Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley

If Leigh came to your house and saw something he didn’t like he would throw it out the window.”

I stumbled upon some photos of Leigh Bowery by pure accident, and I immediately knew that this Australian avant-garde performance artist/club promoter/costume designer was heavily influenced by Divine and John Waters. I then came across a bio of Bowery written by his long-time friend, Sue Tilley, so I decided to read it and discover whether or not the Divine-Leigh Bowery connection existed. And to break the suspense, yes, Bowery was influenced by Divine and John Waters, so for fans of Trash Cinema, or for those who appreciate Bad Taste, this book is an interesting read which further endorses Waters’ influence outside of Baltimore. Yes people, he’s polluting the whole planet!

But back to Leigh Bowery….

Bowery was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and died of AIDS in 1994. This disease stripped the world of so many talented people. Freddie Mercury comes to mind, and Leigh Bowery was yet another immensely talented individual who could have accomplished so much more if he’d had the time.

This brutally honest, and sometimes raw, memoir is written by Leigh’s close friend, Sue Tilley. Tilley was on the scene when 19-year-old Leigh, armed with a portable sewing machine, moved from Melbourne, Australia to London in 1980. Leigh was seeking glamour, excitement, and a “career in design”  and he found all these things–although not instantly–in the London club scene by way of  a detour at Burger King. Tilley describes the influences on Leigh’s attitudes, including Divine: “the brilliant drag actor and singer, who was to be a great influence for the rest of his life.”

An exceptional aspect of the memoir is Tilley’s no-holds barred look at  Leigh Bowery. They were best friends, and clearly Sue has a strong attachment to this larger-than-life Australian, but at no point does Tilley sugar-coat her view. We see the positive: his creativity, his humour and his zest for life, and the negative: stealing from Burger King, shoplifting, and the treatment of his ‘slaves’.

Tilley describes the various fashion trends:New Romantics, Hard Times, & Glam as well as numerous notables from the 80s London club scene, including Scarlett Bordello and Steve Strange. The club scene at White Trash, ChaChas, Heaven and Asylum is detailed, and Leigh was such a natural presence at the clubs that he was approached by club entrepreneur Tony Gordon to be “the public face” of a club which opened in 1985. The club was named Taboo “because it epitomized everything Leigh loved.” The club doorman, Mark Vaultier, would hold a mirror in front of the faces of would–be club entrants and ask: “Would you let yourself in?”

To quote an article from Alix Sharkey, Taboo was :

London’s sleaziest, campest and bitchiest club of the moment which is stuffed with designers, stylists, models, students, dregs and the hopefully hip, lurching through the lasers and snarfing up amyl. The coolest geezer in here is wearing Bodymap tights and, yup, platform soles. A sudden rush for the toilets could only mean that a camera crew had arrived and were filming, nothing less would penetrate this narcissistic air of self-absorption.

The book is not strictly chronological, and some of it is organised thematically (Home, Dance, Art, Hospital), and the result is a well-considered blend of the personal and the professional–including Leigh’s cottaging exploits and his favourite public toilets. When it came to sex, he preferred toilets to homes:

Very occasionally Leigh would go back to men’s houses but he never really enjoyed it–it just confirmed the dreariness of most people’s lives and their complete lack of taste in home furnishings.

Leigh comes to life in anecdotes–one example is the way he told such outrageous lies that no one knew whether or not he was telling the truth:

Typically, Leigh would tell the most heinous lies. He once told me that Brad Branson, an American photographer who I knew in passing, had been on holiday in Ibiza, caught a terrible tropical disease and dropped dead. I was very shocked at this because it seemed such a strange thing to happen. A couple of weeks later, I was sitting in my little cashier’s booth at Industria and then suddenly Brad Branson came down the stairs. I nearly jumped out of my skin and screeched ‘I thought you were dead.’ I still don’t know why I believed the story because after ten years I should have realised what a liar Leigh was but I didn’t think that even he could make up stories that bad.

Leigh’s playfulness and transgressive sense of humour seep through the pages, and for this reader at least, reading the book, gave a clear sense of knowing this adventurous character:

When Leigh was asked by somebody on what occasions he lied, he replied, ‘On what occasions do I breathe!’ At least he was honest that once. Because Leigh told such terrible lies, sometimes people didn’t believe the truth. He once told Cerith that Les Child was working in the gay sauna in Covent Garden making sandwiches for the snack bar. Cerith couldn’t believe that as talented a dancer as Les would be doing such a job. So when he bumped into Les several months later and asked him how things were going he was completely gobsmacked when he replied ‘Fine, girl, I’m not making the sandwiches any more.’

So even when Leigh told the truth, the truth had a strangely comic result….Obviously for author Sue Tilley, the creator of this touching, tragic and funny memoir,  it’s impossible to forget Leigh Bowery. He was … simply … one of a kind.

For images of Leigh and his work, here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hASjFX7CVsQ

Review copy read on my kindle courtesy of Open Road media via Netgalley

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11 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Tilley Sue

11 responses to “Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley

  1. This sounds very entertaining. I agree, HIV robbed the world of a lot of talented people. The list is appalling. It’s fascinating how long a liar can get away with. People believe almost everything. It’s crucial to blen fact and fiction, he must have known that. I wonder why he did it though. Probably a bot like a performance.

  2. He really sounds like a character, and when I say ‘larger than life’ I also mean that he stretched his life by his talent & made a great deal more of his life than anyone would have thought possible. He loved to gossip and would spend mornings in bed on the phone gossiping while wearing this old tea cosy he found on his head. I think his lies were a way of making life more interesting, more scandalous and less mundane.

  3. Hello.
    AIDS also took Keith Haring and it’s such a pity. Your review makes me think of the film Les Nuits Fauves and of Armistead Maupin’s books.
    What a character! The bigger the lie, the most probable it is people will believe it. Simply because they can’t think you could invent it…

  4. I saw Boy George play Leigh Bowery in a musical based on Boy George’s life. It was actually pretty good.

    This is a wonderful quote:

    Very occasionally Leigh would go back to men’s houses but he never really enjoyed it–it just confirmed the dreariness of most people’s lives and their complete lack of taste in home furnishings.

  5. Jay Goldstein

    Sadly Brad actually passed away last week in Hays Kansas of Lung Cancer.

    • yes brad did pass away , he was a friend of mine. he moved to saint francis over a year ago. we had become friends and started a cinema club to show silent films and vintage movies. he was a pretty cool guy. we attended his memorial yesterday.

      • Chris

        I knew Brad as well and just saw your post and am quite shocked. I lived in London in the 90’s and got to know him very well.

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