Steve Strange: The dandy who fell to earth

He was the Peacock Prince of the New Romantic scene, a flamboyant star who became an icon of the Eighties. But then Steve Strange's world crashed, and he is still picking up the pieces

Julia Stuart
Thursday 05 October 2000 00:00 BST

As my train approaches Bridgend station, I spot Steve Strange waiting on the platform. He could be mistaken for a Big Issue seller. Thin and clutching a plastic carrier bag, he stoops almost apologetically in an anorak and trainers. His right eyebrow and left cheek are pierced, and grey stubble clings to his chin.

As my train approaches Bridgend station, I spot Steve Strange waiting on the platform. He could be mistaken for a Big Issue seller. Thin and clutching a plastic carrier bag, he stoops almost apologetically in an anorak and trainers. His right eyebrow and left cheek are pierced, and grey stubble clings to his chin.

The former lead singer of Visage would be mortified at the comparison. As he approaches it is clear that the man once dubbed the Peacock Prince, and who inspired the early-1980s image-conscious New Romantic pop movement, still cares about his appearance. While grey roots hug his temples, his otherwise dyed mahogany hair is cut into a chic crop, and the clothes that seemed dishevelled from a distance, are, in fact, hip streetwear. His skin is good for a 40-year-old, yet his eyes spell decay - no doubt the legacy of years of heroin addiction.

It is difficult for thirtysomethings not to have a soft spot for Steve Strange. It was, after all, his records that provided the soundtrack to those fumbling school disco snogs. And it was he who made it seem perfectly sane to wear knickerbockers and pixie boots.

We get into a taxi and head to the restaurant Steve has chosen. In his tremulous, almost slurred voice, he talks about how good the food is. Collecting unemployment benefit, and on probation for shoplifting, the man who once kept £75,000 in cash in his top drawer probably doesn't have many opportunities to indulge in slap-up lunches these days.

He swiftly presents me with a taxi receipt for the journey from his home in Porthcawl to the station. He says he will have to get another taxi home again. ''Call it 20 quid,'' he says gently. I'm embarrassed. Not expecting to have to reimburse him, I don't have enough cash on me. Perhaps the restaurant will be able to give me some on my credit card, he muses. The days of the 24-hour limo service are long gone.

While sipping a Bloody Mary, Steve talks at length about a childhood spent in Rhyl and Newbridge in the Valleys, about the guest houses and greasy spoon his parents ran, their separation, and his father's suicide after learning he had a brain tumour. ''I know this will sound really horrible, but it didn't affect me at all. I realised what he had put mum through. I was the only one at the funeral who didn't cry,'' he says.

At 15 he went to London to work as a gofer for Malcolm McClaren. But, disillusioned with the punk scene, he was soon running his own weekly club night. With an as yet undiscovered Boy George installed as cloakroom attendant, and Marilyn, in full drag, as the cigarette girl, these nights, such as Billy's and Blitz, are now the stuff of New Romantic legend, and so successful they had to move to bigger premises. ''I remember David Bowie coming to the club because he had heard how bizarre it was. I would stand on the door and I was so strict. If people turned up in a wetsuit with their face painted black and white I would say: 'Sorry you can't come in.' It wasn't about that. It was about showing your creative side, and about showing that you'd taken time and effort in what you had created. It was about classic style and being outrageous, but done with an element of taste.'' He later went on to run the Camden Palace, turning it at the time into London's trendiest nightspot.

Formed in 1979, Visage had seized the pop world's attention with their second single, "Fade To Grey". It reached number one in nine countries, and number two in Britain. The pop promo, which saw Steve, as ever, spectacularly made-up, won video of the year. ''The period that I was into then was very Edwardian,'' he remembers. ''The white pancake fitted in with that look, with the knickerbockers and berets. The make-up idea for the video came about because we were on a very, very low budget. We decided we would experiment with the make-up coming to life as it was the best way to create something very visual on a cheap scale.''

