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Leigh Bowery and me

Craigh Thomas in 1975

Craig Thomas shares his memories of high school in 1970s Melbourne with performance-artist Leigh Bowery.

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Leigh was one of a kind. He was very different. I was a classmate of Leigh’s at Melbourne High in the late ‘70s. Melbourne High was part of the public education system but it was a ‘select’ school in that you had to sit an entrance exam to gain entry to the school, if you weren’t fortunate to live in certain inner city suburbs that gained you automatic entrance to the school.

Leigh and I were both part of a group of six boys who would regularly gather for lunch in a garden area in the shadow of the school’s imposing façade. We would talk about all things school and teenage life. Leigh was always entertaining, that’s what drew me to him. That and the fact that we were ‘outsiders’ at Melbourne High, who were neither good at or had any interest in sport, and we didn’t excel at maths and science. 

We also shared a strong interest in music. Melbourne High had a great well-resourced music department. Leigh enjoyed playing the piano and I seem to recall he learnt the flute. I learnt the flute also. Always very witty, he amused us constantly with hilarious observations and impersonations that were often at the expense of some teachers who took themselves a wee bit too seriously. What made him very different was his self-deprecating sense of humour. I can still recall Leigh often joking that he was ‘just a boy from Sunshine’, a working class suburb at the time in Melbourne’s west. He would sometimes draw the ire of certain teachers at the school who didn’t always appreciate his often flamboyant responses and gestures in class. What impressed me most was his dignified responses to some very public bawling out by some teachers.

But for all his humour and flamboyance, there was little hint of what was to become. At school, we were always dressed in our school uniforms. I can’t even remember a casual dress day where we would’ve gotten some hint of Leigh’s interest in fashion. I lost touch with Leigh after Melbourne High as we went our separate ways in life. It was seven years later, in the mid-’80s, that I read with great interest that he had taken the world by storm with his fashion work. I thought, ‘Good on him. The boy from Sunshine has done very well indeed’.