Reading The Face magazine in early 1984 I was overwhelmed by a double-page spread entitled The New Glitterati featuring Leigh Bowery photographed in his ‘Paki from outer space’ look. His face was camouflaged in bright Plasticine-blue make-up, his head adorned with a mock leather military cap emblazoned in sequins and badges, while his entire body dripped with jewels, piercing and lots of body glitter. He wore a masterful creation – a bright green velour top with plunging neckline, fitted with this amazing red, asymmetrical zipper. Bowery looked like some exotic fashion god, a contemporary Krishna put through the blender with an extraterrestrial. It was kitsch and outrageous. It was inspirational. Did Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano or Vivienne Westwood design these clothes? Intrigued, I wanted to know more. The writer of the article observed:
One glance at these blinding photographs reveals why designer and jovial poseur Leigh Bowery – 22 years old, Abba addict and unrepentant champion of platform shoes – chose to leave his native Australia and cultivate his own outrageous style on the fringes of London’s club scene. They just didn’t understand him in the outback.1
I sighed … finally, an Australian designer had made it into the pages of this influential style journal. Bowery did more for Australian fashion in two pages than had occurred in the past century … and the best was yet to come.
An extra extrovert, the ultimate spectacle, the fashionable performer, the grand poseur, Bowery communicated through his blatant sexuality, his extreme physical exaggerations, and his outrageous dress codes. Bowery was not simply dressing up; it was his lifestyle and commentary on the mundane, a joke about appearance. His collections or ‘looks’ were based on himself manipulating his body with clothing and make-up. Working outside the comfort zone, he developed a clothing aesthetic that few would dare follow. Original, provocative, evolutionary; Bowery manipulated clothing to totally change one’s appearance, like a form of cosmetic surgery. ‘In an age when pop stars, actors, designers – those who traditionally dictated stylistic trends – are almost indistinguishable in their uniformity and blandness, Leigh Bowery stands out like an erection in a convent.’2
Leigh Bowery’s place in fashion, art and popular culture is seditionary. The fashions he created were not worn on the streets, very rarely seen in daylight, or generated for mass consumption. His dress style hailed from club culture,3 and the concepts of dressing up and masquerade.
Bowery was born in Sunshine – a baby-boomer, semi-industrial suburban sprawl, west of Melbourne – on 26 March 1961.4 He attended Sunshine Primary School and later, Melbourne High School. He passionately wanted to be a fashion designer and studied for two years at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) before becoming disillusioned by the restrictions imposed by formal training. Fuelled by the visual culture of style magazines, Bowery was attracted to London by the new romantic/blitz movement of the early 1980s where fashion, art and music were fused under the glamorous spotlight of the nightclub scene. Pop stars and bands such as David Bowie, Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club influenced style. This was the breeding ground for the most creative, experimental and sexually charged clothing. Clubs were the stage for dressing-up; men and women wearing outlandish garments, big hairstyles and faces plastered with make-up. Gender boundaries were easily challenged in this world and androgynous looks abounded.5 Pretty clothes and special effects like frilly shirts, kilts, lace, satin and make-up were all worn by men – gay or straight – ‘it was almost like a love affair with yourself’.6 In the 1970s David Bowie, especially with his Ziggy Stardust persona, had ‘invented a whole language of art posing, he[‘d] invented the language to express gender confusion’.7 Fantasy and escapism were attractive vehicles to express individuality through clothing, make-up and hair. The key rationale for clubbers was attracting attention and being the centre of attention: dressing up was very competitive.
In 1984 the relaunch of London Fashion Week provided a platform for British designers to show their wares. This event, combined with vibrant street styles and the underground club scene, spawned the most creative and eccentric clothes, making London a potent source for world fashion trends. It nurtured and gained recognition for the fashion designers Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and in recent times, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. However, it was clubs that provided the major venue, market and audience for generating clothing that was beyond one’s wildest dreams/nightmares.
Without working from ‘classics’, referencing the cultures of the world, fashions of previous decades or centuries, emulating a favourite designer or the current pages of French Vogue, Bowery was inspired to create something that bore no resemblance to anything. Early in his career he had begun to despise fashion because it was too restrictive and conservative. Bowery’s looks were incredibly fresh and up-to-the-minute fashionable. Making items over a short period of time, for a special event or club night out, his garments were a spontaneous response to the immediacy of his environment.
I believe that fashion (where all the girls have clear skins, blue eyes, blond blow-waved hair and a size ten figure and where all the men have clear skins, moustaches, short blow-waved hair and masculine physique and appearance) STINKS. I think that firstly individuality is important, and that there should be no main rules for appearance and behaviour. Therefore I want to look as best I can, through my means of individuality and expressiveness.8
Bowery’s costume designs were complex, technically difficult and fantastic. By 1985 they bore no similarity to the catwalk or street styles of London or the rest of the world. Vivienne Westwood initially was a great inspiration to Bowery, particularly her anti-establishment spirit, her distortion of clothing and body forms, and her design mantra that ‘clothing could be subversive’.9 Bowery garments were worn by performers like Boy George, who recalled:
I was dressed like a Jewish bathroom, gold chains, safety-pins, badges and buckles, champagne corks and tassels. The costumes designed by Judy Blame and Leigh Bowery were meant to hide my expanding girth, although it was hard to look thin in an A-line smock with angel-wings jutting out the back.10
In 1985 Bowery evolved from a fashion designer into an aesthetic revolutionary when he became the public face of the nightclub Taboo. The name said it all. Situated in the Maximus discotheque at Leicester Square, the club was originally staged only once a fortnight. Wearing a different outfit every week, Bowery was the main attraction. Some of his kitsch looks included a
short pleated skirt, with a glittery denim, Chanel-style jacket teamed with scab-make-up and a cheap, plastic, souvenir policeman’s hat11 … yellow gingham jacket printed with red spots with matching shirt and face12 … a denim jacket covered with Lady Jayne hair slides and his bald head decorated with dribbled dyed glue. The club’s dress code was ‘dress as though your life depends on it, or don’t bother’.13
The taste for the ridiculous, and his constantly changing looks, ensured that when Bowery entered the club, everyone else looked boring. Taboo was not an exclusively gay club, however, it attracted a large gay following lured by the opportunity to be part of the outrageous fashion scene. The Taboo nightclub symbolised the excesses of the 1980s, looking fantastic was taken to extremes. Unfortunately, it closed after a year due to drug soliciting. Boy George has turned this club phenomenon into the Broadway musical Taboo.14
Without the assistance of the slick, branded imagery associated with major fashion labels and huge marketing budgets, Bowery’s fame and reputation rested solely on being seen. His creations were documented and celebrated in the London style magazines, i-D, The Face and Blitz; his antics were reviewed in the club pages, communicating his visual language. Promoting the fringe, these magazines gave copy and editorial to the young and original, promoting an ideas culture that supported independent design.15 In Melbourne the enclave of independent fashion designers and boutiques situated in Greville and Chapel streets would proudly display the latest edition of The Face or i-D in the shop window, and they were indispensable reading in every hairdressing salon. Many Australians followed Bowery’s career and lifestyle through this source, even the interior of his flat that he shared with Trojan16 was featured – walls covered in Star Trek wallpaper, clumps of plastic flowers decorating the skirting, and UV-lit. Interviewer: ‘Does the interior of your home match the interior of your mind?’ Leigh and Trojan: ‘Yes, it’s an extension of what we wear.’17
Bowery was a great fan of the American film director John Waters whose movies had a profound effect on the development of his dress aesthetic, his humour and body politics. Waters pushed the boundaries of taste, making films with outrageous plots and an offbeat humour merged with an unseemly collage of characters, scenery and costumes. This ‘trash’ aesthetic is best portrayed in the film Pink Flamingos, 1972, about the search for the filthiest person alive, which was Bowery’s favourite movie.18 The principle actor, Harris Glen Milstead, working under the name Divine and affectionately known as the Queen of Sleaze, and a cult figure in his own right, was a cross-dresser. His huge physique was featured wearing figure-hugging gowns or sack dresses. The representation of the ‘fashionable’ unfashionable person was meticulously crafted, with huge, bouffant hairstyles and highly stylised make-up, reminiscent of the Kabuki theatre, accompanying Divine’s extensive wardrobe. This image of alternative, Baltimore glamour was one Bowery chose to follow.
