Body Language: On Kylie Minogue, Cancer, and Coming Back to Life

Oliver Reeson: "To be diagnosed at 21 is the same as being diagnosed as a celebrity."

When I die I’m gonna meet Kylie Minogue in heaven. We’ll both be dead because metastatic breast cancer got us in the end. I’ll see her in an empty club. Her music will be playing and she will be dancing to her own songs and her attitude will not be sheepish or defiant. She will be dancing to her own music simply because why would she not be. I stand at the edge of the dancefloor.

How do you describe a feeling?
I’ve…. only ever dreamt of this

n n n n n n n n n n n oh-

Queued: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

There’s a dark secret in me
Don’t leave me lost in your arms

Kylie drives a yellow sports car towards a pristine metropolis. Residents are dressed in white athleisurewear. Their movements are robotic and sexual.

I say, “Kylie, I died.”

She says, “Oli, sweetheart, it had to happen.”

I start to dance as well, a sort of smooth shuffle towards her. I say, “It hurt so much to go.”

Kylie’s eyes are shut. Her arms close slowly over the top of her head, like waves crashing.

“But right now you can’t remember it at all.”

I shake my head. I tell her I don’t believe in God and she tells me she’s not God, she’s the princess of pop.

I realise that Kylie has known about death all along. She is trying to tell me. It is terrifying joy. Death—it feels like megapop.

Queued: Come into my world

I need your love
Like night needs morning

            Kylie walks circuits of a Parisian street. Each time she reaches the start, a new copy of her emerges. She glances knowingly at us, undisturbed even as the background becomes ever more populated, ever more chaotic.

I know that I will die from metastatic breast cancer like I know I will wake up in the morning. It’s been five years since I first found the lump and four years since I finished treatment. For most people who have had cancer, you relax after five years. Doctors tell you that statistically you’re out of the danger zone for reoccurrence, but I know that my type of cancer—hormone responsive—tends to come back after five years.

“When I reached my 10-year mark, I burst into tears.” Kylie says. “No one knows the whole story. It’s a lengthy process and it affects everything.” x

“It does,” I say. It affects everything.

Behind us there is a bar but no one serves drinks. In the corner of the bar there’s a man in a loose-fitting shirt, unbuttoned and patterned. He has long brown curls and he watches us silently. At the other end of the club there is a stage and behind the stage deep red velvet curtains hang in soft waves. Harsh downlights make the base of the curtains hazy and brown. The curtains look soaked, like day 6 menstrual blood.

I know that I’ll die from metastatic breast cancer because whenever I read about someone with terminal breast cancer, something in my body instinctively registers it like scanning a barcode, remembering and preparing. Olivia Newton John had breast cancer recur three times since first being diagnosed in 1992. In 2019, she has terminal breast cancer, stage 4.

Queued: Your Disco Needs You

We’re sold on vanity, but that’s so see through
Take your body to the floor, your disco needs you

            Against a cheap 70s discotheque backdrop, Kylie wears a variety of American Halloween store costumes, including Uncle Sam style stars and stripes leggings and a black leather cane. An army of Kylie clones assembles, made distinct from one another by a computer-generated glow.

Above the stage there’s a projector screen. Kylie is on a British talk show sitting next to Olivia Newton John. It’s one of her first interviews in the UK.

“That’s who I wanted to be and then I followed in her footsteps.” Kylie says.x

On screen Olivia Newton John elbows young Kylie, and affects a faux-patronizing, ocker voice: “Keep it up bub, you’ll be right” and they both giggle. Young and humble and charming. They are everything Australia wanted to believe about itself.

Queued: On a night like this

You touch me, I want you
Feels like I’ve always known you

            Monte Carlo. Rutger Hauer tells a group of men in suits “what you find difficult, I find simple.” Outside the meeting, Kylie Minogue steps off a diving board into a serene pool. She surfaces face down in the water. None of the men move.

