FOR MANY years, at Whitehouse minicabs in east London, they used to play a joke on new drivers. If Leigh Bowery - who was a valued but unusual customer - happened to book a car for the West End on a driver's first night, that new driver would be sent. He would be given no forewarning, and would make his innocent way to the bottom of an averagely grim tower block off Commercial Road. It might be midnight, or 1am. In time, from the graffitied lift, Mr Bowery would appear: huge padded legs, or three pairs of spectacles, a foam pig's snout, white gloves, a face entirely covered by cloth, a little policeman's helmet - a freak. Back at Whitehouse Cars, they would be howling with laughter.
Today, after Acid House, and the ravey things that have followed it, clubbing is an ordinary part of youth culture. This was not the case 15 years ago, when Bowery started getting into these minicabs. Night-clubs were fewer; they were more litist; they were more attached to the world of fashion and fashion students. Much more than now, they were a place where one could become - at least locally - famous. Fame was not guaranteed to everyone who dressed or spoke outrageously, but it was a possibility, and there was no cheaper or easier way to seek it. Leigh Bowery, who died on New Year's Eve, aged 33, made sure he was at the heart of the club culture in the mid-Eighties: the world of Boy George and Jean Paul Gaultier and the Taboo club and i-D magazine. He did this by massive and continual reinventions of his appearance that may or may not have deserved to be regarded as art. Among club-goers and in their various media, Bowery did find fame, although it is hard to know if it was worth it. He did get into a kind of clubgoing lite; but he lived to learn that there is at least one thing worse than not being let into a place of great grooviness: not being let out.
A few weeks ago, a "tribute" was held for Bowery in a gallery in Bond Street in central London. In a downstairs room, a video showed Bowery performing on stage with his avant-garde pop group, Minty. He was shown "giving birth" to a naked woman covered in slime; she, in turn, appeared to drink Bowery's vomit, and then his urine. Upstairs, there were many photographs of Bowery, and postcards from him to his friends, and mannequins clad in some of Bowery's extraordinary night-club looks from the past 15 years: masks and padded backsides and German military helmets and candles and lavatory seats. On a wall at the end of the room: a 9ft painting of Bowery, bulky and naked, by Lucian Freud.
It was not clear what to make of this collection, some of it a bit dusty, some of it still startling. It was hard to know what it added up to. Bowery was a fashion designer, an expert tailor, a night-club sensation, an art object of sorts, a model for a great painter, an aspiring pop-star, a man who made his body - his presence - a life's project. Infected by HIV, this big body failed him suddenly over Christmas. And when his friends met in Bond Street, still grieving and bewildered, with pointy sideburns and tartan suits and studs here and there, it was unclear if they were marking the passing of some wonderfully unflinching artistic success, or were at a wake for a life that had gone slightly wrong, a life distracted and dogged by - or sacrificed to - the idea of making an exhibition of oneself, to adolescent habits of shock and disguise. They looked at rags from Lucian Freud's studio that Bowery had sewn together to produce an image of Hitler; and Polaroids of Bowery and colleagues naked, their genitals gaffer-taped away. Someone read a poem: "... Is it [Bowery] Art?/Is it Science?/Reference to a domestic appliance?.."
If, alongside the grief and shock, there was unease in the room, it was because there seemed to be a realisation that if you are part of someone's audience, it is hard also to be that person's friend; you are sitting in the wrong place. These people were his friends, but they also formed his public: for this handsome, gay, club-going group of people, Bowery did what he did. And by giving them no inkling that he was going to die (he told only one of them that he was HIV-positive, a fact he had known for six years), he made sure he left some of them feeling vaguely exploitative and ill-mannered: as if they had, in recent years, been applauding an extended funeral service. The big painting by Freud seemed to point a generally accusing finger - it is a painting of man less than a year from his death, his T-cell count down, who for our entertainment and improvement was paid £33 a day to stand in a studio, day after day, month after month, worn out.
