I don’t usually dress like this during the day, Nicola Bateman-Bowery confides. I tend to dress like this when I go out, but I felt like making an effort for you.
Some effort. It’s not just anybody who can pull off a look comprising sequined trousers, sequined Queen Amidala-style headpiece and a singlet emblazoned with words to the effect that the wearer got fucked in Ibiza.
But then, since meeting Leigh Bowery in the cocktail bar of Taboo nightclub in London in the early 1980s, Nicola Bateman-Bowery has not been known for the conservative nature of her attire. Quite the opposite. One of Leigh’s maxims: Dress as though your life depends on it, or don’t bother, is an idea that Nicola has adopted for herself -“ much to my daughter’s embarrassment, she adds with a girlish giggle.
Better known in England than in Australia (where he was born), Leigh Bowery was a performance artist, nightclub promoter, costume designer and all-round identity. Most famous for his nightclub Taboo (now the subject of a musical currently playing in New York), Leigh inspired a generation of clubbers (including Nicola and Boy George) with his astonishing costumes -“ until his death from AIDS-related pneumonia on New Year’s Eve 1994. Leigh married Nicola in the last months of his life.
When I first saw him I just thought he was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen – art on legs, as far as I was concerned, Nicola says. I thought he was amazing. I’d moved to London and I was quite disappointed, because I had been expecting to see everyone on the streets looking weird and wonderful. So when I met him, it was like -˜Yes, finally, here’s someone who looks great and exciting’. Everybody who went to Taboo looked exciting and great, but he was obviously the pinnacle of it. He was the most outrageous, and he had the most presence.
Nicola’s arrival in London in 1982 came a few years after Leigh’s own 1980 journey from the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine.
He went to London because he was very intrigued by the New Romantics and the punk scene there, because it was very visually exciting, Nicola says. He went to the clubs to soak up the atmosphere, but when he first went to London he was too shy to dress up.
That changed after a local drag queen, Yvette the Conqueror, took Leigh under her wing. Before long, Leigh abandoned his job at a fast-food restaurant, rid himself of his Australian accent and plunged headlong into his life’s work of dressing up and going out. People noticed. Magazine editors also noticed, and Leigh’s fame grew after fashion spreads appeared in titles like The Face and i-D.
There were loads of people who were in awe of him, Nicola remembers. But I don’t think they were quite as dedicated as I was.
The bond between them continued to grow with Nicola helping Leigh design some of his more amazing outfits. They also became artistic collaborators, and in one celebrated performance piece, Leigh gave birth to Nicola on stage. (The costume that enabled them to pull off that artistic feat is part of the current MCA exhibition.)
After Leigh’s death, Nicola worked for a while as a designer and performance artist (in the group Minty, which also featured the porn star Aiden Shaw). But in more recent years, she’s devoted herself to motherhood and taking care of Leigh’s legacy.
Ever since Leigh died, there have always been galleries asking for one or two garments, she says. It’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger and more people have wanted more and more costumes.
I’m doing what Leigh would have wanted. He wanted to be noticed and he wanted to be famous; he had this desire to stimulate people and to shock them. He wanted as many people as possible to know about him and to see his clothes, and a gallery is a great place to show them off.
Take a Bowery; The Art and (larger than) Life of Leigh Bowery, is at the Museum of Contemporary Art until 7 March.