During the Sydney 2000 Olympic games I was eight years old. My dad was almost selected as the torch bearer representative for the small town he lived in, Middlemount, in central Queensland. In the end, the torch relay didn’t pass through that part of the country. His company bought my parents tickets to the closing ceremony. We went to Sydney for the two weeks of the games. My older cousin’s 21st coincided with the event.

The Sydney 2000 Olympic games were the first time I had an understanding of Australia as a nation that was separate to and part of, a larger world. It was the first time I had a sense of being watched. It seemed like everyone in Sydney was a volunteer for the games. During my cousin’s 21st birthday party, her boyfriend’s sister arrived with two Ugandan track stars who had just finished their events. They came wearing bronze and silver medals. There is a photo of me grinning as they kiss me on each cheek.

The night of the closing ceremony my Aunty made my brothers and I cheese toasted sandwiches and we sat upstairs in her Oatlands home. She said, “do you need anything else because I don’t want to have to go downstairs again while it’s on.” We said we were fine and we watched the ceremony uninterrupted and pointlessly looked for our parents in the crowd.

The closing ceremony was the most exciting thing I had ever seen on television. Drag queens and camp surf lifesavers paraded around the track, next to performances of the agricultural industry that had dictated my childhood, next to Indigenous dance on a scale I had never seen. When the torch flame was picked up by jets and taken out of the stadium we could look out the window of my Aunty’s house and see the fire fly past in the distance.

Nikki Webster, 13 years old, had been selected from two thousand young girls who auditioned for the role of “Hero Girl” in the Sydney Olympic ceremonies. To close the games she sung Under Southern Skies alongside elder Djakapurra Munyarryun, while a choir translated the song through sign language.

As their number closes, Kylie sneaks onto the track in disguise and makes her way onto the central podium. She changes into a showgirl costume and begins to sing ABBA’s Dancing Queen. The audience start chanting rhythmically. Backup dancers surround Kylie, athletic bodies busting out of their tight suits. They wink and grin through jolting dance moves. It is as though we are always just catching them as they’ve flicked hair from their eyes. The Channel 7 commentator says the transition from the innocence of Nikki to the charisma of Kylie is the transformation every little girl dreams about. To grow up into Kylie Minogue from Nikki Webster.

Queued: Spinning Around

And did I forget to mention
That I found a new direction
And it leads back to me, yeah

            Kylie dances on a bar top. Her legs are the focus. They flex and curl as she rolls on the bar. She is wearing the gold lamé hotpants.

Have you heard of the Geminids? They are a meteor shower that pass by around the same time each year, intensifying every time. They light up the sky with streaks of bright orange and white. At their peak you can see a meteor every few seconds. One night, while I was having chemo, the Geminids passed by. I told my dad about it and he said we should go watch.

I played Kylie’s music from my laptop in the dark and watched the same rocks as the year before shoot by, familiar and very far away.

We needed to be somewhere clear, away from the pollution of street lights, with a wide-view of the sky. My brother, my dad, and our dogs walked to one of the university ovals near our house. We lay on our backs as the dogs ran around us and we waited. Soon, my brother got bored. He’s from the Northern Territory and isn’t used to waiting around for a clear view of the sky. He took the dogs home but my dad waited with me. We lay together for a long time in the quiet. He has always been comfortable with silence. We only saw one or two stars, long stripes, disappearing quickly.

Every year the Geminids pass by, it’s the same storm that we turn through. A year after chemo, I returned from a trip to France and I lay in my bed and watched the Geminids, at their peak, through my bedroom window. The friends I made in France loved Kylie Minogue and we had talked about her a lot. I played Kylie’s music from my laptop in the dark and watched the same rocks as the year before shoot by, familiar and very far away.

Queued: All the Lovers

Can’t you see that this is really higher, higher, higher, higher?

