Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is noiselessly tapping at her MacBook. Everything about her is quiet and compact, even the keyboard on her computer doesn’t whisper.
She is wearing a black fitted jacket and trousers. It is low cut and reveals a tiny womanly figure. Her hair is in soft spikes and she is wearing her trademark round glasses. Her skin is fine lined only. It doesn’t sag.
It’s hard to believe she’s nearly 80. She is weirdly ageless. Her face iconic through all these years.
After we meet she will go to open a museum in Liverpool and meet the Queen. Any excitement, just like any suffering, doesn’t seem to resonate within her.
We meet in London because she has been in talks with The Serpentine gallery about her forthcoming exhibition in June. It’s called Smile. It was conceived as a way of connecting people across the world without language, just an image of their smiles.
‘The smile is such an important thing and I actually wrote that we had to do this in nineteen sixty something. It’s taken 50 years. In the last page of my Grapefruit book I asked for people to send in pictures of their smiles. It was a big picture. I thought it might take a while. I visualised it. Sometimes you have to wait…’ she laughs. ‘Even 50 years.’
John Lennon once described his wife as ‘the world’s most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name but no one knows what she actually does.’
This is possibly because he eclipsed her. Or at least John and Yoko the couple eclipsed them both as individuals.
Before they met Yoko Ono was an established avant-garde artist. They met at one of her shows. ‘In a way both John and I ruined our careers by getting together, although we weren’t aware of it at the time.’
She led him away from the mainstream, away from The Beatles, into more experimental layered music, and he led her further into him. Ono has never been a multi-tasker. She enjoys and demands complete focus.
I first met her in her home in the Dakota building. John Lennon’s famous white piano sat in the window. Magritte painting on the wall. And dozens of framed photographs of John and Yoko. Their past still omnipresent.
Ono is a very unusual woman. Her perceptions always have an edge and she’s never afraid to say what she thinks. She told me, ‘I love the way you’ve got one tooth sticking out. Really you wouldn’t be attractive at all without it.’ Somehow I found that amusing and sweet.
She has always had an idea that people could live for as long as they wanted and that soon scientists would make us healthy and disease free and we would choose when we died.
Right now she’s choosing work. After all the years of being half of a famous couple and somehow reviled for that she’s finally made it back to being an artist.
Before the Smile exhibition there was an exhibition in India of women’s bodies, human sculptures. And before that another in Sydney. It seems unusual to be starting again so late in life, but not to her.
‘I want to tell you this story. When I was in elementary school in Japan they had a textbook with a picture of a Japanese warrior who asked to be given seven sufferings and eight disasters because he wanted to take over everybody’s suffering and disasters. It’s a courageous thing to do and I was only a little girl and I thought that sounds good and I wanted to be like him. Do good for the world in the sense of taking everyone’s pain away.
‘I asked for the seven sufferings and my life became terribly difficult. All sorts of misery and sufferings. And when it got to around 1979 I thought what did I do wrong. So I said I’m going to change it. Give me seven lots of luck and eight treasures. My disaster became my treasure. I reversed it.’
Does she mean she did this in 1980 when John died? ‘No. My karma didn’t affect him. John’s death was the worst of everything.
‘I had to work hard to un-curse myself. Don’t you think it’s great that human beings can change luck and direction,’ she says.
We come back to the Smile exhibition. ‘Don’t you think it’s better to smile than to scowl?’ Does she never get angry? ‘Yes, I’m angry every day but I don’t hold on to it because it will make you physically sick. You don’t keep it inside. You don’t blame anybody.’
She didn’t blame Lennon for eclipsing her career. Does she think she had to choose, art or love? ‘Definitely. I was a proud person thinking my work was any good anyway. When I got pregnant I had to concentrate on being pregnant for a whole nine months, even though I knew it was ruining my career at the time.’
When she was pregnant with Sean she had bed rest for most of the pregnancy because she didn’t want to have another miscarriage. She was already 42 and had lost several babies. It was frustrating for her because first and foremost she was an artist. Her art has always been a way to cauterise her emotions and extricate herself from the anger and pain that she didn’t want to carry.
‘John got a wheelchair and he would push me around into the kitchen where there would be lunch. Isn’t that sweet?’
She has a very strong relationship with her son Sean. Is very enthusiastic about his music and his girlfriend. She became pregnant with him just after she and Lennon had got back together after his affair with their assistant May Pang.
‘I was very aware that we were ruining each other’s career and I was hated and John was hated because of me. We did everything together and we did everything publicly together. The Bed In was our work for peace but we weren’t liked for it. How come they are even working together? Many girls were upset with this. They were jealous. It was a very difficult time. How I survived at all was a miracle. I survived by thinking about my art work. That was the most exciting thing. Everybody saw a film called The Pianist. He’s going through torture, and he’s still playing the piano. That’s all he can do, to live in his mind.’
It’s very ironic that they campaigned for world peace when the world was at war with the idea of John and Yoko. ‘Yeh. It is. And that was upsetting. The affair was something that was not hurtful to me. I needed a rest. I needed space. Can you imagine every day of getting this vibration from people of hate? You want to get out of that. Also, we were so close John didn’t even want me to go to the bathroom by myself. I will come with you he would say. And this would be in public places like EMI recording studios.
‘I started to notice that he became a little restless on top of that, so I thought it’s better to give him a rest and me a rest. May Pang was a very intelligent attractive woman and extremely efficient. I thought they’d be okay.’
Didn’t she miss him when she was in New York and he was on the other coast of America in Los Angeles? ‘We missed each other. We were calling each other every day. Some days he would call me three or four times. He lived in LA, but that was fine. I was prepared to lose him, but it was better he came back. I didn’t think I would lose him.’
Does she believe that monogamy is possible in a love relationship? ‘I don’t think so.’ She pauses, always wanting to answer honestly but it’s a long time since she’s been involved with anyone at all. Although she insists she is not lonely. ‘I’m enjoying my freedom now. Men’s attitudes are very different now. When I met John it seemed old fashioned. I’m not the kind of person who’d ever pursue a guy because I was pursuing my work.’
She scrunches her nose up as she talks about men being predators. It’s been several years since she was linked to a man. Around a decade ago she was said to be dating Sam Havadtoy, an antiques dealer. Does she ever get lonely?
‘You can be lonely when you have a guy living with you. I cherish moments of not having a guy around, but my work involves being with people, usually guys. I think I’m very lucky. I’ve got so many things going on all the time.’
It seems unusual that Ono became so inextricably linked with Lennon. She has always been a rebel and fiercely independent. She grew up in a conservative aristocratic family in Tokyo. Her mother’s family were founders of a merchant bank and her father who wanted to be a concert pianist was forced to give up his musical desires to also enter the banking world. He very much wanted his daughter to live out his dream.
She was sent to a school for musically gifted toddlers and learnt to play to performance calibre. She was the first female student to be accepted on the philosophy course at Gakushuin University. She was always the rebel. Her mother told her to never marry and if she did never have children. So as a form of rebellion she married composer Toshi Ichiyanagi.
When the relationship ended she met American jazz musician and art promoter Tony Cox. They married and had a daughter, Kyoko. John and Yoko were not only bad for each other’s careers but their meeting and obsession with each other caused havoc as they were both married to other people.
Tony Cox kidnapped his daughter when she was around seven and Ono didn’t see her again until she was 31. ‘It was very hard. I remembered her as a little girl and I kept buying her small beautiful cashmere sweaters. They piled up in my dressing room until someone said to me do you realise she’s now 26, she’s probably larger than you, why are you keeping those little things? It was terrible. I didn’t know where she was. It was a kidnapping and a very difficult situation. She had so much love for her father who took care of her all that time and he had said very clearly that if she searched me out she would never see him again.
‘She got married and before they were going to have a child the husband said – he’s a very intelligent guy – you have to say hello to your mother before you have the baby because the baby is going to wonder where the grandmother is. So she came.’ Now she has two grandchildren. Is she close to them? ‘In a way,’ she says.
She looks slightly pained, perhaps because her own upbringing was so lacking in love. ‘I adored my mother but it wasn’t reciprocated. She was too busy with her own life. She was a painter. She was searching for something. Her style was very precise. Incredible. She fell in love with my father and it’s the same old story, she resented the children.’
Did your mother get on with your husbands? ‘No. Of course she didn’t like the child kidnapper, although she approved of the first husband. I don’t think she cared about what I did but her pride was hurt when she heard that I had gone off with a working class guy from Liverpool. The family put out a press release in Japan saying we are not proud of Yoko Ono.’ She gasps and the gasp turns into a laugh. ‘Isn’t that amazing.
‘I would be scared if I was involved with a guy these days. Women have become stronger and there’s a backlash. Men have become terribly possessive. I find it much easier to get on with women. Whatever we fall out over I can always forgive women. ‘
She says this with some incredulity. She hasn’t always found it easy to bond with people. Her childhood was privileged but isolated. She didn’t have friends. ‘It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to play with people.’ When she met Lennon, who had also had a lonely childhood where he lived with his Auntie Mimi. They must have connected on this level.
She tells me that being pregnant felt very alien to her. When pregnant with Kyoko she says, ‘It was really difficult for me to adjust to that. I didn’t think it was going to be the last of my career. I didn’t think of it as a sacrifice. I just kept thinking that I had a tumour inside of me.’ She laughs. I laugh. ‘I’m just being honest,’ she says now embarrassed. ‘Now I’m going to be getting flack from people saying I’m destroying motherhood. I’m told some women love being pregnant but I haven’t met any of them.
‘I had miscarriages before my daughter and after. I’ve never had an abortion. I think it was written that I had. ‘My daughter was such a beautiful baby I fell in love with her the minute she was here. Emotionally we are close, at least now we are.’
How did it affect your relationship to have her taken away for so many years? ‘I told myself that at least he loves her. Maybe she was okay with him. I was going through so much prejudice I questioned everything.’ Suddenly she becomes tense and doesn’t want to talk about it any more.
She is not afraid to look right at you. She doesn’t seem to be afraid of much. ‘DNA is a strange thing. Kyoko and Sean’s handwriting is so similar it’s impossible to tell the difference. People say Kyoko looks like me and Sean looks like John.’ Perhaps that’s why she is so close to Sean. It provides a connection.
You can see a thousand thoughts flicking through her brain at once. She processes ideas quickly. She doesn’t like to eat much. ‘Just vegetables that are light on your body. Carbohydrates that are easy to digest.’ It’s as if she doesn’t want to be weighed down by anything whilst she’s thinking.
‘I eat two meals a day that are not heavy. Once I did a 40-day juice fast with John. I felt that gave me strength and my body patience but I didn’t ever do it again.
‘After I had my daughter I just never felt like wanting liquor so I never drank again. I was smoking until ten years ago. But society is so down on smoking everywhere you looked you will get cancer. I thought I would get cancer just by reading that so I thought I had better stop. I am one of those very addictive types, so I don’t want to start it again.’
You don’t imagine Ono as vulnerable or weak in any way. You imagine that she’s wise and controlled. She smiles at that idea.



