In the public imagination, Kylie Minogue is a pop superstar whose musical output spans nearly four decades and continues to be revered and respected by casual listeners and die-hard fans alike. Often overlooked is her uncanny ability to reshape her celebrity through her on-screen personas, shifting chameleon-like from campy girl next door to dazzling screen siren. These transformational qualities can be seen throughout her career as an actress and music video goddess, starting with the character that captured the attention of Australian and British TV audiences alike: Charlene Mitchell.
The dawn of Kylie Minogue, screen goddess can be traced back to a moment in Season 2 of long-running TV soap Neighbours (1985–2022), when Charlene attempts to climb through the window of her mother’s house and comes face-to-face with future on-screen (and off) flame, Scott Robinson (played by Jason Donovan). The couple’s romance was credited with bringing a younger viewing audience to Neighbours, and public investment in the storyline culminated in a record-breaking number of viewers tuning into their on-screen wedding.
The 20 million Brits who watched Charlene and Scott’s nuptials proved a fertile audience through which Kylie launched an international singing career. A few months prior to the wedding episode’s broadcast in the UK, Kylie unleashed her first single, ‘Locomotion’, into the pop cultural ether, the first domino in a line of career moves that would see her become the global sensation she is today.
‘Locomotion’ proved a global hit, and a series of singles from her debut album Kylie (1988) followed, all of whose music videos are cheesy, largely forgettable, distinctly 80s affairs. In them, Kylie is positioned in the same virginal, every-girl mode as in her role as Charlene. She appears chaste and sweet, but hindsight yields a largely blank canvas with absolutely zero edge to her. The same can be said for the music itself – inoffensive, stock synth-pop that possesses just enough sparkle to worm its way into your head and stay there for thirty-five years.
Kylie’s 'edge' materialised in 1989, when she made her silver-screen debut in The Delinquents, a coming-of-age drama that saw her cast in the lead role of a lovestruck teenage runaway, Lola Lovell, who bleaches her hair and engages in pre-marital sex. The film underperformed at the box office and received a lukewarm reception from critics who generally dismissed it as a stilted period romance whose redemption came in the form of a capable performance from Kylie. Interestingly, the film’s marketing positions Kylie in a decidedly similar look to Grease’s post-makeover Sandy. Leather jacket-clad and explicitly sexually active, Kylie’s Lola is the anti-Charlene. No longer chaste, Kylie showed up to the film’s Sydney premiere on the arm of INXS rocker Michael Hutchence with a bleached blonde pixie cut and her girl-next-door persona in the rear-view mirror.
1990 saw Kylie release her third album Rhythm of Love, a project on which she wrestled with her record label to gain more creative control. Her push for a more mature sound steered the album's production away from the trite pop sounds of her previous work, taking inspiration from dance music, evident in the electric lead single ‘Better The Devil You Know’. The video, too, feels different – replacing the coy, pouting singer of the 80s with a liberated, sexual superstar fit for the 90s. She gyrates her hips to the song’s rhythm as she runs her hands through her long straight hair, staring down the barrel of the camera, inviting you in. The song was embraced in gay nightclubs – the beginnings of her status as a gay icon – and kicked off a decade of experimentation for the performer.
Experiment she did. One of the less celebrated entries in the Kylie canon, is the bizarre 1994 film adaptation of videogame Street Fighter starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Supposedly, Kylie was cast in the role of Lieutenant Cammy last minute after the director saw a photo of her on the cover of People Magazine. The film itself is self-consciously absurd, and Kylie’s involvement in it may have presented a convenient opportunity for exposure to American audiences. Critically panned on release yet commercially successful, Street Fighter is remembered largely for its clunky dialogue, which for her part, Kylie delivers as unconvincingly as the rest of her castmates.
Perhaps more bizarre than Street Fighter, is Kylie’s turn in slacker comedy Bio-Dome (1996) in which she played a sexually frustrated oceanographer with an affinity for carrots.
By 1997, Kylie’s shapeshifting qualities were fully embodied in her experimental sixth album Impossible Princess (1997). The music video for ‘Did It Again’ expertly played with the idea of Kylie as a collection of personas. In it she portrays four different versions of herself interacting with each other: Sex Kylie, Indie Kylie, Dance Kylie and Cute Kylie. Each persona vies for the attention of the camera, eventually becoming violent and all out brawling. It’s an interesting, if coincidental, foreshadowing of the video for ‘Come Into My World’ that she would eventually make with Michel Gondry in 2002, in which various identical versions of Kylie stroll through a chaotic streetscape.
As her music career stuttered, Kylie kept one foot firmly planted in film with a series of cameos in various Australian productions, including a fatal turn as the first kill in Australian meta slasher Cut (2000), as well as her memorable part as the absinthe fairy in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001).
But perhaps one of the most enduring images of Kylie is her ‘Spinning Around’ in a pair of metallic golden hotpants. The lead single from her seventh studio album Light Years (2000) was an anthem of reinvention, a statement of purpose after a three-year hiatus since the commercial disappointment of her previous album Impossible Princess. ‘Spinning Around’ reintroduced Kylie as an unabashedly joyous popstar, embracing the promise of a new millennium. The video for the song itself is simple: Kylie dancing and flirting in a club while making eyes at the camera as she mouths the lyrics to the song. Fun, free, and most importantly, sexy, the cheeky gold hotpants speak to an essential part of the Kylie mythos.
If the success of 'Spinning Around' re-established Kylie’s pop goddess status, then her stratospheric performance in ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ cemented it. Taking stylistic inspiration from Grace Jones, Kylie’s hooded white bodysuit in the song’s music video remains, alongside the hotpants, as one of her most iconic fashion moments.
In recent years, Kylie has continued her run of musical success alongside a steadily progressing filmography including an appearance in French auteur Leo Carax’s 2012 cult favourite Holy Motors (streaming on ACMI Cinema 3), as well as a role alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the 2015 disaster flick San Andreas.
But it’s her 2023 single ‘Padam Padam’ that has re-affirmed Kylie’s timeless celebrity. Referencing the onomatopoeic title of Edith Piaf’s 1951 song of the same name, Kylie’s version is a pulsing dance track that’s been fully embraced in LGBTQIA+ corners of the internet. After the song’s release, a host of memes began to pop up on Twitter, with the song crossing over on to, and going viral on, TikTok.
The song’s virality has helped it become one of Kylie’s most successful singles in over ten years, and its crossover into a TikTok trend is more evidence of Kylie’s legacy as a pop culture icon whose enduring impact on screen culture should never be underestimated.
– Ellen Lewis