The magnitude of Bowery’s costumes is unforgettable, both in physical scale and psychological effect. The Metropolitan, c. 1988 – christened by Nicola Bowery in reference to its most famous appearance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, at the opening of the Lucian Freud retrospective in 1993 – had been worn by Bowery to various events (figs 1–4,8)19 Like many of his fashioned items, The Metropolitan was a work in progress that would simply be upgraded or reaccessorised to suit the occasion. This dress reads like a masculine ballgown, it is not intended to be drag or transvestite costume. Gender bending was common in the 1980s; the most infamous example was the skirted male suit produced by Jean Paul Gaultier in 1985. It was an attempt to blur the distinctions between male and female dress, however, the translations into mainstream fashion were commercially unsuccessful.20
Forged from a garish floral sateen, The Metropolitan boy’s dress has a square, flat bodice with a right breast pocket and open underarms. The bodice extends into a full-face mask with cut-out holes for the eyes and mouth. The mask was a device Bowery employed to prevent ruining his clothes from greasy make-up stains; in Metropolitan he could apply make-up only to his eyes and lips. Using extensive metreage, the enormous skirt appears to hover, supported by a series of taffeta and tulle petticoats, producing a fashionable silhouette reminiscent of 1950s haute couture. Bowery was serious about the history of fashion and his private library contained many books relating to designers, including the major French couturiers Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior, the pre-eminent role models who practised the very expensive, drop-dead-gorgeous philosophy of French high fashion. Restricted by money, Bowery still participated in fashion’s excesses by relying on inventive detailing and utilising entire bolts of inexpensive fabrics for the production of major works. His selection of ‘tasteless’, out of date, patterned prints purchased from discounted fabric shops defiantly challenged the grand-ballgown tradition. In this case, the floral motifs are enlivened with clusters of blue sequins painstakingly sewn on individually by Nicola Bowery in a mock Dior/Balenciaga style.21
Bowery was a professional dressmaker; he drafted patterns, cut fabric and sewed. His garments were solid constructions, strong enough to survive the rigours of clubbing. When he lived with the corsetiere Mr Pearl, they would purchase second-hand corsets, pull them apart and remake them to learn the exacting construction techniques.22
The Metropolitan is a total disguise, providing an obvious reference to traditions of fancy dress and masquerade,23 a perfect choice for a gallery opening depicting the wearer’s naked portraits! The art world was familiar territory; Bowery visited museums and he avidly collected art books and catalogues. Bowery even played the role of an art exhibit in 1988, performing at Anthony D’Offay’s London gallery wearing a different outrageous, tasteless, memorable look each day. Bowery desperately wanted his artware to be acknowledged by this elite. Nicola Bowery intentionally named this costume The Metropolitan in the hope that it would enter that prestigious collection.
In a rather perverse way, Bowery loved fashion protocols and niceties; wearing gloves, hats, belts and shoes. Gloves were a particular favourite and an expensive item to buy, so he would often steal these to complete his ensemble. Like the leader of a militant fashion army, Bowery walked into the Metropolitan wearing a floral dress with a Kaiser helmet, a pair of khaki camouflage-print gloves, a leather neck-and-waist belt and a pair of candy-pink platform shoes, and literally invaded the space. In all the fashion galas and openings held at the Metropolitan, no one had ever seen anything like this. His entrance would have been either very funny or very frightening. Just like a scene from a John Waters movie, he stole the show. Bowery’s exposure and main recognition in the mainstream art world came through the hauntingly beautiful, naked portraits of him painted by Lucian Freud. With his curvaceous, plump body and luminescent, waxed skin and his un-made-up natural face with pierced cheeks in-filled with clear plastic plugs, this was the Bowery the art-museum world could relate to.
After 1990 Bowery stopped using fancy decorations on his clothing, instead, his work became much more abstract and surreal. During a trip to Japan he had discovered a catalogue of Transformer robots. These sophisticated toys provided a catalyst for Bowery to reconfigure his body and clothing in strange ways: he became a transformer. The Pregnant tutu head, c. 1992, costume is an experiment with scale and form (figs 5-7). Bowery in his performance pieces had already mesmerised his audience with giving birth to Nicola Bowery on stage.24 He was fascinated by the body’s capacity to change shape, and pregnancy was the most obvious example. Bowery’s clothing rituals often involved pain, discomfort and restrictions that produced difficulties with breathing, urinating and mobility. Although not intentionally designed for sadomasochistic pleasures, he applied any device, physical or manufactured, to achieve the masterpieces of his imagination, and this was pleasure enough.
Bowery had already attempted to distort his own body with unorthodox combinations of clothing forms and the deception of make-up. The Pregnant tutu head‘s top has a protruding belly suggesting the silhouette of a pregnant woman and the continuation of the species; it is worn with stretch pants. To continue this exaggerated silhouette and reinforce the symbol of growth, Bowery crafted half-circle, fabric shoes from large pieces of foam rubber covered in brown fabric. The bulbous shoes look ridiculous, like the cartoon models worn by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The headpiece is formed like a large pompom made from tiers of orange tulle frills zipping up the back; the wearer encapsulated in a puff of fabric. A pair of full-length, dark blue gloves complete this ensemble. Bowery’s 1990s clothing is often visually disturbing, as he experimented with costume freakery.
Since his death in 1994,25 Bowery’s contribution to fashion and style culture has begun to be assessed and acknowledged in wider forums beyond style magazines and the club subcultures. Today, the boy from Sunshine is recognised internationally as a major style icon of the twentieth century, he was ‘surely a predictor of fashion!!!!’.26 Phaidon published The Fashion Book in 1998,27 a gigantic tome devoted to the 500 leading designers who had created and inspired world fashion over the past 150 years. Only three Australians made the final cut: Colette Dinnigan, Akira Isogawa and Leigh Bowery. Bowery’s recognition came not from commercial success or as a known fashion brand, but from his creativity and originality, described in the book as ‘part voodoo part clown’. He was indexed as an icon alongside the likes of David Bowie and Johnny Rotten. Bowery was not about setting fashionable trends, however, the influence of his creations is seen in the work of designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, and in the conceptual approach of much contemporary fashion, reinforcing the ‘continuing importance of this experimental dimension of fashion culture’.28
An exhibition of Leigh Bowery’s work was staged in Australia in 1999: Leigh Bowery: Look at Me at the RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, curated by Robert Buckingham and designed by Randal Marsh, included original costumes, videos and photographs. For many Australians this was their primary exposure to Bowery’s work in a local context,29 and certainly, to see actual costumes was provoking. Unexpectedly, these crafted, one-off garments designed for club wear and art performance were neither pretty, fashionable nor utilitarian. Instead, they had the power and capacity to confront issues relating to appearance, sex and politics. For many viewers this experience was a revelation. Bowery’s genre was as provocateur. The National Gallery of Victoria acquired two costumes from this exhibition and it is the only gallery in the world (at the time of writing) to represent his costumes.30 Bowery is finally an official part of Australia’s material culture.
