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Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon

By Sue Tilley

Arriving from Australia in 1981, Leigh Bowery soon established himself at the centre of London’s nightclub scene and has remained a cultish, iconic figure in the decades since his death from AIDS in 1994. Remembered now chiefly as a performance artist, his bizarre, outlandish costumes and make-up have influenced generations of artists, from Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen to Lady Gaga.

It was in a club that he met Sue Tilley and the two soon became close friends and party companions. Bowery started the nightclub Taboo, which cemented his status as master of ceremonies and soon became the most notorious and sought after of London’s legendary eighties club nights. Journalist Alix Sharkey wrote – “These days Thursday night in the west end usually means Taboo – London’s sleaziest, campest and bitchiest club of the moment which is stuffed with designers, stylists, models, students, dregs and the hopefully hip”. Stars like Bryan Ferry, George Michael and Paul Young would come in to take a look, mingling with demi-mondaine regulars John Galliano, Michael Clark, Philip Salon, Trojan and Michael and Gerlinde Costiff. Boy George was later to write the story as a musical, creating a part for Tilley.

It was Bowery who took the New Romantic penchant for dressing up to the level of art, attracting the attention of Lucian Freud, who was fascinated by him. Freud painted Bowery and then Tilley herself. His portrait of her, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, went on to be sold at auction in New York in 1994 for 34m, the highest price ever paid for a painting at the time. As one of his closest friends, Sue Tilley has written the definitive biography of the man who came to embody the hedonism and excess of an era, with the intimacy of a true confidante. Told with a breezy warmth and camp humour, a language she clearly shared with Bowery, and with the full cooperation of his family, friends and wife Nicola Bateman, this is not only a portrait of the man but also a riveting tale of the eighties demi-monde and the raffish, but immensely talented, characters who inhabited it.

Sue Tilley was born in South London in 1957. Although she worked full time in various job centres, including twelve years in Soho’s Denmark Street, she became a stalwart of the eighties club circuit, where she met Leigh Bowery. He employed her as cashier at his nightclub Taboo and introduced her to artist Lucian Freud. Tilley became his most famous model and his portraits of her, among them¬†Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, broke records at auction for paintings by living artists at the time. In 1997 she published her biography of Leigh Bowery. Tilley carried on working at the jobcentre until 2015 when she retired and moved to St Leonards-on-Sea. She now paints, writes, DJs, gives talks and collaborated with Fendi on their menswear SS18 collection. She has appeared on various TV and radio shows.


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