Leigh Bowery is sixty today.
And he’d love all the fuss being made about him on social media and in general, as we salute the club kid, agent provocateur, raconteur, designer, performer and general living sculpture. Except he passed away before such things- long before body positivity, Lizzo, Ru Paul’s Drag Race and trans rights hitting the mainstream were a thing.
I like icons who scare me. I don’t mean in a violent sense, but people who are resolutely, unapologetically themselves, with no need for external validation or likes. Bowery was such a character. Unique, otherworldly, utterly bizarre.
A chunky Australian boy, he immersed himself in the eighties club scene, becoming part of the extended London gang who included Michael Clark, Sue Tilley, Grayson Perry and Trojan- the sexy, creative outsiders who were their own little bubble.
Appearing in videos by The Fall, on the runway and in films by LGBTQ + pioneer Charles Atlas, he also became a muse for painter Lucien Freud, although unadorned, naked and raw.
Bowery othered himself, became object rather than simply style totem or drag queen. He took the accoutrements of feminity: dominatrix fetish wear; power dressing, heels, pin-up, suburban housewife,WI, Thatcherite battleaxe- and contorted them until they were no longer recognisable. Why stop at wearing polka dots when you could paint them all over yourself? He transcended such reductive things as gender, sex, even humanity. He simply was Leigh Bowery.
Noone will ever look as insane as him, as noone else has the balls. Arca? Lady Gaga? Amateurs in this game. When David Walliams parodied him in an episode of Spaced, a bunch of kids took one look at him and said, “What is it?” They were too afraid to even throw stones at him, for fear of attack, like the Bowery- inspired character Vulva was a lion in a safari park. Best keep a safe distance.
Bowery was a massive inspiration to performance artists, designers and pop stars alike. His cheerfully acerbic appearances on The Clothes Show exposed the beigeness of the industry. Boy George portrayed him in the hit west end show, Taboo. Of course, the aforementioned genius dancer/choreographer Michael Clark and our post- punk heroes The Fall worked with him, slyly subverting the limitations of ‘rock-ah records’ and ballet worlds forever with I Am Curious Orange.
Happy birthday then, Leigh. I can only imagine your hot takes on Trump, Instagram, queer representation and the Kardashian culture. It’s a shame you’re not still here to confound everyone. You gorgeous, giddy, gaudy, grotesque.