Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Leigh Bowery (1961–1994)

by Sarah Engledow

This article was published online in 2024

Leigh Bowery (1961–1994), costume designer, performance artist, and artist’s model, was born on 26 March 1961 at Sunshine, Melbourne, elder child of Evelyn Joyce Bowery, née Griffiths, and her husband Thomas Bradley Bowery, sales clerk and accountant. The family were congregants of the Salvation Army, but Leigh stopped attending services at around the age of fifteen. From his mother and female relatives, whose company he favoured, he learned to knit, crochet, and sew. His father later reflected that ‘he was just a normal boy growing up’ but acknowledged he was ‘probably a little more complex than we knew’ (The Legend of Leigh Bowery 2002). Educated at Sunshine Primary and Sunshine West High schools, he gained entry (1975–78) to the selective Melbourne High School, where he learned the piano and took part in school opera productions. Several friends recalled his claim that the school uniform was a passport to casual sexual encounters with older men at Flinders Street Station. He briefly studied fashion design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, but chafed at the requirements of the course and did not graduate.

Having saved some money working at Waltons department store, in October 1980 Bowery moved to London, where he found work at a Burger King restaurant. He assumed a cockney accent soon after arriving and tended to conceal his Australian origins. The next year he dressed up to attend the Alternative Miss World Competition where he met the drag queen Yvette the Conqueror, who later recalled that he was ‘so ordinary then, nothing like the work of art that he was to become’ (Tilley 1997, 29). By mid-1982 he was on the dole, sporadically earning small sums by making clothes for acquaintances. He lived in bedsits and squats until January 1984, when he moved to a council flat at Stepney with his friend Gary Barnes, a visual artist known as Trojan. Bowery was inspired by the colourful wares and clothing of the many Indian and Pakistani people who lived in the area.

In 1983 Bowery created his first notable ‘look’ known as ‘Pakis from Outer Space,’ comprising body paint, glittering high-crowned caps, platform shoes, cheap costume jewellery, and long, clashing, patchworked and appliquéd robes. With Trojan he was photographed in this look by both Johnny Rozsa and David Gwinnutt, and he featured it in Epiphany (1984) by the multimedia artist Cerith Wyn Evans, the first of several Bowery appearances in Evans’s films. Bowery’s designs appeared in group shows of British designers in New York in 1983 and 1984, organised by the fashion and nightclub impresario Susanne Bartsch. At another show in Tokyo in late 1984, his collection included ruffled baby-style garments in pale pink, brown, and white, many cut to show the wearer’s bare buttocks. At 183cm tall and notably weighty, Bowery commanded the runway in a floppy hat, long black wig, satin pantaloons, and nylon-frilled scuffs.

With his friend Rachel Auburn, Bowery sold clothes at Kensington Market, but by 1985 he had essentially abandoned the idea of producing garments for commercial sale. The American theatre critic Hilton Als later observed he had ‘committed himself to the total theatricalization of the self, using the night club as his stage’ (1998, 86). In January 1985 he began hosting a fortnightly club night called Taboo, at a small club in Leicester Square. It soon became a weekly event, with Bowery its outstanding attraction as host, entertainer, and provocateur. According to his friend and biographer Sue Tilley, ‘it would be impossible to recreate the bawdy hedonism that took place every Thursday night for eighteen months’ (1997, 66). Taboo was later the inspiration for an eponymous stage musical (2002), with lyrics and music by Bowery’s friend Boy George (George O’Dowd).

Bowery created costumes for several productions by the Scottish dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, including No Fire Escape in Hell (1986), for which he shared a New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) award for visual design. Beginning with Because We Must (1987), he also appeared in Clark’s productions. They were a source of income for Bowery and several friends and collaborators, notably Nicola Joy Ann Bateman, a printed-textiles graduate with whom he became tenderly and protectively close. She emphasised Bowery’s meticulous construction techniques and cutting skills, while the fashion writer Iain R. Webb observed that although ‘often caricatured as a clown, Leigh was fiercely serious about his work’ (Webb 2015). In January 1987 Bowery returned to Australia for a performance of No Fire Escape in Hell at the Sydney Festival. After a performance in Melbourne in February, a critic called the show ‘desperately sensational’ (Jillett 1987, 14). Bowery also mounted a fashion parade at the Melbourne Town Hall, which featured nudity and simulated sex acts. His mother was reduced to tears of mortification.

In June 1987 Bowery appeared on the cover of i-D, a magazine dedicated to fashion and youth culture. The next year the art dealer Anthony d’Offay invited him to stage an ‘exhibition’ at his gallery in London, describing him as ‘one of the most exceptional talents to emerge from the avant-garde cultural scene of the 1980s’ (Take a Bowery 2003, 132). From 11 to 15 October Bowery occupied the window space of the gallery for two hours each day, watched by the public through a two-way mirror as he evaluated his own reflection, prowled about, and rearranged himself on a chaise longue in a different look each day. The d’Offay performance was later characterised by the German art historian Martin Engler as an ‘existential, almost iconic image of narcissistic loneliness and self-inflicted isolation’ (Leigh Bowery 2008, 59).

