"Remember me as a person with ideas, not AIDS"
Leigh Bowery was a little known icon who influenced the worlds of music, art, film and fashion in the UK in the 1980s. Perhaps best known as a model for Lucien Freud, his outrageous costumes inspired Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.
Bowery was born in Sunshine, Australia on 26th March 1961 to two Salvation Army volunteers. Despite his hometown having a bright outlook, the only entertainment opportunities were a church and a small cinema which depressed the local youngsters.
From a young age, Bowery looked very grownup and was treated as an adult because of this, even being nicknamed Big Leigh. Retrospectively, his father even admits that he overestimated the abilities of his son at this age.
Despite pressure from his father, Leigh learnt how to embroider from a aunt whilst recovering from a stay in hospital. He developed his needlework skills at an amazing rate and hid this from his parents.
"It seemed to us that Leigh behaved like any other normal boy at that age. He helped me with the garden, liked to bike a lot. Only at university he told us that he liked to get into fashion. This rang a bell." Leigh's father, Tom Bowery
Whilst at university Leighs love of unusual clothes developed further. He began to dress in an extremely extravagant manner.
"People asked if Leigh was back in town? It was not easy not notice him. People said: I saw your kid on the street, because of his bright green trousers!. We were a conservative family, I guess. People wore grey colours, no fuss. Some wore knitted sweaters of some red or yellow, that was a revolution! But Leigh could overdo it all. One day he had 'redone' my suit. When I tried it on, there were all these things hanging around it. I threw it away. I said to him: Nobody will wear your designs! Everything he made seemed impossible! It got worse when he moved to London, 5 years later. I have no idea where he got his ideas from. Maybe out of his own head?" Leigh's father, Tim Bowery
Once in London, in October 1980, Leigh was attracted to the New Romantic movement including the bands Adam and the Ants, Culture Club and Bow Wow Wow. By this time, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren had replaced their interest in punk music to building a fashion empire.
Leigh himself was having trouble finding contacts in the fashion world which he craved. Hundreds of miles away from his family and friends he found himself isolated. The friend he travelled with from Melbourne to London deserted him and he felt very lonely. With this in mind Leigh decided to devise a master plan to deal with the situation.
- 1 - Lose weight
- 2 - Learn everything
- 3 - Get in contact with music, fashion and writing
- 4 - Wear make-up every day
He felt miserable. Losing weight proved to be difficult as he resorted to food for comfort
. He didn't have much money, so he had trouble studying. To combat this he learnt how to steal from the National Library
by hiding books under his clothing. He also stole blank cassettes on which he recorded stories which he invented, to send back home to his parents.
"We thought he would be back within a year. Because he didn't have enough money or he would feel home-sick. It turned out that we didn't know about his dreams." Leighs father, Tom Bowery
By the summer of 1981 Leigh has managed to fulfill number 3 on his list. Through visiting clubs run by Steve Strange, the singer from Visage, Leigh started to find contacts. A club named Heaven was on in particular which Leigh patronised. He thought that by attending clubs, he could make a name for himself.
"Leigh always talked about how to be famous, he longed to be famous. We were both sure that he would be, although we didn't know how." Leigh's friend and biographer Sue Tilley
From his first visit to Heaven, Leigh decided to dedicate his life to nightclubbing. Whilst out at a club, Leigh met a man called Trojan who he fell in love with. For a while they co-habited.
Trojan wore clothes designed by Leigh and received attention from them which made Leigh jealous. Leigh decided that he had to overcome his shyness and design clothes for himself. Despite being overweight, this wasn't a problem for Leigh, it was a fashion statement.
"New looks filter through" Leigh Bowery
His ideas worked and soon Leigh appeared in magazines such as The Face and Blitz alongside Trojan. People nicknamed him The Master of Disguise due to how much he altered his appearance.
The New Romantic scene was the place in which Leigh felt most comfortable.