Bowery's career seems designed to instruct us in the choice people are alleged to be able to make between creativity and normality; between making a spectacle and having a life. As if to assist in such a dialogue, Boy George was there at the tribute in Bond Street: no longer a heroin addict, no longer wearing thick make-up. He looked well and ordinary. How one feels about Leigh Bowery, by contrast, is likely to correspond to how one feels when shown a photograph of someone whose entire body is covered with tattoos.
FOR OVER a decade until his death, Bowery took his minicabs to the West End. Year after year, he and a chaperone would be dropped off in front of somewhere on Shaftesbury Avenue or Charing Cross Road and would sail past red ropes and bouncers into a pool of flash-bulbs, smiles, free drinks and approval - and all the apparent trappings of glamour. And in that approval and glamour Bowery would have some sort of answer to the question put to him by his friends, and put to him by himself: why?
"He'd say, `Why do I put myself through this?' " remembers Sue Tilley, probably his best friend in London, a charming, large woman who also sat for Lucian Freud (as "the Benefit Supervisor"). "And I'd say, `Yes, why?' Life must have been so uncomfortable. I'd say, `Look, Leigh, you've got 10in heels on, you've got one leg longer than the other, you've got a pom-pom on your head. Why?' And when you say that in cold blood, it's hilarious. He'd say, laughing: `Why, why?' My mum used to drive him mad. She'd go, `Tell Leigh he could make clothes for nice ladies. He could make a very good living, you know. He's such a good sewer.' Leigh would say: `I don't want to make clothes for nice ladies.' "
He was born in Australia in 1961, in an unglamorous blue-collar suburb of Melbourne called Sunshine. Even this is more than many of his London friends knew: Bowery was more keen than most people to keep parts of his life in separate compartments. He suppressed his accent, he lied about his age, he kept people apart. (And he was appalled by the prospect of leakage between compartments that would result from a long illness and death: at hospital bedsides, at funerals, secrets tend to unravel, strangers introduce themselves to each other.)
Bowery's father was an accountant. His mother stayed at home when he was young, but later worked for the Salvation Army as a welfare worker - as did, in time, her husband. Bowery hated Sunshine, but there was a second home, a holiday cottage an hour's drive away, in an area called Mt Macedon. Here, the Bowerys spent two months every summer, and it was here, according to Leigh's younger sister, Bronwyn, that he was happiest as a child. She paints a picture that sits curiously with the later version of her brother, seen, say, in Leicester Square at 2am with bulbs wired into his pierced, fake-dimpled cheeks: she describes Leigh's idyllic days of "swimming, baking in the sun, adventuring, expeditions". It was in Mt Macedon that Leigh Bowery was buried a month ago.
In London, Bowery gave the impression that his early life had been quite painful. A year or so ago, a young club- land friend, Matthew Glamorre, told Bowery that he intended to go home and reach some sort of reconciliation with his father, who was ill. With passion, Bowery cried: "Don't ever make up with your parents! Don't ever lose that resentment!" Glamorre is sure that Bowery's life's project, his furious need for disguise and reinvention, was fuelled in part by great familial anguish. To friends like Glamorre, Bowery's heroism lay in not unhitching himself from that anger, not making it easy for himself. Glamorre says, "Other people come to an age and think, who can be bothered? Why bother to have such a hard life when it could be easier? Leigh chose to carry on having a hard life. That's the price you pay."
If this is a true reading of Bowery's experience, the sources of these resentments remain partly hidden. Bowery always kept in touch with his mother, whom Bronwyn describes as "very maternal, very homely, very encouraging". He wrote and phoned, although with the apparent furtiveness of an 11-year- old boarder ashamed of his homesickness. He had the word "Mum" tattooed on the inside of his lower lip. She died last year. Clearly, though, the relationship between father and son was more tricky (and no one disputes the notion that Bowery's relationship with Lucian Freud was a kind of substitute); Thomas Bowery seems to have been the first in a series of male disappointments. Certainly, it was the men in Leigh's life who abandoned him and cheated on him, and - one assumes - ultimately caused his premature death; it was men who were to be made to eat their words by the glorious spectacle of Bowery's fame. Released 10 days ago, Bowery's only - and obscene - pop single is called "Useless Man".
