Leigh Bowery

Leigh Bowery

Infobox actor
name = Leigh Bowery

imagesize = 225 px
caption =
birthname = Leigh Bowery
birthdate = birth date|1961|03|26
birthplace = Sunshine, Victoria, Australia
deathdate = death date and age|1994|12|31|1961|03|26
deathplace = London, England, United Kingdom
othername =
occupation = performance artist, fashion designer, club promoter, actor and model
yearsactive = 1980-1994
spouse = Nicola Bateman (married 13 May 1994
domesticpartner =
website =
awards =

Leigh Bowery (26 March 1961 - 31 December 1994) was an Australian performance artist, club promoter, actor, aspiring pop star, model and fashion designer. Leigh is considered one of the more influential figures in the 1980s - 1990s London and New York art and fashion circles "influencing a generation of artists and designers". His influence reached through the fashion, club and art worlds to impact, amongst others, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Boy George, Antony and the Johnsons, John Galliano, the Scissor Sisters, David LaChapelle, Lady Bunny plus numerous Nu-Rave bands and nightclubs in London and New York which arguably perpetuated his avant garde ideas.

Early career

Leigh Bowery was born in 1961 in Sunshine, Australia. He often compared his early life there to a cultural wasteland. A sensitive and multi-gifted child, he did not fit well in these macho surroundings, and as a teenager discovered a whole new world by reading about the London new romantic scene from British fashion magazines such as i-D. From this inspiration he fully intended to take up his place eventually and reinvent himself at the centre of the avant-garde art world in London.

He came from a family that was very conservative and would often reflect on his parents who were actively involved in the local Salvation Army. He was the older of two children, his sister Bronwyn being several years younger. He described his father as kind but macho and had a particularly close relationship with his mother from whom he inherited a love of dress making. From these unlikely beginnings a freak superstar would one day emerge.

After attending Melbourne High School, and one year of a fashion course there, he abandoned his home in Australia for good and moved to London in 1980, initially to make his career as a fashion designer. Although this was a financial failure, it did garner him a small cult following and media interest. Eventually he was making a name for himself by dramatic performances of dance, music, and extreme exhibitionism, while wearing bizarre and very original outfits of his own design.

Upon arriving he befriended two leading clubbers: Trojan (aka Guy Barnes), later a painter, and David Walls (later of the design team Gallagher Walls). Bowery moved in with them to a houseshare in Ladbroke Grove, and the two men became the first people in London to wear Leigh's creative designs. Collectively they were nicknamed the Three Kings. They were unemployed for several years and living on benefit, which was common in those days, and were eventually rehoused on the Commercial Road in the East End in a three bedroom flat on the eleventh floor of a council tower block, which was in one of the poorest and bleakest areas of London. All three would experiment with downers, but within the year and after a huge fallout, David Walls moved out, leaving Leigh and Trojan to live together. At this time Leigh and Trojan briefly became lovers, but split soon after due to Trojan's insistence.

At this time, Thatcher was in power and, although the boys in the city were making crazy salaries, times were hard for the young up-and-coming artist or designer without a trust fund. The only escape was in the secret underworld of often polysexual or gay nightclubs. To these clubbers London was the Weimar republic of the 1980s. Up until 1986 Leigh would describe himself as a fashion designer and club promoter. Although his early fashion career is often ignored, he had considerable artistic success and it included several collections in London Fashion week, shows at the ICA, The Camden Palace, New York, and Tokyo (see below for Fashion Collections and early Leigh Bowery Models).

In January 1985 he started the now infamous polysexual Thursday disco club night "Taboo". Originally an underground venture, it quickly became London's Studio 54, only much wilder, extremely more fashionable, and without the masses of celebrities--although they came flocking in later. For everyone stepping through the doors it was a truly unforgettable experience.Over the coming years he was invited to host numerous club nights in New York, Tokyo, Rome, and elsewhere.

Contrary to popular belief, he was not part of the New Romantic movement that was popular in Britain during the early 1980s. Though perhaps he is more properly placed within the context of early fashion clubs such as Cha Cha's at Heaven and the 'Hard Times' movement, he was always at the centre of the pansexual set of young and fashionable Londoners.

