TO a new generation of fans she is Panda from The Masked Singer, the elfin Aussie who beat Charlotte Church’s Mushroom to win ITV’s bonkers guess-who singing contest earlier this year.
But long before she was a star of Saturday night TV, Natalie Imbruglia was the toast of teatime as cutesy Beth in Neighbours, who was beamed into Brits’ living rooms from the age of 17.
Like Kylie, fresh-faced Natalie, who had played beautiful Beth Brennan in the soap, wanted to take the UK by storm.
But her grungy look for her 1997 debut single Torn couldn’t have been more different from her hotpants-clad compatriot.
She said: “I would wear hotpants if I had Kylie’s butt but I’m really kind of shy in that way.
“That’s probably my dad’s fault. When I was younger he’d always say, ‘You’re not wearing that, that skirt’s too short’.”
Soon angsty teenage girls were buying cargo pants from Miss Selfridge and getting their hair cropped just like Natalie’s.
Hairdresser Kerry Warn even declared that her style had eclipsed the current look of the moment, the Rachel, as worn by Jennifer Aniston in the sitcom Friends.
He said: “We’re seeing at least 15 women a day asking for the same haircut as Natalie. Aniston’s Rachel look is dead.
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“The fact that Natalie’s gorgeous anyway certainly helps sell the cut.”
It seemed her hairdo had found success more easily than she had after leaving Neighbours.
At first she struggled to be taken seriously as a singer and said: “There was a lot of stigma attached to being in a soap. I thought I’d blown any chance of making a serious record because I had been in Neighbours.
“I turned down two record deals because they were very poppy. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t want to be manipulated. I may not have had a direction, but I wasn’t stupid.”
So she looked to Kylie — who in the late Eighties had had UK No1 hits with I Should Be So Lucky and Especially For You — and signed with her record label, RCA.
But hits weren’t initially forth-coming and she said: “I didn’t have an income for a long time.
“My profile dropped off and so did my bank balance, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I was forced to struggle, which is a normal, healthy part of growing up. I hadn’t gone through that.”
Before the release of Torn finally launched her pop career, she began dating Friends actor David Schwimmer, and an onlooker who saw them in Beverly Hills said: “He couldn’t keep his hands off her.”
But a year later Natalie was spotted with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and her relationship with David was over — just in time for her to focus on her music career.
Her debut song Torn reached No2 in the UK and sold four million copies worldwide. Her 1998 follow-up, Big Mistake, also reached No2 and won two Brits and an NME award.
But Natalie’s raucous social life was arguably more intriguing than her songs. She was linked to Tory MP Dr Liam Fox — she even thanked him on the sleevenotes of her 1997 debut album Left Of The Middle — but she claimed they were only mates.
A pal of the MP said: “Liam loves it when she visits the Commons. She’s very glamorous and livens things up.”
Dr Fox even suggested Torn as the first single off her album, and Natalie said: “It’s his favourite. It was always the one he wanted to dance to.”
Natalie, now a 47-year-old divorcee, became a regular star in raunchy lads’ mags and reportedly dated a string of famous men, including Robbie Williams, Finley Quaye and, er, Jim Corr from The Corrs.
I would wear hotpants if I had Kylie’s butt but I’m really kind of shy in that way
She even spent a night with wild rocker Lenny Kravitz — which he later denied. A friend said at the time: “They had a great time and get on brilliantly. Natalie spent the night with him and they had a lot of fun.”
She also caught a newly-single Chris Evans’s eye on his Channel 4 show TFI Friday, though relations between them later grew rocky when it emerged that Torn had previously been released by Norwegian singer Trine Rein a year earlier.
DJ Chris quipped: “It shouldn’t be called Torn, it should be called Ripped Off.” Natalie hit back: “I never said I had written it. Elvis Presley never wrote any of his songs.”
In 1999 she met Daniel Johns, 19-year-old frontman with Australian band Silverchair, backstage at a gig.
They began an on-off relationship on either side of the world, before Natalie joined him in Australia to nurse the former anorexic back to health after he lost the ability to walk due to reactive arthritis.
But she claimed it was Daniel who saved her, not the other way round.
She said: “Meeting Daniel helped me sort myself out. I was really down for a while.
“I’m such a perfectionist with my music and I had a massive album to follow up. Now I’m very happy in my relationship.” They married in 2003 in an Aussie beach wedding, with a honeymoon in the Maldives.
But her singing career came to a standstill after the Torn plagiarism row and taking a year off.
She later said: “Torn kind of overshadowed everything around then, initially, at least. I think that’s undeniable.
“I remember there being a bit of a fuss in the papers when it was discovered Torn was a cover.”
Undeterred, she landed a £100,000 deal with L’Oreal before returning to acting in the 2003 Rowan Atkinson film Johnny English. While Natalie’s work commitments kept her in London, Daniel stayed in Sydney, leading to cracks in the relationship.
They divorced in 2008, and although they didn’t speak for a decade, in 2021 Natalie said: “He was the love of my life.”
Even so, soon after their divorce she began to attend posh parties and polo matches, invited by Sir Richard Branson’s son Sam.
It emerged she had been enjoying a friendly flirtation with Prince Harry after he split from on-off girlfriend Chelsy Davy. He even dressed up as a surgeon at Natalie’s 34th birthday party in Kensington, West London in 2009. A source said at the time: “Natalie has met William and Harry before because they have some mutual friends.
“She invited them to the Roof Gardens for her party and she was delighted when Harry turned up. They had a great catch-up.
“Natalie thought Harry’s outfit was hilarious and they spent ages giggling together.”
But Natalie flat-out denied any romance, saying: “Chelsy’s got nothing to worry about. He was at my party, that’s it. I met him for about two seconds.”
But her reputation for liking a younger man followed her all the way to James Corden’s star-studded wedding in 2012. Then 18-year-old Harry Styles reportedly was smitten with the then 37-year-old Natalie.
A guest said: “Everyone was talking about it. They got on like a house on fire and were clearly very into each other.
“The next morning Harry was given a grilling by the other guests. He was overheard telling one he thinks Natalie is an amazing woman.”
But again she flatly denied the fling: “No. Never happened.”
In 2019 Natalie surprised fans when she had baby Max Valentine with a sperm donor and IVF treatment.
She said: “It is hands down the best thing that has ever happened to me. The feeling of unconditional love is very hard to put into words, especially if it’s something you have yearned for for a very long time.”
Last year she released a new album, Firebird, and surprised fans yet again at the start of 2022 by winning The Masked Singer.
Now she is hoping her Nineties star status buys her some street cred. She said: “The Nineties were fantastic.
“It’s really wonderful to think what I lived through and the music that was around at the time, or my music, might have an effect on younger generations.”
And she added: “Does that mean I’m vintage?”