            A tall mountain of underwear clad bodies writhes in downtown LA. Couples of all gender configurations embrace and kiss. Kylie is lifted to the summit. Doves circle. She is pushed skyward by free love.

When I finished chemo I went to Europe by myself. I used the savings that hadn’t depleted while I lived at home with my parents. During chemo the only things I did to pass the time were sleeping and drinking ice water and eating peanuts and jelly beans. Chemo was an exhaustion like I have never felt before. The crude goal of chemo is to destroy as many cells in your body as possible without killing you. Every day, as months went by, I felt more intimate with death.

“Some days it was an achievement just to get to the corner store for a coffee.”x

While I was in Paris I met someone I came to love. We read and drew comics and watched movies with subtitles in each other’s language and we drank tea. I think of Paris as the place I came back to life.

“I decided I had to have chemo in Paris. I had to go back and have some semblance of what my life was.” x

Queued: In Your Eyes

I can’t think of a single thing
Other than what a beautiful state I’m in

            A neon studio. Kylie dances, first with a troupe of electric dancers and then on her own. She is wearing a ring that spells her own name across her knuckles.

People say that Kylie is unlucky in love but she always dates young, hot men who adore her. The tabloid narrative is always that they are threatened by her success but when you look at photos of Kylie’s relationships they always seem comfortable and enthralled by her. She didn’t end up with Olivier Martinez but even now she speaks of him so kindly.

“He was always there, helping with the practical stuff and being protective,” Kylie says. “He was incredible.” x

I say, “Kylie—I love that for you.”

In the club where Kylie and I have died, a drag queen named Vanity Von Glow enters the stage. “The idea that she is unlucky in love is just because her relationships don’t end in the mainstream objective of a successful relationship—marriage and children. She has the approach that a lot of gay men have which is about the fun you have along the way, the idea that life is to be loved.”x

I don’t even ask Kylie the question that everyone asks but she answers it anyway. She takes my hands in hers and we pull close and apart and talk about the children we never bore.

“I would have loved them,” she says. “But I just sort of rolled along. I never stopped to think about it.”x

Pop songs are like cancer in that they are characterized by rapid multiplication.

Two other queens join Vanity on stage and they perform a lip sync performance to I Believe In You. Their overdrawn lips and heavy eyelashes are an exaggerated melancholy. They cycle through, each queen having a moment in the centre spotlight. Kylie returns to the thought of children.

“I guess you have those visions of, god, what would my child look like, be it a boy or a girl? What would I see of myself in them? That’s saddening but I’ve thought about it for a long time and I’ve had to face that for a long time” x

Queued: Cowboy Style

The ordinary is surreal,
Peace and terror all in one

Sequins. A cowboy hat at a jaunty angle. A live performance.

On weekends, during chemo, I was waking up early, waking up before my parents even. I would wait to hear the floorboards creak above me and the bathroom door of their ensuite slide open and then I would go upstairs and climb between them in bed and after a little while my dad would go and make breakfast in the kitchen. Mum and I would read the paper or I would ask her questions and try to get her attention. One morning in bed I asked my mum to do this… I guess it was like a nursery rhyme. It was a game we would play when I was a little kid where she would take my hands in hers. I would make a fist and she’d wrap her hands around mind and she would whisper this story about how my hands were the seed down in the cool, dark earth and with sun and rain the seed would sprout into a flower. So this one weekend curled up with my mum in bed I asked her to do this game with me again. My little hands sprouted up through hers and then the game ended but we still held onto each other. I lifted my hand to hers and I realized they were the same. Then, for the first time I thought about the fact that I would never see my hands in someone else. It was the first time I realized what I had lost. A male relative could donate sperm to me. It would be a “Reeson baby.” But I will never see my hands in someone else. I can see my family’s hands but not mine, specifically.

“People tell you you have options. Of course, it’s great there are options. It’s marvelous there are options. But when you’re dealing with all the other stuff and things that you took for granted are taken away from you it’s like, yes, there are options, but…’ x

“You’ve still lost something.”

To be diagnosed at 21 is the same as being diagnosed as a celebrity. Youth and fame have the same expectations. You believe that things will stay perfect for you. You will be afforded the same protection that everyone else in your position has. Then something in the mechanism breaks.

Pop songs are like cancer in that they are characterized by rapid multiplication. They duplicate themselves to the extent that they take on a life separate to your body. They are, at once, borne of your self and separate from your self. Once it breaks free of the container there is no getting it back.

Queued: I Believe in You

I don’t believe that when you die
Your presence isn’t found.

            Kylie wears Dolce & Gabbana and gestures towards us delicately from within a neon sphere, like a disco birdcage.

When I first found the lump, I had stepped out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel and walked through my share house to my bedroom. When I dried myself I felt the lump beneath my areola and I immediately dropped the towel and started shaking. I climbed into my bed and pulled the doona over my wet, naked body. I have cancer. I knew.

I am obsessed with the fact that I have a body though I can never seem to see it accurately. Was Narcissus in love with himself or was he trans?

A year later, when the lump had gotten bigger, I went back to the doctor and they did a biopsy and found cancer cells.

“I was misdiagnosed at first.”x

In the surgeon’s office she told me I needed chemo and radiation and a mastectomy. I was with my parents and we all went silent. I don’t think any of us really spoke properly until we got home. My mum put her hands on the kitchen counter and said, “Gin and tonic?” She made drinks for my dad and me but I couldn’t touch it. I sat in the armchair for a moment and then abruptly, I roared. I bellowed. I said, this is so unfair, this is such bullshit, I have never done anything wrong in my whole life. And my parents rushed over to my armchair and held me and tried to calm me down through their own sobs.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like as a parent… you become… you’re a helpless child again. I felt so bad for everyone around me.” x

I didn’t know how to take care of my parents.

Queued: Wow

You’re such a rush
The rush is never ending

            Another neon club. Kylie has a platinum bob. She dances with silver spacemen and aliens on pointe. She slips between fluorescent tubing.

Kylie whispers to me that she once lost a drag queen lookalike competition as herself.

“I was the least Kylie of all the Kylies,” she says. It is chaplin-esque, this story. “I didn’t know I was going to end up in this gay club on drag night, so I wasn’t in ’full flight’”

I say, “Do you think you were too short to win a drag competition?”

She says, “I was tiny. I was in a little hippie outfit standing next to four robust Kylies. It was quite something”. x

Queued: Slow

Skip a beat and move with my body, yeah
Slow

            Barcelona now. The Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc. Kylie sings to us, turning groggily from side to side and squinting against the sunlight. Around her sunbathing bodies turn on their patches of crumpled towel.

A clip on the club projector shows Kylie’s first televised interview after chemo.

“You seem so sad…” I say.

The journalist asks when it started to sink in. Interview Kylie tells her it’s still sinking in. She says “I’m still—” and gestures to her hands, which are shaking. The journalist doesn’t notice and continues with her question. x—

kylie minogue

I remember that residual fear. The mania of uncertainty. Having energy because treatment is finished but not knowing what to do with it. You’ve lost the person you once were and so the energy feels as though it doesn’t belong to you.

“There were days when I didn’t want to look in the mirror,” Kylie says. “I thought there would be people who wouldn’t want to work with me anymore. Because I didn’t look the way I used to look.” x Kylie starts to cry. “I could never watch myself anyway. It’s like hearing your voice back on an answering machine. It’s not you.” x

It’s hard to think of yourself as separate from the thoughts in your head. To have a body that is representing you that you don’t see. I look in mirrors a lot and it’s not vanity exactly but it is a newfound self-obsession. I am obsessed with the fact that I have a body though I can never seem to see it accurately. Was Narcissus in love with himself or was he trans? Was he a famous person? Trying to work out the difference between what he imagined himself to look like and what other people saw when they looked at him.