Perhaps the best recognition and understanding of Bowery’s work is the inclusion of The Metropolitan in the inaugural hang at the Ian Potter Centre: NOV Australia, at a gallery devoted to Australian art. ‘Leigh would be ecstatic’ if he knew he was part of a major public collection.31
This article focuses only on aspects of Bowery’s clothing design, in particular, the examination of his work in a broader fashion context, and does not attempt to cover his extensive repertoire, particularly his performance work or collaboration with the Michael Clarke Ballet Troupe.
1 L. White, ‘The new glitterati’, The Face, no. 48, April, 1984, p. 56. For a discussion of influence and role of the style magazine and fashion journalism see C. McDermott, Streetstyle: British Design in the 80s, New York, 1987, pp. 81–88; for an examination of the nature of fashion journalism see A. McRobbie, British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry?, London, 1998, pp. 151–174.
2 A. Sharkey, ‘The undiluted Leigh Bowery’, i-D, no. 42, The Plain English Issue, June 1987, p. 63.
3 ‘Because clubbing and raving are done by a narrow segment of the population after most people go to bed, the scale of the social phenomenon often goes unnoticed.’ S. Thornton, Club Cultures, Cambridge, 1995 p. 14.
4 For a complete account of Bowery’s life, see S. Tilley, The Life and Times of an Icon, London, 1997; and R. Violette (ed.), Leigh Bowery, London, 1998.
5 S. Cole, Don We Now Our Gay Apparel, New York, 2000, p. 158.
6 ibid., p.159.
7 J. Savage, Time Travel, Pop, Media and Sexuality 1976-96, London, 1996, p. 112.
8 Tilley, p. 97.
9 McDermott, p. 26. Vivienne Westwood collaborated with Malcolm McLaren from 1971 to 1983 before embarking on a solo career.
10 B. George with S. Bright, Take It Like a Man, London, 1995, p. 521.
11 Tilley, p. 57.
12 ibid., p.61.
13 ibid., p.53.
14 Music and lyrics by Boy George, based on the story by Mark Davies. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Matt Lucas, Boy George, and most recently, Marilyn, have played the role of Bowery.
15 T. Jones (ed.), Fashion and Style: The Best from 20 Years of i-D, Koln, 2001.
16 Pseudonym used by Gary Barnes, 1966–86, who described himself as an ‘artist and prostitute’. Encouraged by Bowery, he painted confronting works in a Daliesque/naive style. They lived together for several years, Bowery dressing him in his latest fashion designs.
17 F. Russell-Powell, ‘Penthouse’. i-D, The Inside Out Issue, no.19, October 1984, p. 8.
18 Nicola Bowery, discussion with the author, 23 May 2002.
19 N. Bowery, discussion, 17 July 2002. The Metropolitan was purchased from Bowery’s widow, Nicola Bowery. She generously donated Pregnant tutu head to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1999.
20 S. Mower, ‘Gaultier’, Arena, London, July/August 1987, p.85. Gaultier produced only 3000 suits worldwide.
21 N. Bowery, discussion, 23 May 2002.
22 N. Bowery, discussion.
23 See A. Ribeiro. ‘Fantasy and fancy dress’, Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe, New Haven, 2002, pp. 245–282. The custom of masking or disguise goes back to antiquity. ‘The masquerade provided opportunities for role-playing and subversion of propriety in defiance of the conventions of society’ Ibid., p. 245.
24 For photographs relating to Leigh Bowery’s performances, from Wigstock to his pop group Minty, and his performances with the Michael Clarke Ballet Troupe, see Violette.
25 ‘The fabulous Leigh Bowery passed away on New Year’s Eve, 1994, and London lost another mirror ball. No one knew Leigh had Aids because he didn’t want them to. He said, “I want to be remembered as a person with ideas, not Aids.”’ George with Bright, p. 566.
26 Walter Von Beirendonck, letter to the author, 14 June 2002.
27 The Fashion Book, London, 1998. See Leigh Bowery entry, p.70; Colette Dinnigan, p. 135; Akira Isogawa, p.225.
28 D. Gilbert, ‘Urban outfitting’, in Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis, eds S. Bruzzi & P. Gibson, London, 2001, p. 9.
29 In 1987 Bowery performed with the Michael Clarke Ballet Troupe at the Melbourne Town Hall, horrifying his parents and most of the audience with his obscene acts.
“I will always remember the moment when a pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy turned up at the door of The Cha Cha Club wearing a rather hideous blue velvet cape. He told me his name was Leigh Bowery, followed by, “Graham sent me to you.” It was late October 1981.
My friend Graham Parnham had met Leigh at Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World earlier that month. Leigh didn’t know anybody on the club scene in London so Graham had sent him along to my club telling him that I would look after him. “You’ll like him.” Graham had told me, “. . . he’s Australian and a bit bonkers.” Graham was right. I liked him immediately.
Leigh had a generous spirit and sharp wit, was extremely polite and charming. I told him I’d be glad to let him in to the club so long as he promised me that he would never wear that velvet cape again. We laughed, the first of many laughs that we were to have.
It would be two or three years before Leigh started creating looks and dressing in his extraordinary and very outrageous style. Back in 1982 and 83 he wanted to be a fashion designer and would create 1940s inspired pyjama suits for me, Trojan and himself.
He’d make me dresses to wear to the club, shrewdly knowing that they would be photographed aplenty. He’d hand write labels with indelible laundry marker and stitch them into his creations. I would look forward to the Tuesday afternoons when Leigh would arrive with something new to wear out that night.
The world quite rightly remembers Leigh Bowery as the brilliant and unique performance artist that he became. Though we remained friends throughout his life, for me there is a sweetness to remembering our close friendship of those early years and the extraordinary evolution of the pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy in the hideous blue velvet cape.
We lost Graham to AIDS in the spring of 1994.
We lost Leigh the same year, on New Year’s Eve.”
— by Scarlett Cannon
Sex, sin and sausages: the debauched brilliance of Leigh Bowery
His shocking shows – featuring births, enemas and vomiting – thrilled and appalled. Two decades after his death, why is the influence of this 80s nightclub legend still so pervasive?
e was painted naked and sprawling by Lucian Freud. He “gave birth” to his own wife on stage, using sausages as an umbilical cord. And he was the star turn in Taboo, perhaps the most debauched nightclub Britain has ever seen, hosting the revelry with his face painted blue, his nose and nipples pierced and his outfit as intimidatingly outlandish as possible. But there was much more to Leigh Bowery than sheer outrageousness – and his range, daring and influence are now starting to be appreciated by a new generation.