Celine Dion (Mail Today, November 09, 2013)

I first met Celine Dion on the boiling hot rooftop of Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, just after watching her powerful, emotional stage show, complete with a raging real water storm for the Titanic number My Heart Will Go On.

I have always thought she is an odd mix, a diva who is totally humble. She has never been cool. She told me, ‘I don’t try to be, that’s not me.’ She’s never been edgy. Yet she’s sold over 200 million records worldwide, making her the best selling female artist ever. Her amazing multiple octave voice reaches across far expanses of the world.

When we met the album she played me was beautiful, perfect, but weeks before its release she decided to start again, to try to become the thing that she’d never been – cool.

‘The new album is half full of the songs I sing on stage, but the other half was because I started to be sent a lot of amazing songs, so we kept going to put them on the album.’

The new single, Loved Me Back To Life, is written by Sia, one of the hottest songwriters around. Other songwriters are taken from the cool pool of hitmakers like Ne Yo, Eg White, Tricky Stewart, and Babyface.

‘When all these amazing songs came in my 12-year-old said this is not possible that Sia and Ne Yo are sending you songs. I thought they wrote for Rihanna. They must have made a mistake.’

Her voice is also very different. It’s like a cat’s purr. ‘It’s very dry. Normally my voice would be blended. That’s been the recipe for it all my life, so I decided to modernise.’
These days she looks every inch a proper pop star in glamorous expensive designer slinky gowns. Yet her quirky rural French Canadian accent is still there when she speaks.
She is 44 and seems to have undergone the ageing process in reverse. She started off geeky looking and launched a thousand jokes of “Why the long face, Celine?” But she’s not only grown into her features, she is radiant. Lustrous hair, giant sparkly eyes, creamy skin.
When we are face to face the air conditioning isn’t working and it is 110 degrees outside at midnight and hotter inside. She doesn’t complain.
Maybe it’s happiness that has made her look better as she’s got older? ‘Maybe. I’ve worked hard for nearly 30 years and I feel like only now it’s paying off in terms of happiness. Emotionally I feel stable. So I do feel more beautiful. If I’d had 30 years of career and no children I would not have felt beautiful. I would have felt like I’d accomplished only part of a life.
‘I think motherhood has given me a stability and a strength. It’s given me a different approach to how I feel about myself.
determined not to commit until she was pregnant.
‘I don’t have to do any of this.’ She means performing and recording. ‘I do it because I love to sing. But the only reward that would mean anything to me is my children. There is nothing that can top being a mother. I’m 44 years old. I would like more but I don’t know if it could happen. I want the twins and I to have quality time. It’s selfish to keep wanting more, although I would love a girl. Imagine all the shopping, the jewellery, the shoes, the dresses I could give to her.’

Her twins came with a determination that is super human. Her first son René-Charles, now 11, was also an IVF baby and she had already had embryos frozen for future planning.
‘I did IVF six times one after the other (in 2010).’ Nobody does that. She shrugs. She must have been crazy with screaming hormones. She shrugs again. ‘I don’t know. You might have to ask René (Angélil, her husband) that. I was not over emotional, not even tired.
‘I did five years at Caesars Palace and went half a year around the world on tour, and it was finally time. I thought as long as my health permits me I’m going to go and on until I get pregnant. I told my doctor that unless he thought physically I couldn’t do it, I would go on until someone told me to stop.’
Six IVFs one on top of another are not only physically draining but mentally debilitating. I tell her about a friend of mine who has had four attempts over as many years. When she finally got pregnant she was in denial. She couldn’t believe or invest in the pregnancy because it was too important to her.
Did she suffer from anything like that? ‘No. Tell your friend to have coffee with heavy cream every morning and take it easy. Any pregnancy whether it’s in vitro or not you feel a danger. You have to remain positive and try to relax as much as possible. I always say that the first country my children own is inside of me, so I try to make it a good one and be healthy.’
Dion comes from a huge family. She’s the youngest of 14. She grew up in Charlemagne, Quebec. Her father was a lumberjack and they were extremely poor, but it wasn’t something she noticed. Did she always want to have a big family? ‘I never thought about it at first. I was on stage from being a child and I was busy professionally at twelve. I’d barely had a period.
‘I didn’t think about children in general but when love came into my life and I got married and I had money and success I was like, what’s missing? For a long time I thought that’s the price for me to pay for success. I’m from a big family. I now have a lot of money, I’m not going to be able to have children, you have to pay a price, you can’t have it all.
‘It was quite self-punishing. Then I thought I’m going to try to have it all. I’m going to try very hard, and it happened.’

She had René-Charles when she was 33. Getting pregnant at 42 was obviously going to be even harder. ‘So I had to deal with it. I was going to do whatever it took and of course there was a window of doubt. And I kept that window. I was 95 per cent positive, five per cent doubting. I didn’t want the doctor to call me and say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to work and I would crash.
‘I needed to protect myself a little by saying I already have one child. I can’t make all my life, my spirituality, my strength, my happiness, dependent on the next pregnancy. What about my child now? I would say to him I hope you are going to have a brother or sister and when it didn’t work I told him it didn’t work, we’ll try again.’
How long did all this take? ‘We signed the contract to come back to Vegas and we had to postpone two or three times. If they’d said you want babies, we need a singer, I would have understood. I told René I can’t stop. I have to try and try and try all the way.

