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A TOUCHINGSUCCESS STORY THE DIVINYLS TURN SEX INTO SALES

The shot on the cover of Divinyls has almost eclipsed the single "I Touch Myself" as the biggest reason to buy the record. It has launched a thousand concert tickets, not to mention the band's career. The shot shows a profile of lead singer Chrissie Amphlett, swathed only in wide-wale fishnet, one hand covering her right nipple, the other snaking into her crotch.

It's a classic pose. The Greeks portrayed Aphrodite that way. Annie Leibovitz pushed the limits of it with the photo of Demi Moore on the cover of the latest Vanity Fair. Predictably, the lead singer of the Divinyls swears that the photo was just an accident.

"I'm very modest," she says, "so the fact that that photo happens to look like the opposite is obviously just a coincidence."

Being a tease is an ugly business, but the Divinyls' Christina Amphlett, rock's latest sex object, is adjusting to the strain. With pouty lips, a more voluptuous shape than Madonna's dancer's frame and the kind of husky, low-octave voice that's made 1-900 numbers rich, Chrissie's got the animal vibes to make blind men see. Once a cultish punk band that played in tiny, half-full clubs, the Divinyls now host theatre-size shows packed with shy guys getting stupid near the stage. The demure object of all these crotch-inspired affections says she doesn't really try to be sexy, it just happens.

"It's just what emanates from me," the singer says over the phone, trying not to laugh. "Creativity, imagination, sensuality--they all live in the same place inside."

Good answer. She's catching on. Welcome to the calculated land of yet another female singer-entertainer who wants to intrigue, entice and make off with your cash. It's the Madonna brand of pop cunning adapted to the purposes of an Australian competitor.

And like the Divine Ms. Ciccone, Amphlett is no bimbo. She's learning exactly how to play it. The object is to tread the infinitely tantalizing line between what's alluring and what's offensive.

The key to pushing those age-old sexual buttons is to be evasive about whether anything was meant to be sexy. That is, until you get to be a star like Madonna. Then you can stop feigning ignorance and begin spouting off about raising issues and shaking up consciousness. Still in the denial stage, Amphlett tries to get convincing with the band's cue-card response to questions about "I Touch Myself."

"There are lots of ways to touch yourself. You can do it in a spiritual way, an emotional way and a physical way."

Anything else?
"Yes, you can do it in a sexual way, too."
You've got to hand it to women like Madonna and Amphlett. Instead of allowing men to market them like pieces of meat, they're controlling when and where their flesh is exposed. Onstage, the place where a lot of that flesh is exposed, Amphlett takes a less imaginative tack than the rocket-brassiered Boy Toy. Following in the wardrobe footsteps of that other Aussie neojuvenile, AC/DC's Angus Young, her trademark stagewear is a prim girl's school jacket and skirt. Underneath, a sprayed-on white blouse is unbuttoned to the mid-cleavage line. Seasoned with just a hint of Elvira, it's every man's angel-whore fantasy with a music score.

Along with songwriting partner and "We have an intellectual relationship" companion Mark McEntee, Amphlett has journeyed deep into Madonna's musical turf with "I Touch Myself." Written in conjunction with American songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, the same two who penned Madonna's "Like a Virgin," "I Touch Myself" explores the m word--what Woody Allen once called "sex with someone I love." Climbing into the top five of Billboard's Hot 100 chart, the song has gotten masses of airplay but no heat from Tipper Gore and her misguided coven. Score one for Amphlett and McEntee.

The video for "I Touch Myself," however, hasn't been so lucky. Shot in a Pasadena, California, convent--the nuns were packed off for a wild weekend at a local hotel--it features a contortionist twisting, turning and, yes, touching herself. The first place to ban it was Australia. Two weeks ago when the members of the band flew to London to lip-synch "I Touch Myself" on the influential BBC pop-music program Top of the Pops, they were informed that the network wouldn't say the title on the air.

It's no big news that the band's music is getting lost in the lust. A combination of Amphlett's words and McEntee's music--the other band members have always been more or less hired hands--the Divinyls' music has evolved from an unfocused mass of post-punk-meets-the-world-series-of-rock cliches to a poppier, more produced sound. On Divinyls they've lost some of their idiosyncracies but gained a bona fide hit. "We've always done rock 'n' roll with a pop edge, only now we're trying to hone it, get more atmosphere in," Amphlett says. "And being from Australia, we'll always be part of the boisterous, rowdy, guitar-oriented tradition of music down there."

The band began "down there" in 1980, when McEntee and Amphlett met right where you might have expected--in church. Just a simple bombshell-in-the-rough from Geelong, Australia (the place where Mad Max was filmed), Amphlett was singing in the choir at the time. A runaway at seventeen, she had just returned from a European adventure that landed her in jail in Barcelona, Spain. The charge? Singing in the street. Subsequently booted out of the choir for getting tangled up in a microphone cord during performance, Amphlett turned from hymns to hard-core and began writing songs with McEntee. When it came time to cook up a name for their new band, the pair went shopping.

"There's no big significance in the name," she says. "We just went out shopping one day and I was being silly, calling everything `divine.' It's as shallow as that." The group's self-produced debut Monkey Grip drew the interest and later the dollars of Chrysalis Records, which signed them in 1983. Of the three records that the Divinyls subsequently made for that label-- Desperate, What a Life, and Temperamental--none made it beyond cult status. Dropped by Chrysalis in 1988, Amphlett and McEntee ditched the rest of the band and headed to Paris, where they lived in Pigalle, the city's red-light district. That experience suggested that including sex in their music might be a good idea. Paris was also where they picked up the vaguely European air they carry with them today.

The demos the pair recorded in Paris impressed Virgin Records honchos enough to offer them a contract. The first fruit of that association is Divinyls.

Now that sex is selling the records and filling the halls, Amphlett says she worries that everyone is too busy watching to listen. It's also the right time to put the crowning touches on her image and open a little distance between Breathless Mahoney and herself.

"I'm part of this band," she says. "And who would want to be Madonna anyway?"

The Divinyls will perform at Hayden Square Amphitheatre on Thursday, July 25. Showtime is 6:30 p.m.

Chrissie's got the animal vibes to make blind men see.

Welcome to the calculated land of yet another female singer-entertainer who wants to intrigue, entice and make off with your cash.

Amphlett has journeyed deep into Madonna's musical turf with "I Touch Myself." "I'm part of this band," she says. "And who would want to be Madonna anyway?

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Robert Baird