Having been a plump, studious, and often bullied child, Leigh grew up to often be uncomfortable in his skin, and used his frequently bizarre and brilliant designs as an armour for his insecurities. As he got larger he used his costumes to exaggerate his size, and the effect was frequently overpowering and unforgettable for those who encountered him, the more so because of his confrontational style. A wallflower he was not.

In these early days Leigh felt comfortable with describing himself as 'gay', although he had intense and passionate friendships occasionally of a sexual nature with women, often in the form of a sadomasochistic-type relationship, with Leigh firmly in the role of master puppeteer. With his bizarre looks Leigh often had difficulties attracting the men he was sexually attracted to, and he would often describe having sex in risky underground situations such as cottages, with unattractive individuals.

Unlike many of his club contemporaries Leigh had a colossal intelligence, was widely read, and was passionate about all forms of artistic expression. While he could be extremely witty and charming, he would often be a malicious fashion bully, intimidating friend and foe alike with his sharp tongue and accusations. These all reflected a sign of the times where hardness went hand in hand with the club scene.

Although Taboo was over by early 1987, Leigh was at the very heart of London's alternative fashion movement. But AIDS and hard drugs had influenced the scene, causing the death of his best friend and former lover Trojan, then of Taboo door whore and budding musician Marc Valtier. As a result Leigh experienced severe depression, which manifested itself in abusive unsafe sexual activities, often in cottages and public cruising grounds. It was probably at this time he contracted HIV, although he kept this a closely guarded secret from most friends until days before his death. Being HIV-positive at this time was seen as a death sentence and there was much fear and discrimination to be faced--Leigh did not want to be described as an artist with AIDS, feeling it would overshadow any of his artistic achievements.

Soon after Leigh collaborated with the famous 1980s dancer Michael Clark, after having been first his costume-designer before eventually joining the company as a dancer. He also participated in multi-media events like "I Am Kurious Oranj" and the play "Hey, Luciani", with Mark E. Smith and The Fall.

In 1988 he had a week-long show in Anthony d'Offay's prestigious Dering Street Gallery in London's West End, in which he lolled on a chaise longue behind a two-way mirror, primping and preening in a variety of outfits while visitors to the gallery looked on. The insouciance and audacity of this overt queer narcissism captivated gallery goers, critics and other artists. Bowery's exquisite appearance, silence and intense self-absorption were further accentuated by his own recordings of random and abrasive traffic noises which were played for the show's duration. The very intimate and private was flung in the face of the public complete with a "Street Life" sound track, hinting perhaps at something still darker. In some outfits he appears like some strange roadside creature, like a cat that finally got the cream (of art world attention); in others he is the "Satan's Son" that he would whisper, years later, on his deathbed.

For all his art world exposure and contacts it seems peculiar now that no one suggested to Bowery that he might adopt the very viable strategy of Gilbert and George - an earlier generation's living sculpture - and derive an income from selling images of himself rather than rely on occasional commissions, modeling work for Lucian Freud, or design consultancy for Rifat Ozbek. In the later years of his life the advantages of having an independent income started to become more obvious and Bowery looked to music, in the form of art rock/pop group Minty, to possibly provide this independent income stream. "I have a profile," he confided to former flatmate and fellow Australian Anne Holt, "but I have no money." Minty, he hoped, would provide a solution to this crux, although this wish eventually proved to be unfounded.

He later excited the fashion crowd with a performance at SMact, a short lived SM Night at Bar Industria. Using Nazi costumes with a lesbian friend named Barbara, they turned concentration camp experimentation into SMart. The readers of Capital Gay, the London weekly newspaper, turned on fellow performer Berkley, who had played the victim, and Barbara and Leigh weathered the storm.

In 1993 Leigh briefly formed the band Raw Sewage with leading clubbers Sheila Tequila and Stella Stein. They performed nude with their faces blacked up, wearing 18" platforms and merkins (pubic wigs), to the bemusement of audiences in London clubs and at the Love Ball in Amsterdam. But the collaboration ended in personality clashes. Leigh went on to appear as the "Madame Garbo" in "The Homosexual (or the difficulty of sexpressing oneself)" by Copi at Bagleys Warehouse in London's King's Cross.

