☆ Leigh Bowery ☆
Leigh couldn’t wait to immerse himself in club culture from the moment he touched ground at London Heathrow. He’d relocated from his native New South Wales, Australia, where he grew up. Playing down the Aussie drawl, the wide-eyed, slightly gauche but perfectly eloquent and well-mannered fresher found himself spoilt for choice as he patronized the hotspots of the day, the likes of Cha Cha, Pyramid and The Jungle. The Blitz had long gone up in smoke, but the capital was seriously rocking again.
Wanting his slice of the cake, Leigh left his job flipping burgers at Burger King and co-founded Taboo at Maximus, a gaudy Leicester Square disco which otherwise catered for spotty students and hapless tourists. This was 1985 and the club didn’t prove to be the instant success it’s generally made out to be. It faced serious competition from Wednesday night’s Pyramid at Heaven. However, it only took a few weeks for Taboo to bring the house down. Suddenly, the antipodean nighthawk ruled the roost, swishing around in scary self-designed outfits and behaving as uncontrollably as a hyperactive child at Woolworth‘s Pick n’ Mix counter. Thursday nights had never been so exciting and the club night soon became the toast of the town. Exhibitionism-versus-voyeurism was what made it happen. The motto was that “anything” might happen on the night and it usually did. However, as recreational drugs were being consumed as if they were no tomorrows, the place began looking seedier than the bottom of a bird cage. Acting on a tip-off, the Old Bill stuck their oar in and, literally overnight, the club was history. There wasn’t even so much of a notification, let alone a closing party. Just like The Blitz, Studio 54, Pyramid and later Kinky Gerlinky, Taboo lasted a mere 18 months. For all its madness and arrogance, the club left an indelible mark on London‘s club history.
From then on, Bowery truly worked his agenda in a whirlwind of TV/club PAs and photo/video shoots. He notably joined Michael Clark’s troupe at Sadler’s Wells, also performed as Raw Sewage, later on as Minty, and modelled for Lucian Freud.
Leigh and I met at Cha Cha, the intimate dive located at the back of Heaven, where he showed his face for the first time. I genuinely grew quite fond of him as he could be totally charming when he chose to be. Out of drag, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Benny Hill, even down to the naughty glint in his eyes, which made me laugh. As we both lived in east London, I’d occasionally pop over to his Stepney tower block. I interviewed and shot him there for Metropolitan Magazine, DJ Magazine and even The Evening Standard. We flew to Paris together on a few occasions as I DJ-ed and also organised bookings for him at Le Palace. It would easily take a whole book to catalogue his shenanigans there. I would also regularly catch up with him in New York during the annual Wigstock, an event I covered for a few years running. I must’ve taken more photos of him then than I had hot dinners. I used slides in those days and a lot of them got lost unfortunately, thanks to some magazine editors who wouldn’t return them and I lost a few myself as well. People didn’t realise their value at the time. If only I’d known.
I think I understood pretty thoroughly the character Bowery often hid behind the façade. He had more energy than the national grid and liked calling himself twisted. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment in his company.
Given the constant self-promotion he indulged, his exploit beyond the club scene proved to be comparatively limited. That’s presumably because he didn’t have the ability or interest to design clothes for others (in fact he didn’t like anyone wearing his garments but himself), or to host TV shows, act, sing and dance convincingly enough, even though he got commissioned and paid to do all those things.
Joe Public was in turn intrigued, shocked and horrified by his regular farcical stage antics. They involved giving birth to wife Nicola, smeared in red paint and attached to an umbilical cord made of sausages, not to forget spraying the audience with a fresh enema, or throwing up in his bandmates’ mouths. Ultimately not a live show necessarily designed to please the prim and proper or comfort the faint-hearted.
Leigh’s real talent lay in the way he could transmute into a gobsmacking art form and the platform that suited it the best was clubland.
Who knows what else Bowery could’ve achieved had he lived? One thing is certain, since his untimely death at the very end of 1994, someone has yet to get anywhere near the vacant disco throne he left behind.
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