David Bowie Taught Me How to Tart Up

And it saved me from losing my mind.

Musician David Bowie performs onstage during his 'Ziggy Stardust' era in 1973 in Los Angeles, California.
David Bowie performs onstage during his Ziggy Stardust era in 1973 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On the release of David Bowie’s previous album The Next Day in 2013, Simon Doonan penned this column on the importance of Bowie to the development of his own style and preservation of his sanity. A lightly revised version of the original piece is printed below as a memorial to Bowie, who died on Sunday at the age of 69.

I am one of the adoring, borderline-creepy fans who made fame such a cumbersome undertaking for David Bowie. Is it really my fault that he was a bloody genius who kept me, and millions like me, in his thrall for more than four decades? Aladdin Sane, Low, Station to Station, Pin Ups … too many great albums to mention them all. Compared with Bowie’s oeuvre, much of today’s costumed schlock-pop sounds to me like a bunch of hastily assembled clichés from the Eurovision Song Contest school of oompah. Bowie’s product, in sharp contrast, was always meticulous, lurid, mysterious, and fascinating. From Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters and, right up to Blackstar, the music was always tight, immaculate, and considered. Yes, he had moments of high camp, but remember what they say about camp: Camp is the lie that tells the truth. Needlepoint that onto your manbag!

My Bowie ardor is always quick to manifest itself. Whenever I heard anybody refer to Liberace as Mr. Showbusiness, I invariably remonstrated: “Don’t you think that title really belongs to Mr. Bowie? He is one of the greatest live performers EVER. He’s a funky thigh collector layin’ on ‘lectric dreams. So there!”

Contrasting the two performers—Bowie and Lib—is a strange thing to do. But then I am a very strange person. And who gave me permission to be even stranger? Yes, old Ziggy Stardust himself. And where did he do it? At the Finsbury Park Rainbow on Aug. 20, 1972.

At the time I was working in a tragique department store outside London. I was in “clocks and watches” and my best friend Biddie—later to become James Biddlecombe, star of panto and cabaret—worked in “soft furnishings.” This was a really grim period. Our lives were seedy and turgid and we were in desperate need of some satin and tat, to mention nothing of a frock coat and a bipperty-bopperty hat. We divided our time between dodging the Reading skinheads and mocking the local gays in their fluffy sweaters who congregated on a bimonthly basis in the functions room of a dismal pub near the train station that resembled a Kienholz installation. That’s how grim our lives were. But then, on that hot smelly night in Finsbury Park, we found Bowie, the leper messiah, the new patron saint of marginalized freaks, and we began tarting ourselves up.

With his long neck and henna’d tufts, Biddie was able to make himself look exactly like Bowie in his Ziggy incarnation, so much so that girls would sometimes scream and ask for his autograph even while he was at work on a wet Wednesday afternoon. I guess it never occurred to them to wonder what the world’s most exciting new pop phenomenon was doing in a suburban department store slicing up bolts of chintz and brocade.

The more Biddie and I discovered about Bowie, the more deranged our fan-worship became. We just had oodles in common. We were all stuck in same depressed post-hippie quagmire and we were attempting to claw our way out with the aid of sequins and extreme theatricality. Like Bowie, we loved Lindsay Kemp and Scott Walker and Jacques Brel. And we loved Anthony Newley. I was The Laughing Gnome. Still am.

My pal Biddie may have looked just like Bowie, but my Bowie solidarity was more profound. Like Mr. B., I grew up with a lobotomy and smattering of schizophrenics in the house. As a result I, too, lived in fear of losing my shit. When I saw Bowie onstage at the Rainbow in his futuristic costumes and space-boots, I was suddenly filled with hope. Here, before me, was the obvious antidote to life in the local mental institution. The way to avoid going nuts was to go glam rock. Bowie was living proof: Getting tarted-up imbued the wearer with power and immunity. Wearing a striped, twinkle-knit unitard with one leg missing is the opposite of wearing a straitjacket. I think we can all agree about that.

Today, women wear outrageously theatrical shoes and men wear sneakers or flat-soled boring lace-ups. This is very upsetting to me. During the Ziggy years girls wore outrageous shoes—you were nobody unless you had metallic snakeskin boots from Mr. Freedom or Kensington Market or Terry Di Havilland—and so did we dudes. My fave pair was an electric blue children’s sandal style with a massive chunky platform.

Unlike moi, Bowie seems to have had a healthy reticence about glam-rock nostalgia. I, on the other hand, spend a ridiculous amount of time wishing that it would all come back and that Bowie and Bryan Ferry and Eno—and even Alvin Stardust and The Sweet—would tart themselves up once more.

My hankerings may well be a function of the lack of flamboyance on the current male fashion landscape. All right already with all this earnest heritage workwear and nouveau preppy dreariness! If I see one more checked shirt or gray Mr. Rodgers cardigan I am going to wince. Why aren’t they selling quilted velvet cat suits for men at J. Crew?

At some point in the late ‘80s—it was after Glass Spider but before Earthling—I met Bowie for the first time. Naturally I became quite fizzy. Did Bowie wince? To my delight he fizzed back. “I loved your Tammy Faye Bakker window,” he said, referring to a Barneys window that I had created containing a life-sized effigy of the disgraced, tear-stained evangelist lurking next to a giant mascara wand-slash-Christmas tree. A compliment from the Starman? Wow. That was the moment I really lost my shit.

RIP Mr. Bowie.

Read more in Slate about David Bowie.