From being bullied on The X Factor to the break-up that nearly broke her, DANNII MINOGUE tells Sophie Heawood what made her move 10,000 miles to her Aussie hometown to bring up her son. And why it’s the best decision she’s ever made.
Life sometimes teaches you a lesson that you have to learn more than once but, at the age of 49, Dannii Minogue didn’t expect that lesson to be long division. ‘God, I hate teaching maths,’ she says, over a video chat from Melbourne, Australia, where one of the world’s longest lockdowns is over for now, but where she has been very busy trying to homeschool her ten-year-old son Ethan while also working on her petite fashion range and television career.
‘Of course, I don’t use long division every day, so there are just so many things I’ve forgotten about. It’s not up in here,’ she admits, tapping her head, shaking it. ‘I don’t have it. And the terminology and the way they teach it is different from when we learned it. Then they’ll say,’ she puts on a very funny, softly patronising voice, “‘Just let your child discover the way they want to learn,” and I’m like, aargh, just let me get through today’s work! Teaching is not the job for me. It was interesting, though – my frustration with him, his frustration with me. I kept saying to him, “I’m doing my best but I suck at this.”’
I’m speaking to Dannii from a cold and dark London, where she used to live, while sunlight and birdsong stream through the shutters of her Melbourne home, where she is now based near her extended family. Homeschooling might have been a mess but she seems noticeably at peace with herself and able to laugh at it all. In fact, she cuts a completely different figure from the one who left the UK and her job as a judge on The X Factor in 2011 after arguments and stress. That Dannii had also become really ill with a thyroid condition and found her hair falling out in clumps after she had a baby with her partner Kris Smith in 2010 then split up with him soon after.
He said on I’m A Celebrity… Australia that it ‘absolutely ripped my heart out, but it was for the best’ because they hadn’t wanted their son to grow up in an environment that could become bitter or resentful. They all live in Australia, where he has two further children with his new partner. Dannii has been in a relationship with her music producer partner Adrian Newman ‘for eight years now’, she says, and tells me that things are settled.
Plus, her sister Kylie, who is over in Australia, too, having recently flown home. ‘We’ve been following the news from the UK every day and we know how hard it’s been over there with you. Obviously, we’re not experiencing what the UK is but Melbourne went through a pretty extreme form of lockdown.’ She’s so relieved that her family ‘are allowed to hug each other now’.
So there is joy, and Dannii looks extremely well, saying that she can’t wait to turn 50 at the end of this year. ‘I’m like a little kid – this is taking so long. I’m always ageing myself up – I might be 49, but in my head I’m already mentally turning 50. I was always like this. I could never wait for the next birthday.’
Hang on, most of us don’t relish ageing – I mean, she’s admitted to having Botox a number of times, so is Dannii really so keen to complete that half century? She insists that yes, she is, and then sounds a little more serious. ‘Each year when I have a birthday I think about when my sister was very sick, and going through cancer. The doctors said we don’t know if she’s going to get through this. She’s going to have all the treatments day by day, but…’
Goose bumps prick my arms as she discusses hearing what the doctors could do to try to save Kylie’s life from breast cancer in 2005.
‘So if anyone says, “Ugh, I’m getting old”, I tell them, “Yeah – the lucky ones do. And it’s awesome and you’ve got to enjoy it.”’
This philosophy seems to be working. Back in 2009, I remember watching her on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories chat show. He played her clips of Sharon Osbourne saying they couldn’t work together, then making fun of her on The Graham Norton Show. It seemed pretty tough that Dannii was expected to defend herself after that – especially when there was a lack of solid claims of anything she had actually done, beyond flirting with Simon Cowell, which she has said was just a natural thing to happen, because ‘that man could flirt with a book, a wall, anything’ as she put it.
‘I definitely did step away from X Factor, and I think it comes from the fact that all those judges are competing. You’re in a pressure pot. I didn’t know what else there would be for me after that, but there were some points when I just thought, whoa, it is not worth being in this kind of career. Not that I felt like it had crushed me, but I sometimes just felt like, maybe I’ll just step away from it, because it’s ri-di-culous! My favourite saying, that I was always telling my girlfriends, too, was just because someone says something about you doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s an opinion. Just an opinion. But it is hard to stay focused on that, and sometimes I’ve had to stop and remind myself that it’s not what I think about myself. I always knew I had a strong personality, but… not everyone has that strength – or has the strength to endure that much over that much time.’
It seems the rot of judgment had already set in way back when she first arrived in Britain as an Aussie singer and actress with a more famous big sister.
‘When I moved to London in the 90s, the ideal was you had to be Kate Moss. You just had to be thin. Thin was everything and it got you on the covers of magazines. That wasn’t me, ha ha. That was NOT me. But that was what you saw projected from magazine after magazine, to the point where you were just like, well it must be true. You’re better if you’re thin. I was definitely pitted against my sister: “She’s thin and perfect and you’re not, you’re fat and…” – I’ve had every word said to me. It was difficult.’
The two sisters managed to work it out. ‘You know, we had to have the conversation about it, but not let that conversation be our whole time together. I went to her and we did discuss it. But we had to not become consumed by someone else’s headspace.’
Yet seeing what Jesy Nelson from the girlband Little Mix recently went through brought a lot back. Dannii adores the group, who formed on her old show The X Factor, and she watched the singer’s documentary in which she discussed being known ‘as the fat and ugly one’, as Jesy put it.