‘People stop because it’s very expensive but I kept on going and would only have stopped if I’d been told my health was in danger but I was not going to stop just because I had a contract for singing. I would have hated every song for the rest of my life, so I said try to postpone the Caesars Palace shows because it wasn’t a good enough reason for me not to try for a baby. A life or a contract? I couldn’t live with that.
‘If the doctor had said this is your last try, your health cannot go on any more, but he never said that. I was reacting better to the treatment as we went along.’
Cancelling a Vegas contract would have cost her millions of dollars but she already has millions of dollars. She is reputed to be worth £300 million.

She knew that IVF meant there was a good chance of a multiple pregnancy and when the test was finally positive, ‘I had three babies inside me. It was unbelievable. Every week I would go to the doctor and there would be three heartbeats. The doctor was freaking out because in your forties if you are expecting more than one baby there’s a high risk of Downs Syndrome, and also you’re more at risk from other things like high blood pressure. (You’re also at risk pre-eclampsia).
‘I went for ultra sound every week and saw baby A, baby B and baby C, but one week baby C was not moving. (Baby C had died). It was around three months into the pregnancy. The baby is tiny. It doesn’t even come out. It makes a dry patch on the placenta. That’s the only proof of a baby.
‘My husband and I shed a little tear. Then you reason to yourself that baby has passed, let go for a good reason. It was to give more strength to the other two babies. Who knows what might have gone wrong if three had remained. I didn’t have to make any decisions, any choices, I just focused on my two babies, and they got stronger and bigger. Nobody wants to have a 1lb baby.
‘When my twins were born they were 5lb 10oz and 5lb 4oz. almost 12lb of baby. I gained 60lb in all. That was just belly.
‘I had a C-section. I had one with my first child at the last minute and I was already dilating. That was hard but because it was twins they recommend the C-section and I wanted healthy babies. It wasn’t a fashion choice.
‘We scheduled it carefully. We wanted to wait till the babies were at least 5lb.’ She was 35 weeks pregnant when she gave birth to twins Eddy and Nelson in November 2010. They remained in a neo-natal intensive care unit for several days.
‘They were a little jaundiced at first so we had to stay in the hospital and we had a little bit of blood on their heels for a couple of days, but they were fine, more than fine.
‘We named Nelson after Nelson Mandela. You can’t have one child with the name of a hero and the other Bob the Builder. So I named Eddy after my other hero (Eddy Marnay), who wrote all my French songs for me at the beginning of my career.’ (He also wrote songs for Edith Piaf).

She says the twins now love to dress up and play with her clothes. ‘They have strong and very different personalities but both of them love to wake up first thing in the morning and go to their closet and decide what they will wear.’
Sometimes her Canadian French speaking is difficult to fathom because she speaks with a strange syntax. Sometimes it makes her speech poetic and heartfelt. ‘They told me one day I’d start dreaming in English and then speak it better. It didn’t happen. Although now I’m not sure what language I dream in. I like to sing in French because sometimes I connect better with the words. A table is not a table, it’s a feminine thing. But a chair is a masculine thing. It’s more precise, like Japanese, but Japanese is all about the emphasis.’
She starts singing in Japanese. I’ve no idea what she is saying. But even sat down in a suite at Caesars Palace her voice is astounding and overwhelmingly emotional.
Does she find it hard to juggle being a mother of three and performing every night” Isn’t it difficult to shift the focus?

‘I’m not sure there is a shift of focus. When I’m on stage my kids are with me. When I’m home my head sings songs. I don’t bring them with me because I don’t want to live that showbusiness life. I want to sleep, go home and get into my pjs.’
She has a house nearby. ‘After the last song I change very quickly and do a runner. I’m home at 10 o’clock to be with my babies and I leave at 4 o’clock, so I’m with them as much as possible.

‘In the morning one of my biggest pleasures is to have my kids round me and coffee with heavy cream, no sugar. I hold the cup like it’s a little bird nest. It comforts me. At night I go to bed and my kids are sleeping and I whisper I can’t wait for tomorrow to have my coffee and my kids. It’s the simple pleasures of life that make the most sense.
‘None of my children are good sleepers. My eleven-year-old, my big boy, likes to wait up for me to come home. My twins wake up constantly, but I don’t care. I have lots of help. My sisters and nannies make sure they are fine.’ She smiles in a kind of dreamy gratitude. She is very emotionally available and direct. If something moves her she cries. If she likes you she hugs you. She’s always waving her arms around on stage and off to express how she’s feeling.
‘I can’t believe I did this show for five years and then they wanted me to come back for 70 shows a year. We like to change the show and evolve it in case the same people come back. She likes to please people. She tries hard. She used to try even harder so her face would sometimes appear strained and tight. she dressed in trouser suits a lot, restricted. Now she loves the floaty, the drapey, the soft. Does she feel more sexy? ‘I feel more happy and sure of myself.’

I have read recent rumours that she is pregnant again. ‘No-o-o,’ she says emphatically, and goes into a small diatribe about the internet and she doesn’t even own a computer and assumes that’s where I’ve read it. She does add: ‘We did not really close the whole chapter on children, but right now I don’t have plans. I’m not pregnant. I’ll let you know if I am.’
There’s a wistfulness in her voice. She grew up as part of a huge family and would have liked to have something similar. She’s always claimed that her family were wonderful and loving, yet growing up was torture for her.
The song 17 by Janis Ian is particularly emotionally resonant for her. When she performs it in the show it brought much of the audience to tears because they identified with being ugly and rejected, which she felt at that age. Today she is a glamorous diva, but there is graciousness and humility that exudes from her, probably because she grew up tormented by her looks.
‘It was hard for me. I was not pretty. Going to school was hard for me. I was skinny and my teeth were really bad and we didn’t have the money to fix it with braces. I didn’t have these.’ She gestures to her now perfect formed and perfectly lined up sparkling whites.
‘When you’re the good looking little girl everyone wants to be friends with you and nobody wanted to be friends with me. I’ve never forgotten that. Of course I’ve emotionally grown. I’ve been a girlfriend, a wife, a mother. But when you’re ten years old, teeth right out there that are twisted, it’s cruel. I never wanted to go to school. I wanted to be home all the time because there I knew I was loved and would not be laughed at.
‘I don’t know if it’s normal that at eight you feel this way. I just know I love maturity and I never want to be eight or 25 again.’ Coincidentally at 26 she married Angélil, who was 52. ‘At 44 my life is getting better. Both parents gave me wonderful values of life, a foundation of love and support.
‘As soon as I hit showbusiness my mum was with me all the time. She didn’t trust anybody.’

Angélil became her manager when she was 12 and he was 38. At the time he had a bit of a bad boy reputation. He’d been married twice. ‘My mother didn’t trust him. She wrote to him to take care of me but she stayed with me till I was 18. I learnt a lot by meeting a lot of older people with experience. I would not change any of my journeys.
‘In my early 20s I fell in love with René but we were hiding it from the world because it was impossible to fall in love with a man who had three children and was married twice. It was a no, no, no with my mum.’
She bows her head and for the first time. She looks as if she is talking with difficulty when she remembers this. She shifts in her seat when she says it was deemed ‘inappropriate.’

‘When he first started managing me he was married. I was not involved with him but people imagine things. It was not proper, it was not the right thing to do.’
His marriage had been dissolved by the time she sang for Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988, aged 20. In the euphoria of winning the song contest she kissed him and has said that kiss was one of the greatest moments of her life. They married in 1994.

