She was once derided as "the singing budgie", only to be resurrected as Saint Kylie. Despite the wild swings in her public approval, not to mention her battle with breast cancer, Kylie Minogue remains "hopeful and realistic". Jane Wheatley meets her in London.
Who could have predicted that Kylie Minogue, aka Charlene, the miniature grease monkey of Neighbours, would one day sit, bemused and delighted, in a Cannes movie theatre as wave upon wave of a standing ovation breaks over her head? The applause is for Holy Motors, in which she has a critically acclaimed cameo role, and triumph has bathed her in its glow.
As a result, Minogue has been spending a good deal of this northern autumn in the company of the film's French director, Leos Carax, entertaining audiences and media in a series of interviews.
They make an odd couple: Carax hunched in black duffle coat and sunglasses, an unlit cigarette held between long fingers; Minogue sitting beside him, chic in cream Burberry, crossing and recrossing perfect legs, smiling encouragingly.
Getting the director to shed light on his surrealist film - variously described as "brilliant", "deranged" and "bonkers" - is like pulling teeth. "Leos is always being asked to explain his work," Minogue tells me when we meet, "and he doesn't. He just kind of mutters and smokes, which is fascinating to me because I spend my life doing the opposite, going blah blah blah."
The pairing of perky pop princess with the enigmatic intellectual auteur was a shrewd move by the film's promoters: Minogue is a drawcard for those who might otherwise give this bizarre offering a miss.
Arriving for our 3pm rendezvous, I am told by a friendly but puzzled waiter that the kitchen has already closed. When I say I am meeting Minogue, his brow clears. "Ah," he exclaims, wreathed in smiles, "for Kylie we are open 24 hours."
A few minutes later she is ushered to a table curtained off from the main dining room, a tiny vision in a sparkly wool coat, tasselled high-heeled ankle boots and slim black pants. The restaurant is just around the corner from her Chelsea home. "I call it the office. I'm in and out of here all the time." She has a cold and has been saving her voice: "I've only spoken 15 words today." She is just back from Brazil and will be off to New York the next day for another film screening with Carax: "So I have to be fine, no choice."
Asked by one interviewer why he cast Minogue, the director said simply: "I thought she was the angel I needed." How did it happen? "Apparently," she says, "all he knew of me was my duet with Nick Cave." The ballad, Where the Wild Roses Grow, recorded in 1995, was both erotic and violent, ending in Minogue's character being battered to death by Cave - suitably weird, then, to appeal to Carax.
She nods, "Yes, but the ironic thing is I'd been saying for a few years, after being involved in the wrong sort of film projects, that what I really need is the Nick Cave of the film world to go" - she beckons with a finger - " 'Hey, you, come with me. Trust me, I know what to do with you.' "
It is a telling choice of words: for years people knew what to do with Minogue, from the publicists who ferried her to shopping centres to be mobbed by Neighbours fans, to the fabled UK music producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who turned her into a bubble-gum pop princess; from British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, who got her to strip off and mime along to a castrato voice, to her long-time stylist William Baker, who rejoiced in being able to "project all my fantasies onto her".
How does that make her feel? "Well," she says calmly, "I like being malleable." But she once said she felt like a manufactured product. She nods:
"I was." Didn't it feel, well, a bit masochistic? "No, but sometimes I can sense the balance has tipped too far and I need to pull back some control.
I learnt how to do that a long time ago."
She says she never went looking for work, it always came to her, but this may be a touch disingenuous. Contemporaries from her early years in Australia recalled that she was always "driven and very focused", and these days there is little doubt who is in charge of Brand Kylie.
This year, she has sung at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in front of Buckingham Palace, wearing a jewelled military cap and waving to the cheering throng in The Mall; performed pop favourites for the classical music crowd at the BBC's Proms in the Park; recorded a new album (The Abbey Road Sessions, out on October 29, reworks her greatest hits with full orchestration) and published a book, Fashion, reprising a quarter century of Kylie-wear, from Dolce & Gabbana evening frocks to the famous hot pants from her Spinning Around video (YouTube hits: 5.7 million).
There are now four Kylie waxworks at Madame Tussauds - only the Queen has more; and at Sydney's Mardi Gras earlier this year there were four floats, each dedicated to a different version of Kylie (Showgirl Kylie, Cute Kylie, etc), and hundreds of people dressed as Australia's favourite gay icon. They serenaded her with her own Love at First Sight as she watched from a balcony: "I felt like Eva Peron," she says.
Last May, the 2011 Sunday Times Rich List estimated her fortune at £40 million ($63 million), she outsells her one-time heroine Madonna, and she is the only solo female artist to score a No. 1 album in four separate decades. She is much more successful than her avowedly fame-seeking sister Dannii and, following a tussle with breast cancer, a "brave" post-recovery tour and the White Diamond documentary, in which she was "reborn", Kylie has had near-deity status bestowed upon her. She is often represented as other-worldly - nymph, goddess, Venus, Virgin Mary, astral being, bathed in light: "Her sanctification has progressed beyond parody," academic Peter Conrad has observed in The Monthly.
Success has not always followed Minogue. She was 19, with three smash hits behind her, when the backlash came: Australian radio refused to give air time to the relentlessly chirpy I Should Be So Lucky and British DJ John Peel interviewed a cardboard cut-out of her on the grounds that it had more personality.