He had several operations as a boy, with a purpose that might have interested him as a cosmetic option in later life: lowering of a testicle. During his convalescence, his mother taught him to knit and to crochet, at which he became accomplished. He was, says his sister, very bright and, at 14, he got out of Sunshine and into Melbourne High, the city's best state school. He did well: he joined the rowing team, shone at the piano. Encouraged by punk, he began to dress in some style. Around this time, Bronwyn became aware of her brother's homosexuality. Later, Leigh's mother acknowledged it. His father was slow to follow. (Shortly before his son's death he seemed to take as evidence of heterosexuality the fact that - as a kind of camp gesture of rebellion - Leigh had recently got married.)
Bowery left school, and started a fashion course at the Melbourne Institute of Technology, though he was rather distracted by Melbourne's night-clubs. In 1980, accompanied by a lover, Peter, he left Australia, the first member of his family to do so.
IN 1980, New Romanticism was entering the mainstream (Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant and Visage were having their first hits); the Face had just started publishing; the mould-breaking gay club, Heaven, had just opened; British fashions were in fashion; and two young Australians turned up in Earl's Court, eager to start afresh. But Peter quickly became homesick and returned to Melbourne. So Bowery was abandoned in a single room, fresh-faced and beefy, with messy blond hair. His first Christmas, ever one to make an impression - however untrue, however disguised - he assured the family that lived below that he had somewhere interesting to go, that they would not be seeing him. Bowery stayed in his room for three days, unable to move for fear they would hear his footfalls. He found a fast food job, and was soon offered a branch managership, a position he declined. He later told the journalist Alix Sharkey in i-D magazine: "It was the most horrendous thing I could imagine - travelling 12,000 miles to the fashion capital of the world, just to become the manager of a Burger King."
The key to his success, Bowery could see, was the night- club. With the help of the (male) clubland mini-celebrity Yvette the Conqueror, whom he met at an Alternative Miss World ceremony, Bowery had his first introductions. He was soon swanning about with the key players - he later called them "the mythical people" - at the fashion end of the clubbing hard-core: Judy Blame, John Maybury, Stephen Linnard. At the same time, he started designing and making clothes: at first rustic, beaded things, then more synthetic outfits, using fake fur and bright colours. He had a stall in Kensington Market. He joined a party of 15 young designers who were flown to New York to show their collections, and sold some clothes to Barney's department store.
His own wardrobe was fairly sober. When Sue Tilley, a dole officer from Camden, first spoke to him in a club in 1981, he was wearing an orange sweatshirt and very baggy trousers: "He was just a nice fresh-faced lad really." They became friends: "He was funny, he liked a drink, he would make you do things, we liked watching the same things on the telly, we had the same sick sense of humour..." Bowery also met a wild young man who called himself Trojan; they were soon inseparable (one friend remembers hearing the exasperated question: "Who is Leon Trojan?"). According to Tilley, "Leigh loved Trojan", although they were only lovers for about three weeks. ("That was so tortuous. Leigh was so excited. He rang me up and said, `We did it! We did it!' ") Following a faked arson attack and a faked asthma attack, Trojan managed to secure an 11th-floor council flat in east London; Bowery moved in. They decorated; and, today, the place is still impressively gaudy and psychedelic. Trojan's three-dimensional paintings hang throughout. On the ceilings, the wallpaper features long- haired Seventies women as if from a Seventies television commercial for hair conditioner.
Trojan taught Bowery about extremism. Trojan, famously, once cut his ear half off as a fashion statement (He "was fed up with being copied", explained the writer Paul Rambali in the Face in 1986); he also had (unrealised) plans to get Leigh to remove his left hand with a tomahawk. And it became clear that Trojan would wear anything Bowery made. "Leigh was too scared to wear the clothes himself," says Sue Tilley, "so he made them for Trojan. After about three weeks with Trojan going out and getting all the attention, Leigh went, `That's it! I'm going as well!' " This was the breakthrough: "He did himself up as well. And he got as much attention as Trojan." Boy George saw them in these first, matching outfits, at the Camden Palace: "They had blue faces," he says, "and green faces, and bumless satin shorts, big huge platforms, those Indian chains from their ears to their noses." He was impressed. "Big people tend to shroud themselves," and Bowery did not.
