Leigh Bowery: A life less ordinary

The performance artist and designer Leigh Bowery is being celebrated at the ICA. In an extract from her book, Sue Tilley remembers a flamboyant friend

Wednesday 23 March 2011 01:00

On Saturday, Leigh Bowery would be celebrating his 50th birthday if he were still alive. It sounds so old, but I'm almost 54 and I don't feel old; in fact, I don't feel much different than I did 17 years ago when Leigh died, aged 33. Maybe the bones are beginning to ache a bit and my glasses are glued to my face, but inside I'm still a daft young girl.

It made me wonder what Leigh would be doing now. If he had managed to live another few months, he probably would still be alive today, as the drugs that have saved so many people were introduced just after his death. In the Eighties and early Nineties I often went to the funerals of friends who had died of Aids, but I haven't been to any since Leigh's memorial in January 1995.

Many of Leigh's contemporaries have become very successful in their chosen fields, and I like to think that Leigh would have joined them, maybe as an actor or a musician or, if all else failed, a regular on reality television. He would have been fantastic, quick-witted, fearless and determined to win at any task, yet hilarious in defeat. Or maybe he would finally have become the designer that he originally set out to be, following in the footsteps of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, but I don't think that he could have borne the terrible stress of that life... He wanted time to have fun.

Leigh still affects my life every day and has opened the door to so many experiences for me. I still work in the Jobcentre, but my time is peppered with events that come about because of Leigh. In the past couple of weeks I've been asked to the very contrasting towns of LA and Hull to give talks on Leigh; I've had a photo of me wearing a Leigh dress auctioned for Macmillan Cancer Support; I've written a short piece on Leigh's family for an art magazine; and I have been asked to donate a bra to an exhibition at the Littledean Jail and Museum of Crime in the Forest of Dean. I like the way that my life is a mix of the regular and the bizarre.

The most fantastic thing that happened to me was that my painting by Lucian Freud, Benefit Supervisor Resting, became the most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction in May 2008. I would never have met Lucian if it hadn't been for Leigh, but I couldn't help laughing as I thought how jealous Leigh would have been that it wasn't a painting of him. He would have dashed round to my flat and told me what to wear and say for all my interviews and I, as usual, would have ignored him. It was a very strange month and I was on most news programmes in the country, even making the front pages of the papers when I asked Katie Derham of ITV News not to call me "Fat Sue", as it wasn't my name. That in turn became a running joke on The Chris Moyles Show as he sampled me with the song "That's Not My Name" by The Ting Tings. There have been many exhibitions of Lucian's work since Leigh died, and the paintings of Leigh are always the stars of the show.

One of the most exciting things to happen regarding Leigh was Boy George's brilliant musical Taboo, which premiered in London's West End in 2002. It ran for more than a year and comedian/talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell was so enamoured with it that she decided to finance a Broadway production, which opened on 13 November 2003 at the Plymouth Theatre.

I can imagine how proud Leigh would have been and although many great people played him, such as Matt Lucas, Julian Clary and Mark Little, they wouldn't have stood a chance if Leigh had been alive. He would have been on that stage every night, showing off as much as possible.

I was thrilled when I found out that I was a character in the musical, too. The first time that I saw it was at a run-

through and I burst into tears when I saw myself singing a song to Leigh as he lay dying in hospital. The day that Taboo opened on Broadway was one of the most exciting of my life. The production had paid for several of the real characters to fly to New York and had put us up in the Paramount Hotel just across the street from the theatre. My dates for the night, New York club legend Erich Conrad, and my Australian friend from England, Rod Lay, raided the minibar, swigging all the vodka miniatures, while I threw on my frock (a Leigh creation); then we raced to the theatre clutching hands and singing "Sue's on Broadway, Sue's on Broadway", until I almost got arrested by a very butch New York policewoman for jaywalking.

It is hard to believe that when Leigh died he didn't have a mobile phone, a computer, internet, or the most amazing communication tool of all: Facebook. If he did, I certainly wouldn't have had to trek to his flat just to tell him that someone wanted to take his photo. He played enough havoc with just a landline so I often think about what mischief he could have wrought if he had access to all the ways we have of connecting now. The most surprising friend I met through Facebook was Mark Feehily from Westlife. He has several of the large Fergus Greer portraits of Leigh hung around his apartment. I'm a bit disappointed that I haven't seen Westlife in blue faces, but I'm still hoping that it may happen. He says, "To me, Leigh was and is an inspirational creative hero. His creations at times had the same effect that Jackson's moonwalk might have on first look. Incredible and mind-blowing. I love delving into his work and thinking 'How did he do that?' or just 'Wow'. He expressed himself through fashion and performance in the most extreme way, without fear." Leigh was always desperate to be a pop star, but it sadly never happened. Now, however, a huge star has just come onto the scene who admits that she is influenced by the genius of Leigh. Leigh would have loved Lady Gaga and would have so wished that he had invented the meat dress.

People often ask me if there is going to be a feature film about Leigh, and hopefully there will be. It has been on the cards for 13 years now, ever since I gave one of the first copies of my book to Hart Sharp Entertainment. The book has passed through the hands of many writers and directors, and although some of them have turned into good friends, nothing has been quite right yet. At the moment, Matt Lucas has the rights, along with the original purchaser, Jeff Sharp, so fingers crossed that something may happen soon before I am too old to enjoy the premiere.

Although Leigh died when he was 33, he is still alive in the eyes of many. If you Google him (how much would he have loved to do that?), there are new entries every day in which his influence is honoured and his memory revered. Although he is no longer with us, Leigh is having a 50th birthday party at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on 1 April. This is a strange twist of karma as Leigh was banned for life from this very august establishment after a rather outrageous incident at i-D magazine's anniversary party in the mid-Eighties. It will be a mix of tributes from old friends and from the new faces on the scene who were still at infant school when he died, but for whom his life has been an inspiration. Almost 17 years have passed since Leigh died but in some ways it seems like yesterday. He is still out there influencing people, encouraging them to follow their dreams, however outlandish they may be. I remember him for all his talent and creativity, but mainly for being the best friend that anyone could have.

Happy Birthday, Leigh.

Sunshine Night Time: A Tribute to Leigh Bowery, including a free lunchtime talk and an evening of cabaret and film, introduced by Sue Tilley, ICA, London SW1 (www.ica.org.uk; 020 7930 3647) 1 April

This text is an extract from 'Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon' by Sue Tilley, now published as an Ebook (Open Road Integrated Media)

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