Perhaps the most prominent sign of this reappraisal comes from Australian choreographer Andy Howitt, who is bringing Sunshine Boy, a new show about the nightlife legend, to the Edinburgh fringe this summer. “I was at the National Gallery in Melbourne and there was a big sculpture that said, ‘By Leigh Bowery from Sunshine’,” he says. “I was like, ‘That can’t be the Leigh Bowery from the 80s dance scene.’ It sparked me on a journey to find out about the man.”
Bowery did indeed hail from Sunshine, a suburb of Melbourne with around 10,000 inhabitants. Howitt visited it and spoke to his family, as well as to those in London who had known him. “You have to remember his backstory,” says Howitt. “He only lived in London for 14 years. He sold up shop at 19 or 20 and went straight there and became the icon.” Howitt fed his findings into Sunshine Boy, telling the story of Bowery’s life through dance, spoken word passages, music and, naturally, those showstopping costumes. Howitt’s performance ranges from his childhood to the Taboo years and then to his death from Aids in 1994 at the age of 33.
.Umbilical sausages … Leigh Bowery ‘giving birth’ to his wife. Photograph: James Hill/Rex
As Sunshine Boy suggests, Bowery remains a larger-than-life persona in underground culture, even 24 years after his death. What made him so different from the other 80s club kids? Partly his looks, which still seem strikingly original. As the impresario of Taboo, he wore a different, jaw-dropping outfit every week. There was the shiny PVC mask and matching catsuit, with one larger leg as if in plaster. There was the polka dot suit worn with polka dot face. There were the lightbulbs he’d wear on either side of his face, the coloured drips that would cover his bald head, the merkin he’d place over his genitals. And then there was his wife, Nicola Bateman, worn naked and strapped upside-down to his chest. (Although Bowery described himself as gay, he married his longtime companion and sometime lover Bateman seven months before his death.)
But Bowery’s creativity was not confined to clubs. He worked with the dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, creating costumes and co-starring in his performances. He appeared in the windows of the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, wearing a different outfit each day of the week. He fronted a band, Minty, and – perhaps most famously – modelled nude several times for Freud. On the back of the Freud connection, Bowery hit the mainstream from various directions. He appeared in a commercial for Pepe Jeans and guested on The Clothes Show on BBC One, taking tea in Harrods dressed in a succession of astonishing get-ups to the soundtrack of his hero, drag star Divine.
Bowery also engaged in more conventional creative work. He was an art director on the 1991 video for Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, a stylist for Rifat Özbek, a costume designer for Culture Club (Boy George would co-write and star in a successful musical about Bowery). His career resists categorisation. Asked what he most deplored in others by the Guardian in 1993, Bowery replied: “The urge to categorise: if you label me, you negate me.” Perhaps Boy George came up with the most accurate description when he described Bowery as “modern art on legs”. He turned himself, his body and his image into an art object, one that walked among us as well as appeared on stages and in the windows of galleries.
“People are always telling me about the time they saw him,” says Sue Tilley, Bowery’s friend and the author of Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon. “It was probably only once, but he made such an impact they have never forgotten it.” DJ Princess Julia met Bowery in the early 80s, both part of a crowd that included the artist Cerith Wyn Evans, Boy George, Clark, and Bowery’s friend and frequent co-star Trojan. Julia says Bowery, who started off working at Burger King to make ends meet, quickly became a fixture on the scene: “He was very influential because he was very inventive. He was always coming up with ideas.”
His looks, she says, were often inspired by what was happening in wider society. “The dot face, for example, was a comment on Kaposi’s sarcoma” – the cancer which caused the facial lesions that struck many Aids sufferers in the 80s. “His work was about things like body image or illnesses – and those things haven’t gone away. It confronts you and frightens you and makes you think. It’s very disruptive, to use a word of the moment.”
There is a clear line from Bowery to the performers and punters exploring extreme looks today. Glyn Fussell is the founder of Sink the Pink, a playground for the artistic side of drag culture. He says that while the twentysomethings who come to the London club probably haven’t heard of Bowery, his influence is present. “You see it fashion, you see it in the underground, you see it in mainstream culture, in RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
It is in fashion that Bowery’s influence is most explicit. Rick Owens’ “human backpack” collection in 2015 was a tribute to Bowery carrying Bateman like a papoose. Menswear designer Charles Jeffrey runs a club called Loverboy that stage shows verging on performance art, much like Bowery. And, with his floral gowns and matching face masks, Richard Quinn, the young London designer who had the Queen in attendance at his February show, has clearly been inspired by Bowery.
For Gareth Pugh, Bowery is a consistent reference. The designer first learned about him in Fergus Greer’s 2002 book Leigh Bowery Looks: “If you go into any suburban art college you’ll always find that book in the fashion section.” Bowery is inspirational, he believes, becausehe “ created his own language. That’s the golden fleece for any fashion designer: to find something they can be known for 30 years down the line – and for it to be so iconic.”
Of course, some elements of Bowery’s work haven’t aged so well, driven by his relentless desire to shock. One of his most infamous looks was called “Pakis from Outer Space”, inspired by the Asian communities near where Bowery lived in the East End and involving blue faces, bindis and nose rings. He made blouses out of material bearing swastikas, used rags stolen from Jewish artist Freud’s studio to make an image of Hitler and appeared, naked, in makeup similar to blackface, for a Minty publicity photo.
This preoccupation with the extreme offended plenty of people. Clark stopped working with Bowery when he insisted on wearing a costume with “a cunt” written on it. Minty saw their residency at the Soho club Freedom cut short because of a show that involved Bowery “vomiting” vegetable soup into Bateman’s mouth.
Perhaps Bowery’s work was radical satire, all part of a life lived without taboos. Shocking people – and perhaps waking them up – was the ultimate aim. Speaking about a show at an Aids benefit, in which he had an enema on stage that sprayed the front row, he said: “I was quite pleased with the hostile reaction. If I have to ask, ‘Is this idea too sick?’ I know I am on the right track.”
“The idea,” says Pugh, “of wilfully doing things that get a rise out of people. He had this idea of something that is bereft of control, for good or for bad.”
“I don’t think he was setting out with a racist heart,” says Fussell. “He was challenging the status quo. It was about challenging what he was seeing on the streets and making it hyper-realised.”
Howitt’s 40-minute show will cover Bowery’s triumphs, disasters and premature death. Bowery found out he was HIV positive in 1988 and died six years later, not long before combination therapies greatly prolonged the lives of those with the disease. “A lot of people say that if he had survived another month, he would have been OK,” says Howitt.
Tilley often finds herself wondering what Bowery might have achieved had he lived longer. “He had a lot of irons in the fire, but he died before anything properly happened,” she says. Bowery may, she muses, have gone “down the path of reality television”. After all, she concludes: “He would have been brilliant on Big Brother.”
‘Nothing Was Ever Out of Bounds’: Leigh Bowery’s Friends Remember the Legendary Performance Art Provocateur 25 Years After His Death
Cerith Wyn Evans, Baillie Walsh, and Lou Stoppard reminisce about their late friend.
Artist Cerith Wyn Evans and director Baillie Walsh met Leigh Bowery on the London club scene. To both, he became a collaborator and a close friend—a subject to film, a designer to call on for incredible garments, an artist to admire, a conspirator to talk with for endless hours on the phone. Sometimes he helped them, sometimes they helped him. Always, they recall, he pushed them—not necessarily forward, that would be too expected, but in a new, uncertain direction that was wide, warped, strange, sweeping, and beyond anything they’d planned. Walsh’s collaborations with Bowery include the music video to accompany Boy George’s 1991 song “Generations of Love,” Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Symphony” video from 1991, as well as “Unstitched” from 1990, which shows Bowery having his cheeks pierced and was regularly screened as a backdrop to Bowery’s performances. Wyn Evans’s works with Bowery include the early filmsEpiphany, from 1984, andDegrees of Blindness, from 1988. Here, they reflect on their late friend with Lou Stoppard.
