Leigh Bowery was a perverse comic-book clown to a post-punk generation careering through the myriad fashion metamorphoses of the 1980s. From the melted wax dripping down his bald pate and the lurex dress stretched tight across his enormous belly, to the teetering platforms (worn way before Naomi Campbell tottered down the catwalk), Bowery created himself - in execrable but glorious bad taste - as an antipodean arriviste of no apparent cultural significance.
Yet, 10 years later, Bowery was in danger of becoming something more: the artist Lucian Freud had selected him as his favoured model; and Bowery's performance group - the deliberately offensive "Minty" - was being taken as a serious art statement by magazines such as Frieze, in which Michael Bracewell wrote that Bowery was "having the last laugh at the expense of formal art".
I saw Bowery performing with Minty in London, in Shoreditch, last September. To a pounding beat and grinding guitars, he emerged wearing a two-piece suit seemingly made from a particularly garish carpet, with a horrific whitened-doll face reminiscent of Divine (the film director John Waters' transvestite star, an obvious role- model). Having delivered the vilest lyrics I've heard since Jayne County played the Roxy Club, Bowery began groaning, fell back on to a trestle table and from his belly "gave birth" to a bloodied, bald-headed woman. He then urinated in a glass and gave it to the "child" to drink. Bowery continued the rest of the performance naked but for a pair of red underpants, his flaccid body ruddy and smeared as if in homage to Freud's paintings.
But Bowery's great hour had come 10 years previously, as overseer of the Saturnalia that was the Taboo Club. In the bowels of a tacky Seventies mirror-walled dive in Leicester Square, he presided over the freaks and fashion victims of mid-Eighties London. Bowery's Warholian "stars" were Michael Clark, the dancer; David Holah, the designer; John Maybury, the film-maker; and Trojan, Bowery's lover , whose metallic make-up and Bangladeshi jewellery complimented Bowery's "Paki from Outer Space" look.
A year later, Trojan's death, aged 21, from a heroin overdose heralded the end of Taboo, exacerbated by sensationalist reports that a spurned would-be clubgoer had died in the gutter outside. Bowery turned to design: he worked with Rachel Auburn and his clothes were stocked by Macey's department store in New York, and featured by Suzanne Bartsch in her influential showcase of young British designers: Vivienne Westwood announced that he and Yves Saint Laurent were the two most important designers she knew.
Bowery's costume designs for Michael Clark expanded into onstage appearances in ludicrously high platforms, playing Chopin Nocturnes wearing gardening gloves. He also appeared in music videos for The Fall, daubed in huge spots - his "measles" look. Yet Bowery was no clubland airhead: his idea of a perfect abode was Des Esseintes' residence in A Rebours; and his subversion of the narcissistic obsessions of the Eighties was a telling comment on the hordes of aspirants who gathered around him. His apparent ugliness he sought perversely to extol in shameless, pathological exhibitionism; his friend and collaborator Cerith Wynn Evans saw it as the "articulation of his physicalness . . . Leigh was certainly not vain, but he was excessive in his self-exposure.
Bowery's council flat in Stepney was a temple of kitsch with its Star Trek wallpaper and wilfully mismatched furnishings. From here he would travel by black cab, a brief flash of his flamboyant glory for the drear inhabitants of east London as he embarked on that evening's itinerary: it was entirely unsurprising to see him arrive at a Gilbert and George party naked, with his penis tied back between his legs. In Brighton to see a group I co-managed, Bowery persuaded an accomplice to fellate the lead singer, and subsequently encouraged the trashing of the club. On the coach back, a freelance journalist for the Guardian vanished at the back of the bus, last seen having his trousers forcibly removed by Bowery.
In 1993, Bowery said that his "biggest regret" was having had "unsafe sex with 1,000 men". Yet few who knew him guessed that Bowery was HIV positive: close friends like the choreographer Les Child thought it entirely characteristic of Bowery to explain his public absence by saying he had gone to Papua, New Guinea. Sadly, he had not, and Bowery died at the Middlesex Hospital on the morning of New Year's Eve.
The previous May he had married Nicola Bateman - a longtime friend, fellow Freud model and Taboo face (perennially garbed in heavy spectacles): the marriage was "a personal art performance", notes Mrs Bowery, who hadn't known that Bowery had the virus until he was admitted to hospital. She recalled Bowery's final performance with Minty last November, in what was planned to have been a long engagement at the Freedom Cafe, in Soho: after one performance, the outraged owners banned the group: "Leigh was thrilled to bits when we told him."
Whatever the ephemeral shock-value of Leigh Bowery's life, he will live on in Lucian Freud's powerful portraits, begun after Freud had seen Bowery at Taboo and had also seen his performance at the Anthony d'Offay gallery in 1988, during which Bowery spent two hours sitting on a sofa, sleeping, and looking at his own reflection. When Freud's painting went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in late 1993, one study of Bowery's crotch proved too explicit for sensitive Manhattan dames and was omitted. But Bowery's appearance on US television on The Joan Rivers Show prompted a man in the audience to shout "Give the guy a break - he's only dressing up. He's not doing any harm." In an era when the originality seems to have been sucked out of style, Bowery's passing will be regretted by street-cultists and picture editors alike.
Leigh Bowery, designer, performance artist, artist's model: born Sunshine, Victoria, Australia 26 March 1961; married 1994 Nicola Bateman; died London 31 December 1994.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies