Jason Donovan: Queen of the stage
Donovan once starred in Aussie soap Neighbours, became a pop star, and had a famous romance. Now he has found contentment in middle age, as a drag artist in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The actor talks to Chris Green
Jason Donovan is musing on his time as Scott Robinson in the famous Australian soap opera. "There's not too many people in this country who haven't heard of Neighbours," he says. The role has already ensured his place in history as the archetypal 1980s heart-throb. Even today, the show still attracts around a million daily UK viewers on Channel 5.
Donovan, now aged 47, is still a household name in Britain after following up his small screen success with a pop career - he has sold more than 13 million albums to date - and a starring role in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Previously viewed as regular red-top newspaper fodder, thanks to his relationship (and subsequent very public break-up) with fellow Neighbours star and pop singer Kylie Minogue, not to mention an addiction to cocaine that saw him collapse at Kate Moss's 21st birthday party in the 1990s, he now largely avoids the limelight and has found a profitable groove as a jobbing stage actor.
Donovan is currently touring the UK with Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which sees him reprising the role he played when the show originally opened in London's West End. While the musical's song sheet might suggest that it is not much more than high camp silliness - I Will Survive, It's Raining Men and Go West , to name a few - it has a dark side, which Donovan says is what first attracted him.
"It is a great story first and foremost. It started with characters and it became a musical as a result of the concept of those characters. There's nothing worse than a jukebox musical that's been put together with a bunch of songs and then a story's developed," he says.
"It's dramatic, it can be camp, it can be funny, it can be emotional. It's quite a modern musical - it pushes aside that Disney ideal and that classical musical element that everyone in life is on a journey and we all come together and it's all happy families. This is a bit ugly at points, which I quite like. It's a bit dangerous."
Based on the 1994 film, the show follows the journey of two drag queens and a trans woman, as they travel across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus named Priscilla, encountering rural communities where homophobia is still rife. Donovan plays the part of Tick, one of the drag queens.
"The Australian aspect, the songs, my place in this culture - it's sort of a perfect storm for me, that's why I stuck with it," he says, before adding more pragmatically: "Notwithstanding the fact that, you know, I have to work."
Now settled in west London with his wife Angela and three children, it is clear that the former heart-throb is under no illusions about the ways his life has changed since the heady days of 1989, when his debut album Ten Good Reasons earned him millions of hysterical teenage fans.
"Look, I never really set out to be a musical theatre star, it sort of found me. I'm not complaining because it's been very good to me and I can age with it. Do I enjoy travelling up and down the country doing eight shows a week? Well, some days, but it's not an easy thing. But any artist that wants to progress further in their career needs to travel," he says.
And how have his fans changed since the days of Neighbours?
"They've got older," he jokes. "My audience is predominantly late 20s to 30s women, sometimes older. But with something like musical theatre you can reach out a bit further."
Musicals are one thing, but it may be some time before British audiences see him at their local theatre appearing in Aladdin over Christmas.
"I've never done panto. I don't fancy doing two shows a day, I don't care how much money they're paying you, it's not really my idea of fun. I think that's just a punishment," he says.
"I do hear they're a lot of fun, but I find it difficult enough doing eight shows a week, let alone 16. Never say never, but at this point in my life I'm not really in that zone. I like to have fun, but I also like to be quite creative with my roles. I think even most panto people would say that it's not really where you're digging deep for a creative process. But that's okay too."
Once the current run of Priscilla ends, Donovan will be embarking upon a solo tour of his own, cashing in on British fans' nostalgia for his pop hits. His debut album generated three number ones, including Especially for You, his famous duet with Minogue. His former girlfriend recently sang with her sister Dannii on The X Factor, the first time they have done so in 30 years, but Donovan says the trio's paths rarely cross. "Our world's are in different places these days," he says.
"That's great for Kylie and Dannii and it sounds like a wonderful thing to happen to them," he adds. "But I don't think I'll be joining in the party as a threesome, singing I Will Survive. I think that might be a little bit further than anyone's expectations."
There is, however, undoubtedly an appetite among British fans for Donovan's solo music. Next year's UK tour had to be extended due to high demand and will see him playing 31 dates, singing his debut album "top to tail". Such was the fleeting nature of his pop career, he has never even performed some of the songs live before.
"This is not Coldplay, these are pop songs from the 1980s," he says. "But to a lot of people, they're as important as any record they've ever heard, and that to me means a lot. It puts you in a time and a place like no other medium can, it's magic. My audience are just as much a part of that magic as I am. Those songs changed my life."
Donovan insists that if he had been born 30 years later and had the chance to appear on The X Factor, he would be "terrible", because he is not a "vocal gymnast" who could impress the judges.
"One thing I do know is that you don't have to be the greatest singer in the world to have the greatest career. That's a fact. But what it takes is a lot of hard work, a lot of charisma, and the ability to be passionate," he says.
The talent show phenomenon, he argues, has the ability to create the same level of public hysteria as soap operas did in the 1980s because both rely on good storytelling.
"What I do know is that the format of X Factor is no different than it's been on shows like Neighbours," he says. "You have characters, people fall in love with the characters, and they buy into their lives. If it's through music, then that's the way it is. That format's quite old really - music and television go hand in hand."
His days of partying and excess may be long behind him, but Donovan seems to be happy with his lot. "I have a wonderfully supportive wife, I have three great children. That makes all of this good. For a long time in my life I never had that. How do you measure success, really? You can get the biggest amount of applause in your life, but go home and you're a sad little person that sits and watches the TV and just goes to work every day."
- Priscilla Queen of the Desert is in Edinburgh until January 2 and then on tour (priscillathemusical.com/uk-tour)