regaling the details of how she spent her morning. “I did all of the dishes from last night, but I refused to wash anything without gloves,” she says, which seems reasonable when one considers that she is among the world’s richest female performers, her net worth estimated last year at $71.25 million. “That was my only diva request. So I went to the store and bought a pair.”
Two gay men walk out onto the patio. One of them looks in our direction and freezes. Stifling a sharp gasp, he collects himself and continues to his table. The expression on his face, excitement verging on total mania, calls to mind something Shears said about Minogue earlier that week. “She’s a showgirl at heart and gays love a good showgirl,” he offered. “If Madonna is the Wicked Witch of the West, then Kylie is Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. She’s like a beacon of light for the gay community.” Designer Jean Paul Gaultier was equally glowing: “I first met Kylie almost 20 years ago. She was so sweet and beautiful, and I liked her from the moment I saw her. I’d seen her infrequently until, one day, she asked me to design costumes for her X tour. I was struck by how little she had changed. For me, she is the definition of the word ‘nice.’” Similarly, musician Rufus Wainwright once referred to her as “the gay shorthand for joy.”
It’s hard to imagine where Minogue would be today without her gay following, a devout demographic she first encountered in 1998, when drag queens began performing her songs in Sydney, Australia. “I was ecstatic when I found that out,” she says. “Shocked, but ecstatic. Before I knew it, I was cradled in their arms.” Her star rose in tandem with her over-the-top stage show, suggesting that perhaps Minogue knew a good thing when she saw it. But, she insists, “As far as the music goes, I’ve just kept doing what I do, which is, I suppose, what endeared me to them in the first place.” But surely there are times when she caters to her gay fans? “I don’t know how to answer that question,” she says, before a considerable pause. “To be honest, I like not having an answer to that question, because it was never calculated in that way.”
Calculated or not, Minogue is, without question, one of the great international gay icons, sharing space in the pop pantheon with Judy Garland, Grace Jones and Cher. But the comparison that gets thrown about most often is between Minogue and Madonna, and not without reason. Madonna has her controversial Sex book, and Minogue has Kylie, an equally envelope-pushing collection of photos—some topless—and an illustration of her with a penis; Madonna has Truth or Dare, a tour documentary, and Minogue has White Diamond: A Personal Portrait of Kylie Minogue; Madonna has a much-younger boyfriend, Brazilian model Jesus Luz, and Minogue has 32-year-old Velencoso. “But it’s a bit of a lazy comparison now,” she says. “If someone were to look at it more closely, they’d see that I have a lot of influences that precede Madonna.” She adds, “We have friends in common. She’ll pass me a message and I’ll pass a message back to her. I’m sure we’ll meet one day and have a good laugh.”
The terrain of dance-pop has shifted considerably over the last couple of years, namely because of Lady Gaga, whose oddball combination of couture and camp has endeared her to fans of all sexual persuasions. “I think there’s an element of me in her, but you’d also have to add into that mix all of the other women we’ve been talking about,” she says. “It’s all part of a chain. Inasmuch as dance music has gone mainstream, I’d love to think that I’ve played a part in that.”
Kylie Minogue is sweet, yes. She’s certainly kind and generous and polite—but modest? If that’s the case, she’s come a long way. I pull out a yellowed copy of i-D magazine from July of 1994, when Minogue, their cover girl at the age of 26, insisted, “I don’t want to be second to anybody.” She bursts into laughter, the smile on her face betraying only the slightest nostalgia and perhaps a touch of pride for the woman she has become. “‘I don’t want to be second to anybody!’” she says, marveling at the audacious folly of her former self. And then, to no one in particular, she whispers, “God bless her.”
Photography by Simon Emmett. Styling by Christopher Campbell.