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Sue Tilley: a self-portrait

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Lucian Freud’s fleshy muse on life beyond the Job Centre

Taken from the September 2012 issue of Dazed:

“I grew up in Paddington and lived in a great big house in the corner of Sussex Gardens, which I think influenced my interest in the world of filth and bizarre things because I used to stare at the prostitutes and drunks outside the window. When I was six we moved to Surrey, and as soon as I could I came back to London. I started working at the Job Centre in Camden, where I met my first gay friend, and he introduced me to the world of gay clubs. It felt like I’d found what I wanted in life. That’s how I met Leigh Bowery. I moved into a squat in Kentish Town with people already part of the Blitz scene.

It was very cheap hedonism because no one had any money at all. But in a way that’s quite good fun, it’s liberating. It was just what you could knock up from what you could find in the junk shop. We knew people in clubs: Jeremy Healy, Marilyn, Blancmange. I couldn’t believe that people I knew were on Top of the Pops. Then Boy George would be about all the time.

Getting ready to go out was the best. Leigh loved bossing me about. He said I have a very small mouth and would paint lipstick all around my face, and I’d scream at him and wiped it all off because I wouldn’t go out looking like that. I was never as freaky a dresser as he was.

Every other week I’d work on the door at Taboo. All my friends would be there, arriving drunk and falling down the stairs, John Galliano rolling all over the floor. The Bodymap people would do a little Bodymap dance, Rachel Auburn would DJ, as would Princess Julia, though she was more the cloakroom girl. Jeffrey Hinton DJ-ed, and sometimes he’d be so drunk he’d just play the record mat. Everything perked up when Leigh arrived because he had such charisma and joie de vivre. Even if he was rude to people they were thrilled that at least he paid them attention. 

Leigh was famous for working for other people. Originally he was just doing costumes for Michael Clark – I think he got Leigh in there as a novelty act, but Leigh was such a show-off, and if he did something he did it properly. But once he knew he had AIDS he was much more focused and wanted to call the shots, so that’s why he set up Minty. That was just taking off, then he got really ill. I was the only one who knew he had HIV, so that was a bit scary. He didn’t want everyone to know because he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. 

Before he died, Leigh was also working for Lucian Freud, and got the idea that he should paint me. Because they’re a pair of control freaks it was all very cloak-and-dagger – Leigh made Lucian think he thought of the idea himself.

I first met Lucian around 92 or 93; he took me out for lunch at the River Café and really showed off, but I loved him showing off. I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. Leigh came to pick me up to go to Lucian’s for the first picture, we drove there and I was really scared, and I took my clothes off. In my head I said, ‘He’s like a doctor, it means nothing to him.’

We’d talk about everything under the sun. Lucian was very up on current affairs because he read lots of newspapers. We’d gossip about pop stars, people he’d met. What I liked best was when he talked about people from the olden days like Cecil Beaton.

Each portrait took about nine months, and I posed for about three days a week. My tattoos always caused big drama, and you had to stay more or less exactly the same for nine months. You couldn’t cut your hair, you couldn’t dye it. 

“I try not to be too horrible to people in life; my idea of the world is having fun, and maybe breaking a barrier every now and then” – Sue Tilley

I wasn’t paid much, but it was so entertaining and you got some lovely lunches. He lived by the Hay diet, so no carbohydrates. I’d get a whole plate of the most gorgeous smoked salmon, but it’s really rich and there was too much, so I’d hide it in the bin when he left the room. 

When ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ sold, the Evening Standard came to see me at work. They said, ‘I just want to let you know that your painting’s the most expensive painting in the world’, and everything just went mental. I couldn’t sleep, the phone never stopped ringing. I was thinking, ‘This is just so weird.’ The papers thought I was some sweet little person from the Job Centre – they didn’t really know the life I’d had.

Lucian stopped speaking to me because there was this exhibition at the Tate gallery, and on the headphones you wear I said something like, ‘This painting was originally Leigh but he went to Scotland, but the dog was in so Lucian was thrilled he didn’t have to pay the wages.’ It was a joke, but he took it that I was saying he was mean. I wasn’t bothered because I knew how he operated: he would take offence at the most ridiculous things. He wanted to work so hard and he couldn’t keep up all these friendships, so he invented these slights. I found out he died on Twitter, but I had seen him a couple of years ago, and he was nice to me, so I knew that we were alright.

About ten years ago, Boy George wrote the musical Taboo, and I was one of the main characters. I was played by a Scottish girl. Never in a million years did I think that I would be a character in a West End show, and then it went to Broadway. In the meantime I wrote a book called Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon. Matt Lucas has got the rights to the film. I don’t know what’s happening now.

I still work at the Job Centre – no one’s ever offered me a job where I’d get the same salary. You meet interesting people, I’m not a snob. I try not to be too horrible to people in life; my idea of the world is having fun, and maybe breaking a barrier every now and then.” 

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