A lot of people are casually called “icons,” but Leigh Bowery really deserved the name. In fact it’s hard to think of a better description for him. Nobody who was half conscious in London in the 1980s and 1990s can have missed him, or forgotten him: he made it his business to be unforgettable.
But how would we describe him to the ignorant youngsters of today? What was it he actually did again? Nightclub promoter? Artist’s model? Pop star? Costume designer? Artwork? He flitted between categories. The outrageous costumes and exotic pranks are the main things we remember. And that would delight Bowery no end because he dedicated his life to shocking everybody he met. When he did shock you, it was with such a unique blend of atrocious and exquisite taste that you could instantly see he was a highly original artist.
A lurid world
Sue Tilley’s biography Leigh Bowery: the Life and Times of an Icon gives us an entrée to his lurid world. As Bowery’s close friend and confidante Tilley was well placed to give us an insight into his life, and she amply delivers. The style of the book is loose and casual, as though Tilley’s chatting to us at the kitchen table, but this way of writing is both suitable and endearing, and brings us closer to the scenes she describes.
Tilley only manages a single chapter on Bowery’s life before he arrived in London in 1981 with a suitcase, a sewing machine and a head full of hopeful notions. That’s understandable: the Bowery we remember only really blossomed in the gritty airs of London – in an eleventh-floor council flat in Stepney, in the streets of Soho, the basements of the West End and the dark corners of Russell Square. His youth in the backwater of Sunshine, Australia was “pretty uneventful.”
His parents were kind, straight-laced modest folk, and when you see the picture of the later Bowery affectionately posing between Mum and Dad with whitewashed face, rouged cheeks over a provocative slash of a mouth and runnels of dark ink down the dome of his head, you understand something of the daunting prospect of normality he must’ve been struggling with. His parents look entirely happy and relaxed – but then as Tilley says, Bowery was a particularly well brought up young man.
The book is full of the vivid scenes he habitually inhabited. In 1985 he became the public face of Taboo, the infamous nightclub in Leicester Square. The place had “everything you could want from a disco. Tatty red velour banquettes, mirrors everywhere, strange light effects on the walls, three bars and a central dance floor with several cheap lights and a mirror ball.” Money was short, so Bowery made the flyers for the grand opening himself, cutting out pictures of naked men from his stash of pornography and sticking them onto pieces of card, stencilling “Taboo” on them and marking the address on the back with a John Bull printing set. When one of the bouncers left, Bowery hired Nicky Crane, a strapping bisexual skinhead.
He had been leader of a very big gang and had a scrapbook full of newspaper cuttings about his misdemeanours. He was half Italian and his first name was Nicola so many of the reports said that he was a she which made his exploits seem even more shocking. He had tattoos all over his body including an ‘S’ on his penis; it was originally going to say ‘Suck on This’ but it was too painful to continue.
Taboo was the venue for many a bacchanalian scene. As the night wore on and the drink and drugs took hold, the behaviour of the patrons became more and more debauched. “The dancefloor would disintegrate into something that resembled a collapsed rugby scrum,” Tilly remembers. “People were rolling all over the floor to the disco music.” And then there was the infamous occasion when Jeffrey the DJ got so drunk he played the turntable slip mat for half an hour.
And over all the mayhem presided Bowery, appearing in a different outfit each week. One of his more successful looks was a short pleated skirt under a glittery Chanel-style jacket, scab makeup and a plastic toy policeman’s helmet.
Waving His Penis About
He wasn’t the sort of person you could hang around with if you were prone to embarassment, and his friends must have been especially forgiving. His pranks could be thoughtless, even downright cruel. But he invariably made a striking impression. At one Sunday afternoon garden party held by Tilley’s parents he turned up in his favourite red romper suit to the considerable surprise of Tilley’s entire complement of aunts, uncles and long-lost relations.
Bowery got heartily drunk and ran up and down the sloping garden, stopping every so often to feed her eleven-year old brother large vodkas disguised with Malibu and pineapple. Inevitably he decided it would be amusing to wave his penis about. “It is an incident that has never been forgotten by most of them,” Tillley says, “but as he was also very charming to them they took a liking to him and were always pleased when they later saw him on television or in newspapers.”
