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Jason Donovan: 'I was carried out of a club on a stretcher... I knew I didn't want to live the way I had been'

With his new stage show set for Dublin, former pop idol Jason Donovan speaks to Donal Lynch about nostalgia, prejudice and ageing gracefully


Jason Donovan

Jason Donovan

A scene from the stage production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, which is produced by Jason

A scene from the stage production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, which is produced by Jason

Jason and Kylie in Neighbours

Jason and Kylie in Neighbours

Jason Donovan

It's the summer of 1990, and Jason Donovan, at the height of his fame, is onstage at the Point in Dublin. The air is thick with dry ice and hormones. Crucifixes dangle from his shoulder pads and his blonde curtains of hair are plastered to his forehead with sweat. Occasional knickers are fired from the crowd toward the stage. As he removes his shirt to reveal a glistening torso, ten thousand teenage girls scream as though they personally have just been asked to join the cast of Neighbours.

"It was a moment in time," he says now. "And sometimes a moment has to be in the past for you to realise how special it was. Of course people have nostalgia for it; I have nostalgia for it. A pop song can just bring you back to a moment. It doesn't matter if it was really good or bad. The fans of that era are the critics of today. They are hearing a part of their youth when they hear those songs."

Of course it wasn't really about the songs - most of them were plastic pop - so much as it was Jason's status as the ultimate Aussie soap hunk. In a time where celebrity status is more of a common commodity, thanks to reality TV and YouTube stars, it may be hard to comprehend the scale of his fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His character's on-screen romance with tomboyish mechanic Charlene, played by Kylie Minogue - not to mention the tantalising rumours that the pair were also an item once the cameras stopped rolling - meant Jason's face graced a million teenage walls. They rivalled Dallas's Who Shot JR? as the television moment of the 1980s; Scott and Charlene's wedding was watched by over 19 million viewers in the UK alone.

Once Kylie departed the soap for her burgeoning singing career, it was only a matter of time before Jason also headed to the UK to work with songwriting and record producing trio Stock Aitken Waterman, who helped him churn out a succession of number ones.

Even while he achieved this stadium-filling status, Jason says he envied fellow Neighbours alumnus Guy Pearce, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a serious actor.

Decades before the mainstreaming of drag, Pearce took the risk of playing a drag queen in Priscilla, Queen of The Desert, which became a cult success. Two decades later Jason became involved a musical adaptation of the film, which follows the odyssey of three friends (one gay, one bisexual and one a transgender woman) who hop aboard a battered old bus bound for Alice Springs to put on the show of a lifetime.

Jason sang in several tours of the show and he has gone on to produce the version which will play at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in February.

"In a way the musical is more epic than the film," he says. "We wanted to bring a lot of spectacle to the musical and put the music itself front and centre. I know Stephan Elliott (who directed and wrote the screenplay of the film and the book of the musical). He wrote the film in only eight days. It was a big pop video, but done very well, with a great story and characters. I think it has universal themes of overcoming prejudice and adversity; it's a modern musical. It tackles people wanting to be different and at the same time it also shows the way in which we're all really the same underneath."

Jason says that having performed in the show gives him insights as a producer: "In the same way that it's not unusual to see Michael Ball produce a version of Hairspray or see Brad Pitt working to produce films, it's not unusual to see actors who've got to a certain point in their career do what I'm doing with Priscilla."

Showbiz runs in Jason's veins. His father Terence and mother Sue were both popular television actors in Australia. When the marriage ended there was a custody dispute, with Terence given sole care of young Jason. He would tag along with Terence on auditions. Jason's career was kick-started when, aged 11, he was cast in a production called Skyways. The little girl who played his sister was none other than Kylie Minogue. Little did either know they would go on to become a most wholesome superstar couple: their two-year relationship was reportedly consummated in a Travelodge and they had a milkshake afterward. Jason is reluctant to discuss her, however. "Kylie is an incredible person and performer. Would I perform with her again? Of course, but you'd have to ask her."

If Priscilla has a special place in LGBT movie history, it might be because it came at a moment when homophobia was still rife in the entertainment world. A year before its release, The Face, a hip London-based magazine, alleged that Jason was "queer as f***" and the star sued them, and while he eventually won there was a public backlash: people kicked his car and called him homophobic when he left the high court, he later said. That same year, in part because of the publicity surrounding the court case, Jason passed when offered the role of Adam (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow) in the film version of Priscilla. He later said that suing The Face was the biggest mistake of his life.

The incident seemed to precipitate a turn in his fortunes. His third album, All Around The World, failed to live up to the success of its predecessors and the pressures of fame began to take their toll. He developed a serious cocaine habit; in 1995 he attended Kate Moss's 21st birthday party at the Viper Rooms nightclub in Los Angeles, where he had an overdose.

"By midnight the party had hit the dance floor, but I knew I was about to go," he wrote in his autobiography. "My heart was racing, my vision was blurring and I was becoming disorientated. I tried to steady myself but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the floor. A crowd had circled round me and Michael Hutchence was standing over me trying to empty my trouser pockets. 'Have you got anything on you?' he kept asking me. I tried to speak but couldn't. 'It wouldn't be cool if anything was found on you by the medics,' he whispered to me. Then the next memory I have is of being carried out of the club on a stretcher."

It was the birth of his first child, a daughter named Jemma, and an ultimatum by his partner, Angela Malloch, which helped him with sobriety. Unusually he never went to rehab or undertook a 12 step programme - he says his own resolve was enough.

"At a certain point in life you have to decide what you really want to do and I knew I didn't want to live the way I had been living - but it's all a very long time ago now," he adds.

He's now 52, but he sharply rebuts any mention of a mid-life crisis (yes it was the theme of a previous stage show, but that was "tongue-in-cheek", he says). Life is going well, he explains. Priscilla is playing to huge audiences as it tours - and the next generation of Donovans has already picked up the baton: Jemma is now part of the cast of Neighbours.

"It's incredible to see her doing so well. The name could be a bit of pressure but she is a talent in her own right and I'm so proud of her."

  • Priscilla Queen of the Desert plays Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, from February 3-8. Tickets from Ticketmaster. See bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

Belfast Telegraph