Photo by Laura Kelly
"I'm not very happy with the word muse – in my mind, a muse is a bit wafty. I don’t think I was really a muse,
I was just working"
Rewind to the 1980s and London nightlife was an explosion of creativity – the new romantics were in, dramatic fashion looks were everywhere and at the back of the club, having a gossip, there’d be Sue Tilley, also affectionately known as Big Sue.
She was the best friend of the outrageous performance artist and fashion designer Leigh Bowery, who became known for his shocking stage shows and about whom she wrote a biography. Sue worked at the Job Centre during the day and the door at his infamously wild club night Taboo, which was later immortalised by Boy George in the musical of the same name, by night. This was a place, in the mid-80s, where genders and sexualities were blurred and the more flamboyant your costume, the better.
It’s also where Leigh and Sue met the painter Lucian Freud – both ended up sitting for him but Sue’s nude portrait, 1995’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, is perhaps among his most famous works, which, when it sold for $33.6 million, was the most expensive painting by a living artist ever to be sold at auction.
Sue left London to retire by the seaside on England’s south coast and it’s where she can often be found hosting quizzes and DJing in one of the local pubs, or working on her own pieces – she is now an artist in her own right and often paints the colourful characters she remembers from her clubbing days.
This episode was produced by Gabriela Jones.
Music: Ad Infinitum - Oh The City; Photosynthesis - Lagua Vesa; Waking Dreams (Nada Copyright Free Music); Santosha - Can Sandano; A Message From Your Space Cat - Felix Johansson Carne; Cotton Candy - Copse; Backplate - Joseph McDade; Waking And Dreaming - Brendon Moelleer
TRANSCRIPT: Sue Tilley
[Advert] Welcome back to The Last Bohemians series two, supported by Mr and Mrs Smith. I'm Kate Hutchinson, and I hope you've been enjoying the series as much as we've enjoyed making it. Before we head over to the English seaside for this episode, I must tell you a little bit more about our partners. If you're the sort of person who prefers to spend their precious holiday time in a hotel with a dash of bohemian spirit, then Mr and Mrs Smith are the curators you'll want to trust with your trip. On mrandmrssmith.com, you'll find thousands of handpicked places with personality, where you can walk, eat and sleep on the wild side, or you could just go all out and hire your own private island - I mean, what could be more bohemian than that?
Kate Hutchinson: Leigh [Bowery] famously lived life as a work of art, what about you?
Sue: Oh when I go out I like to make myself look nice but I don't think I'm a living piece or work of art – but then I am, really, aren't I? Literally, I am a work of art.
Kate Hutchinson intro: Rewind to the 1980s and London nightlife was an explosion of creativity: the New Romantics were in, dramatic fashion looks were everywhere and at the back of the club, having a gossip, there'd be Sue Tilley, also affectionately known as Big Sue. Sue was the best friend of the outrageous performance artist and fashion designer Leigh Bowery, who became known for his shocking stage shows and about whom she wrote a biography. Sue worked the door at his infamously wild club night Taboo, which was later immortalised by Boy George in the musical of the same name. This was a place, in the mid-80s, where genders and sexualities were blurred and the more flamboyant your costume, the better. It’s also where Leigh and Sue met the painter Lucian Freud – both ended up sitting for him but Sue’s nude portrait, 1995’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, is perhaps among his most famous works. Sue left London a few years ago to retire by the seaside on England’s south coast and it’s where she can often be found hosting quizzes and DJing in one of the local pubs, or working on one of her own pieces – she is now an artist in her own right and often paints the colourful characters she remembers from her clubbing days.
Sue: Do you want to have a little tour around my flat? I'll show you it. Yeah, this is a picture of all like club people and everything done by my friend Wigan, he used to run a club called The Brain on Wardour Street, just near The Wag Club. And there's pictures of, who's on there, Fat Gill, Tasty Tim... Leigh, Trojan, I think Magenta Devine on there somewhere, who unfortunately just died. Different people, the looks.
Kate: How do you feel when you look at this painting or this picture?
Sue: Oooh, I love it cos it's like seeing all my old friends. Lot of dead people here…
Kate: What was it like to leave London?
Sue: Well, it was a whim, I just decided I'd move here. I'd only been here twice, but I liked the look of it and I'd seen some people and I thought, "Oh, I like them". The minute I moved here I just loved it.
Kate: I guess your story really started in 1980s in London. What was London like at that time, Sue?
Sue: Well, it was, everyone was very poor, so you had to really make do and mend and make your own looks and your own clothes, and we just lived on what we had really. You had to make your own fun. There was always different looks that came in, there was New Romantic and then that went into hard times. Well the New Romantics started, I think it was a few people like Boy George, who obviously was Boy George, then people from St Martins who went there and went to various art schools and they just dressed up really fancy with loads of makeup and blusher and back-combed hair and just tried to look really glamorous. After New Romantics was hard times, which was the complete opposite, it was more scrappy, rough clothes. Well I think it was hard times because no one had any money, so you had to make do and mend. Margaret Thatcher was in, being mean, snatching all the milk from the children.
