The dictionary defines the word “legend” as:
1. a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated.
2. an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.
It would be fair to say this word fits rather snugly with the performance artist, designer, would-be pop star, icon, artist’s model and “work of art” Leigh Bowery.
When asked recently, “Who was Leigh Bowery?” I was briefly flummoxed as where to begin in any attempt to describe this wonderfully extravagant yet self-indulgent character. There were so many facets to his life—so many fictions, so many facts—it seemed rather unsporting to choose only one.
Leigh Bowery was born on March 26th, 1961, in the small working class suburb of Sunshine in Melbourne, Australia. He was was the eldest of two children born to Tom and Evelyn Bowery. His mother had lived her entire life in Sunshine and raised Leigh and his younger sister Bronwyn in a house opposite her own childhood home. Sunshine was that kind of community. People lived and died there—they knew their place and rarely ventured beyond its boundaries.
Leigh was a large beefy child with a head of golden curls. Because of his build, his father hoped Leigh would become an Australian rules football player or at the very least something sporty. Yet Leigh showed no inclination for such physical activities. He preferred gardening and later needlework—something he first learnt while convalescing in hospital after an operation to help his testicles descend.
At school he was a very bright pupil. He had a keen and enquiring mind, was constantly reading books and showed great aptitude for classical music—in particular playing the piano. His life changed after he won a scholarship to Melbourne High School.
Leigh later claimed that he had known he was gay from the age of twelve. During his time at Melbourne High, he began his sexual adventures. On his way home from school, Leigh cruised the public toilets at the central railway station. He discovered wearing a school uniform made him highly attractive to the older men. By his own estimate—which may or may not be true—he claimed he had sex with about one thousand men before he left school.
His parents had hoped Leigh would study music at university. Instead, he chose to study fashion design at the Melbourne Institute of Technology. Leigh was one of only two boys in his year. He quickly learnt how to machine sew and began making some of his early flamboyant designs. These were not exactly appreciated by his teachers who wanted him to design ladies’ underwear and children’s clothes.
But Leigh had moved ahead of such small ambitions and wanted to create his own designs. He was eighteen and had fallen under the influence of punk—as he later explained in an interview.
The thing which made everything click for me was the punk movement where people used themselves and their appearance to describe so much and I just loved Busby Berkeley movies—all those sequins and feathers—and I would always have my nose in a National Geographic, gazing at women with stretched necks and rings going in strange places.
Leigh was also very enamored with the club scene in London, which he read about in all the imported pop and fashion magazines he got his hands on.
I wanted to hang out with the art and fashion people. I wanted to go to nightclubs and look at the clothes in the shops. I loved the idea of punk and the New Romantics. England seemed the only place to go, I considered New York but that just seemed full of cheap copies of London. I don’t think I made a mistake.
He quit college and worked in a department store to raise the funds for the London move. When he arrived in the city of his dreams, Leigh lived with a friend. When this friend moved out, Leigh decided to change his life and become more involved with the city around him. According to his friend and biographer Sue Tilley, Leigh made a list of four resolutions on New Year’s Eve 1980:
1) Get his weight down to twelve stone.
2) Learn as much as possible.
3) Establish himself in either fashion, art or writing.
4) Wear make-up every day.
Leigh managed to meet three of these resolutions over the next decade.
He began visiting the clubs he had dreamed about back in Australia. By day he worked at a burger bar, by night he paraded his latest homemade outfit at the nightclubs. Yet he failed to connect with the world of artists and designers he longed for until he entered Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competition in 1981. It was here he met Yvette the Conqueror—a star of the alternative cabaret circuit—who introduced Leigh to the “in-crowd” he was so desperate to join. As Yvette later recalled, Leigh was still quite “ordinary then, nothing like the work of art he was to become.”
Thru this early introduction Leigh started his campaign to become someone. He knew his talents as a designer but needed an audience to perform before. At first, he used his friend Trojan to try out his different ideas about fashion and make-up. This gave him the confidence to only use his own burly, six foot three, seventeen stone frame as the focus for his creative ideas. Initially he wanted to shock, but he always kept a “aesthetic point of view.” Leigh considered what he was doing as “art”:
‘I think when I am dressed up I reach more people than a painting in a gallery.’
His highly imaginative and outlandish designs were soon featured in youth magazines like i-D, The Face and Blitz. He was beginning to achieve some fame he had dreamt about. This was crowned in 1985 when Leigh started promoting his own club Taboo which was for a time the in place in London during the mid-1980s. Through the clubs he met dancer Michael Clark, for whose company he designed costumes and later performed as a dancer.
In the fickle worlds of pop culture and fashion, Leigh kept himself relevant by completely reinventing himself almost on a daily basis. He began to explore his own interests in identity and sexuality. His friend Boy George said:
‘The rest of us used drag to hide our blemishes and defects, he made them the focal point of his art.’
Leigh was breaking taboos with his shock therapy fashion. There was no area off limits—from nudity to defecation. It led some critics to say he was self-indulgent, immature and a bit of a prat. Leigh shrugged it off claiming all publicity was good publicity.
In the end, he was proved correct. Leigh Bowery’s designs have influenced such fashion designers as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, pop stars like Lady Gaga or even the Scissor Sisters. It’s difficult to pick-up any fashion magazine today and not see something that was lifted or inspired by Leigh Bowery’s work.
A big influence on Leigh was Divine. He was a fan of the actor and singer and especially the films of John Waters. There is an obvious correlation between some of Leigh’s excesses and Waters’ films. When Leigh became ill with AIDs and was admitted to hospital in 1993, he booked himself in under the name “John Waters.” It was his way of keeping his fatal illness a secret from his friends—and also a small homage to the man whose films had inspired him at the beginning of his career.
In 1986, Leigh Bowery was the focus of a documentary presented by Hugh Laurie for the series South of Watford. The program followed Leigh as he worked as host of the Taboo nightclub, designed his extraordinary clothes, attended a Bodymap fashion show, and mixed with many of his exotic friends—including Michael Clark, Lana Pellay and film director John Maybury.