Cerith Wyn Evans: Baillie, do you remember he had a tattoo on his inner lip that read “mum?” It was facing inwards so that only his teeth or throat would read “mum.” I told him, If he pulled his lip down, to everyone else it read “wuw.” He said, “Yer – wooo!”
Baillie Walsh: I’ve never talked about Leigh before. It was all too close at the time.
CWE: For a while, it felt like there was a load of people who wanted a bit of it all. When someone died and there was too much attention or discussion, Leigh used to say, “Oh, they just want another slice of death pie, so they can look like they have been a part of something.” And knowing what we do know, that he was living and dealing with HIV, those comments mean more.
BW: My relationship with Leigh was private, special, and personal. I didn’t want it to be public property. But now, 20 years have passed—longer, 23 years—I don’t get the same feeling. It’s nice to see how much I remember, together with Cerith, we can see if we can wheedle out some memories—and some laughs hopefully as Leigh was a-laugh-a-minute. I would like to remember more. What I loved about him was how he’d just turned everything on its head. He made you think in a different way. The idea of “fitting in” was abhorrent to him. I want to remember that. I often try to think in the way that Leigh pushed me to, and it’s nice to have a refresher course.
Lou Stoppard: One thing written a lot about Leigh Bowery is that his whole life was a performance, a work of art. Would you agree with that, having known him more intimately?
CWE: Well, it’s yes and no. I always thought he was much more extreme in mufti, or daywear, than he was in the outfits that he wore at night.
BW: That was much more disturbing, I agree. He looked like a child molester.
CWE: There was a vulnerable side to him, which you saw if you were a close friend. He tended to keep his friends apart; he didn’t like the idea of us talking about him. We had to be kept compartmentalized.
BW: He did love to cause trouble. He loved making stories up. He loved to lie. He would tell you someone had died. He once told me that Brad Branson was dead—he is now dead, so I can tell this story. He told me he was dead because Brad had slept with my boyfriend, John Maybury, so he thought I’d like to hear that. He told it to everybody.
CWE: He absolutely adored lying. I remember him telling me a story about Les Child, who was a dancer with the Michael Clark Company, how he was going through hard times—the company had got dissolved, or was on a break, or something like that. He said, “Oh poor Les. He’s making sandwiches in a gay sauna in Soho.” And I said, “Oh you bitch.” I was laughing. It was obviously a total lie. But then two months later, I ran into Les in the street who said, “I’ve taken to making sandwiches in a gay sauna in Soho. I’ll spring back.” It was true! So you never knew.
BW: Leigh loved to muddy the waters. You never knew what was true and what wasn’t.
LS: Can you both recall when you first met him?
BW: I can remember my first vision of Leigh. It was him and Trojan in Heaven nightclub in the “Pakis from Outer Space” blue look. Apart from the look, they seemed very shy and almost demure. It wasn’t an immediate friendship. It took time. Really, I got to know Leigh properly because I started working with him. I took him to Italy to be in a fashion show—and it was that thing of going away with people and becoming friends, him, Big Sue. He made papier-mâché head masks of himself with the drip look he used to do. So, he had 30 models come out as him. It was for a company called Calugi e Giannelli—really tacky, but we’d do anything for a fee in those days, and it meant going away with a crowd. It was over times like that that I got to know him as him.
CWE: I met him around the same time at The Bell, a gay club in King’s Cross. We used to go on a Sunday night. I nearly fell over because Leigh and Trojan walked in, and Trojan was dressed as Sheba with really intense turquoise hands and face. That look—”Pakis from Outer Space”—was like Leigh’s collection at the time. I was a student at the Royal College, it would have been around 1983. I thought: “I’ve got to do something with these people, I wonder if they’ll be in a film.” I went up to them: “Oh hello, I’m a film student at the Royal College, would you ever consider making a film?” They said, “Yes all right then. We’re going to be in a film!” Leigh really took it seriously. Suitcases would arrive with makeup. Consummate professionals, from the word “go.” And they would do anything. The film was Epiphany. We shot the whole thing on tape on huge machines that had been given by the BBC to the Royal College. You had reels of two-inch video tape—the quality was insane. But these cameras were huge and so heavy, big pneumatic things with enormous cables that would almost move around on their own. We had three cameras on Leigh at all times. He said, “Which camera should I look at? The one with the red light?” And I said, “The red light is going to be on all of them; we’re recording everything, no takes.” He just loved that atmosphere—constantly being watched, reinventing himself, and rethinking his position. You know when you see the cliché of a model or David Hemmings pretending to be David Bailey—Give me this! Give me that!Leigh was like that. Going from look to look, posing and moving. It was just heavenly to witness. It was raw. There was a levity to it. But also, there was a sense of stagecraft and something studied—it was deeply sincere, however much of a laugh it was. The pain he went through and the discomfort to get the looks. It was an exuberant celebration on so many levels.
BW: He never thought he had a look unless it was painful. If it was painful, it meant he was taking it further than anyone else would. One night, we went to Heaven when he was doing the “Mexican mask” look and wanted his profile to be as flat as possible so you didn’t get any nose. I had to take him out because he had a complete panic attack, which you rarely saw with Leigh. He was in proper, incredible pain. You couldn’t unzip the mask because it was so tight. His voice was muffled, and his face was squashed: “Get me out of this!” I took him and Nicola Bateman back to my flat, and I got pliers and scissors to try to undo the zip. I couldn’t get them into it because it was so tight against the skin. Somehow in the end, he got out of it.
CWE: There would be bruises. He would be cut to shreds after a night out.
BW: Each time he went out, he wanted to push it further, getting more and more ambitious. There were some looks he would test out and never do again. He would always gauge the response. If he was just laughed at then that was a disaster. There had to be something more thought-provoking than that. It had to be challenging.
LS: What did he want people to feel? Disgusted? Scared?
BW: Both of those things. He liked laughter too—but not just laughter.
CWE: He was physically so very strong, and often he’d be on insanely high shoes. He was so massive. One of the things he liked doing at Taboo was kicking the ceiling lights out—bang! Glass in everyone’s drinks.
BW: His behavior at times was so extreme. He would pogo around the dance floor—he was such a large being, so it was really intimidating, especially as he was dressed in such a way, with the merkin on and something covering his face. But it was never aggression in a typical sense.
BW: No, I don’t think I ever saw Leigh angry.
LS: Was he a private person in some ways? Is that part of the reason he performed so much with his own identity, in order to keep certain things hidden?
BW: Well he kept his HIV status from me.
CWE: Me too.
BW: That was obviously very private. But I never felt that Leigh kept secrets much from me, which was why I was so surprised when I did find out that he was HIV positive. That was such a massive thing, especially at that time, because there was nothing you could do.
CWE: Fear and paranoia was everywhere.
BW: We were all watching hundreds of people die around us. When you watched someone die, you were not only very sad you were also terrified—Is that going to be me next? I think Leigh felt that very strongly. I think Leigh didn’t want to be labelled as someone with AIDS. Leigh was much more important, much more than that. And I think that if he had announced that, and if it had gone out into the world, he wouldn’t have been given the freedom to be other than that.
CWE: You look back and think: “Why didn’t I see it?” It was so obvious. We formed a band for a while, me, Leigh and Angus Cook, who was my boyfriend at the time. We didn’t play any music. We were called Magpie Shmagpie. Sue Tilley took the press photographs, which we did on the stairs of the sexual health clinic on Dean Street: all of us coming out of the door, posing with jackets on our shoulders—Leigh’s idea, obviously.
BW: He would talk about it hypothetically: “What if? What am I going to do if I’ve got AIDS?” But everyone was saying the same thing. We lived in fear.
CWE: I remember him on his deathbed saying: “I didn’t even bloody lose any weight.”
LS: I’ve heard he started rumors when he knew he was dying that he was going off to live in a different country.
CWE: He’d say he was going to Papua New Guinea to research anthropological tribe masks. After he died, we went to Patisserie Valerie and spent about 200 quid on cream cakes and had champagne. Sue Tilley said no one was allowed to cry.
LS: I wonder what he would do if he was alive now. Because to play with your identity is easier now than ever, with all these different platforms.
CWE: So many years have passed—it’s a different world. The implications of what Leigh started off doing, and his ways of communicating about things, have become so mainstream, in a way.
BW: Leigh would have morphed into something else. There were so many different stages he went through during my friendship with him: he started in the clubs with no idea of entering the art world; he wasn’t creating art; he was creating attention for himself. Then that ambition changed when he got the gig with Anthony d’Offay gallery, and then later he met Lucian Freud through you, Cerith.
CWE: We sort of thought, “Oh it’ll be fun to mess things up for Lucian—we’ll introduce you to Leigh and then you’ll have to paint sequins!”
BW: I feel that Lucian’s work did change after he met Leigh. Part of Leigh’s thrill was always challenging his friends, and of course he did that to Lucian. I think you can see Leigh’s influence in those pictures.
CWE: Absolutely you can. Lucian was hugely affected by Leigh’s death. He was so so close to him, he really looked up to him.
BW: I love the fact that Lucian still looked up to him even after they found a stolen picture of his in Leigh’s flat. Leigh was stealing 50 pound notes every day when he went in there.
CWE: Lucian would think that that was just wonderful. He would think it was the most noble thing to do!
BW: They deserved each other. These two really strange characters coming together—it was a match made in heaven.
LS: Baillie, talk to me about working with Leigh on your films.
BW: My favorite project was the “Generations of Love” video with everyone in the street. Leigh just loved being a hooker on the street.
CWE: With the blonde wig and the “Come to Bed” t-shirt.
BW: Leigh was the one who got me thinking: “Oh, it’s a pop video, but I can make a porn video.” It was Leigh’s influence on me that kind of pushed me the whole time. He was a great doer, always with massive enthusiasm. It was a great collaboration. We just did it. He loved getting everyone in character and in dress. He’d be pushing Sue: “Get your tits out!” He got everyone—Rachel Auburn, Les Child, Michael Costiff, Talulah—in their costumes and their appropriate looks. Les Child fought every step of the way because Leigh was trying to cover his face in Vaseline. I would say that that was our most successful collaboration. His influence pushed me to a place that I thought was really interesting for a pop video.
CWE: That video is sort of sad also in a funny way. It’s mournful. There’s a melancholy at the heart of it, this idea of generations of love.
BW: I think the last project we did together was the Massive Attack video. That shoot was the first and only argument I ever had with him, and I don’t think he ever really forgave me. He’d made a dress for Shara Nelson, and we needed to find some way to cover up the earpiece that we needed her to wear. The collar wasn’t high enough, so he suggested a wig. She looked ghastly in, but of course Leigh loved it because it was so wrong. It got very awkward in front of the band. Leigh was determined, and I had to finally put my foot down. Leigh never really wanted to be told what to do. We were never quite the same after that trip to LA. Before that, we’d been two hours on the phone to each other everyday for seven years. But then also our lives were changing. Leigh was working with Lucian—his interests were changing. Our common interests were drifting.
CWE: He’d never do what he was asked to. At that time, I did some pop videos for The Fall. And we also did a play together at Riverside Studios where he played a Chicago mafia boss. Leigh would improvise lines, and every night he would stretch his lines by quite a few minutes by writing some “new material.” I can remember him coming on doing dances or singing songs, and then going into his lines. Mark E Smith would be grumbling and laughing. One thing that has always stuck with me and has been a barometer for me ever since: Leigh would look at something and say, “Yer, it was all right. But where’s the poison?”
Almost like a kind of homeopathic thing; you would need this poisonous kernel, so that it could be transformative, something in it that was deeply subversive and could dissolve hierarchies.
BW: Exactly. As much as he did work for me, I also did a lot of work for him. He would engage you as the magician’s helper. One of my strongest memories of him is when he did the AIDS benefit at the Fridge. It was his first ‘douche’ show. He comes out dancing with a corset and a merkin. I think it was to ‘Nothing Compares to You’. He’d rehearsed it so he’d lie back on a plinth, open his legs, and squirt a fountain of water from his arse. But he hadn’t rehearsed it with a corset. So, when the time came, he couldn’t lean back. So he goes to the front of the stage and bends over to squirt over the white table cloths. Of course, he was very nervous so the water wasn’t completely clean. He’s squirting shit all over the front row of an AIDS benefit. For the second part of the piece, he put a great big skirt on that I had to get under (as I was the back of the horse, if you will). I’m meant to get him onto my shoulders so he could be ten feet tall waving in this giant skirt. I get under and it’s covered in shit, slipping around everywhere. But it’s show business—not a choice! He was properly freaked out after that show; he knew that he had pushed the poison to the limit as people were horrified. And it did cause a scandal. He’d shat on the front tables at an AIDS benefit! That was Leigh when he really did think for a minute that he’d pushed it too far. There was fear—and it was rare that you saw Leigh with fear.
CWE: If you did that now, you’d probably go to prison. Anything that was inappropriate—Leigh was like a magnet. Everything inappropriate was good. Everything appropriate was bad. It was pretty clear cut. He was really an anarchist.
BW: That’s why John Waters’s films so influenced Leigh. Divine in Female Trouble was a benchmark for Leigh in so many ways.
LS: Was it ever tiring being friends with someone who was that unrelenting in their commitment to subversion?
CWE: No. Because he was also so sweet and gentle. Like Baillie described—I was one of the people on the other end of the phone for an hour or two a day. We’d sit there watching television and he’d be like—What is Lorraine Kelly wearing?
LS: Did you ever feel embarrassed by him?
CWE: I can remember being on holiday in Cornwall with Leigh. Sue Tilley drove Leigh down; she couldn’t get into the car because Leigh had made a frock to wear in pink dayglo. It was like a Molly Goddard dress but the size of a flat—with all this tulle bunched into the car, the entire car was full. As soon as he arrived, he ran into the sea, and it soaked up so much seawater he nearly drowned. It was completely hysterical. I can remember this one dreadful situation: Leigh would do anything to embarrass Sue in public—it was one of his absolutely favorite things to do. So, we were alone in this grand Catholic church. And this lone nun was walking towards us in her habit. Sue was going, “Leigh, no. No. No.” Sue—she’s a big girl—and she’s trying to hide behind the column in the church. And Leigh is going at this 90-year-old woman in her habit, “Oi! My friend wants to eat you out!” The nun just shuffled away. “Bless you my child.” The strange thing is it never wore you out. He was like quicksilver, also. In the next moment, it would be a completely different thing—he’d be helping you make a pea soup. He thought it was hilarious that you had to buy a huge sack of peas to make a small bowl of pea soup.