Dressing up, then, became the thing that Bowery did, always with the ambition to trump whatever extreme he had previously reached. And he grew to regard it as "work". When I interviewed him in his flat in 1988, he was fully sequinned and polite - and said, not unreasonably, that this "work" was "both serious and very funny. It's decorative, but there's something underlying that's maybe tragic and disturbing. There's a tension between the two." Thanks to his intelligence, his stock of self-irony, his tailoring skills, his great curiosity about - and ease with - his own body, and his unswerving and destructive single-mindedness (most people would have stopped after a while), Bowery's outfits never looked sad, as did those of other young men who aimed to reinvent themselves with wacky clothes and wacky names. According to Boy George, Leigh Bowery was "modern art on legs", and there are gallery owners who agree. Other observers, it should be said, will always make the comparison to Mr Blobby.
Bowery dressed up at night, but during the day he was either unclothed at home ("He loved being naked," says his friend - and widow - Nicola Bateman, "adored it. He loved just running about in his underpants") or he adopted a look whose plainness often shocked those who only knew him from clubs: Benny Hill jackets and trousers. "Mustn't frighten the mums," he would say, although his fondness for pervy, ill-fitting men's wigs ("like a very repressed homosexual from the 1950s," says a friend) meant that he could still cause alarm.
The rent was low, and the night-club "work" meant free drinks, some public appearance fees, and introductions to potential employers. Bowery designed some stage clothes for Boy George. He did the same for the dancer Michael Clark, and was later to join Clark on stage ("He got so hoity-toity," says Tilley, "when he first started dancing with Michael. He was doing pirouettes round the room"). And both Clark and Boy George were witness to Bowery's great success of the mid-Eighties: Taboo, a club held on Thursday nights in a tacky disco in Leicester Square. It was another man's idea, but Bowery made it his own. At the door, unsuitable punters would be handed a mirror: "Would you let yourself in?" Inside, there were drugs, semi- public sexual liaisons, clothes that paid no heed to the black-suit consensus of the London outside. There seems to have been a lot of falling over: Bowery always set great faith by deliberately stumbling in public. His look, and his act, always incorporated an intentional element of clumsiness - as if parodying the gauche, cumbersome Australian that might be somewhere still lurking.
With Taboo, for the first time, Bowery was truly the centre of attention. He reached a new level of stardom - mainstream magazine features, television documentaries - but it was at the cost, it seems, of smothering any temperance in his nature. To women, especially, he could still be courteous and quiet - able to supply some sort of fluorescent padded shoulder on which to cry - but he could also be loud, demanding, jealous. Sue Tilley remembers Bowery crossing London in the middle of the night, by bus, with the single purpose of disturbing her and a new boyfriend. Boy George says: "He was always sarcastic and was always quite bitchy to everyone. But I kind of quite liked it." The musician and former designer Richard Torry, who had known Bowery almost since his arrival and was later to collaborate with him in the group Minty, says: "The chat itself would be a performance. He would be in these big costumes, and there would be these big gestures of hello. He would shout really loudly across the room - "RICHAAAAARD!" - and rush to you. It could be quite frightening." Bronwyn Bowery came to stay in 1984 and found her brother "quite different, emotionally cut off". They found some common ground, but only after a series of screaming matches and rages. Everyone attests to how funny Bowery could be - a brilliant mimic - but he could also be a monster. He lived for the effect he had on people, and bad behaviour had an effect. He would tell huge, irresponsible lies: he would say people had been raped or had died.
