One of the most outrageous characters of the night, Leigh Bowery (1961-94) was an Australian born clubbie, performance artist, designer, and all around creative type who made waves and yet had a distinctly sweet side too. Boy George even played him in the 2003 Broadway musical Taboo, based on Leigh’s London club.
As New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art readies for a one-night Leigh Bowery tribute show on February 5 (called In-Spire: Leigh Bowery), I asked an assortment of knowledgeable people, the first three of whom are involved in that show, for their take on what made this colorful rebel (who, sadly, died of AIDS) such a hero.
Muffinhead, performance artist Brett Henderson Kreutzer
I’ve always felt that Leigh to modern fashion is what Chuck Berry is to rock and roll, which is both spine and lightning bolt—architect and visionary. A well-structured chaos that’s flourished with time. You see him everywhere, from McQueen to Gareth Pugh to Drag Race, only we tend to miss the most essential element: We’ve made it safe for Kmart shoppers.
Leigh didn’t compromise. We all feed off of his energy still because it seemed just so enormous and ecstatic, and his work wasn’t just visually fierce. He could be, just as easily, self-deprecating, embarrassing and absurd. Funny enough, my favorite stories about Leigh, though, are the private ones that explain how vulnerable and sweet he was.
Kevin Aviance, singer and performer
I met Leigh several times, whether I was in London or if he visited here in New York City. Such an amazing, iconic, flawless queen. He presented me with Club Kid of the World at Style Summit. I remember he came to the Sound Factory and was a toilet, and inside this creation, his mask made him look like a beautiful, ornate turd. I gagged. And loved it. Leigh was also very kind. You know if you are going to do it, then do it. Even when it’s over. Turn it the fuck out…Leigh Bowery. 10s, 10s, 10s.”
Stephan Szkotnicki, artist
Meeting Leigh in ’88 at Tunnel club was a revelation for me. I’d heard of him from Michael Alig, as I was working at the Tunnel at the time and commingling with the club kids scene. Leigh was at first glance quite an imposing figure, large and dressed even bigger and more colorful than one could imagine. A major attraction to Leigh was his ability to blur the male/female archetype, creating a whole otherworldly being.
He represented unlimited freedom through personal style and the ability to laugh at life, not take it so seriously. Have fun and live, love, and just be his best creation as an artist, himself.
I had the advantage to live in London for a few months during ’89 and met up with Leigh at the Fridge club. He remembered me from Tunnel and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind posing for me to draw one day. Well, to my surprise, he turned out to be a warm, inviting, and highly accommodating artist’s model. I spent an entire day with him, early morning to evening; he modeled while I sketched. He did three total changes/looks for me and never complained about holding a pose, never a diva moment. A consummate professional in the end.
Truth be told, I expected the raucous party entity I’d seen in the club world. In my mind there is no doubt what a truly impactful fashion artist-model-designer he was to my life. He opened his home to an unknown traveling New York artist and gave all you could ask in way of an inspirational model. To this day, I still stand in awe at what his legacy means to me as an artist and how he will continue to inspire the future generations of artists and designers.
Lady Bunny, drag performer
When promoters started bringing Leigh to New York City, downtown club workers were largely a bunch of drag queens, club kids, and transsexuals who were either making our looks or buying them from thrift stores. We would dress to stand out, so the freakier the better. In fact, unlike today when every pronoun is preciously guarded, back then we sought to be considered freaks.
Leigh achieved that like no one else, combining art, fashion, costuming, twisted humor and a little music. By the time he was poking holes in his cheeks so that he could wire a light bulb into his mouth, he was mixing piercings with immaculate beaded couture, female hormones, and maybe just a few recreational drugs. He was practically trans-species.
The lightbulb in the mouth was one of Leigh’s scarier looks. Other looks might be comical (the toilet seat worn as hat) or whimsical (the multiple glasses), deranged (the exaggerated club foot jumpsuit) or chic. But all of his custom looks were designed and executed in excruciating detail.
Leigh was also a scandal in person, so his club appearances were guaranteed pandemonium. His savage beauty screamed London. Even though Leigh was Australian, there were tie-ins with other London notables of the time like famed corsetier Mr. Pearl, BodyMap, Michael Clark, and the many deities of the new romantic Taboo scene. Leigh defined mad genius and his gift both delighted and confused. At the end, Leigh ruled the art scene after stripping away all of the costumes and makeup to pose nude for famed painter Lucian Freud.
At last year’s Art Basel, the most breathtaking exhibit was that of London’s Living Art Daniel Lismore, who cites Leigh as a major influence. How many club kids get Broadway musicals written about them starring Boy George? So Leigh continues to inspire!
Will Call Me By Your Name Be Called an Oscar Winner?
As for a newer performance piece that’s making waves: The ’80s-set male romance Call Me By Your Name is up for four Oscars—Best Picture, Actor (Timothée Chalamet), Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory), and Song (“The Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens). I asked a notable Oscar predictor, IndieWire’s editor at large Anne Thompson, for her take on how the film’s Oscar chances stack up compared to past LGBT nominees and winners.
Said Thompson: “Call Me By Your Name will likely win one Oscar, for Adapted Screenplay. Gary Oldman should win Best Actor, partly because breakout star Timothée Chalamet will have so many chances to shine in the future. Sadly, I suspect Michael Stuhlbarg and Armie Hammer split votes.” [Neither received a Best Supporting Actor nomination.]
And why does she feel there isn’t more love for Call Me…from the Oscars? “There’s plenty of love,” said Thompson, “but not enough passionate advocates for the film to land a Best Picture [win] or Director slot. And Oldman will not be denied. Unless the Academy decides that Chalamet is the reason this movie is so good.”
For yet more insight, I contacted RealClearLife.com’s Thelma Adams [a Golddderby predictor, along with Thompson and myself], and here was her reply: “Call Me By Your Name has a very broad and strong appeal, and yet, because the director didn’t make the top five Oscar nominees, I think there’s weakness there. In a very competitive year, impacted by cross currents of gender and racial parity, a gorgeous, emotionally satisfying drama that might have won in a previous year will remain a bridesmaid. It is the film that made Timothée Chalamet a star—but it will be a major and welcome upset if the young man overturns Gary Oldman’s huffing and puffing Winston Churchill from The Darkest Hour.”
As for the really important category: What about Best Song?
Thompson is predicting “Remember Me” from Coco and Adams is going for “Mighty River” from Mudbound. Too bad “Love My Way” wasn’t eligible.
Not nominated for an Oscar—though it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film—In The Fade has German actress Diane Kruger in a fierce performance as an avenging mother. At a VYNL soiree for her DuJour magazine cover, I asked Kruger which 2017 movies she liked, and she said Lady Bird (she found it touching and sweet) and Maudie, stating that Sally Hawkins is her favorite actress.
Well, Hawkins is Oscar nominated for The Shape of Water, which has a gay character played by Richard Jenkins, who happens to be nominated too. They’re everywhere!