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 founder of Taboo

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Leigh Bowery, Dazed Digital
Video-still from Charles Atlas, Teach, 1992-98Still of video by Vilma Gold

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 from Alexander McQueen (who once went to see his band Minty before their Soho residency was shut down for obscenity) to Gareth 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’s Icons of Fashion series, 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 a fashion 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 being Grayson 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

LUCIAN FREUD WAS OBSESSED WITH HIS LEGS

Many unfamiliar with the 80s club kids will know Bowery as one of artist Lucian 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.”

Sue Tilley will be speaking on Lucian Freud as part of A Curious Invitation’s 32 Londoners on the London Eye series on June 11. Tickets are available here

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