As a plump and studious young man growing up in a working-class Australian town, Leigh Bowery was made to feel uncomfortable in his own skin. So it’s probably no coincidence that he spent the rest of his life making others feel uncomfortable in theirs.
He was a walking, talking mass of color and confrontation, wearing the most outrageous costumes wherever he went. He pushed the concepts of body-shape, fashion and art in bold new directions, inspiring a generation of designers and artists, including Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and The Scissor Sisters. Boy George called him “modern art on legs.” Lucien Freud painted a whole series of nude portraits of him.
Using his loud, fun and abrasive wit, which matched the size of his body, Bowery shocked his way into London’s nightclub and art scene. He even started the infamous “Taboo” – a club night that became London’s version of Studio 54, only much wilder and without the celebrities – although they came flocking later. For everyone stepping through the doors of Taboo, it was a truly unforgettable experience. Through the late 80s, Bowery was invited to host numerous club nights from New York and Tokyo to Rome.
“The extraordinary thing was that it was never drag – it was really costume,” said William Lieberman, former chairman of 20th Century Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I mean, he wasn’t trying to imitate or personify anyone else. He was simply creating a new being.”
When Bowery died of an AIDS-related illness on New Year’s Eve 1994, his passing was marked by sizable obituaries in The New York Times, all the London broadsheets and, weirdly (but aptly), a large number of Japanese newspapers. Since then he has been celebrated in three books (two biographies and a collection of photographs); in a documentary movie by American filmmaker Charles Atlas and in a music video for U2, as part of their PopMart tour.
Text by Howard Collinge- The Unique Creatures