"Initially the scene seemed to be the best place to get in touch with people whose work I was interested in. Then I found the whole process of going to clubs and getting drunk and dressed up very exciting, and spent five or six years doing that exclusively."
"It was like Punk but maybe it wasn't so aggressive. It was completely theatrical in a way, the very opposite of what you were expected to look like on the street. It was confrontational, and there was this sort of gender blurring." Leigh Bowery
Dressing up turned into a way of life for Bowery, and eventually turned into his job due to his notoriety.
In January 1985, Leigh opened his own club just off Leicester Square in London called Taboo. Within weeks the club was successful but after an article in a tabloid newspaper, the police closed it down. This shocked Leigh, but he continued going to nightclubs in his outrageous garb.
"When I wear my clothing I feel special. I communicate with my clothing. Lately I wear these rather wild clothes. I look TV, listen to music. To get inspired. My style? Sometimes it resembles the stage costumes of the German Oscar Schlemmer. I love his work. I like the shapes that distract the human body. Maybe Schlemmer inspired me, I don't know. It's a combination of several influences. From the body painting by African tribes to the way high-tech presents itself. I am interested in shape and silhouette. The way humans look like. I like to evolve that look. Make it stronger. People think of me as some cartoon, a walking cartoon character. That's because I exaggerate things."Leigh Bowery
Leigh's costumes were spectacular. Whilst Taboo was still open, and afterwards, Leigh could be seen in many different designs including baby-doll nighties, kilts, frilly knickers, tights, platform boots and large collared shirts from the seventies. His make-up and wigs were more extreme though with anything from a miniature policeman's helmet, a face made up to look like herpes, huge red polka dots drawn on his face to a curly blonde wig. On occasions Leigh shaved his head and poured molten wax over himself. One time he did this with black wax and wore two inch long false eyelashes to complement his outfit. His makeup imitated a kewpie doll.
Around the time the club closed, Trojan and another famous Taboo clubber died in separate overdose incidents.
Then Leigh met Michael Clark, a well known post punk ballet dancer and choreographer. Clark asked Leigh to design costumes for his ballet company, and to dance with the troop. His designs for Clark were original as ever with open crotches and dildos making an appearance at one performance.
"Michael liked the idea of how some movements and shapes looked on an untrained body, I didn't have a classical dance background, and I was very open and eager. I began doing more performance rather than just the look of things, spending more time on the context in which the look is placed." Leigh Bowery
Whilst with Michael Clark & Company, Leigh visited Amsterdam in 1988 for the Holland Festival. Dressed as a huge Heinz sandwich can in the play I Am Curious, Orange, he wore a disco ball on his head covering his eyes.
Around this time, Leigh formed a performance group called Minty with Nicola Bateman, a performance artist who he married. For one performance, Nicola hung between his legs so that he could give birth to her. Later that year, in November, Leigh secured a week long residency at a club in Wardour Street in Soho where he was going to perform. The first night was poorly attended, however officials from Westminster City Council attended the live multi-media show prompted by reports of an earlier stage show where Bowery sprayed the results of an enema he had administered to himself onto the audience.
The council closed down the show that night pending legal proceedings.
"The reason I use sequins at the moment, is because if I cannot cast the light at least I can reflect it."Leigh Bowery
In the late 1980s, Bowery was beginning to be accepted by the mainstream art world through a performance piece in the Anthony d'Offay gallery, a contemporary London art space off Bond Street. Over a period of several days, Bowery sat in front of a two way mirror and preened himself. He changed his costumes on a regular basis and applied make-up in different ways emulating women, children, cats and a blue skinned Hindu goddess. One regular visitor to this performance piece was Lucien Freud.
Bowery was becoming known by the world media with his image being included in the introductions sequence of The Clothes Show on BBC1. Pepe jeans became interested in his look for one of their adverts and invited him to appear on screen by repeatedly asking the question "Wears Pepe?"