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But after the band's successful first two albums, Visage and The Anvil, the arguments started. ''It wasn't enjoyable going into the studio, it was more like hell,'' he says. And, of course, there were the drugs. Glancing at the other diners, Steve lowers his voice as he tells of the time in 1985 when he first took heroin. After modelling at a Jean Paul Gaultier show in Paris, he was offered a line of what he assumed was cocaine, which he had been taking since 1981. ''I was automatically sick, but that sick feeling was nice. It pushed aside all the problems with our manager, and made them disappear. I developed a huge drug problem.''

His heroin addiction lasted several years, and at its peak cost him about £150 a day. ''It was the worst mistake that I ever made in my life,'' he admits. Up until three or four years ago, he was still dabbling in cocaine.

Visage split up at the end of 1985, and the following year Steve bailed out to Ibiza where he started organising celebrity parties. Heroin was unavailable on the island and he managed to get clean.

However, his world crashed again when, in 1997, his ''very, very dear friend'' the rock star Michael Hutchence died and the following day Steve's London home burnt down. With no insurance, and just a carrier bag of belongings left, he returned to the house he bought for his mother in Porthcawl. Nowadays he shares it with his younger sister Tanya, her two children, and two lodgers.

Five months after returning to Wales, Steve started acting ''very bizarrely''. ''I got very introverted and wasn't leaving the house or shaving.'' One day he rang his sister to say he couldn't find the house, and she asked where he was. He looked at the address on the pay phone, and said "Bridgend". Tanya had to remind him that he lived in Porthcawl. He was diagnosed as being on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

But the spiral didn't end there. Towards the end of last year he had ''a relapse'' and started shoplifting. The first item was an eight-berth tent. ''Then it was my nephew's birthday, and I stole a jacket from Marks & Spencer. I went to pay for a Teletubby toy, and there was no one on the cash checkout. And I just walked out of the store. Within three seconds there were about four store detectives on me.'' Called a ''persistent thief'' by a magistrate in April, he was given a three-month suspended sentence. ''I was embarrassed about it terribly. What people don't realise is the shame your family goes through.'' He is currently having counselling, as instructed by the court, which has helped him to give up the prescription drugs he was on at the time, which included Prozac.

''I don't know whether it was a cry for help... When you're on that amount of medication you're really not responsible for your actions. I was thinking I was invincible, invisible, superhuman. Sometimes I'd be a different person, laughing hysterically like a nutcase to myself.'' He gives a demonstration, cackling loudly, oblivious to the other diners.

Steve hopes to be off benefit soon. He says he is owed money from compilation albums featuring Visage tracks, and his autobiography will be coming out next year. There are also plans for an Ultimate Visage album, and he has great hopes for the Bridgend band that he is managing, Jeff Killed John.

How does he think he's perceived nowadays? ''I don't really know,'' says Steve, a bisexual who has no current partner, nor indeed any interest in having one. ''In books people put me down as an icon of the Eighties, a legend that created a movement... Some people poke fun at it. I'm surprised at the amount of doors open to me. I have a lot of clout in the music industry.''

And, of course, he still has his celebrity friends who frequently crop up in conversation. ''Only yesterday Martin Kemp rang me up because I had spoken to Tony Hadley on Monday to tell him I was going be in London at the end of next week, and Martin said: 'Make sure you come and see us.'

''Up until four years ago Kylie Minogue and I had a joint birthday celebration because we were born on the same day. When she recently went to number one I called her, left a message on her answer machine, and she got back to me and said: 'When are you coming up? We all miss you.' "

He still gets recognised by the public, albeit by staff at the probation office. ''I know it's strange for them having somebody like Steve Strange going in there. They treat me a bit like a celebrity,'' he says, looking rather chuffed.

It's time for Steve to go, and he asks the waitress if she can give me some cash back on my card. She obliges, and I hand him a £20 note. ''Thanks,'' he says. We speak several days later. ''I've dyed my hair red!'' he squeals down the phone with excitement. Now, that's more like the Steve we knew and loved.

Steve Strange appears on 'After They Were Famous' on Monday , 9 October on ITV at 10.35pm

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