Queued: I Should Be So lucky

The girl next door dances through her home. She giggles and smirks. A chalkboard spells out ‘I luv you’.

On screen it is 1996 and Nick Cave introduces Kylie at the Poetry Olympics. She does a reading of the lyrics to I Should Be So Lucky.

In my imagination

There is no hesitation

I should be so lucky

Lucky lucky lucky

I should be so lucky

In love

The audience laughs. Kylie laughs.

“In that moment it was as if I was meeting the girl I’d been trying to get away from. We all said the same thing, let’s do pop but let’s do megapop.” x

The next year Kylie moves to Parlophone and releases her album, Light Years.

Queued: Better the Devil You Know

If you say you love me, oh boy
I can’t ask for more
I’ll come if you should call

            Kylie’s sexual awakening. She runs through the night streets in a transparent raincoat. Spaghetti straps will not stay on her shoulders. She wears an ‘M’ ring (Michael). Mouths rain down.

In 2015 the app Snapchat started releasing filters. You selected different digital masks, and facial recognition software overlayed it on the image of your naked face. One of the filters at this time straightened your jawline and gave you a beard. I became obsessed with looking at it. It felt like the opportunity to see the person I had been avoiding. I kept showing people, look how good I look. With cancer came the realization that pretending I was a woman was more harm than it was worth. If I had had top surgery, would I have needed a mastectomy?

Queued: Get Outta My Way

I’m about to let you see
This is what’ll happen if you ain’t givin’ your girl what she needs

Dance hall. We watch her from above yet again. Framing the floor, dancers’ legs are entwined with the legs of white wooden chair sets.

The moment transition begins is when you realize the version of yourself you have been denying. That is also the appeal of pop. Accepting what your body enjoys, what feels best in your body. There’s the cringe associated with pop that you should be doing something richer, that you should deny instinct and satisfy intellectual reason. When a pop career truly takes off it’s such an ecstatic release. When Kylie released Light Years. When Beyonce released I am Sasha Fierce. When Carly Rae Jepsen released E•MO•TION. It is the epitome of queerness. It is why queerness and pop have long been linked.

 

Rufus Wainwright: “Madonna subverts everything for her own gain. I went to see her London show and it was all so dour and humorless. She surpasses even Joan Crawford in terms of megalomania. Which in itself makes her a kind of dark, gay icon… I love Kylie, she’s the anti-Madonna. Self-knowledge is a truly beautiful thing and Kylie knows herself inside out. She is what she is and there is no attempt to make quasi-intellectual statements to substantiate it. She is the gay shorthand for joy.”

“Madonna’s the Queen of Pop, I’m the princess. I’m quite happy with that.” x

 

Queued: Love at first sight

‘Cause baby, when I heard you (when I heard)
For the first time I knew
We were meant to be as one

            Geometric shapes float through in the sky. Kylie descends an incomplete staircase. Bricks seem to be buffering throughout. She wears K earrings (Kylie). 

A clip of child actor Kylie Minogue appearing on The Sullivans plays at the end of the club. Kylie smiles wanly.

I tell her, “When I look at photos of myself as a baby I want to yell a warning at the same time as I don’t want to scare them. It is hard to know that so much pain is coming for such a little person.”

She says, “They don’t know a bomb is going to be dropped.” x

Queued: Chocolate

In a placeless place would find me
In a heart shape come around me and then
Melt me slowly down

Beige fishnets. Flowing red pleats. Ballet and fans, on pointe.  Kaleidoscopic formations.

For a long time, before cancer, if I was walking home, or on a long car trip, or day dreaming for long enough that my mind idled, I would have this vision of a great force, like a smack, something hitting me. I used to be so sure it meant I was going to die violently. For a long time I thought I knew I was going to die from a car crash or from being shot or stabbed. I never told anyone about it. I never told anyone that when my unconscious released itself it sent me the feeling of my dying. Eventually I could trigger it. If I closed my eyes and squeezed them really hard and forced my brain to go blank I could make the great bang happen.