Bowery was often asked how he so successfully avoided physical violence. The answer was that he was big and he answered back. (Once, at a party, Mick Jagger felt that the great bulk of Bowery was dancing too close. Jagger said: "Fuck off, freak." Bowery replied, "Fuck off, fossil.") "You'd expect someone looking like that just to pose," remembers Bowery's friend, the American film-maker Charlie Atlas, "but when there's an active person inside, being quite loud, and mean... It was frightening." Atlas remembers that on the one occasion a taxi driver did try to start something (Bowery had spat in his face when forced to get out of the cab), he found that, "because of the padding, he couldn't really hit anything".
Bowery's relationship with Trojan seems to have been the last long-term relationship he had that featured a sexual element. Friends were never again lovers. The closest he came to making an exception to this rule, says Tilley, was David, a Nigerian warehouse nightwatchman (whose name has been changed). "David would ring up, he'd go over. One day, David rang when he was out, and Trojan went over instead. Leigh had to abandon the idea that he was somehow special to David." Trojan, too, was to abandon Bowery. First he moved out to live with another man, and then, in 1986, he died of an accidental drug over- dose. Bowery's sex life, in the last 10 years of his life, was entirely anonymous. He "cottaged" with a vengeance. When asked, in a newspaper questionnaire in 1993, for his "greatest regret", Bowery said: "unsafe sex with over 1,000 men."
NIGHT-CLUB fame is one thing; the harder part is converting that fame into something else, to use it to get you into more interesting places. By the time Taboo shut down in 1986 - following tabloid exposure of its sins - Bowery was already seeking a route from the night-club to the avant- garde: a place where you might encounter Andy Warhol or Ziggy Stardust, and start broadening your fan-base. Bowery went on tour with Michael Clark's company; he appeared in pop promos for The Fall and in commercials for Pepe jeans; he compred on MTV; he got in and out of minicabs. Then, in 1988, to his great gratification, the Anthony D'Offay gallery in London invited him to become a kind of installation. For a week, he sat behind a two-way mirror in a variety of outfits. Spectators could see in, but he could not see out. He could see himself.
"But it was Lucian," says Charlie Atlas, "who was responsible for giving Leigh more belief in himself as an artist." Two friends of Bowery's, Cerith Wyn-Evans and Angus Cook, had for a while been sitting as models for Lucian Freud. They began to lobby Freud to use Bowery as a model. Wyn-Evans says that this was, in part, "to get one back on Lucian... all those sequins. We thought we'd get Lucian to put that old beige paint away." So a meeting was arranged between painter and possible model at Harry's Bar in South Audley Street in 1990, at which Freud was taken by Bowery's intelligence and (he was still very capable of this) politeness, and the physical form in which they came.
Freud asked Bowery to sit for him, making the assumption that he would want to keep his clothes on. The first session, Bowery stripped. In the years since, Freud has exhibited eight nude paintings of Bowery, and there are thought to be two others - one almost finished - in the studio. The Tate now owns a Bowery Freud, and so does the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It should be no surprise that Bowery, whose career was built on the act of being looked at, should have had such a happy collaboration with an artist who takes almost as his subject a sitter's willingness to be painted; who makes, as the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has written, "the milieu of the artist's studio - a place of waiting and contemplation and boredom - into a model of the world as he sees it..."
At some point Bowery stole two small paintings from Freud's studio, and would sometimes kick them around the flat in a cheerful gesture of punk - or filial - disrespect. (These were returned at Bowery's death.) As a rule, though, Bowery took great pride in his new career, and acknowledged Freud's influence on him. Freud, in turn, took fond care of him, and on one occasion extended to him a rare privilege: Bowery was allowed to interview Freud for the arts magazine Lovely Jobly. Bowery: "In your work the pictures of naked women are always of straight women, while the pictures of naked men are always of gay men. Why is that?" Freud: "I'm drawn to women by nature and to queers because of their courage." Last month, Freud paid for Bowery's body to be flown home to Australia.
Bowery introduced Freud to two women who were also to become his models. One was Sue Tilley; the other was Nicola Bateman, his bride. He and Bateman had met at Taboo, after which she had rather pursued him. She was a textiles student, and she could sew sequins as well as fix the vodkas-and-Cokes, and squeeze Leigh into his corsets. After Trojan's death, Bowery became more and more dependent on her services. "He realised I was an obedient, faithful person," she says, smiling. It is with surprising cheerfulness that she recalls being locked in the bathroom for hours, or on the balcony. It was Bateman who (in an echo of Divine's childbirth scene in the film, Female Trouble) was born from between Bowery's legs in the Minty show, and then drank what the audience was led to believe were his various bodily fluids.
Sue Tilley always resisted the pull towards a more submissive role. In hospital, shortly before he died, Bowery said to her, "Susan, we've been very funny kinds of friends, haven't we? You know why? It's because I could never properly control you." When she did sometimes obey him, she would exact a price: her entire wardrobe, including beautifully-tailored work clothes, was made by Bowery in exchange - for example - for a brief display of her breasts as part of the Minty set.
Last spring, in the back of a taxi, Bowery proposed marriage to Nicola Bateman and was accepted. "Nicky," he said, "it'll be a little art performance between the two of us." The ceremony was held in Bow Register Office on Friday 13 May. There were two witnesses, Cerith Wyn-Evans and Nicola's sister Christine. No one else was told. The groom wore his care-in-the- community daywear, the bride a turquoise evening dress. She knew, of course, that it was a joke, but you feel she didn't quite know. "I loved him," she says now, speaking in the shaky bright tones of grief, "and it's every girl's dream to have a diamond ring on her finger." And the fact of his sexuality? She laughs. "Well, you know, every relationship has its problems. We had a brilliant relationship together. It was just slightly different from most people's."
A FEW years ago, to "get a reaction", Bowery told Nicola Bateman that he had Aids. She cried all night. In the morning, he told her it was not true - and she believed this retraction. Later, when she and Sue Tilley were sitting, together, for Lucian Freud, she told Tilley what Leigh had done. Picture the scene: one of Britain's greatest painters is making something that will sell for about $1 million. In front of him, Tilley is lying on the floor, naked, legs apart; behind her, clothed and sitting on a chair, is Nicola Bateman, the future wife of Tilley's close friend, a gay man. Bateman tells Tilley about this cruel and shocking Aids "lie"; and Tilley is obliged to say, "Yes, oh, he's a terrible liar..." But she knows that Bowery was not lying. What he had said was true. "When you look at those pictures now," says Tilley, "it's so weird... all those things going on behind them."
Bowery learnt he was HIV-positive six years ago, and told Tilley the same day. He had been tested two years before, he said, but had not collected the results. Now, he had opened a form letter that explained - casually, clumsily - that the hospital was checking on all its HIV-positive patients.
In the words of Cerith Wyn-Evans, Bowery was a "control freak", and there can be few faster ways to lose control than to become an object of worry. And there are other professional, sexual and social restrictions attached to the acknowledgement of HIV infection. So Bowery told Sue Tilley, and, eventually, his sister, but he told no one else. "I kind of mothered him quite a bit," says Bateman, who learnt of Bowery's infection only when she visited him in hospital before Christmas and saw his fellow patients. "The last thing he would have wanted was me looking after him all the time, not leaving the house, expecting him to fall down dead any minute." In the last year or so, he was sometimes quite ill, but Bowery would not let her call a doctor.
Some people, including quite close friends, have made the assumption that Bowery shied away from all support and medication. This is not true. He did, for a while, see a psychotherapist ("Lucian [grandson of Sigmund] would die," said Bowery, "if he knew I was going to a therapist. He hates them so much".) Bow-ery took anti-pneumonia drugs and had T-cell counts. He discussed Aids with his friends, although not his Aids. "He didn't want anyone to know that it was a theme specifically for him," says Richard Torry. "He hated the way Derek Jarman dealt with Aids. Jarman was showing all the positive sides of Aids, where Leigh wanted to be able to show all the negative sides if he felt like it." Torry once heard Bowery say to an Aids worker, "Don't try to give them hope. If you've got HIV, you die, that's it."