By 1988 Bowery had graduated from club promoter to work of art. He made a great success exhibiting his person on a chaise-longue in Anthony d’Offay’s gallery between the hours of four and six p.m. He posed behind a one-way mirror, with the sound of traffic playing and the smell of marshmallow wafted through the room. Each day revealed an ensemble more bizarre and original than the last: a green suit with orange spots, complemented by matching makeup; long black hair and green skin teamed with a fur coat, crimson clothes and enormous jewels; a disco-ball crash helmet with a delicate light blue frock. “There’s a certain levity, a self-mocking part to the whole thing,” he told the Independent newspaper. “And in the end if people are laughing at me, that’s fine: I invented the joke.” People may have laughed, but many stayed the full two hours to watch him, and then came back again every day.
This exhibition marked a turning point in his life. The painter Lucian Freud came to witness the spectacle, was favourably impressed, and asked to meet him. For their first lunch together, Bowery, told Modern Painters, he
dressed in colours from Lucian’s palette – grey-brown trousers and jumper, and a man’s short mouse-coloured wig. I was hoping he would ask me to sit for a picture and I wanted to please him. I was nervous and Lucian is always nervous. Lunch was tense and enjoyable.
The encounter led to a series of portaits of a monumentally naked Bowery. Freud thought he was “perfectly beautiful.” He admired the colour of his skin and his copious flesh, but also took a fancy to his ideas. For his part, Bowery thought Freud was the most fantastic person he had ever met. In their thousands of hours working together they discussed every conceivable topic. Bowery’s role as the subject of a celebrated portraitist was to give him a new-found credibility in the art scene. It was also to stimulate new ideas; and from this time his antics, while still outlandish, took on a new confidence and sophistication. Instead of dressing up as a massively-bosomed Nazi and pretending to castrate a man on a stretcher he was now painting Damien Hirst’s penis flourescent pink for the “Fête Worse than Death” art event in Hoxton Square.
Tilley’s book is full of such vibrant glimpses: it’s as rich in incident as one of his toasted sandwiches, with
tartar sauce, blue stilton, tomatoes, lettuce, watercress, gherkins, onion, Marmite, cheese, peanut butter and strawberry jam.
But lives, like sandwiches, must have an end; and Bowery’s came to an end in 1994 in the now defunct Middlesex Hospital. He had been diagnosed with HIV six years earlier, but Tilley does not record if he took any of the toxic drugs that were doled out to HIV patients at that period. Her two chapters on his final illness capture very well the anxious tedium of watching at a deathbed, though the long stretch is punctuated with flashes of humour. Freud, who was apparently keen on nurses, came to visit, and was disappointed to find they weren’t wearing starched uniforms.
Even when he was wired up to machines and muddled by morphine the remarkable spark of life in Bowery exerted itself: he kept pulling off his oxygen mask and struggling to confide to Tilley the shocking revelation that he was not – after all – the son of Eva Peron.
He certainly managed to master the normality that had been his heritage in the suburb of Sunshine, Victoria. At one point his mother was deeply upset by an article in an Australian paper describing his antics at a fashion show she had organised in Melbourne. She phoned him in tears to ask him why he couldn’t be like other people. Bowery, who hated her being in this state, asked Tilley to ring her up to tell her how kind he was really. “Do you know what, Sue?” Mrs Bowery told her, “Even after all these years, if some of my old friends who were at that show see me coming they cross over to the other side of the street.”
At the time of the show Bowery commented on this incident in a letter to Tilley:
What was planned by my mother to be the piece de resistance of a triumphant home-coming turned out to be the most mortifying experience of her life. She was seated in the Town Hall of Melbourne surrounded by all her friends and relatives and had to endure the most self-indulgent and sick show she’s ever likely to see. Which explains why I’m typing a ten thousand word essay in my bedroom while she’s crying her heart out. But to take a page out of your book – I’m a twenty-five-year-old figure and what my parents think is their business and what I do is mine. Guilt trip, get out that window.
That was Leigh Bowery.
by Sue Tilley
Hodder & Stoughton, London 1997.
308 pages with plates.
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