‘I was upset to hear that Jesy was leaving, especially after she had already discovered that, as much as there’s people writing nasty comments, there’s a whole big lot of love for you as well,’ Dannii explains. ‘But yeah, it’s incredibly hard to be out there and as scrutinised as she has been. With a girl group, the best thing is that you’ve got each other. But the hard thing is that there has been, for many years, a mentality of pitting girls against each other. When it’s actually the combination of those girls that makes the group so special. So I think there are a lot of changes to be made, not just with social media but all media, the way we treat women in general.’
After all of this, you’d think that Dannii would be avoiding any more talent shows. Yet she now works on a huge reality singing show and her face positively brims over with excitement when she talks about it. She had previously tried stints on Australia’s Got Talent and even Australian X Factor first, but felt the same contradictions about the judging role she had in the UK. ‘It’s a cool job but you have to really want to be there.’ Yet she loved the mentoring, explaining that it was part of what helped her realise that she could have a family.
‘Being a mentor taught me so much about myself. Up until that point I never thought I wanted to be a mum or have kids. My sister had always said she definitely wanted to have kids, whereas I never thought I would. At all. So then it’s weird that I have a son and she doesn’t have kids – you just never know how it’s going to turn out. I absolutely love it. It’s just – wow. You can’t put it in words. It was mentoring that first gave me a sense of that maternal relationship.’
Then The Masked Singer came along. She had seen some of the American series, watching it with Ethan, ‘and I remember calling my manager and saying, “This is the best thing.” I was just telling her I’d found a new TV show that was cool. I had no idea that I would end up as a judge on the Aussie version of it. I know there’s a British version now, too, and my nephew sent me a video of Mel B singing one of Kylie’s songs! It’s wacky as anything when you read it on paper – you’re like this shouldn’t work, but it does.’
As for the new clothing range she is designing for British women through the digital retailer QVC, she is on a mission to make petite clothes accessible to more people and destroy the false impression that petite means skinny.
‘I went through a lot of my life thinking there was something wrong with me until I learned the word petite. Clothes just did not work on me. I’ve had a petite label in Australia for six years now and I walk round and I meet women who say, “Oh, I love your label but I can’t wear it.”
I tell them but you’re petite. They say, “No, no, no, I’m a size 14.” I say, it’s got nothing to do with your size! You don’t have to be the same size as me, but if I’m looking eye to eye with you and our shoulders are at the same level then you’re petite. It’s about your height. So I’m excited that QVC has a huge size range.’
It seems she has an irrepressible work ethic, and was still finishing editing her autobiography when her waters broke. ‘I was like, “This section has got to go into the publishers, oh my god, what is THAT – I’ve wet my pants.”’
Such determination comes from starting her career as a child actor, something I learn that made her feel awkward when she took Ethan for his first day at primary school. ‘I was really nervous because – it’s not that everybody knows who I am but, just to be on TV for 40 years, on the cover of a magazine and stuff… So I got up early, dressed really smart and walked in stiff as a board, freaking out.’ Then, once she gradually found the community to be super friendly, she relaxed a bit too much, dashing in to pick him up another day on her way home from a job. ‘With my hair dyed bright pink, and a huge pair of J-Lo false eyelashes and six-inch heels on as well.’
She had been working on a L’Oréal shoot that day, ‘but in the diary I was also down to do school pick-up. I had not thought that through. So I was getting out of the car and these little girls ran up to me as if I was the Pied Piper. They were like,’ she gasps in impersonation, giggling at the memory of it, ‘“Ah, I love your hair, it looks like candyfloss, you’re a unicorn, can I touch it?” And then their parents came over – I was so worried what they might think. Now I’ve got to try to remember to remove those things first, because that is not how I want to be walking into the playground.’
I’m not so sure – after all this homeschooling, it might provide a public service to us all.
What’s your earliest memory?
Catching lizards with my brother – we lived near an orchard and there were always plenty around. I was closer in age to my brother and was a real tomboy, but with a weird sense of dress – tutus and wellingtons. I had a Barbie, which I adored, but I had a truck that I loved, too. When my brother needed someone to play boy stuff with, I’d always get dragged into it.
Did you have a career plan b?
I actually thought I’d be a director because as a kid, when I was on set, I’d always be asking what camera is that, what does the jib do, how does this crane work? My two uncles are cameramen, my brother was a cameraman, so I was around that world a lot.
The secret to a happy relationship?
Communication, which can be hard. Sometimes there’s not enough, sometimes there’s too much! Obviously, with lockdown, there’s a lot of couples going, I didn’t sign up for spending THIS much time with that person! Also being able to sit in silence and do nothing.
Your guilty pleasure?
The Bachelor! I used to think, ‘I don’t understand why you would want to sit down and watch that.’ Now I’ve crossed to the dark side.
Your best quality?
I think I am kind. I get told that by my friends.
And your worst?
I’d say I can get very focused when there’s something that I want to do. So I think that can be very selfish.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Mum’s fish soup. She never follows a recipe.
On a day off, we would find you…
Sleeping in until 10am. I’d then stay in my pyjamas until at least midday, have two coffees, then think about what I’m going to do. Nothing happens before coffee. Even my son will say to me, “Mum, is that your first coffee or your second?” I’ll say it’s only my first one so don’t ask any difficult questions yet. He knows!
Your most starstruck moment?
Meeting Janet Jackson. I stood in front of her – trying not to cry – and said, ‘I LOVE YOU.’
And your most embarrassing one?
Dressing up as a piece of toast in an advert for toasters. I saw the photo recently and thought, I have no recollection of dancing and singing as a piece of toast – maybe it was so traumatic that I’ve blocked it.
Do you have a secret skill?
Cross-stitching – it’s a way of relieving stress.