Although Bowery never earned a significant or steady income, he profited from his British and international club appearances and from various other undertakings: he was a paid co-host of a short-lived MTV celebrity chat show, Take the Blame (1988); he featured in an advertisement for Pepe jeans in 1989; and he was a stylist and clothes designer for Boy George. He twice appeared in conventional roles on the stage, in Mark E. Smith’s Hey! Luciani in 1986, and for the Scottish theatre director Stewart Laing’s production of Copi’s The Homosexual in 1993.

When asked about his greatest regret in 1993, Bowery replied with tragic airiness, ‘unsafe sex with more than 1000 men’ (Violette 1998, 11). According to Tilley, Bowery learned he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as early as 1988, but he told only Tilley and later his sister, who each kept his confidence until his last days. Between 1988 and 1994 the photographer Fergus Greer produced a definitive record of thirty-nine of Bowery’s looks, which he created with increasing urgency in the face of his mortality. From 1990 he also posed for a series of portraits by the painter Lucian Freud, naked and unadorned. Freud described Bowery as ‘perfectly beautiful’ (Tilley 1997, 220), and the intellectual and personal (though not sexual) attraction between the men was intense.

Later in his life, Bowery’s performances became increasingly elaborate, obscene, threatening, and hilarious. From 1990 he made two or three public experiments with anal fountains facilitated by enemas administered off-stage, for which he was blacklisted by some clubs. In 1992, with two drag queens, he formed the ‘pop group’ Raw Sewage that incorporated performance-art elements in its act. The next year Bowery and the composer and knitwear designer Richard Torry formed the art band Minty, with which Bowery startled audiences by appearing to give birth to Bateman on stage.

Bowery visited Melbourne in March 1994 to see his mother, who was to die in June. Having returned to London, he married Bateman at the Tower Hamlets register office on 13 May. The newlyweds performed with Torry at an arts event in the Netherlands in June, Bowery hanging upside down behind a large plate of glass, wearing black face paint, high boots, and black stockings, his penis and nipples nipped with clothes pegs. In November he was admitted to Middlesex Hospital with meningitis. Taking turns sitting with Bowery in hospital, both Tilley and Nicola Bowery continued to pose for Freud. On 31 December Bowery died of pneumonia and he was later buried next to his mother in Macedon cemetery, Victoria.

An obituary in the New York Times described Bowery’s costumes as ‘remarkable for their combination of kitsch references, ingenuity and formal beauty’ (New York Times 1995, 29). Bowery himself had claimed, ‘I’m interested in a jarring aesthetic … the idea that something can be frightening and heroic and pathetic all at the same time’ (Tilley 1997, 112). Many commentators situated Bowery within the tradition of the English dandy, while others interpreted his career as an example of the grotesque, excessive, and carnivalesque, or within the theatrical tradition of Bouffon. Bowery’s peers and scholars also tried to articulate the difference between him and the drag queens in his circles: Boy George contrasted him with ‘fluffy’ drag queens, saying that he was ‘kinda non-sexual … very confusing’ (The Legend of Leigh Bowery 2002); while the British cultural commentator Michael Bracewell suggested he had ‘exchanged the traditions of simple drag for a personal surrealism’ (Leigh Bowery 2008, 100). The implication that Bowery transcended drag is tied to the widespread perception of his intimidating physicality: Engler for example argued that Bowery’s ‘rampant masculinity’ was by no means ‘nullified by painfully squashed breasts or … genital toupees’ (Leigh Bowery 2008, 60).

The Leigh Bowery Estate, held by Nicola Bowery, comprises approximately fifty costumes, and a collection of press cuttings, photographs, diaries, postcards, and video footage. From this collection, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, curated a major retrospective exhibition in 2003, Take A Bowery: The Art and (Larger Than) Life of Leigh Bowery. Freud’s portraits of Bowery are in private collections, the Tate Britain, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, while photographic portraits are held by the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. The National Gallery of Victoria has two of Bowery’s costumes, and a theatre at St Albans, Melbourne, is named for him.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Als, Hilton. ‘Life as a Look.’ New Yorker, 30 March 1998, 82–91
  • Bateman-Bowery, Nicola. Personal communication
  • Bowery-Ireland, Bronwyn. Personal communication
  • Greer, Fergus, and Mariuccia Casadio. Leigh Bowery Looks. London: Violette Editions, 2002
  • Jillett, Neil. ‘What the “Hell”?’ Age (Melbourne), 12 February 1987, 14
  • Leigh Bowery: Beautified Provocation. Edited by Rene Zechlin. Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2008. Exhibition catalogue
  • New York Times. ‘Leigh Bowery, 33, Artist and Model.’ 7 January 1995, 29
  • Take a Bowery: The Art and (Larger than) Life of Leigh Bowery. Curated by Gary Carsley. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003. Exhibition catalogue
  • The Legend of Leigh Bowery. Documentary film. Directed by Charles Atlas. New York: Atlas Films: Paris: ARTE France, 2002
  • Tilley, Sue. Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997
  • Violette, Robert, ed. Leigh Bowery. London: Violette Editions, 1998
  • Webb, Iain R. ‘The Night I Put Leigh Bowery on the Catwalk.’ Guardian (London), 1 November 2015

Citation details

Sarah Engledow, 'Bowery, Leigh (1961–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowery-leigh-31848/text39317, published online 2024, accessed online 22 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bowery, Leigh Bradley
Birth

26 March, 1961
Sunshine, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

31 December, 1994 (aged 33)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

HIV/AIDS

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation