It’s hard to imagine Kim Wilde on the front line of a cultural war but, back in 1981, that’s exactly where she found herself.
Still in thrall to punk, the NME and Melody Maker couldn’t work out what to make of this coiffed pop singer – the offspring of decidedly naff 60s pop star Marty Wilde, who happened to be co-writing all of her singles.
Reading those columns now (a Spanish fan site has helpfully archived them), it’s fun to watch writers torturing themselves for the simple sin of enjoying pop music
“How do you feel about it suddenly being hip to like Kim Wilde?” fretted style bible The Face.
Describing her debut album, the NME’s Paul Morley wrote “God knows why I like it,” then tied himself in knots trying to explain the appeal of “the girl next door to the girl next door” before ungraciously asking her, “Do you feel you’re a business toy?”
“I spent a lot of time justifying myself back then,” laughs the singer, still looking glamorous as she sips a coffee in a central London hotel.
“That NME piece was terribly pretentious but it was saying, in a way, ‘OK, I give in. Pop music is here and you’re great at doing it, and we’re going to put you on the cover’.
“So I kind of won that battle.”
Having conquered the music snobs and colonised the music press, Wilde went on to score 20 Top 40 hits, shifting 30 million records and supporting David Bowie and Michael Jackson on tour.
But things fizzled out in the 1990s as younger, hungrier acts replaced her at the top of the charts.
“I’d been in it since I was 20, then I was 36 and everyone, I felt, was doing it a lot better than I was. They had the ambition that I didn’t have any more.
“When Madonna came along, I didn’t feel I could compete, so I said, ‘You know what? You’re best off being who you are, and that’s going to have to be enough.’
“Sometimes it was, and a lot of the time it wasn’t.”
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In 1996, having lost her record deal, Wilde starred in a West End production of Tommy, where she fell in love with, and subsequently married, her co-star Hal Fowler.
Leaving showbusiness behind gave her a tremendous sense of freedom, she says. Then, while raising her kids, Wilde found a second career in horticulture – writing several books on gardening and presenting the BBC series Garden Invaders.
“I was always drawn to plants and nature,” says the star, whose pre-fame job was flower arranging in a garden centre. “It’s very healing, and very therapeutic and inspiring.”
Two chance events resurrected her music career.
In 2002, Nena (of 99 Red Balloons fame) asked Wilde to duet on her single Anyplace, Anytime, Anywhere, which became a huge hit in Holland, Germany and Austria.
Then in 2012, Wilde drunkenly serenaded commuters on her train home from a Magic FM Christmas Party, swaying around the carriage in a pair of comedy antlers.
Filmed by her fellow passengers, the clip went viral. Wilde was mortified, but it turned out the public were laughing with, not at, her giggly, warm-hearted performance.
As the views for the video rose, so did interest in her music. A year later, she released an album of Christmas covers and now she’s following that up with Here Come The Aliens, her first album of original songs since 1995.
Full of glam guitars and shimmering disco synths, it’s a big, fun pop record. A bit cheesy at times, but far from embarrassing – with Stereo Shot and the Billy Idol-inspired Kandy Krush the standout tracks.
But the album gets its title from a lyric in the opening track, 1969 – a Barbarella-style space romp that was inspired by Wilde’s close encounter with a UFO in 2009.
“It was a mind-blowing experience,” says the 57-year-old. “I still get really excited talking about it.”
It all happened the day after Michael Jackson died, shortly after the family experienced a medical emergency of their own.
“I had actually spent the whole evening at A&E with our son,” Wilde recalls. “Swine flu was rife at the time and he’d developed a very high temperature.”
After the fever subsided, everyone returned home and Wilde retired to the garden with a glass of wine.
“Then I looked up in the sky and saw this huge bright light behind a cloud. Brighter than the moon, but similar to the light from the moon.
“I said to my husband and my friend, ‘that’s really odd,’ so we walked down the grass and looked to see if there was any source.
“All of a sudden it moved, very quickly, from about 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock. Then it just did that, back and forth, for several minutes.
“Whenever it moved, something shifted in the air – but it was silent. Absolutely silent.”
Eventually, the UFO shot off, “but I’ve watched lights in the sky ever since,” says Wilde. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about it.”
Wasn’t she nervous about telling people all of this?
“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t,” she says. “A few people looked at me and said, ‘Friday night? Was wine involved?’
“But the week after, the Welwyn and Hatfield Times carried the story of someone else who had actually taken a photograph of a sphere in the sky… And the witness account tallies exactly with my one. So I said to everyone, ‘There you go!'”
Wilde remained calm and peaceful throughout the encounter and, on her album, describes the aliens as benign, singing: “Maybe they’ll save us from the apocalypse.”
“Perhaps that’s completely naïve,” she laughs. “Why wouldn’t they be angry with us and fling us off this beautiful earth that we’re ruining? I can’t deny we haven’t been a terrible disappointment.”
As a keen sci-fi fan (Arrival and ET are her favourite films), Wilde is fully embracing the theme of her new album – from the sleeve’s terrific B-movie artwork, to the stage show for her upcoming tour.
“I’ve got this little wardrobe set up, of fantastic capes and cloaks,” says the singer, who previously bought her outfits at jumble sales.
“We’re going to go a bit sci-fi and we’re going to a bit glam rock. It’ll be sexy and fun and something to put a big smile on people’s faces. I’m really excited about it.”
It feels like she’s regained the ambition that ebbed away in the 90s, I suggest.
“I’ve really got the bit in my teeth,” she agrees. “I’m going to be the performer I never thought I could be.
“I want to surprise myself. Why not? I’m going to be 60 soon and before you know it, I’ll be dancing off this beautiful earth.
“I may as well go out all guns blazing.”
Here Come The Aliens is out now.