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Leigh Bowery: Freaky and fabulous

Leigh Bowery at the Limelight Club, London, 1980s. Photo: Alamy

Welcome home Leigh Bowery. You're not with us but we're dancing at the NGV's Bowery Ball, writes Christos Linou

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“I wanted to disappoint everybody “

There have been multiple articles and reviews written about Leigh Bowery so where do I start in adding my micro commentary of this creative giant? My article has been written while listening to a 90-minute interview conducted in 1989, before his death in 1994, which gives insight to his intelligence and humour and reveals personal and candid aspects of his life.  

The closest I can come to understanding Leigh Bowery is to watch and listen to him and think of his queer personality of a one who transforms as a celebration of the flesh and removes bias, prejudice and arrogance; and one of absorbing life’s extremities to present the self as a place of creative change.

“I like to make people feel embarrassed.”

Listening to his voice conducted in London before his death in 1994 is delightful, funny and full of sweet queer idioms and excitement about exploring his fantasies with the rigor of an innocent child looking out on the world with a spectacular awe that he is part of this exuberance. 

With the work that I do, there is a sort of tension between maybe a really light-hearted side and also a very dark sort of side and maybe something glamorous but also something really horrifyingly twisted.” 

Sure he dressed and dragged, tripped on acid and pumped heroin, dropped ecstasy and fucked over 1,000 men (like many gay men do), but his outsider status as an artist caused great calamity when he performed outrageous acts of animalistic and almost exorcist acts to the body that shocked audiences to a place of protest. His voluptuous, grandiose-sized body juxtaposed his attitude of elegance and friendliness. 

“I hate revival stuff. I like using whatever you can to make something new where there’s no rules”

His larger-than-life stature demanded attention, elevating Leigh Bowery to diva status. Yet his gentle nature and openness to being truthful about his homosexuality, at a time when the stigma of being gay made us targets for violence, meant that the boy from the western suburb of Sunshine, did not get to play in the streets of Melbourne. His reason for leaving Australia for London in 1980 was one to escape the torture and cruelty of his parents and the get the fuck out of parochial Melbourne and towards the sexy allure of London’s Soho gay scene.

“Who makes money from my ideas?”

As a great artist who challenged the social norms of their time, Leigh Bowery was not regarded as important and in postmortem the corporations of greed arrived much later and from 1994 until 2024 the art of Bowery was celebrated, revered, questioned and possibly exploited.

“Getting reactions from an audience is a big part of my life. I need to bounce things off them.” 

What else is there to say except imagine dancing as a semi-clad sequins-glued drag queen tripping on a range of party drugs and having promiscuous sex and saturating yourself into the depths of your fantasies and enjoying the playfulness of being alive?

“My favourite fabric is flesh. I’m keen on skin, my skin.”

To survive the every day, the starving artist was involved in petty crime and was arrested shoplifting. His hands were fully painted in golden tinsel to create the effect of wearing gloves and when the police fingerprinted him the print was scratched and distorted from the tinsel wedged between the tiny lines of his fingers and so no clear image of Bowery’s fingerprints could be taken.

I get a great deal of pleasure from doing what I do.”

He is funny and welcoming and I can imagine that when he was performing a live birth with his friend pouring out of his costume with blood and guts spilling onto the dance floor, it grabbed the attention of Boy George. This started a queer collaboration with the neo-romantic post-disco glam gay scene and Bowery set  new freaky standards that have paved the way for all the glitz and spectacle of today’s drag queens, drag kings and gender queerness.

Anyone can say they are an artist and when is nurse a nurse.”

The works on exhibition at the NGV cover Bowery’s fashion design and display a range of his one-off costumes made for his performances. I don’t want to detail the program as it speaks for itself and needs to be experienced as a place of phenomena of a creative thinker and sadly knowing there is a void post his death that leaves a plethora of questions like: ‘What if he didn’t catch HIV and die of AIDS?’

“I like religious guilt and blasphemy – I always want to do more extreme things and be in contact with more extreme people.”

Leigh Bowery’s excess of the flesh in Dionysian orgies of erotic self-consumption sadly left the enigma of a great thinker dead before his time. The AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s was a tragic era for many people afflicted with a virus that was used to stigmatise the minorities and disadvantaged. If Leigh Bowery was alive today, this weapon used against him would be celebrated and he would be performing naked and spectacularly at the NGV.


The Bowery Ball is on Saturday 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Details at

All Bowery citations sourced from a Leigh Bowery interview, recorded in 1989. Soho, London.