On the day she discovered she was pregnant with René-Charles her husband was declared in remission from skin cancer. ‘Imagine, we faced life and death in one day.’ She had put her career on hold to care for him through his cancer treatment.
Her love for Angélil is palpable and vice versa. He is now He was sat in front of me during her performance, hung on her every note, warmed to her every word, beamed with pride.
He carries himself with grace and confidence. His son Patrick from his first marriage is part of Celine’s management team and is equally gracious. Angélil was recently in a Quebecois movie called Omert where he played a Montreal mob boss. It topped the box office across Quebec. He got the part because in Canada people think of him as a kind of godfather-like character.
‘Sometimes I treat him as that character. They came to him because they know his personality. He is charismatic and low key. He’s a good poker player. He’s got the look.’

‘Today I feel more beautiful and more strong than I ever have. Next week my mum is coming to the show and then we’ll all move to Florida for a month where my son goes to school. She also has a house in Montreal.
‘I don’t want to be busier than busy. I don’t want my kids to feel I’m not there for them. I’ve wanted them for too long for that. I want to make the most of them. Now the simplest things make me happy. I’ve got a feeling the sky ‘s the limit. I don’t feel I can’t do this any more. I feel like I want to do everything; enjoy time with my children, enjoy the growth of my twins, and I also love to sing.’
She doesn’t just sing to her audience, she gets inside them, communicates joy, pain, everything she’s ever felt. ‘It proves to me that the world is still alive. If I cry it’s because I’m alive.’



Niki Lauda (August 25, 2013)