BW: I was never embarrassed by Leigh because Leigh was never embarrassed. The joke was never on Leigh; he was making the joke, so there was never painful embarrassment.
CWE: But there would be times when he would be vulnerable. He’d open up on the phone and say, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing.” He wasn’t always high octane.
BW: Leigh really led a life on the telephone. Cerith was part of that. I was part of that. Sue was part of that. A lot of our lives were spent on the phone—hours and hours a day. That’s not high octane or a performance. That’s a proper relationship.
CWE: You’d talk about things in the news…
BW: …or sometimes there was just silence. And you’d hear a sewing machine going.
LS: The construction of his garments was incredible. People often talk about how great he was at making looks, but perhaps not enough focus is put on just how skilled he was at making clothes.
CWE: He was very fastidious about the idea of learning techniques. He really looked up to Mr. Pearl, who had this career in Paris making amazing corsets. Berwick Street market was an Aladdin’s cave, where you could get the sequin fabrics and needles and threads—he would refer to that as the Stitch Bitch Trail.
LS: He’s often remembered in terms of the Club Kids. What do you make of that?
CWE: I don’t think he actually liked the whole New York Club Kids thing. He went there, he was adored there. But the people that he really liked were the ones from Jackie 60 and Mother and Blacklips Performance Cult. He liked the drag queens who were politicized.
BW: He liked the ones who were incredibly smart. He loved intelligence.
CWE: He liked revolutionary people. Political people.
BW: The Club Kids thing was an early part of his history, but his ambitions moved way beyond that. Leigh, above everything else, was incredibly intelligent, a thing that shines through for me. He had many stages. He created this persona from nowhere. And he trod unknown ground and was still reinventing every day.
CWE: And he was constantly looking for ways to undermine his reputation for what he’d become known as.
LS: Are there any particular days with him that stand out?
BW: It was his birthday, and I really wanted to fuck him over. So I thought: “I’m going to get him a cat. It’s a wicked present to give someone.” I called all the pet shops, and there was a kitten in Camden Town. So I went to the pet shop, and it had sold! I thought: “Fuck it, I’ve failed.” And as I was walking down to St Martin’s Lane through Cecil Court, there was a homeless person with a cat, saying: “Do you want a cat?” I was so shocked I said, “No,” and walked up the street. But then I thought: “Of course you fucking do.” So, I went back and bought the cat, a fully-grown black cat. It was so extraordinary and immediately friendly and affectionate. I went home and put it in a stereo box, wrapped it up and went over to Leigh’s flat. Leigh unwrapped it, saw the box and thought that I had bought him a stereo. He was saying, “Oh that’s great.” Then he opened it, and the cat jumped out. He was completely horrified at first. But then he was a great father to the cat. Leigh adored Angus.
CWE: He named him Angus, which was the name of my boyfriend at the time. He did it to punish him.
BW: The cat was always sleeping in amongst fabric.
CWE: The flat was pretty amazing. Before Trojan died, it had Star Trek wallpaper. And after he died, Leigh decided that he wanted to change it. And as he was peeling off the wallpaper, he found one of Trojan’s hairs, from when Trojan and Leigh had put up the wallpaper. Leigh said he freaked out and didn’t know what to do. “I just ate it,” he said. He just had to ingest it.
LS: Tell me about his wedding; he married Nicola Bateman.
CWE:That was quite late on. I was his best man.
BW: The wedding was one of the secrets that I didn’t know about. Cerith was privy to that. But that was another of those “What else didn’t I know?” moments.
CWE: Leigh was in Minty [his band] at that time. He was also very scared at that point, and I imagine was probably showing symptoms of HIV/AIDS. He got married so that if the worst happened, at least Nicola would have a roof over her head. He was in a furious mood all day. He had this blond wig on and a coat that he’d bought on Brick Lane that was very nice, black, heavy, silk satin—an Orthodox Jewish man’s coat. Nicola just kept saying things like, “Oh darling, this is the happiest day of any woman’s life.” She was dressed in blue and had a blue garter—everything was her “something blue.” She’d really gone for things as if it was the Royal Wedding. Her sister was the bridesmaid and was dressed in a bizarre 1960s pop-art Paco Rabanne dress; her hair was big and bouffant and had black and white make up, mod shoes and big Perspex earrings. After the wedding, Leigh said he had to go to a Minty rehearsal: “Nicola you have the money, make sure that you spend it all on a wedding breakfast.” We went to the Angus Steak House on Leicester Square, the three of us there looking like complete freaks. We had steak and chips and a salad. After, Nicola’s sister and I went to a party at the Architectural Association, where I was teaching at the time—I actually got Leigh in to teach there too—and she won a prize for best fancy dress.
BW: How long before he died did they have the wedding?
CWE: A couple of months. It was the summer, I think, and he died in winter.
BW: On New Year’s. So very Leigh to ruin New Year’s. So sick, because every New Year’s you think of Leigh.
LS: Tell me about getting him in to teach at the Architectural Association.
CWE: I was teaching a foundation course, which I’d got into because someone had asked me to come show my films and give a talk to some students. I’d asked to see the students’ work and ended up doing these tutorials and got on well with the students. Someone was having a baby and went on maternity leave—so all of sudden I was running the foundation department at the Architectural Association, despite having never studied architecture and actually being rather suspicious of architects. I ended up teaching there for seven years. I’d try and get them to look at things around buildings: dance, fashion, the body, do plans for zoning in department stores, or map Selfridges on top of the British museum so the Assyrian department would be in the same place as the shoe department—stuff like that. It was about opening people’s minds up, to stop them just thinking about making fabulous houses on golf courses in the Mediterranean. I thought Leigh would be perfect to come in, do it for a term and see how it went. I had a bit of a budget, so we hired ten sewing machines. He suggested we have to make a pair of gloves, as that was really, really difficult. So, we did a glove making workshop—every student had to make a pair to fit their own hand, and Leigh was there to help. The students were just over the moon—they loved him. On his first day, he had been so nervous. I remember he had on this pair of trousers that Jean Paul Gaultier had given him. They were green stretch satin, the weirdest thing. They had obviously worn out so many on the bottom that they had the overlocked stitching to hold them together, over and over and over again to keep the whole thing together. I can remember looking at him; he was covered in makeup—very, very heavy foundation.
BW: It would be orange.
CWE: And lots of rouging on the cheeks. Sometimes he’d wear one of his chemotherapy wigs, which he would have gotten from a charity shop and then cut so you could see all the netting on the scalp. But he was so tall. I thought: ‘You’re huge today, four inches taller than normal.’ I couldn’t work it out. He lifted the trousers up. And inside his trainers was a pair of trannie stilettos.
BW: He loved height. He wanted to be the biggest man in the room.
CWE: He was so nervous though.
BW: But the nervousness was endearing, wasn’t it?