Now I know that great force was the moment I twisted in my chair and howled until my parents threw themselves on me like they were containing something frightening. Ever since then it’s been like I’m slowly sinking into chocolate and even when life is good I wonder what it will feel like to drown in it.

Queued: Where the Wild Roses Grow

And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist

            She is a calm ghost. Nick Cave rinses his bloodied hands. Roses bloom at the edge of the river.

I realize that the man in the corner of the bar is Michael Hutchence.

“Of course, his was the first funeral I ever went to. He was so many firsts in my life.” x

He’s watching us dance and it’s not strange. He’s just smiling and Kylie is smiling and when she spins and their eyes catch briefly there is a glint in both that matches.

The most captivating image of grief I know is the photo of Kylie Minogue at Michael Hutchence’s funeral.  Her head is tipped back, her eyes are closed, a sheer black veil barely obscures the top half of her face. Her cheeks are red and her collarbones cast shadows down her chest. It’s sadness to the point of erotic.

“If you’re a sensual being, all of your senses need stimulation. He awakened my desire for things in my world.” x

Queued: Confide in Me

And we all have our cross to bear
But in the name of understanding now
Our problems should be shared

            Six graphic title screens, call now. Kylie the commodity.

Before I started testosterone I noticed wrinkles across my forehead and started to panic. I wondered if I was running out of time to change. If I began T would I just become someone old. Would I have missed the opportunity to know myself as the young boy I felt represented me. Would I ever feel complete if I missed the chance to meet him?

I often feel older than people my age. Not in a terms of maturity but rather that I feel as though I don’t have time. I feel that I will die young. What if instead, we could measure age backwards?

Queued: Dancing

When I go out, I wanna go out dancing
Ah ah ah ah, ah ah ah ah

            Kylie line dances with sequined symbols of death. She tunes the hotel television to a station of herself.

I can’t stop thinking about it.

I say, “This is what it feels like to die, but what comes next?”

She says, “I can’t answer that babe.”

In 2001, the year after the Olympics, The “Spirit of Australia” advertisements were released on television. The Qantas children’s choir sung I Still Call Australia home in locations around the world. Aerial camera shots panned to Uluru, London Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. Children in black pants and crisp white shirts sang, in perfect formation in front of iconic images of a sprawling world. I know I will meet Kylie when I die because she is the camera pan around my life, she touches everything that formulates an identity that I claim as my own, that I try to return to as a home.

Queued: In my arms

Do you want it?
Do you need it?
Can you feel it?

            Trapped in a blue recording box, trapped in a yellow dance sphere, trapped in a pink cube.

It scares me to die. I don’t want to leave anyone behind to grieve me.

In the middle of the club I crumple and Kylie Minogue stops dancing. She curls up on the floor next to me and holds me.

How does it feel in my arms?
How does it feel in my arms?

Queued: Breathe

            Fingers unfurling, palm lines come into focus. She is floating, turning over in an orb of light. Limbs push against the glass, flatten. Images of herself overlap and we come to know that she is encased in her own pupil, looking out at us from her own eye.

The pull is in my muscle,
The ache is in my bones,
It’s hard to be alone

Breathe, breathe,
It won’t be long now
It won’t be long now
It won’t be long now

__________________________________

lifted brow

From the latest issue of The Lifted Brow. Used with the permission of The Lifted Brow.

Oliver Reeson
Oliver Reeson
Oliver Reeson is an essayist and screenwriter. They co-created and wrote Homecoming Queens, a web series commissioned by SBS about chronic illness in your 20s.





More Story
On Tracking Your Reading Habits, Setting Goals, and More As our last episode of the year, Reading Women host Kendra Winchester and special guest Amanda Nelson talk about bookish...