I am not sure how, or even if, I can look Niki Lauda right in the eye. I am waiting for him in a multi-chandeliered and cream cake heavy hotel suite in his native Vienna. I have just seen the movie Rush. Utterly compelling.
It is based on his story, the danger, rivalry, excitement and brushes with sex and death in the world of 1976 Formula 1 when the sport was so dangerous at the beginning of each race there was a certainty 20 per cent would not make it to the end.
The Ron Howard movie chronicles the impassioned rivalry between Lauda and the first British Formula 1 champion James Hunt. In one vital race at Nürburgring in the 1976 Grand Prix Lauda’s tyres lost grip and his Ferrari caught fire. He was dragged out
‘Another ten seconds and I would have died.’
There followed gruelling operations to remove smoke and debris from his lungs and his face was irreparably burned, he lost half an ear. He refused to give up. Showing spectacular strength and verve he appeared just a couple of months later at a race meeting in Monza with for want of a better description, a new face.
Fellow drivers recoiled in horror and couldn’t look at him. He was shocked and hurt. The damage was horrendous and this was first time he saw the impact on the rest of the world. Even though he’d missed races he was still in the lead.
He enters the room relaxed, jeans, checked shirt. Eyes like pale blue Swarovski crystals, they burn and sparkle. His charisma almost takes my breath away. He sees me looking at him, examining him and gives a slow knowing smile.
He has just seen the movie, which is basically his story – he was a constant companion to writer Peter Morgan and helped him with memories and knowledge of the sport. Apparently Morgan knew nothing about Formula 1 and he tells the story with the passion of its discovery. Undoubtedly his best work.
I look at Lauda’s face. The scars have faded with age. He is now 64. ‘Yes, the wrinkles improved it,’ he says with an almost impossible confidence. He is comfortable with me looking right at his face. In fact he enjoys. He enjoys staring tragedy and disaster in the eye and dealing with it. He enjoys strength. This is a man who has not only learned to live without his face but has enjoyed living despite it.
‘When after the accident I came out into the world and people looked at me they were shocked. It upset me. I thought they were impolite not to hide their negative emotions about my look. When I saw the movie it let me see the story from the other side, from the point of view of other people looking at me. It helped me understand why people were shocked.’
What was it like for him when he first saw the scarring? ‘My then wife fainted when she first saw me, so I knew it could not have been good. I wondered is this really the way I look? As I get older the scars get lost in the lines and well…’ he shrugs to himself, ‘you just get used to it.
‘It took a long time though. I never realised because I accepted the way I looked at the time. I never thought about it, I just kept on going.’
It’s interesting in the age of cosmetic microsurgery where transformations are commonplace that Lauda refused to have any more work done after the initial surgery to keep him alive.
‘I only had to do surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery, it’s boring and expensive and the only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the eye surgery so that my eyes could function and as long as everything functions I don’t care about it.’
You believe him when he says that. He is striking in the way he has very few insecurities. Born to a wealthy Austrian family in Vienna. His parents had expected him to follow into a comfortable life. Lauda wanted none of it. He’d never been afraid of speed and always had a passion for the way things worked.
He peers out from under his ubiquitous red cap that only slightly disguises the fact that half of one ear is missing. ‘You have to accept it. You can’t think how you would be until it happens to you. If a person gets burnt somewhere when you are in that situation you think differently, you think what do I do now, how do I find my own way of handling it and when you’ve found it it doesn’t bother you any more. People who have never been in your situation they can’t imagine what they would do. They just ask themselves why is he like this? Why doesn’t he do something about it?
‘Maybe if they were in my situation they would behave the same way as I did. I was always being offered cosmetic procedures. See this little thing here and he gestures to the side of his face. This was done by Ivo Pitanguy in Brazil. He was the most famous plastic surgeon in the world at the time. He wanted to do everything. He asked me, “Are you nuts? Why wouldn’t you want this?” I just don’t like the look of it.’
He looks up at me, through me, examines my face. ‘You have not had work done. What do you think of the stupid women who get work done all the time?’ I’m not sure. Ask me in ten years.
‘I think it’s bad. If you have something done people can see right away that you’ve had surgery.’
The point of good surgery is that you don’t see. ‘I see it straight away,’ he says as someone who is hyper aware.
‘What about women who have their lips done and have all this shit? (He mimics the trout pout). I hate it because it becomes part of your personality.’
Does he automatically find a woman unattractive if they’ve had any cosmetic surgery? ‘I would hate it. It means they can’t stand whoever they are. I’ve had a lot of incidents in the past where people were wondering how I looked. At least I can say I had an accident. The idea that people would work on themselves, who hadn’t had an accident… I can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bullshit and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.’
There’s no point in telling him many people could never find that strength. When you look at him you don’t see scars you see strength and that strangely makes him really good. His eyes seem to glint even bluer when I tell him this. He says, ‘I’ve learned from my life experience. I think I was much less charismatic before.’
In the movie it shows the young Lauda being very determined, practical and pragmatic. His personality was the opposite of the flamboyant catnip to all women James Hunt.
Actor Daniel Brühl who played him had to have prosthetic teeth. He was known as the rat for his protruding large teeth which strangely you don’t notice at all now.
‘Marlboro was the sponsor. They put The Rat on my visor. A marketing guy thought of it because of my teeth. He wasn’t vain before the accident or diminished by being called The Rat and he wasn’t diminished afterwards. He has never counted on his looks.
His psychological journey to overcoming his brush with death and a face that was so scarred it shocked people, was one that he treated with his usual sportsmanship and pragmatism and got on with it. He didn’t falter. Was he ever afraid?
‘I’ve had lots of positive and negative experiences. I don’t really have any fear.’
Did he ever have fear? ‘I was brought up in a well-educated family here in Austria. I knew how to use a knife and fork. I had a very good and stable personality from a very young age. I don’t know the reason I don’t have fear in me. I’m very secure and always have been. I went through a lot of terrible things, like my accident, which again taught me how to be stronger.’
He retired from Formula One in 1979 but made a comeback in 1982 with McLaren, hanging up his helmet in 1985. Still fascinated with fast and powerful travel he decided to start airline Lauda Air having gained his own commercial pilot’s licence. It did well for a while.
‘Another terrible thing was the airplane that crashed, the Boeing 767.’ The flight crashed in Thailand in 1991 killing all 223 people on board. He talks of it still solemn.
‘I’ve been through a lot and I realise the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. That said, I’ve always been a stable person.’
Is that why he was attracted to Formula 1? You wanted to test that stability. ‘No. Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. This is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.’
He says this recalling the precision not the danger. It was always a mathematical equation for him. ‘I was more technical than the other guys. I didn’t just want to make it go quicker, I wanted to understand the car so I knew exactly how to make it go quicker. I always knew that the car makes me successful. The faster the car the better my chances of winning were, but in those days it was always a fight to stay alive. You had to push to the limit without making any mistakes.’
Much is made of the physical scars that remain from his 1976 crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, but it left his lungs weakened and he was in severe pain. It took him all of his strength to breathe. Was there never a moment where he felt simply grateful to be alive and not need to get back in the car? ‘No, not one moment, because I knew how things go, I knew about the risks. They questioned me, did I want to continue? But I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident. All these years I saw people getting killed right in front of me.’
He was married at the time to Marlene – who passed out when she saw him and went on to have a nervous breakdown. ‘Yes, I remember. I expected her to tell me that everything would be alright but she passed out. It didn’t help at the time. Other than that it didn’t really affect things. We went on to have two sons.’
Did having children change your desire to race, to take those risks? ‘No, I was very focused and continued racing and now I am married again and have twins, a little girl and a little boy.’
He talks of his Max and Mia born in September 2009 with great pride telling me that his wife is away, that he’s been looking after them on his own. Does he think his twins will be racers? ’I hope not. Too early to say. My daughter though is fearless. She climbs everywhere with not a care at all. She is like me. This is actually my first time alone with the kids while my wife is in New York. I’m going to rush home after our meeting because that’s when the nanny will leave and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice experience. Birgit Wetzinger (his second wife) said I would never be able to do it, but it’s all working out.’ He beams.
Birgit, 34, used to work for his budget airline company FlyNiki, also now sold. She was a stewardess. Did he meet her on a plane? ‘I met her at a party and I fell in love with her. It was one of those things where you see someone and you just know. I connected with her right away because of her boots. They were a hippy type, flat boots. The opposite of the high heels that everyone else was wearing at the party. That was my first interest.’
You fell in love with her because of her boots? ‘Yes. Then I found out she was working for me. Long story short I asked her out and that’s where it started. We got married and after eight months Max and Mia came along. She is a Scorpio and I am a Pisces. Scorpios are very difficult to handle,’ he chortles to himself.
In the movie we see that he met his first wife when she hitchhiked a ride. Is that true? ‘Actually I met her at a party but I did drive her somewhere soon after and she did not recognise who I was and she thought I was a tennis player.’
In the movie he picks up hitchhikers and half scares them to death when he is suddenly not the sedate saloon car driver they imagined him to be. They then recognised him by the way he drove.
Is he still in touch with his first wife who he divorced in 1991? ‘Yes, very much so. She is part of our life. We have a house in Ibiza. She lives there. My old family and new family often get together. We went to a restaurant the other say, Marlene, Birgit and myself. She is an outstanding woman. When everyone is happy she is happy. We were joined by Lukas and Mathias (his sons) and their girlfriends. There’s no issue at all. Marlene never wanted to get married. I wanted to as everyone I knew at 28 was married. Later on I said I wanted to divorce and she said “Okay, if you stay who you are and take care of me” – which I do – “I have no problem with this.” We got divorced but we are still friends. Nothing has changed. What is more, Birgit is her friend too. It’s really an outstanding situation thanks to Marlene more than anyone else. She’s a secure, straightforward and warm hearted person with a positive way of thinking.’
The more I sit with him the more I’m impressed by his positive way of thinking, the more I realise what an unusual person he is to make seemingly impossible situations miraculously straightforward.
German actor Daniel Brühl did a very good job of capturing him. ‘He speaks English better than me. He came to Vienna to meet me and studied me for a while. I also took him to the Brazilian Grand Prix a couple of years ago. I like him. I asked him what he found difficult. He said because people know me from television, interviews and talks, they know how you speak so you can’t not get that right. He did a good job.’
Nowadays Lauda lives a little outside of Vienna. ‘Nothing fancy,’ he shrugs. I have a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake.
Does he ever get tempted to speed through suburbia? ‘No, but when I am stopped by the police if I go a little fast I always tell them I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. They either laugh or give me a hard time.’ He laughs now, an easy throaty chuckle.
His relationship with James Hunt is one where he laughed. In the movie they are portrayed as extreme rivals who eventually come together out of mutual respect and become even friends. ‘Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One (Formula Three). We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. When I looked into his eyes I knew exactly what was going on. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move. He was a very solid good driver.’
The movie shows them as very different characters, Lauda very serious and pragmatic, Hunt loving to party, to womanise, to drink.
‘I liked his way of living. I did a little bit of what he did. I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it, I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. We all had lots of girlfriends. I was not as bad as James but we were similar. He was just more extreme, so the movie emphasised this. We never had rivalries over girls. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.’
Does he think that Britain could ever produce another driver like Hunt? ‘No. Today life is different for the racers. They start younger. They do go-karts first. Everything is as safe as possible. The last driver to be killed was Senna 19 years ago, and the improvements were so big since that. Now nothing ever happens. It’s just not the same.’
Does that make it less exciting? ‘Maybe. But Hamilton did well in the race the other day. A little into the race his tyre exploded. He is a very good guy. A great personality.’ Then he gets a little gossipy. Asking me if I’d seen the tabloid headline about Hamilton and Nicole Scherzinger breaking up. He knows her well as he doesn’t often miss a race. ‘I have to as I’m in charge of the Mercedes team and I also commentate for German TV.’
Did he ever love airplanes as much as cars? ‘No. Cars are my profession. Airplanes I use for my own comfort. I’ve been a commercial pilot for many years, so if I want to go to Brazil I would go in my own plane. I go to any races I want on my Global 5000 12-seater airplane which can fly for 12 hours at a time. I never fly commercial.’
Does he miss his own airline? ‘No. I sold it as soon as I started the job I have with Mercedes. (He runs their team). Air Berlin wanted me to sell. It was the right time and the right price, so I did.’ He refuses to say how much he sold it for.
Can I assume that he doesn’t need to work for money any more, just for love? ‘I’ve never worked for money, never raced for money. You cannot do this for the money. You have to first race and if you are successful money comes. This is the way I’ve gone through my life. I did things I liked, and if I did it right money came. Money is not important to me at all. It’s nice when you have it.’
It’s been written that he’s not a very emotional person although I can’t believe that’s true? ‘I am emotional but I don’t show it. I protect myself. I’m always being watched so I cover myself. I cry easily when I see a stupid movie. I don’t know why, but I cry.’
He is very unflamboyant, not like his friend Bernie Ecclestone. Did he go to Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding, said to be one of the most lavish and over the top ever in the history of nuptials? ‘No. There was a race somewhere. But I know him well. It’s not Bernie who is ostentatious. He is the opposite, but the rest of his family. When I’m in London I go for lunch with Bernie a lot.’
Does he stay in touch with Hunt’s family? ‘I’m in touch with his brother, but that’s it.’
What quality does he think he shared with Hunt to make them both not ordinary drivers? ‘In many ways he was my opposite. We both tried to win. It’s sad that he’s not here now sitting with me. He had a rough time. He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.’
I’m not sure if I don’t see a little watering in his eyes just now. He himself has no fear of death. He recently had a kidney transplant. Was that related to his lung damage? ‘Nobody knows. My brother gave me one of his kidneys which lasted for eight years and then I had one donated by Birgit. Unbelievable. She was a perfect match for the kidney. At first I refused to take her kidney. I found it impossible after only eight months of knowing me she wanted to donate an organ, but I felt responsible for her and she kept insisting. It was very hard to find a match. My son would have given me one but he was not a match. Lukas manages a company in Barcelona, and Mathias my other son is in Bali surfing. He raced cars until last years.’
Was he good? ‘He was medium.’
He has another son Christophe from an extra-marital relationship. ‘I have no contact with him. His mother wanted to have him on her own. That was it. He’s now 31 and I respect her wishes. I know him. We just don’t have day to day contact.’ He says this very controlled and matter of factly.
Did Birgit donating you a kidney make you more in love with her? ‘No. I was always in love with her.’
Could anything tempt you back into getting into a car and racing again now? ‘No. I’ve tried every type of car in every possible way. I retired. I came back. I nearly killed myself. I’m not interested any more. Now I behave.’
Fortunately he says this with an extra twinkle in his eye so I know he doesn’t entirely behave.