Minty and Freud

In 1993 Leigh formed the band Minty with friend and former 1980s knitwear designer Richard Torry, Nicola Bateman and Matthew Glammore. Their single "Useless Man" "Boot licking, tit tweaking useless man..." which was remixed by The Grid along with their twisted onstage scatological performances caused The Sun newspaper to describe them as the "Sickest band in the world", of which Leigh was very proud. It also became a minor chart hit in The Netherlands, although old friends felt that he had lost his true artistic self to cheap and obvious shock horror tactics, none of which were new.

During 1994 Leigh performed the "Fete worse than death" in Hoxton Square, Leigh and Nicola Bateman (later, Nicola Bowery) showed their classic "Birth Show", a homage to John Waters' "Female Trouble", in which Leigh gives birth to Nicola, using a specially designed harness which holds her upside down to his belly under his costume.

In November 1994 Minty began a two week show at London's Freedom Cafe, watched by the young Alexander McQueen, but it was too much for Westminster City Council, who closed the show down after only one night.Minty never lived up to its promise, was a financial loss and represented a cultural low point in his colourful career.

Although Leigh always described himself as gay he married his long-term friend Nicola Bateman on May 13 1994, only months before his death from AIDS-related illness at the (now closed and redeveloped) Middlesex Hospital London on New Year's Eve 1994, after a five week battle that only a handful of friends were informed about. "Tell them I've gone pig farming in Bolivia" is one reported death bed pronouncement which is illustrative of the gallows humour and dark irony that can be traced in much of his work. (As well as recalling Andy Warhol's "Death is so abstract - they've just gone shopping to Bloomingdales, and haven't come back, that's all" approach to mortality.) Among his last requests was that his middle name be unknown.

Glimmers of the influences of film maker John Waters and artist Andy Warhol can be seen in his keen appreciation of bad taste, truly outlandish self presentation and a deep desire to shock and confuse. "I want to be the Andy Warhol of London" he once said. "Dressed-up" he was obviously "Modern Art on legs" (as Boy George commented), but in daytime attire the badly-fitting, obvious, disturbing wigs are a nod to Warhol's self-presentation strategies that has thus far seemed invisible to both critics and friends alike.

Other art historical parallels include an early eighties attempt at Vincent van Gogh type ear-cutting with friend Trojan (in an attempt to out do nightclub rivals), and as a result inflicted facial perforations that he was warned would not heal (reminiscent of Warhol's weeping wounds). Bowery made a full auto-couture appearance at the 1986 Warhol show "Success is a job in New York" at London's Serpentine Gallery with Nicola and an unknown assistant.

He became known to a wider audience by appearing in a Post-Modernist/Surrealist series of television and cinema and commercials for the Pepe jeans company, MTV London and other commissions such as stage work for rock band U2. He also appeared regularly in articles, vox pops and as cover star in London's i-D magazine. Tired brands in need of fresh ideas tended to covet his dazzling originality. Leigh was also Art Director for the famous video for Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy".

Bowery was the nude subject of several of Lucian Freud's better later portraits, and travelled internationally to the opening events of his exhibitions. This modeling work provided him with a modest income of sorts for a period and he certainly relished Freud's connections to the British establishment, though it seems strange now that such an explosively original and inventive artist like Bowery would subordinate himself to the likes of Freud. Anarchistic till the end Leigh even squirreled away a couple of Freud's small paintings.

As a character he featured in the stage musical "Taboo" that was based on the New Romantic movement. It also featured actors playing Marilyn, Boy George, Steve Strange and other stars of the early 1980s. The musical, which was written by Mark Davies with music composed partly by Boy George, was a London West End hit. American media star Rosie O'Donnell financed a much- altered version for Broadway, but this was not successful.

Leigh died at the very young age of 33, and packed much into his short life, he explained to friends that he often added 10 years to his age because no one believed he was so young, although Leigh did indeed look older than his years.

Although not celebrated in his native Australia, Leigh is now considered one of the most important figures in the 1980s and '90 London and New York art and fashion world, having been admired by or having influenced amongst others, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Antony and the Johnsons, John Galliano, Scissor Sisters, David LaChapelle, Lady Bunny plus numerous Nu- Rave bands and club nights in London and New York.