CWE: Absolutely. By the end of the day he knew the names of their brothers and sisters, where they came from, all of that. He’d see them two months later and be like, “So, is Mathilda still doing the veterinary college thing?”
BW: There was always a boy he really fancied.
CWE: One time, Pearl came in, and we showed them a VHS cassette of a Christian Lacroix couture show. The students had never seen a fashion show. Pearl was there whispering away about couture and handcraft with his 16-inch waist. Leigh thought the show was genius and flawless. All the students were really getting into it. So, the project developed so that at the end of Leigh’s term we were going to do a fashion show, where the models were going to be the students and they were going to make outfits, couture outfits, based on a building. A very bright boy from Bulgaria chose a Bruce Goff strange kind of desert range house from the early 1960s. There was a very privileged Iranian woman who didn’t have a portfolio and would use a brand-new giant Chanel shopping bag to carry her work. Leigh was of course like, ‘She’s a genius; she’s incredible.’ She decided that for the fashion show, she wanted to come as the Taj Mahal. So Leigh helped her make a papier-mâché dome helmet, which she decided she was going to cover in fusilli pasta, glued on and sprayed silver. Now, the Taj Mahal has a lake down the front of it, so she got some Perspex manufacturer to make these two narrow strips which went down the front with blue colored water inside and model trees glued down the side. The fashion show was very well attended—Vivienne Westwood, Rifat Özbek, Jasper Conran, and people fromVoguecame. Leigh was the compere. And for that role, he decided to sport his head coming out of a toilet bowl with brown latex filled with rice krispies all down his front—like a brown shitty head coming out of a toilet—with a see-through corset, a huge skirt and black eye makeup. He had a clipboard with notes about each student and spoke in a voice as if it was a couture show: “And the next model that we have is…” I remember in one bit he said, “Dana has come at the Taj Ma Hole, oh sorry Mahal.” People were roaring with laughter. It was off-the-charts mental what people were wearing, but the students were genuinely moved.
LS: The breadth of the things you both worked with him on is quite something: films, teaching, performances.
CWE: Well, he was a very creative person, so nothing was ever out of bounds.
BW: It’s been lovely reminiscing and remembering. The tragedy is that he’s not here, because he would be pushing boundaries like no one else I’ve ever known and making me, certainly, and probably everyone else question everything.
Four things you never knew about Leigh Bowery
The club scene icon’s best friend Sue Tilley shares some little-told stories from her life with the founderof Taboo
Dressed in looks dripping in colour, with overdrawn lips and exaggerated silhouettes distorting his form beyond recognition,Leigh Bowery is the Christian boy who became an icon of club-kid history, inspiring everyone fromAlexander McQueen (who once went to see his band Minty before their Soho residency was shut down for obscenity) toGareth Pugh. More than 20 years after his death, Bowery’s long-term best friend, biographer and party companion Sue Tilley, was joined by a group of enthusiasts at the Café Royal this week for a talk as part of A Curious Invitation’sIcons of Fashionseries, to tell his story from a more intimate perspectiv, from exploits in London to checking into the hospital under the name John Waters and watching his bands Minty and Raw Sewage (once named the Quality Street Rappers). Here are four things we learned about the icon.
HIS DIY DESIGNS HAVE ENDED UP IN THE LOUIS VUITTON ARCHIVES
“His goal was to be afashion designer,” explained Tilley. “But he wouldn’t really fit in. He wrote in his diary in 1981: ‘Fashion, where all girls have clear skin, blue eyes, blonde-blown wavy hair and a size 10 figure, and all the men have clear skin, moustaches, short waved blonde hair and masculine physical appearance, STINKS.” For the most part, Bowery decided to use his own body as a canvas for self-expression, but he did make clothes for a few friends and Boy George (who was a big fan). According to Tilley, “Boy George was terrified of him and was thrilled that Leigh Bowery was making clothes for him – he was obsessed to the point of writing musicals about him and everything!” Now many of the creations Sue received are in the hands of Louis Vuitton menswear designer Kim Jones, also a big Bowery fan. “He buys his clothes off me or I swap them for Louis Vuitton bags,” chuckled Tilley, “because to be honest, he’ll look after them a hundred times better than me, put it in the vaults at Louis Vuitton, and I’d rather that than having them in a box getting tatty.”
“Fashion, where all girls have clear skin, blue eyes, blonde-blown wavy hair and a size 10 figure… STINKS” – Leigh Bowery
HE FELT THE TIME WAS RIGHT FOR TABOO TO END
Taboo, Bowery’s iconic club night founded in January 1985, served as a meeting point for all types of people inspired by freedom of expression and absolute disregard for the traditional. The club staged its last hurrah in 1986, after asserting itself as the pinnacle of London nightlife. Tilley explained the story behind its closure. “Someone sold a big story to the papers about it being a den of vice and drugs. I never saw drugs or people on heroin or whatever, but perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right place. So this was the story, and the club had no choice but to shut it down.” But Bowery believed the time was right. “He then realised it was actually a good thing – it’s much better when something is shut down at its pinnacle when it’s still really good than when it’s died down and there’s three people from the suburbs in there. And then they asked him if he wanted to open it again and he went, “No. It’s best that it stopped when it did.”
HIS BODY PERFORMANCE ART HAD ACCIDENTAL BEGINNINGS
Although Bowery is perhaps best known for birthing his friend and wife Nicola Bateman, who came out of the performer’s ‘vagina’ with sausages for an umbilical cord, his first venture into the performing arts didn’t quite go as planned. “His first performance was at a crypt in a church that was run by the neo-naturists, a bunch of people who just walked around half-naked, the most famous one probably beingGrayson Perry,” Tilley remembered. “Everyone was standing round. He went round and stripped off naked, and in the process he caught his nipple that he’d just had pierced. It started bleeding and there was blood pouring down his chest… So he put on a doctor’s coat and pretended to inject (co-performer) Trojan with various syringes, Trojan then threw lighter fuel to the floor and set fire to it, while Leigh pissed into a glass, then Trojan drank half the piss and used the rest to douse the flames. I don’t think he’d be allowed to do that nowadays because of health and safety – but everything went then. Things got a little more professional after this, but bodily fluids still played a big part in Leigh’s repertoire.”
“Leigh pissed into a glass, then Trojan drank half the piss and used the rest to douse the flames. I don’t think he’d be allowed to do that nowadays because of health and safety” – Sue Tilley
Many unfamiliar with the 80s club kids will know Bowery as one of artistLucian Freud’s sitters. The 1990 portrait Freud painted of him, “Leigh Bowery (seated)”, was hailed by many as a masterpiece. Tilley, who also sat for the artist, explained how the two met during one of Bowery’s performances in a room with a two-way mirror. “Leigh dressed in a different outfit everyday, and he’d walk around this space like a sort of caged animal – he was very gymnastic as well, so he did a lot of high kicks and spinning on the floor. And there were musical traffic sounds and different smells coming. People used to come to the gallery for two hours – some of them were there every day to watch him. That was proper validation, because it was ‘proper art’ and it was accepted. One member of the crowd that came to see him was an old artist called Lucian Freud – because some of our friends worked for Lucian Freud they had mentioned Leigh, and he was curious and wanted to see what he was like, since he had a lot of interest in the world. He came along and was absolutely thrilled by him – especially by his calves. He said “It’s amazing! His calves go straight into his feet!” so he decided he wanted to paint him. This was a real turning point for Leigh.”