James Franco (April 14, 2013)

James Franco’s mood can shift from wary to jokey in a heartbeat. This I find particularly charming. As well as his faded grey and white check shirt, distinctive cheekbones and eyes that dart.
He has flown into Los Angeles for the day to talk about his latest movies, Harmony Karin’s Spring Breakers. It is just one of many projects. He has an incredible nine movies in development as an actor or producer. He is also a multimedia artist, a soap star, a Playboy columnist and an author. He has become an eternal student studying for his PhD at Yale while also a teacher to film students at UCLA.
He takes his literary side extremely seriously. His 2011 collection of short stories, Palo Alto, was praised by critics. Palo Alto is the town where he grew up with his maths teacher father and poet/writer mother. He asked her not to read it. It referenced his teenage years where he got into trouble for drinking, shoplifting and graffiti-ing.
He said at the time, ‘I think I was running. I didn’t know how to focus my energy because I was scared of failure.’
Perhaps that is where his tumultuous drive originates. He is still determined not to fail. He excels at performing delinquency and hurt.
His portrayal of James Dean in a 2001 biopic won him a Golden Globe. He seems to enjoy throwing himself entirely into a character.
He ended what he called his ‘young leading man in bad movies phase’ when he enrolled in UCLA in 2006. He’d always regretted dropping out of college to go to acting school, paid for by a job at McDonald’s.
It is quite mesmerising the amount and variation in his work. He was Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk and Peter Parker’s ex-best friend in Spider-Man. Weirdly he played a character called Franco in US daytime soap General Hospital. He was a charming and menacing multimedia artist. He then wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the aesthetic legitimacy of soaps and coordinated a video installation at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles in which Franco examined the implications of Franco playing Franco.
In Spring Breakers he plays Alien, a sometime sweet, sometimes crazy gangster rapper. He is unrecognizable with multiple cornrows and a mouthful of silver teeth. His co-star in the movie, Vanessa Hudgens, told me, ‘I have no idea who James Franco is. I know who Alien is. I don’t know what James Franco is all about as a human being.’
Franco is as method as Daniel Day Lewis. For City By The Sea he played a homeless person. He hung around junkies and street people, poured beer on himself and ‘really stank’ so homeless people would recognise him as homeless.
He hung around with real-life male hookers in New Orleans and paid them by the hour to listen to their stories when he played in Sonny, about a man who was brought up into prostitution by his mother.
He obtained a real pilots licence for his role in Second World Drama flyboys. He spent eight months learning horse riding tricks – somersaulting and leaping from one hors to another in Tristan and Isolde only to find his big battle scene had been cut.
In the US Spring Breakers got an R-certificate, not the dreaded NC-17. You wonder about this because I’ve never seen so many breasts on screen since the ill-fated Showgirls.
Korine, whose credits include the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, is an agent provocateur director. It shows the mythic dimensions of a spring break – boobs jiggling, beer swilling, cocaine sniffing. It’s all shot in anamorphic widescreen and burns and dazes with its fluorescent colours. The character Alien is as far away as Franco can get from academia and his previous career as a matinee idol.
I ask Korine was he surprised at his R rating? There was a sharp intake of breath where he says, ‘Let’s just say it’s very good. It’s actually a secret morality tale.’
Harmony Korine lives in Nashville where he paints until one of the images he creates inspires a movie. He is twelve years sober with a new wife and baby. Of his previous existence he says, ‘I was out of it. Debased. I got to the point where I just decided I’m going to try this other thing,’ he says by way of explaining a movie that’s fuelled with sex and drugs and girls in bikinis and ski masks.
Did Franco draw on any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? ‘He came from a lot of different sources. Harmony (Korine) and I started talking about this movie a year and a half before we shot it. We talked about the character before there was even a script.
‘As an actor I look for things I can relate to, so yes I’ve been to parties and I understand that in a liberated state people just let loose. That’s one of the big reasons people go. It’s an environment where you don’t have rules, so you don’t have to take on the same persona. It’s a phenomenon that’s been going on forever. Even in the past where they had maypole fairs and carnivals.
‘I can relate to Alien in that he’s a teacher, a mentor, albeit a very dark one. He’s a mentor in the ways of the underworld. I am a teacher and I teach students the same ages as the characters in the movie but I try to teach them other things other than how to be criminals.’
It is an impactful movie. Clever. At times you feel like you are drowning in mammary flesh. It’s a non-stop party where lines of cocaine are sniffed from buttocks. Alien, with his braces on his teeth, his crazy cornrow braids is wild and abandoned.
Did he draw any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? He talks very energetically, very enthusiastically. He doesn’t come over as a person who lives on catnaps. But how does he fit it all in, the teaching, the writing, the acting, the preparation. Does he sleep?
‘I sleep on airplanes a lot. I do sleep at night. I do a lot of things but I collaborate with a lot of people so I’m able to work on one project while another is being developed. I never do nothing. People always ask me do I relax? I guess that means sitting on a beach and reading a book or watching television. I do all of that. I don’t know what nothing is. If it means going to a bar and just getting drunk I don’t want to do that. I’m in a fortunate position where my work is the same thing as my passions. So when I’m working I’m happy and I don’t really need a break in the same way that somebody who hates his job might. I work with all my friends and people I love so work is also my social life.’
His production company is called Rabbit Bandini after the struggling would-be writer in the John Fante novels. It’s as if he sees himself as a person who is still struggling.
He once told me that he used to feel an outsider when he was growing up. ‘In high school they don’t pay attention to the arts, so if you’re interested in those things you do feel an outsider. When you surround with people who care about the things you do it’s incredibly invigorating.’ Perhaps that’s why he now likes to surround himself with like-minded people.
Recently he has co-directed a short movie called Interior. Leather Bar. where he plays the leading character called James. It has been called a cruising movie, an exploration of sexual freedom. What is fascinating is the way he juxtaposes the overly gay with the over the top heterosexual – Alien with his love of threeways and he is upcoming as Hugh Hefner, the ultimate heterosexual playboy.
Is it intention to express extremes? ‘I have a lot of different interests and there are a lot of different sides to me and sometimes different sides come out at once.’
It is as if he is constantly looking at himself in a fairground mirror, each time finding a new side, a new route to becoming a potentially great artist, and certainly a prolific one.

Kylie Minogue (June 13, 2010)

At the end of my last meeting with Kylie I walk away with the feeling that I know her. Not just as a result of many interviews over time but because she allowed herself to be known. Something that’s new for her. In the past she didn’t really want people to get her. These days she’s friends with vulnerability; sees its point, its strength even. Before, certainly before cancer, and even coming out of it she didn’t want to be known. That was just too invasive. She was too shy. She is a mass of contradictions she never wanted people knowing her business, yet her business is show. The cancer stripped her, forced her to let people in, in a way that she had not welcomed before, because she’s always been guarded, perfectionist, ambiguous. Comfortable being an equation in people’s heads that was something like Neighbours, I Should Be So Lucky, Michael Hutchence, hot pants, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, cancer, survivor icon = Kylie. She’s always been more comfortable hiding because she carried around longer than anyone else the image of Charlene the mechanic with the frizzy eighties hair. And she’s far too proper a person to ever want to exploit anything that happened to her; be it heartbreak or cancer. She would never do a documentary humiliating a lover like Madonna did, or an interview wearing only fishnets and a bra like Gaga.

Gradually there was a point where she thought, probably not consciously, that it was OK to be herself. I talked to Stuart Price, who was the executive producer on Aphrodite, not released yet, but already the buzz is that it’s her best album yet.

Price worked with Madonna on her Confessions On A Dancefloor album, so he knows his way around the pop diva. “Early on I said this should be 100 per cent you singing about the things that people had a feeling that went on for you in your life that you’ve never spoken about. It’s good to reveal ups and downs on record and what she brought to the studio was a combination of joy, sadness confusion and put it on a record so that you can connect to what she’s been through. Arrogance is not in her dictionary, but she stakes a claim in a way that is captivating and a way which shows that records are a truth serum.”

