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David Bowie, Tracey Emin
Photo courtesy of Geoff MacCormack / Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020

Tracey Emin on friendship with David Bowie: ‘It all sounds a bit unreal’

The artist discusses turning down a song with Bowie, as well as her cancer recovery and being ‘overlooked’ in the last 20 years, in a new interview for BBC Radio 4’s This Cultural Life

Back in 2001, Tracey Emin and David Bowie conducted a conversation over email for The Guardian, covering advice for emerging artists, the influence of drugs and alcohol, and dealing with the kind of fame that makes it difficult to “pop down to the shops”. By that point, though, the pair had been friends for a few years, having met in a London restaurant back in 1996. A new interview, for BBC Radio 4’s This Cultural Life, sees Emin dig deeper into the origin of that iconic friendship.

“I was sitting in a Lebanese restaurant in Kensington in 1996 with a couple of other people,” Emin tells the BBC, setting the scene for her first meeting with Bowie. “And someone leaned over the table and said, ‘I’m very sorry to interrupt, my name’s David and I just want to say how much I love your work.’”

“I looked up and David Bowie’s looking at me,” the artist goes on. “And I said ‘likewise’. And we became friends. It was just amazing that the only person I was ever a massive starstruck fan of, I became friends with.”

In the following years, Emin would attend some of Bowie’s shows, and even turned down an offer to record a song with him. “When he played in Ireland and I went with him, I went to see him play,” she says, “and he said, ‘This goes out to my friend Tracey, who’s going to be the most famous artist in the world.’ And then he played ‘Fame’. Which is pretty brilliant.”

Despite the fact that Emin “can’t sing a word… can’t sing a note”, she adds that Bowie told her: “I could get you to sing. We could do a song together. I’ve got the perfect song that you could sing.” In the end, of course, she turned him down, but expresses her regret in the new interview, saying: “I always wish I’d done it now, it would have been brilliant.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Emin discusses some of her other regrets — such as rejecting an offer to appear as an extra in Only Fools and Horses because she was “too up (her) own backside” — as well as attitudes toward her art since the seminal works Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995) and My Bed (1998).

“I think I’ve been overlooked,” she says, discussing the paintings she’s produced over the last two decades. “I think people didn’t understand the seriousness of my work over the last 20 years. I think they just thought I was some sort of narcissistic deranged screaming banshee.”

The reality is, she suggests, slightly more sombre and introspective: “Being an artist is really lonely… There’s a part of you that has to go deep inside, like I say ‘inside the cave’, and if you don’t go inside the cave, you’re never going to make any art. You need to be able to stand and see yourself to be able to make the art.”

Late last year, Emin spoke out about being diagnosed with bladder cancer in June 2020, expanding on the “dramatic” surgery she underwent in a 2021 interview with BBC Woman’s Hour. In the new interview for This Cultural Life, she adds: “Science saved my life, definitely, medical science. My surgeon was lovely. A robot actually did all my surgery, which is quite incredible.” However, she also puts her recovery down to love, having fallen in love just before she discovered that she had cancer. “I think love saved me,” she says. “I really think love saved me this time, not art.”

The full interview with Tracey Emin will air via This Cultural Life on October 30 at 19:15, via Radio 4 and BBC Sounds.