In the last year or two of his life, Bowery worked with ferocious energy. He wanted to get more done; he wanted to convert, unequivocally, his celebrity into something that would last. The Freud paintings had met expectations, but also raised further expectations: however proud of them he was, he knew they were not his work. He was still in the flat, in the clubs, in the minicab routine. Two years ago, Bowery joined with two others to form a rather extreme singing drag act called Raw Sewage. They played the gay clubs with some success but Bowery was not satisfied; he felt it could be taken much further, faster. "I saw the act as a fun thing," says another member of the trio, Sam Ibrahim, also known as Sheila Tequila, "a night- club novelty act. But I always got the impression Leigh was desperate for stardom, and the trappings that go with it. What he was best at was entertaining people in a night-club, but he wanted much more than that."
When Richard Torry proposed a more artful musical collaboration, Minty, Bowery switched to this with gusto. But because there was no time for further false starts, Bowery wanted to get Minty right. For a long time before they ever performed, Bowery engaged Torry in very long discussions about the path the band should take, and the path Bowery should take. Mark Smith of The Fall had said to Bowery, "You don't need all that make- up", and Bowery kept asking Torry, "Is that true? Do I need it all?" He sat - or stood - for Lucian Freud several hours a day, and he also worked for Rifat Ozbek, the fashion designer. (Bowery's advice, says Ozbek, was to say "Make it tighter!" if something on a model was tight, or say "Longer!" if it was long, or "Shorter!" if it was short); the rest of the time he spent with Torry in his flat in Soho, where their discussions were interrupted only when Bowery put his head out of the window to say: "Look at them! Let's go and chase them."
Minty took to the stage for the first time in the drag club Madame JoJo's, last spring. Matthew Glamorre played keyboards, and Nicola Bateman was curled under Bowery's outfit, in readiness for her birth. If Bowery had, in the past, coupled disquiet to comedy, mockery to self-mockery, there was now something more urgent and less jolly going on, in which an almost panicked quest for stardom-through-outrage combined with an unacknowledged commentary on his illness. He was having his own, surreptitious, Derek Jarman career. (Bowery's Minty act - with its proliferation of bodily fluids - seems in retrospect to have been taking on one of the great modern taboos, unsafe sex. It also featured an element of irresponsibility. The vomit and urine were fake, but the enemas were real, and on one occasion Bowery accidentally sprayed his audience.) Backstage, Bowery was as difficult as ever: quite cruel and violent. On stage, he would do the birth and the enema and sing a song describing a room full of corpses oozing blood into the room below.
Minty played 10 times; the last time was in the Freedom Caf in Soho on Wednesday 23 November. The following Monday, Bowery was admitted to hospital with Aids-related meningitis.
"DON'T TELL them I've died," Bowery told Sue Tilley. "Tell them I've gone to Papua New Guinea." He was not being entirely facetious. At all costs, Bowery wanted to withhold at least some of the truth for as long as he could. In the five weeks between his arrival in hospital and his death, it was the task of Tilley and - when she had learnt the truth herself - Bateman, to act as news managers. They first had to keep secret the fact of Bowery's hospitalisation and then, when that became impossible, to keep people from visiting him, because the ward, and the other patients, gave away his diagnosis. Bowery thought he would recover, and so did his friends. He rang Rifat Ozbek, joking: "Darling, I'm in a private clinic in Switzerland."
After Christmas, when his condition worsened, a few people were told the full truth, and were allowed to visit: these included Cerith Wyn-Evans and Lucian Freud and Bowery's father and sister, who happened to be travelling in Britain at the time. "It's not fair," Bowery said to Tilley, "I've got so much more to do, I just need two more years. I haven't finished."
And then he died. "He was trying to say something," says Nicola Bateman, "but I couldn't quite catch what he was saying. And suddenly things started to come to a head... I was talking to him the whole time, while he was dying. I was able to be there and hold his hand, and his father was there on the other side holding his hand. He knew that we were there when he went, so that was good." It was New Year's Eve. Friends see some justice in the date, as if Leigh Bowery - who gave such a strange new resonance to the phrase "fashion victim" - had been properly recognised as the patron saint of the party. !
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