Leigh Bowery by Sue Tilley
Illustration by Constantin Prozorov
Sue Tilley met Leigh Bowery in a night club who was to become her best friend and a huge influence in her life. She worked at his legendary nightclub Taboo. After he died in 1993 she wrote his biography which has become a bit of a cult classic. Bowery introduced her to Lucian Freud who painted her four times. One painting, ‘Benefit Supervisor Sleeping’ sold for over £17,000,000 in 2008 which at the time was a world record for a painting by a living artist sold at auction. In 2015 ‘Benefit Supervisor Resting’ sold for £36,000,000.
She has recently been commissioned by Fendi to produce some images for its SS18 menswear collection. These will be available to buy from January 2018. She also continues to give talks about herself, the 80s club scene, Leigh Bowery and Lucian Freud. She was recently seen on The Art Show on Sky Arts doing her first piece of tv presenting on the subject of nudes in art.
She has recently moved to the seaside.
Occupation Performance artist, fashion designer, club promoter, actor and model
Well, that’s what it says on Wikipedia, but there was so much more to Leigh than that as anyone who knew him would know. What shocks me most is that he was only 33 when he died…. that’s no age at all, especially when I think that I’m knocking 60. If he was still alive he would have had another 23 years to firmly put himself at the centre of pop culture, although he didn’t do a bad job in the few years he was alive.
I first met Leigh at Cha Chas, a once a week “alternative“ club at the back of Heaven. At this time Leigh was wearing the same sort of clothes as everyone else, well everyone else at Cha Chas not the general public. Hard Times had taken over as an antidote to the highly flamboyant New Romantic fashions, ripped jeans, string vests and assorted rags were de rigeur. Leigh had on a sweat shirt, and cropped wide trousers with braces. His hair was shaved at the side and the long bits on top were slightly back combed to make a messy quiff. I was immediately attracted to his chubby cheeky face and sparkling blue eyes.
He was with his friend Trojan who was much better looking but when I chatted to them, Leigh was much more my cup of tea, he was quick witted with an irreverent sense of humour.
I bumped into the pair of them a week later at a North London disco called Bolts. As usual everyone was incredibly drunk and I was laying on the floor snogging my best friend Rics. I’d introduced him to Leigh as my brother so he thought that I was very modern and devilish. That sealed our friendship and even when he knew the truth he admired my fabrication of the facts as Leigh lived by the old saying “What is a lie but the truth in disguise”
At this point Leigh was just himself not the icon that he was to become. He was sewing away making fashions for his stall in Kensington Market but his heart wasn’t in it, he found it very boring making the same clothes over and over again. All the time I was working in The Jobcentre so it seemed unlikely that we would become friends. But we had similar backgrounds, brought up by church going parents who enjoyed taking us to museums and tried to instil in us a sense of right and wrong.
We soon became proper friends and spent hours on the phone gossiping about all the misbehaviour that had gone on the night before…and there was a lot of misbehaviour in those days. We were both keen on getting off with boys and it was a subject that we spent hours discussing.
Despite some people thinking that Leigh was a bitchy queen he really was the best friend that anyone could have. He would give you tons of attention and all the time spent with him was turned into a performance for your entertainment. He was exceptionally generous and would give you his last penny which meant that he never made any money for himself.
We sometimes slept in each other’s beds as it saved money to share a taxi and it was nice to have a cuddle. Although Leigh was a confirmed homosexual it was sometimes any port in a storm and he had slept with a couple of his girlfriends. One night we had got very drunk and went back to his flat just off the Commercial Road. Before I knew it his tongue was in my mouth and he was dragging my legs over his shoulders “Go on Sue, wear my toes as earrings”
The next time it happened I was round his house on a Sunday afternoon and he was prancing around naked waving his banana shaped penis about when he suddenly got a bit excited so we had a quick shag on the sofa.
It wasn’t anything meaningful just something for us to laugh about. Leigh had a spare room and wondered if I’d like to move in... I was tempted but my sensible gene kicked in and I realised I’d be daft to give up my own flat and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with Leigh’s hours as he often worked through the night and I would have to get up for work. Also his friend Nicola, was there most of the time as she enjoyed looking after him and doing whatever he asked her to do
About a year after we met Leigh started becoming The Leigh Bowery that everyone recognises. He originally dressed Trojan in ‘The Pakis From Outer Space’ look but once he saw all the attention that Trojan was getting Leigh started going out with the iconic blue face and bejewelled look. Although he may have worn dresses and skirts he certainly did not see it as drag it was just a different way for men to dress.
Leigh was a stalwart at all the underground nightclubs and a natural progression was to open his own club. Tony Gordon offered Leigh a chance to run a night with him at the rather dated Maximus club in Leicester Square and Taboo was born. As soon as Leigh arrived the party began as he whirled around the dance floor throwing out greetings and insults to whoever caught his eye whilst showing off that week’s look. It became the place for everyone to go on a Thursday night and the levels of misbehaviour were legendary. If you didn’t end up rolling on the floor you hadn’t had a proper night out.
His guests looked like a motley crew but those who didn’t succumb to drugs or AIDs became the shapers of the eighties and amazingly successful, Boy George, John Galliano, , Stephen Jones, Bodymap, John Maybury, Cerith Wyn Evans and Michael Clark were regulars who joined in the mayhem.
As Taboo got more popular, Leigh got more famous and he was regularly featured in newspapers and magazines and even had a few TV appearances. His first cover was on a freeAustralian magazine called LAM, Leigh was so excited he collected about 200 to keep in his flat.
Leigh’s one true love, Trojan died of a drug overdose in 1986 which broke Leigh’s heart even though he had already lost him as he had moved out and had formed a relationship with the film maker John Maybury. They only had a sexual relationship for about 3 weeks which Leigh prolonged by tempting Trojan with LSD.
