Why we just can't get Kylie Minogue out of our heads
The Aussie singer added two million viewers to BBC's The Voice last week when she joined its judging panel. Jane Graham on how the pop star has managed to stay a firm favourite with many of us, decades since her days on soap Neighbours
There's no one quite like Kylie. But it's not easy to say why. Looking at her objectively, there isn't anything special about Kylie. She was a mediocre actress in an Australian soap so cheap and wobbly it made Mr Blobby look sophisticated. In a way, Neighbours found a place in British culture not unlike that awarded to Kylie herself a few years later; it wasn't of a particularly high quality and never strove to profundity or struggled to set itself apart artistically.
Yet, somehow it became ensconced in the collective consciousness so firmly that, for years during the '80s, it was as much a part of the average family's daily routine as the school run or the bedtime bath.
For millions of people in Britain and Ireland, dinner time meant Neighbours, just as for many a few years later, pop meant Kylie. It wasn't that Kylie was the best, but through some kind of cultural osmosis, she became the most popular. The obvious, easy choice, the road of least resistance.
Of course, the familiarity Neighbours instantly awarded Ramsey Street's sweet-faced car mechanic Charlene was crucial to Kylie's subsequent career. She wasn't a great actress – the famous soft-focus sequence when, cheeks blowtorched, eyes dazzle-dropped, she beamed an "I do" to a grateful Jason Donovan was a fun watch, but no one thought, "There's the next Meryl Streep''. It didn't matter though.
In fact, Kylie's limitations and apparently breezy acceptance of them was part of her unintimidating appeal. She was a cute little cupcake with a pretty face. Her flushed youth and lack of serious intent made people feel comfortable. Somehow, her regular presence in their living rooms – as bright as the sun-drenched streets Neighbours offered as an option to the grey skies of Corrie and Eastenders – cheered people up. Which is probably why 20m Brits tuned in to watch Scott and Charlene's wedding in 1987 (audience figures the X Factor and The Voice would kill for today).
Thanks to Neighbours' ubiquity and Kylie's role as the show's most loved pet, it wasn't hard to make a pop star of her. (Or a 'pint-sized Aussie pop star', to give her her official title).
Millions across Europe already knew her as well as they knew their own grandmother, and probably saw far more of her. The good vibes she radiated were effortlessly exploited by pop production house Stock, Aitken and Waterman, the songwriting factory team booked to produce and write for her when she first came to the UK.
And effortless their work really was, at least at the beginning; when she initially arrived at their studio they had forgotten she was coming, and made her wait 40 minutes in the car outside while they hastily threw together a bubblegum track called I Should Be So Lucky. She then came in and took an hour to record it. Thriller this was not.
As ever with Kylie, the lack of diligence and superior talent mattered not a jot. I Should Be So Lucky, which came with a low-budget video of her dancing around a bedroom with all the skill of a gleeful schoolgirl, was a huge international hit, going platinum in the UK and reaching number one in a number of European countries, Australia and Japan.
Their eyes on the prize, SAW gave more attention to the next bunch of singles they wrote for her, including the schmaltzy and wildly successful Especially For You, a 1988 duet with her loving onscreen husband Jason Donovan (before the cocaine addiction frazzled his edges a bit). The smash hits kept rolling in, and the unkind nickname the press gave Kylie – the singing budgie – had no impact on the public's cherishing of her. Though she was Australian, she was adopted as an honorary Brit, and made the country's national sweetheart before Cheryl Cole was at primary school. (The chances are this had more to do with her girl-next-door charm than her Irish/Welsh ancestry).
Nowhere was her cultural status made more clear than when Gary and Tony, the country's favourite Men Behaving Badly, sat on their sofa, lagers glued to their hands, and discussed their perfect woman. "Lovely Kylie" was their favourite, as she probably was for many of their viewers in the early '90s.
Known for her professional work ethic – she did begin to put the hours and the muscle in – Kylie moved beyond kitschy bubblegum pop once she left Neighbours and grew up a bit. She got quite good, relatively polished, but she was never a stand out, a Rihanna or an Adele. She did however have lovely teeth, and looked as if she'd be nice to you if you bumped into her in Tesco.
Her relationship with INXS rocker Michael Hutchence challenged her innocuous image, as did the darker, more cutting edge look she cultivated as his girlfriend and carried into her music career. She pouted and purred in her sexy Madonna tribute Confide in Me, a 1994 No. 1, and spoke unhappily of her time as a SAW "puppet". The music press announced the birth of "sex Kylie", though they didn't sound entirely convinced.
"Disco Kylie" came next, though the impression one had was that her identity changes had more to do with a search for a comfort zone than a Madonna-esque genius for re-invention. She did raise her game for a couple of dancefloor stormers – 2001's Can't Get You Out of My Head was the best – and raised her bum for the video of "the gold hot pants song" as many a man refers to Spinning Around. And with the help of some top-notch choreographers, stylists and set designers she twirled through some exciting live shows.
By the mid-noughties Kylie – not pop Kylie, sexy Kylie, disco Kylie or showgirl Kylie, just Kylie – was just part of the cultural furniture. That she would always be there, making people feel nice, was not questioned. So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, it was a thunderous blot from the blue. How could something so horrible, so frightening, so real, happen to Kylie? Pictures of her turbaned, thin, and fragile picked at people's hearts.
She described chemotherapy as "like being in an atomic explosion" and said the support of her boyfriend, actor Olivier Martinez, was invaluable. "He's the most honourable man I have ever met." Sadly though, despite tabloid talk of a planned marriage, the couple split not long after Kylie announced she was in remission.
It's likely Martinez was a rock during those turbulent two years, just as she portrayed him, but as far as her protective fan-base were concerned, Kylie had been abandoned.
When she finally re-emerged on stage in 2007, glowing with hope, her skin popping with the soft, gold, dancing light of the glitterball oscillating above her, it felt like the epitome of showbiz bravery, a Judy Garland-esque display of public defiance against the struggles of her private life.
She has probably reached the point now where the details of what she does – her music, her live shows, her TV presenting, even her extensive charity work – are secondary to the simple fact of her sheer Kylie-ness. She has earned that celebrity holy grail – the single name monicker.
It's no surprise that she's been such a draw for The Voice, pulling in an extra 2m for the first show. She is the living personification of ideal Saturday night TV. Everything BBC light entertainment, Simon Cowell and Ant & Dec seek to capture is embodied in Kylie.
Fellow judge will.i.am felt her presence was so desirable that he went on record to say that she had been the clincher for his own decision to remain on the series after disappointing figures last year.
"I was like, 'Let me see if Kylie does it. If she says yes, then I'll say yes'," he stated, describing his new colleague as "awesome". And will.i.am knows his onions. He gets Kylie; she's glamourous and sexy but at the same time she's as familiar as daylight, as feelgood as sunshine, as reassuring as cashmere slippers.
And that might be why we love her. Never scary, like Madonna, Never weird, like Gaga. Never a superwoman, like Beyoncé. Instead Kylie has a quality you can't buy, train for, or cultivate; likeability. In Kylie's case you might even call it lovability. It's a mixture of warmth, self-effacement, vulnerability and a smile that could fell an oak tree.
Even her doll-like tininess is crucial to her appeal. In an ideal world we would all have a little Kylie in our pocket. We could take her out every now and again to watch her dance, like a fairy in a snowglobe, and we'd get a happy fizz in our bellies.
Until then, we'll have to make do with The Voice.