The record shimmers in Kylieness. When we first meet she smells of Kylieness. Her own perfume Sweet Darling, musky and slinky. Like everything she does she throws herself totally into it. She’d never wear a perfume that bears her name that she doesn’t wear. We are in Blakes Hotel. In exactly the same black lacquer room with orchids and Buddha’s that we met in a year ago. She likes it there. It’s old school stylish, covert.

She’s wearing black skinny jeans, platform suede clogs with a silver flash, a silver top and black tight leather jacket, clear nail polish and make-up made up to look natural. Her eyes a pale sparkling blue. I stare at her face which is much less mannequin shiny. There’s a couple of lines around the eyes and mouth. Her skin doesn’t look like what you’d imagine the skin of a 42-year-old who has cancer but there are not many reference points for that. She’s stopped doing botox. “It gave me a bad rap. Isn’t that the same?” It did seem very unfair that Kylie survived cancer, strove to get back to herself, to look as good as she could, to find only that people complained she didn’t look real.

“It fascinates me that I’m asked so much about it when advertising for face products is forced down our throats. There are some things you can do. Most people have done them. You can have microdermabrasions and micropeels. If these things are going to give you better skin why not.”

The tabloids ran with a line that these days all she used was Pond’s because her grandmother did. Is that your must have regime? “No. I use all different things. I’m always trying different things. I’m quite spoilt because a lot of products are sent to me. In Neighbours they used it to take your make-up off because Pond’s dissolved everything. It takes me back to the smell of your grandma. I have used it because one day recently we were in the States and I ran out of cleanser and somebody had some Pond’s, so I took my make-up off and it had a moisturizing effect. So that’s the story of what’s keeping me youthful.

“My face has gone through a lot of changes. If you look back to before I was ill there was nothing of me. I didn’t realise it at the time but in a way I looked much older than I do now. All of me is just fleshier now, but my face changed. It filled out, it puffed up with the drugs. It’s not puffed now but it was because of the chemotherapy and steroids. Nobody saw me much I was under the radar, but there are pictures of me. I could see from my peripheral vision my cheeks… I’d never noticed my cheeks before, but I could look down and I was like those are my cheeks.

” I tell her I remember the pictures of that time when she looked chic in a headscarf. “I try to keep it up just to lift my spirits if nothing else.” By keeping it up she means appearance, façade, telling the world she was OK even if she wasn’t. Do you feel that because you’ve been stripped bare you had less to lose and was less wary of people and more open? “I think I know what you’re saying… I was pretty much laid bare. I was at the mercy of all those different specialists, doctors, hospitals, other hospitals.

” I Imagine what it must be like if you’ve always been a person who liked to keep a certain control in your life to have nothing. To go to a doctor when you were feeling terribly ill and be told there was nothing wrong with you. To misdiagnose your cancer. To go back and insist that they were wrong and then have other doctors tell you what to do. After that making a documentary where you allow people to see what goes on in your kitchen must seem a whole lot easier. “I didn’t really want to do White Diamond, but Willy (William Baker) kind of got the better of me. But yes, I feel I can deal with that sort of thing now. But that whole getting back on stage and doing the Showgirl homecoming tour?” She wonders now not why she did it, but how she did it. “I can’t afford to be stressed and the more I let go of the better. So you’ve just got to find cruising speed… but I was trying too hard and being way too hard on myself and carry along old baggage.

I still had those layers from where they were in the beginning. Those nagging thoughts; she can’t do this, she can’t do that. I was like I can do it. I’m so stressed by it, but just do it. The point is I’m easier on myself.” I wonder though just how easy she is. Old habits she’s always been a connoisseur of the perfect leopard print, and I haven’t seen those spots changing too much. The album is euphoric. I’ve only listened to it on a computer stream which makes most things sound tinny and awful, but it still sounds great. She smiles when I tell her. Not a trace of smugness in that smile.

“I think the euphoria came when we brought Stuart Price on board. He’s so delightful and I was so relaxed recording with him because we got on like a house on fire. We just did it on the studio mic (not a recording booth). I wasn’t separated in another room. I felt confident with him. He allowed me to shine.” This is something that Kylie always does; compliment other people, express gratitude. It’s more than just politeness, it’s who she is. Price told me he wanted to get “something new that you haven’t heard from her before but at the same time it’s so unmistakably her. “Kylie must have visited the majority of vocal booths in the world and we wanted to break that mould. We recorded it in the control room, speakers up, designated dancing zone.

Kylie is one of the most accomplished singers in pop music. She rarely sings a bum note.” Was she confident working in that pared down way? “I love having the challenge and I loved having Stuart.” While Britain was gripped in the post-election standoff, only one thing could knock politics off the front pages, and that was Kylie’s bum. Wearing hotpants taken at a video shoot for the single All The Lovers She laughs, “I was not expecting to be wearing that kind of outfit ever again. In fact the brief for the video, pardon the pun, was long flowing dresses. But when I got there the director said ‘I think of you and I think hotpants.’ I was thinking everyone’s gone to so much trouble to call in white flowing dresses and I had to wrestle with my feelings about it and then I thought that the long dresses wouldn’t work for this video, so I would go with it, but some paparazzi were outside and that’s how those shots happened. But I survived.” More than survived. It was a celebration.

She looks falteringly and says, “Now it gets written about because I’m in that age group ‘she’s in her forties and she’s still got it.’ I’m suddenly in that age range where you’re spoken about like that, and I’m like shut up because at some point it won’t be.” I recognise this Kylie. The Kylie that’s super hard on herself. That doesn’t think she looks as great as everybody else thinks she does. As gorgeous as she really does. I remember when we met just after she was in remission. She was really hard on herself, coming to terms with her fuller face and noticing changes in her body, feeling grateful to be alive but finding her new body hard to confront because she lost a lot of weight then put on a lot of weight, and for someone who has been pretty much tiny all her life it came as a shock. She’s still tiny, but she notices more that she’s not as tiny as she was. “It has changed a lot and I still have to deal with it.” In what way do you feel it’s changed?

“Well, I’m here and that’s what I have to remember when I start to get down about it. I still take medication, and there’s a lot of women who stop taking the medication because they just can’t stand the side effects. You definitely put on weight.” I tell her again she doesn’t look like she’s gained weight. “But I notice it. Weight was never an issue for me. Before I could just eat anything.” But everyone feels that. Metabolism slows down after a certain age. “Well it does but it’s hard for me to tell what exactly it is because it’s over five years that I’ve been on medication. I have just under a year until I get my five year clear.” And after that you stop taking medication? “After that yeh. When I think back now going on that Homecoming tour I just can’t believe I did that. I get upset thinking about it.” I wonder exactly what she gets upset about.

That she forced herself to do it when she still was feeling unwell, that she wanted to prove that she could do it and it was harder for her than she thought, or because she did it because being on stage makes her feel alive and she wanted to know that she was alive. “That was it. I wanted to know that I could do what I do. Admittedly it was in a different way. We had to put an interval into the show.” She says this as if putting an interval in a show meant she was letting the audience down, making them suffer and a sign of terrible weakness. Lots of artists have intervals in their shows. “Mm,” says Kylie, unconvinced that she wants to be that kind of performer. “I fought against the interval and two nights before opening I realised if the show were to work an interval would be a good idea.” I remind her doing any show at all was an enormous undertaking for someone so recently after treatment. “It was,” she concedes. Will there be a tour for this album? “Next year, yes. At least I’m being positive and thinking at the start of next year I’ll be celebrating. That’s the first big mark.” It’s almost as if her cancer has been talked about so much it’s been sanitised, tabloidised. It’s been triumph over tragedy. But there’s very much a sense it shadows her. She tries in that very Kylie way not to make it a haunting shadow, but a let’s be in the moment sort of shadow. Despite the euphoric mood of the album and the euphoric reactions to it, she seems a little tired. Perhaps it’s the jet lag. Perhaps every time she gets tired she gets worried that it’s more than tiredness. Perhaps it’s the effect of the meds. What exactly are the other side effects of the medication you’re on now? “Not stuff I’d like to share,” she says, although she confirms tiredness is one of them. She doesn’t trade on sympathy, she trades on dance tunes, happy things. She really doesn’t want people to worry about her.