After this Leigh never really slept with any of his contemporaries as it was very difficult to pull fellas as every night out was a major performance and not conducive to flirting. He just sated his huge sex drive by visiting all the gentleman’s toilets in London and picking up whoever he could. Actually I should change that to gentleman’s toilets all over the world. As well as providing sex these assignations were also an endless source of amusing stories. We were once In Windsor visiting my parents and he popped into the toilets just by the station, he came out sheepishly wiping his mouth and when we got on the train back to London the young man he had sucked off was in our carriage so Leigh madea great deal of pretending I was his wife.
Michael Clark asked Leigh to make costumes for his critically acclaimed ballets. Leigh became such a part of the company he eventually made the move to be on stage. He wasn’t the world’s greatest dancer but he made up for it with hard work and enthusiasm. Leigh got to travel the world with Michael and even went back to Melbourne where he mortified his mother who had invited all her friends to the show not knowing that there was nudity and lewd sexual acts. But there was conflict as Leigh was very disappointed that Michael would not go as far as he wanted, their major falling out was because Michael refused to wear a costume that said Cunt on the front.
Leigh continued to perform at night clubs all over the place, mainly in Europe and New York, pushing boundaries and acquiring friends and admirers wherever he went. Everyone was thrilled by his energy and daring and his refusal to be restricted by any social mores.
Lucian Freud saw Leigh doing a performance at The Anthony d’Offay Gallery and was fascinated by his size and attitude so asked him to sit for him. Leigh quickly agreed, getting up at 6am to get to Holland Park by 7.30am. This really changed Leigh’s life as he felt it gave him more gravity, rather than being on the more Avant Garde side of culture this was part of the art establishment.
They got on amazingly well and both learnt a lot from each other and painting Leigh made Lucian challenge himself and start a series of incredible paintings of Leigh. He obviously decided he liked painting the fuller figure as Leigh put the idea into his head to paint me and Lucian arranged a meeting and I became a model for him. I will be forever grateful to Leigh for this introduction as it changed my life too.
So although Leigh was happy sitting for Lucian he still felt, as with Michael that he was working for someone else and he wanted to be known for something that he had done himself.
This was even more important for him as he had discovered that he had HIV. He had gone for a test but never gone for the results so when he got a letter from the hospital 2 years later asking him how he was feeling about his positive status it came as rather a shock.
Leigh told me as soon as he knew but swore me to secrecy, he didn’t want people to think he was so daring because he had AIDS but because he had Ideas. He couldn’t bear the thought of people feeling sorry for him. Leigh was getting so famous andfancy by now I worried that I might lose him as a friend but the fact that he told me his secret kept us closer than ever as he had to speak to someone about it and he was able to release to me knowing that I would not get over emotional.
He decided that the way ahead was music, he had Grade 8 in piano and was a great performer so he got together with Richard Torry to form Minty, it was originally a synth pop duo but they gradually enlisted more members.
They did a few shows that went down very well, often at events with the Young British Artists. I sometimes helped out by poking my breasts through a large furry smiley face. Then in November 1994 Leigh was thrilled that they got a short residency at The Freedom Bar in Soho.
He started feeling ill before the first show but thought that it was just flu. The show was very tiring for Leigh as he had to dance around the stage with Nicola attached to his chest underneath his costume before he gave birth to her. The first night was a huge hit with Lucian and Alexander McQueen in the audience…The whole run was solid out.
The next day Leigh called me to tell me that the show had been cancelled as someone had complained to Westminster Council that the content was pornographic. He also told me that he was going to the hospital as he felt so rotten.
A few hours later he called me to say the hospital had called back and they wanted to admit him as he had meningitis. I drove straight over to his and took him to the hospital. The nurses settled him into a bed and then Leigh looked at me and said he had something to tell me. I said “It’s Ok, I know”.
A couple of months earlier Nicola’s sister had told me that earlier in the year as a supposed art performance, Nicola and Leigh had got married in a secret ceremony. I didn’t tell him that I knew as I wanted him to know that despite my blabbermouth I could keep a secret.
Leigh told me that it was to make sure that Nicola was there to look after him when he was ill. When we left his flat he’d left her a note saying where he was “I haven’t told her what’s wrong with me but when Leigh was in the hospital for about 6 weeks and she walks in here she’ll soon work it out”
Nicola usually visited in the day and me in the evening fitting it in between our sittings for Lucian. Although it was a very desperate time I had some of my best moments with Leigh, we were laughing and crying and he said to me “We are funny friends aren’t we, I think we always go on well because I could never control you”
A couple of days after Christmas Leigh was put into intensive care and we told a few very close friends where he was. Luckily his sister and father were visiting to try to get over the death of his mother a few months earlier, little knowing what they were going to have to face.
At 3am on New Year’s Eve Leigh passed away.
As London’s New Year’s parties got under way the main topic of conversation was the loss of Leigh. The most extraordinary, rule breaking inspirational Club Kid and artist that ever lived, never to be forgotten by anybody who ever met him.
Illustrator and stylist Constantin Prozorov is a Berlin-based designer.
Constantin graduated from German Master School for Fashion in Munich in 2013 after studying fashion and graphic design. From 2013 - 2014 he worked at French Haute Couture and Ready-to-wear house ATELIER GUSTAVOLINS. Constantin then worked for Condé Nast in Paris, where he supported the VOGUE, GLAMOUR and MYSELF fashion editorial departments at publications.
He worked as personal design assistant to designer Wolfgang Joop, the founder of the fashion and cosmetics company JOOP! at his Berlin based luxury label WUNDERKIND. He has not established his own dedicated fashion social media agency, specialising in social media and digital content for fashion brands and companies in the spring of 2017.