She thinks she was a victim of tall-poppy syndrome. But the flak came not only from Australia. "Oh I know, there was loads everywhere," she says. "I think I would need to reach a state of enlightenment - which I doubt I will - in order to really let go of that tiny, tiny little red light that tells me I'm still ticked off about all that. I forget about it most of the time, and all those insecurities that stuff played on - I'm over them, anyway. But still a bit of me goes, 'Why? Why were you all so nasty?' "
When she began live stage shows she was, she says, "absolutely annihilated by the critics. But I kept going and kept going - to the point that it's what I'm known for. I've overcome a lot of fears."
In the early years, under contract to Stock, Aitken and Waterman, she wanted to write her own songs but was discouraged: "Rightly so, probably," she says, "I wasn't very good." But now, she says, she writes about a quarter of her material. "And I love it, absolutely love it. You start the day with nothing and by the end you have a song. Not that most people would pick the difference [between the songs she's co-written and those written for her] - only super fans know, really."
A waiter comes to the table with a pot of four baby carrots apparently "growing" in dark soil. "Dirty carrots," he announces. We each take a tentative bite: they are crisp, cold, fresh and coated in chocolate. "Wow!" says Minogue, going in for another dip. "Bravo!" She licks her lips. "Sorry, where were we? I can't concentrate."
Does she get things off her chest by writing a song? She laughs: "Oh yeah, definitely. I don't always realise it at the time. Now when I listen to some of the songs on Impossible Princess - actually, my least successful album - I think, 'Wow, you weren't very happy then, were you?' "
For years, Minogue has suffered the label "unlucky in love" thanks to a series of relatively short-lived relationships and no wedding bells. French actor Olivier Martinez supported her through breast cancer, but they split in 2007. She has been with her current partner, 34-year-old Spanish model Andrés Velencoso, for four years: "Yes!" she exclaims, "four years - really! I'm like, ding! Ready to ring the bell. It's a record."
Probably the most intense, most unlikely and certainly most influential relationship of her life, though, was with Australian rock god and INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence. They first met at a music awards ceremony in Sydney, when Minogue was dating Neighbours co-star Jason Donovan. At the after-party, Hutchence famously lurched up to her and said, "I don't know what we should do first - have lunch or have sex." Neither happened, but a year later they started dating and very quickly the carefully packaged girl-next-door Kylie was transformed into sexy, pouting Kylie in black PVC, barely-there slip frocks and bleached blonde locks - Hutchence supposedly wrote the song Suicide Blonde in honour of the new hairdo.
But image was the least of it: 30-year-old Hutchence opened doors for the Melbourne girl, barely out of her teens. "Oh, he broadened my horizons," she says, "gave me my first European experiences, taught me about fine food. He was often referred to as a bad boy. Yes, he was, but he was also poetic and smart and cultured and inquisitive. He watched me grow and blossom."
The relationship lasted for 15 months; Hutchence died six years later. "A good friend of his told me that just a very short time before he passed, he was talking about me and talking about getting together again." She gives a tiny shrug. "I don't know, but who's to say what might have happened. I truly believe he didn't stop loving me. And the same goes for me."
So why did they break up? "I think that he went back on the rock'n'roll road and he couldn't take me. I think it came from a good place." What does she mean? "That ..." she hesitates, "what goes on tour stays on tour. I think he had to go on his path."
She remembers the night a girlfriend rang her with news of Hutchence's death in a Sydney hotel room, and then flying in to Australia for the funeral five days later, a hot summer afternoon, the casket piled high with brilliant blue irises. "Typical," she says with a small, wry smile. "I had so many first experiences thanks to Michael - and this was my first funeral."
Life has dished up a good few more experiences since then, including a brush with her own mortality: "I have never felt such terror," she says of her cancer diagnosis. She took a year off for treatment. "My mum was with me most of the time; I don't think she could let go, and I didn't want her to."
She is free of cancer now - as free as you can be - and of the medication she took for five years after treatment. She has been a generous ambassador for breast-cancer charities, credited with raising awareness of the disease among young women.
"Breast cancer really affects your sense of femininity," she says, "and how desirable you feel. And there's still a little bit of that, because I'm not what I was. But I pulled myself together and I'm no less attractive to my current boyfriend than I would have been before cancer."
Minogue has lived in the same London street for 16 years - does she miss Australia? "What I miss most, apart from being on home soil, is being able to drive over to my parents' and have a cup of tea. But Skype and FaceTime are a blessing: I can keep in touch, see the changes in my nephews." Her brother Brendan has two sons and sister Dannii has a two-year-old: "His language is just going through the roof," she marvels.
And babies for Kylie? "Possibly," says the 44-year-old evenly. "Who knows? I'm hopeful and I'm realistic. That's how I feel about babies."
More immediately, her involvement in Carax's film has made her want to do more acting. "I'd had film projects that frankly would have been better if they hadn't happened, and I'd started to think that maybe there's a reason singing keeps me so busy," she says. "But Leos has reignited that little flame of desire. I'm a sucker for experience, I'm like a puppy: 'Hey, yeah, yeah, I'll do that.' "