She doesn’t like a fuss. She’s very contained. The opposite of confessional. The opposite of Madonna. Price, who has worked with them both, says they are almost opposite personalities. “Madonna has a lot more of an aggressive and determined approach. Kylie is much more instinctive.” Madonna likes to show off and quote from the Kabbalah. Kylie’s intelligence is much less self-conscious. Kylie says she’s porous, by which she means she takes in other people’s moods and absorbs them. A record company insider who has worked with her for over a decade says, “There’s a lot of humility about the way Kylie operates. She operates with a concern for the people around her. Tours which are always such a difficult thing she manages to create an incredible atmosphere. She is very concerned with making other people feel good.” Has she changed over the years?

“I think she’s the same. She never kicks up a fuss. If she commits to doing something she’ll do it. She manages to be one of the most famous women in the country and very private.” Weirdly in all the time I’ve met Kylie I’ve never heard her moan. Even when all her hair fell out and I suggested she might have been depressed she said, “When you put it in perspective it’s a sign your treatment is doing what it’s supposed to do.” When she broke up from French actor Olivier Martinez she never bitched about him or was bitter. “I’m a fatalist. I always feel that a relationship runs for the duration it’s meant to.” There are some things that Kylie is sensationally chilled about, and others that stress her completely. “I do moan,” she pipes in. “I moan with my PA. We’ve been together over ten years. We have a good old moan together.”

She doesn’t moan with or about her current inamorato, Spanish model Andres Velencoso. They met about 18 months ago at a party for the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, and she says she’s still blessed out with him. “He just left this morning actually. We had take away Spanish last night because I’m very good friend with the Spanish restaurant. I liked it before I met him.” Do you speak Spanish? “No, but I’ve started to understand it a little and I recorded a version of All The Lovers in Spanish. Andres and I were in Spain driving in the car, listening to mixes, and I can’t remember if it was him or myself who said I wonder what this would sound like in Spanish.

So I thought let’s try it and he did a translation for me.” Interesting that she doesn’t remember who it was. It shows that she’s close. “Yes,” she smiles. Is there a lot of separation involved? “We try not to leave it too long between seeing each other. But he’s used to travelling. I’m used to travelling. That’s how the relationship started. It works for me and I think it works for him.” Do you prefer it? “In a way, to have time to do your own thing, to be compartmentalised like that, yes, I think you’re right. When I try to do everything at once, it’s when I have a meltdown.” We discuss the gemininess of the extremes of her personality. Some people call he Kylie, and her close friends call her Min, Min for Minogue or Min for miniature. “Not sure,” says one friend, “but she’s the maxiest min you’re ever going to meet.” “I think there are more than two of me. There’s a committee. The voices in my head have all been so loud I think I’ve said something and discusses for instance when we’re going on tour, but I’ll realise I’ve only discussed it with myself.” I imagine the committee all have different views about her future with Velencoso. Sometimes I imagine it seems relaxed and easy going. I remember one time I met her when she was launching a linen range she seemed intensely in love. She was doing a lot of golf and said she’d taken up cooking. At the time I asked her if she was a piece of her own bed linen what would she be? “The finest linen top sheet. One that goes over you in summer, that just skims you so you are not cold.”

Kylie has a lightness and a non-invasiveness. I wonder about the permanence of her relationship with the Spanish one. I get the impression it’s one of these things that she likes to love in the moment. For his birthday last year she got a blue topaz stone from India where she did a cameo in a Bollywood movie. “I wanted him to have something jewelleryish but not ostentatious. I had some string and I plaited it into a sort of web into which we put the stone. The stone was tiny and I knew it would be lost in the string, but that was the beauty of it. He wore it for a while and then the stone got lost. OK, gone to the universe. Then he kept wearing the string until that finally wore away. So that’s the jewellery I got him. Something precious and something from the kitchen cupboard. Knowing he would lose it and it wasn’t secure was the most beautiful part.” It seems like a metaphor for the relationship. Does she think she will have babies? “I don’t know. I would love to, but…” Her sister Dannii is pregnant. The irony is not lost on her that Dannii is the last person who you’d ever expected to get broody. “She’d say the same thing. Life’s funny isn’t it. She’s blossomed.” Kylie doesn’t know if she can get pregnant, but she’s always wanted to have kids.

“It’s very hard.” I tell her a lot of people who concentrated on their careers feel terrible that they put it off for too long. “Perhaps if you are resolutely sure that that’s not the path you want to go down that’s OK. But if there’s an element of doubt you can’t help but question it. It’s not fun.” I agree. It’s not fun. And what brings you out of that? “Pineapple Dance Studio does it for me,” she laughs. There’s also her ongoing lifelong relationship with busy. “Busy and I are getting on quite well at the moment. We are negotiating how fraught I will become. The committee meeting in my head has looked at the next week and is trying to be relaxed. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I slip into old habits. But I’m not as bad as I used to be.’ Do you find you throw yourself into busy to get away from other things that are not very pleasant and not easy to deal with? “Partly yes, and partly it’s a challenge.

I love what I do and the more I learn the better I am at it. It’s like discovering a certain freedom. “If I didn’t tour again I’d think oh no, I’ve finally just found my stride.” Do you mean that when you’re performing you know who you are? “In the broader sense, yes. I’ll be in the old peoples home trying to do a high kick down the corridor. I felt it at the end of that video shoot. I felt about 1,000. Dancing on those heels. I ached.” Yet she makes everything look effortless. “Yes, I try.” Why is that so important? “I like to make a happy environment. At the end of this video shoot I said thanks to the extras because they’d all been shivering for so long and the second unit director said in 20 years of doing video shoots he’d never seen anyone get on the mic and thank people. And that just astounds me because thanking people is just being a normal, thoughtful person. There are enough difficulties in life.” Don’t you think if you make things look too effortless people aren’t aware of your pain? People take you for granted? “There is that. But that’s a whole other… that’s not a barrier reef, that’s a big deep sea.”

I leave Kylie thinking about the deep sea of unsaid things and the unspoken burdens that she must carry around with her. We meet a week later. She is dressed in gold. Everything seems brighter and more flippant, but she says that’s because my mood has changed and she’s picked up on it. We talk about the importance of having a gay husband and how much she loves Will Baker. “I think the 2.4 family is down the drain these days. Every girl has to have her GBF. In my life it has to work.” Does Baker have to approve of her boyfriend? “Yes, they like each other. We all met on the same day and that helped. Before that I remember when I dated some guy for a little bit and he absolutely bristled and still goes on about it. It’s sweet, I guess.”

Does she think she wants to have a non-gay husband? “Mm. what I might have said before is marriage might not be for me.” I don’t think Kylie sees things that black and white or conclusively. Not living in the moment stresses her out. And she seems flustered by the question. We are in her management offices, which have an assortment of her lilac satin and feather cushions. Everything is very bright and I can see her skin even more clearly, and she seems extremely happy in it. “I think I’m at the point in my life where I’m feeling good within myself.” She agrees she is less guarded, more open, less afraid. “But I think that’s because the perception of me has changed. Not least because I was shown to be susceptible as everyone to a terrible disease and to be human, and perhaps because a certain amount of time has passed and I’m still here.”

It takes a long time to process going through cancer and come out the other end to actually admit it happened to you. I remember talking to her soon after it was announced she was in remission in 2006. She didn’t know how she felt about it. She needed to make an album because she needed to know that she could still sound like her. She needed to make a perfume to know that she could still smell and make a happy smell. But it’s been a long process and many decisions of what to keep in your life because it reinforces who you are and what to let go of.

“I’m prone to anxiety, that’s for sure. But my current motivation is to try and enjoy the moments that are good and address the moments that aren’t good because they colour each other. If you can get a number of moments in a row that are good, that’s a reason to be joyful.” Does she have plans of what she wants for the future? “I’d like to do some more acting. When I did Dr Who I felt taken back to my acting beginnings and in my spiritual home. I like that people feel the spirit in this album and I’d like it to be joyful.”