This takes Bowery into the mainstream world of art and the media. Steve Blame then hired him as a piece of talking furniture on talk show Take the Blame, Boy George asked him to designs clothes for Culture Clubs tour, and Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood were inspired by his creations.
Lucien Freud asked him to pose nude. Bowery had always like Freud work especially the way that he used the human form in a majestic manner.
"I was very nervous to show my naked body. When Lucian asked me I had just finished several shows in which I danced naked. I was used to the idea. I sat for him for more than 3 years, all the time I really noticed my body. To take care that my body didn't change from the first time I sat for him."Leigh Bowery
The last painting that Freud created of Bowery was of a towering naked figure in a full frontal pose. He had a strained expression on his face. This was shown at a memorial exhibition on Bowery's life and work.
"Certainly there is something increasingly brutish about this Freudian nudity. I would advise little girls and old ladies of a nervous disposition who have wandered into the gallery expecting Van Dyck and Gainsborough not to look up at Freud's naked behemoth too attentively. His sole pictorial task is to show it like it is, to appear large and lumpen." A reviewer
These paintings gave Leigh fame more than fashion and music could give him.
By 1988, Leigh knew that he was infected with HIV.
"It ruined all his plans to become famous, he knew he had a deadline to catch. There was little time left. He worked harder and more serious than ever" Sue Tilley
Throughout 1993 and 1994 Bowery worked with Rifat Ozbek, then in 1994 he performed with Richard Torry and Nicola Bateman at Fort Asperen in Holland. On 13th of May the same year, he married Nicola Bateman.
Their group Minty also performed at the Love Ball in Amsterdam in this year and at Joshua Compston's second Fete Worse Than Death in Hoxton Square, London.
On 24th November, Leigh took part in one of his final shows in the Freedom Cafe on Wardour Street in Soho in London with his pop group Minty. The next day the police shut the show down like they had done with previous shows.
"Bowery's assistant Nicola acted like she was vomiting in his mouth and then she urinated in a glass, which he drank. According to Paul Hitchman, Bowery's manager, there was hardly any nudity but according to the public and police this was untrue." Time Out, December 1993
Bowery was annoyed by the police's actions.
"It's ironic! A few doors further there are real live sex shows and they shut us down? We just pretend!" Leigh Bowery
Not too long after the final Minty show, Bowery was taken into hospital. He tried to stop his illness being put into the public eye by checking into hospital under the name of John Waters, the director of Divine, Leigh's hero. He didn't even tell friends where he was until near the end.
"Please, just say that Leigh Bowery has emigrated to New Guinea to help the local Pygmy people." Leigh Bowery
He passed away on New Years Eve 1994 of pneumonia and side effects from antibiotics prescribed for meningitis in Middlesex Hospital, London. He was buried next to his mother in Sydney a week later.
Bowery had always had a huge sexual appetite. Before his death he admitted that his biggest regret was having had unsafe sex with 1000 men.
For a while after his death Bowery's talent lived on. In the Netherlands, a song by Bowery called Useless Man was mixed by The Grid and was a big hit. On the record he raps a variation of a well known Pepsi Cola slogan.
A memorial exhibition was organised by Johnnie Shand Kydd at the Fine Arts Society, New Bond Street, London.
His friend Sue Tilley wrote his biography which was turned into a film called Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon.
Club Roxy in the Netherlands dedicates its yearly Love Ball to Bowery as he visited there regularly whilst touring with Clark's ballet company.
Boy George sang Cheapness and Beauty which opens with Bowery talking about the value of clothing. George also wrote about him in his autobiography and used his influence in writing a musical which he called Taboo after Bowery's nightclub. George himself and Mark Little have both played Bowery on the stage.
Robert Violette published a picture book with photographs of Bowery in chronological order.
Joshua Rhodes, an Australian, declares that he is the one and only Leigh Bowery impersonator much to the anger of Lee Benjamin, who was Bowery's assistant.
'It's foolish to copy Leigh's looks, let people try to be original as him!'.
Updated May 2005