Popular references

The character Vulva, who was played by David Walliams in the British TV comedy series Spaced is based on Leigh Bowery [http://www.spaced-out.org.uk/episode-guides/series-one/official/e3.shtml] .

Boy George did record a tribute song on his 1995 album, Cheapness And Beauty. The track is called "Satan's Butterfly Ball". In the Taboo musical, some tracks were sung by the Leigh character, like "Ich Bin Kunst" and "I'll Have You All".

Fashion collections and show information

Fashion collections:
* Hobo: New York Fashion Week. 1982.
* Pakis from Outer Space: Camden Palace for London Fashion Week. 1982/83.
* Mincing Queens: ICA 'Performing Clothes' for London Fashion Week and The Hacienda Club, Manchester. 1984.
* Disease/ Spastic: Riverside Studios and Earls Court for London Fashion Week. 1986.

Models:Models for these shows included old friends such as:Trojan (aka Gary Barnes, died 1987), David Walls, Peter Hammond (aka Space Princess, died 1993), Marc Vaultier (aka Mark Golding, died 1987), George Gallagher, James Payne, David LaChapelle, Jim McGuire, Robert McGuire, Sandra Cosijn, Dezi Campbell and Malcolm Duffy.


* Leigh Bowery Looks by Leigh Bowery, Fergus Greer, published by Thames & Hudson Ltd; New Ed edition (2005); ISBN 0-500-28566-7
* Leigh Bowery Looks by Leigh Bowery, Fergus Greer, published by: Violette Editions (2006);ISBN 1-900828-27-8


* [http://www.discogs.com/artist/Minty Minty's discography]

Partial videography

* "Generations of Love" (1990), Baillie Walsh for Boy George
* "Teach" (1992), Charles Atlas
* "A Smashing Night Out" (1994), Matthew Glamorre
* "Death in Vegas" (1994), Mark Hasler
* Performance at Fort Asperen (1994)
* "Flour" (single screen version) (1995), Angus Cook
* "Read Only Memory" (estratto) (1998), John Maybury


* [http://hotwired.wired.com/retina/95/31/review/ Posthumous New York exhibition prospectus]
* [http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_19950107/ai_n9628913/print Leigh Bowery obituary by Alix Sharkey]
* [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0354696/ (IMDB) "The Legend of Leigh Bowery", directed by Charles Atlas. 2002, USA/France, 88 mins duration]
* Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1999. ISBN 0-340-69311-8
* Leigh Bowery by Robert Violette, published by: Violette Editions (London, July, 1998).
* [http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=41640 Clothing Gandhi's Nation. By Lisa Trivedi]
* Lucian Freud: Recent Drawings and Etchings


* [http://www.showstudio.com/projects/bowery/interview.html An extended extract (72 minutes) of a 1989 audio interview]


* [http://media.f2.com.au/?rid=13303&skin=smh Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art movie]
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/ilove/tv/clothesshow/videoclips/video1.shtml BBC "Clothes Show" excerpt with Leigh Bowery]
* [http://worldofwonder.net/archives/2006/Jan/18/the_basement_tapes.wow Donut Party hosted by Michael Alig at Twin Donuts with many New York Club regulars including Isaac Mizrahi]
* [http://www.showstudio.com/projects/bowery/movies.html Bowery footage by UK fashion photographer Nick Knight on SHOWstudio.com]

External links

* [http://www.leighbowery.com.br Leigh Bowery Tribute Website]
* [http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~karlpeter/zeugma/inters/bowery.htm Goodbye to the Boy from Sunshine]
* [http://www.albemarle-london.com/taboo.html "Taboo" in London]
* [http://www.freewebs.com/deadinengland/index.htm Online memorial to Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman and others]
* [http://www.showstudio.com/projects/bowery/text.html The Legacy of Leigh Bowery by friend Donald Urquhart]
* [http://www.btinternet.com/~s.essom/ultimatetaboo.htm A frank account of Taboo culture and manners]
* [http://www.geocities.com/bellkahn/menuleighbowery.html The Blitz Kids. Early eighties images of Leigh Bowery and friends]

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