Dannii Minogue offers a slightly nervous smile when I warn her I’ll only be asking her questions about the 1990s during our interview: After all, it’s been 21 long years since the decade ended.
There is of course a reason for this step back in time (to quote another Minogue’s famous song): Dannii’s just been announced as host of the Oldskool 90s Hits station and podcast series The 90s with Dannii Minogue, both available now via the LiSTNR app.
But while she says the 90s whirlwind Top of the Pops appearances, New York recording sessions and Ibiza nightclub gigs are a world away from her typical 2021 routine of “school runs” with son Ethan back in her Melbourne hometown, Dannii’s memories of the decade are still fresh.
Front row at fashion week with Kylie and Prince, meeting and instantly feeling “sorry” for Princess Diana, stripping off for Playboy to pay the bills: Dannii’s got 90s stories.
And she’s embracing the retro fun with her new gig – check the video above of several truly unrecognisable Danniis busting out their best boy band moves to Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).
Let’s start at the beginning: 1990 was the year your debut album came out, and you moved to the UK.
I’d just finished a year on Home And Away, and it was absolutely massive over there. They said, ‘Why don’t you come over? We’d love for you to promote one single.’ I went over there with a suitcase packed, thinking I was going for three weeks, and I came back 22 years later. I think that if I’d known what was coming, I would have been too scared to jump on that train.
It’s a familiar pilgrimage for a young Aussie to move to London – but you were doing it as a pop star.
It was crazy. My sister was already there and she’d been in Neighbours, she’d released a lot of music already … It was absolute hysteria. I came from Australia, where I grew up on TV, and everybody knew me from Young Talent Time, and then I went to London and then I was the girl from Home And Away who’s Kylie’s sister.
And I had a good five years of that: every introduction was, ‘You’re Kylie’s sister.’ Which she used to get back in Australia, when I was on Young Talent Time, so it was a weird flip and reverse. The hardest question was people would always say, “Oh, so you’re doing music now, because your sister does it?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve been singing professionally since I was 10 years old, but great. Cool.’
Did that make it more important to make sure that you crafted your own sound? Was anybody over there saying, ‘Just get in the studio with Stock Aitken Waterman, it worked for Kylie?’
I know Kylie had a pretty hard time even getting into PWL studios – on her first trip over there they kept her waiting in a waiting room for like a week and she almost didn’t record with them.
But my passion … Growing up, I was the biggest fan of Janet Jackson, and you can see in my early videos, I’m just fanning and trying to be the best Janet Jackson that I can be. When I went into Mushroom Records, they knew that I loved more of an R&B jam, and they were sifting through finding songs. One came from a couple of writers in the Bronx, and it was (Dannii’s 1990 debut single) Love and Kisses. They said, ‘Would you like to record this?’
And there was money in music, so I was put on a plane to go to New York to record with them. We just started recording more and more, until it made up an album.
You’ve always been quite aware of the power of a good image change. The This Is It video in 1993 was a big shake-up and a big hit: Suddenly you’re in this day-go beach world.
Well, I’d been living in London, and it was always grey, and drizzly, and cold. And as I say, there was money in the music business back then. So they were like, ‘We were thinking maybe you could shoot this video on a beach somewhere in California.’ And I’m like, “I’m in! Take me there! I’m going to leave this rain for a bit and get on a beach.’ I was just buzzing. I was missing that Australian beach life, and the sunshine, and just soaking in every bit of it. I think the video did capture that really well, because it always takes people back.
Another image and sound change came with the Girl album in 97. All I Wanna Do was the first hit written by Brian Higgins, just before he hit it big with Cher’s Believe.
That album was all about just working with new people – Brian Higgins is one of those. I remember being in the studio, and Brian was saying, “I’ve got this tune. Have a listen to it, see what you think.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. Do you think it’s me? Let’s just record it and see if it sounds any good. I don’t want to mess up your song. It sounds brilliant, I just don’t know if I can fit into it.’’
You look back on those moments now, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I really didn’t know.’ And sometimes with music, you’ve got to go out of your comfort zone. And yeah, it was very pivotal. A lot of great things came from that album. Even though it wasn’t the biggest chart success as an album, it’s very much loved.
You mention chart success – the life of a jobbing pop star must be stressful, when so much hinges on your latest chart position.
Joy and stress in abundance. Amazing moments, like the amount of times I got to perform on Top of the Pops. I ended up even hosting the show years later. That led to Royal Command Performances, and you’re suddenly backstage at the Palladium waiting to meet a very young Princess Diana in a line-up with The Rolling Stones. Nothing prepares you.
What did you say to Diana?
I have no idea. She was very young. She was very nervous. They were her first Royal engagements where she was on her own. And so she was dressed up. I remember looking at her thinking, ‘You look like you dressed up as a woman who’s 80 years old.’ It was really like she’d been styled by the queen’s mother. It wasn’t until after that she found her fashion mojo and changed. She was just the little Princess Diana with the chin down, looking up at you. And I felt sorry for her, because you could feel the nerves.
But there’s no book or manual to being a pop star. There’s so many moments that crop up and you’re like, ‘Don’t really know what to do in this situation. I’m just going to have to make it up as I go along.’ Whereas most other jobs you study for and you plan for. But with pop music anything can happen. I mean, like going in and seeing Alexander McQueen fashion shows, and sitting front row, and next to me is my sister, and then there’s Prince. The three of us the same height, of course.
There is no manual to being a pop star… but you did have Kylie. Did you lean on her for advice on how to navigate the job?
We had to lean on each other, and also our rock is our brother (Brendan). He is a news cameraman, and he’s always there to be the voice of reason, and to really bring it back into perspective. For us, bad days were probably more to do with really being hounded by press. Whereas we would speak to my brother and his day was being in Afghanistan, trying not to step on a landmine. And you go, ‘Okay. That puts it all in perspective.’ I’ve just had my little moan. I’m ready to go back to my amazing job, being dressed up by stylists, and having makeup artists arrive at my home, and performing for royalty.’
A pivotal moment for you came right in the middle of the 90s, posing nude for Playboy in 95. You said afterwards, ‘The pictures looked great, and it paid a few bills’ … But were you as relaxed going into it?
I desperately needed money. I got married very young (Dannii married actor Julian McMahon in 1994, aged 22), and I was supporting both of us. My husband at the time was trying to break into America. I was supporting him in America, me living in London and flying between the two cities. And I just got into debt. I was now divorced, in debt. They said, ‘Do you want to do this shoot?’ And I’m like, ‘My family are loaning me money. I don’t want to be that person. I have to pay them back.’ So for me, it was everything.
My dad didn’t want me to do it. He tried so hard to talk me out of it. He’s like, ‘You have to live with this for the rest of your life. It’s not just about paying off the debt now.’ But I did want to do it.
When the magazine came out, it was like, ‘This is what I wanted it to be.’ And I still look back and they’re beautiful pictures and I’m like, damn, that’s really good I did the shoot when I had that washboard stomach. I really wish I had that again now!
info: Dannii Minogue hosts the Oldskool 90s Hits station and the exclusive podcast series The 90s with Dannii Minogue, both available now via the LiSTNR app.
Originally published as Dannii’s truly unrecognisable makeover