Kate: And in hard times when people are being oppressed that's when people get creative.
Kate: Especially in nightlife.
Sue: That was a marvellous fashion you could knock up very very quickly and cheaply.
Sue: For a man, loafers maybe, white socks, then jeans that were quite cinched in at the waist - you remember like Bros when they first came out, those jeans had a really tight belt pulling them in and they sort of went a bit voluminous and turned up at the bottom. Then ripped t-shirt maybe with a string vest over the top of it, and then maybe the sleeves of the t-shirt cut off and made a bracelet, or some rags around your wrist. Hair: shaved at the sides and long on top, and the girls would have backcombed hair with a raggedy rag tied around it, yeah, that was the look. My mum got furious with me once because they came to pick me up to take me to my nan's 80th birthday and I went and I just made a new dress, made it out of a tablecloth - didn't go down well.
Sue: When I went out my favourite bit, to be honest, was usually getting ready at home. I'd never have a bath, put your makeup on, get your outfit on - because I lived near all the clubs people used to come round my house first, so what you'd do is stock up on drink at home first, because it's cheaper, and then because there wasn't MTV in those days, you'd record Top of the Pops, and then like another programme there might be an act on, you know. So before we went out we'd sit and watch the videos, like our own version of MTV that we'd invented ourselves.
Kate: How did you become trendy back in the 80s?
Sue: You just went to all the clubs and made the right friends [laughing]
Kate: What do nightclubs mean to you, Sue? Were they a place of community for you, or of escapism?
Sue: Yeah they were communities. You know, there was only like a few, and you knew on Wednesday go here, on Thursday go there. To be honest you could go on your own cos you knew you'd bump into some friends there and everything, and everyone who went was more or less the same. I was thinking about this the other day, they all like the same things, they all liked John Waters, they all liked Divine, they all liked Brookside, you know, all liked fashion, same musicians, same pop stars... it was just the way we were. Most of the clubs we went to were in the West End of London, that's where we always went. Taboo which was in Leicester Square, things like Le Kilt which were in Soho, Blitz, that was in Covent Garden, The Wag Club was in Soho. So really basically everywhere we went was in Soho.
Kate: That mix of people that went to clubs like Blitz and later Taboo and The Wag Club seemed very special – it seemed to cut across lots of different types of people.
Sue: Yeah. Most of the people from those days are either quite famous, successful or they're dead. You know, so one or the other. But loads of people, like in fashion, film, writers, artists went there. I mean it didn't seem like back then when we were there, it was just like going out and seeing your friends.
Kate: Why are people so interested in Taboo?
Sue: I suppose, you know, it really was hedonistic – it was just getting drunk and falling over and getting off with someone, snogging on the floor. You know, it wasn't expensive to get in, the drinks were rubbish - they had these cocktails that were just made from some bottle of disgusting blue liquid, but it was just fun. So you'd have to go to Leicester Square, it was quite exciting and full of tourists, and then you'd get to the club and there was a crowd of people outside the door trying to get in, and then there'd be people standing watching the people outside because they were such, you know, unusual looking, they couldn't believe their eyes! And then you'd have to pass the bouncers on the door with the guest list that I used to type out at work on the machine that printed out the jobs, and we used to put fake names on there just to excite the door men – Tom Jones, Joan Collins – they weren't coming but we'd put them on the guestlist so they'd think they were. And then you'd come down and I'd be on the cash desk sometimes, or it'd be someone else, and they'd try and wangle the price but I'd just make up how much it costs to get in. Then there'd be some more stairs and there was like mirrors down the sides of the stairs, and then you'd turn right and there was the club, was mayhem, glamorous people drunk rolling around on the floor, then you know, people would kiss you and their makeup would all get splodged over your face, and bits of glitter would pass round from one person to the next. Sitting on the banquettes just generally chit-chatting, dancing, and there were certain records that were very popular, when they came on everyone knew the dance and got up and danced to them - high energy pop, I'd call it.
Kate: I imagine it was very difficult to move on the dance floor because there were all these massive outfits
Sue: People rolling on the floor. And the DJ Jeffrey Hinton was so drunk once he just played the record mat – he was so drunk he forgot to put a record on, so the needle was just going round the mat.
Kate: Just playing the sound of felt
Sue: Yeah [makes a hissing sound imitating needle on record mat]. People still danced!
Kate: One of the things that I love the sound of is that everybody was wearing these very outlandish, glamorous DIY outfits, but everyone was drinking very cheap Fosters lager.
Sue: Oh yeah, can of Fosters, yeah. Nothing was fancy, you know, wouldn't even have a gin and tonic really.
Kate: Because people think about clubbing in that era and they think that it must've been really glamorous and fashionable.
Sue: No! It was just like getting on the bus, going there and just getting horribly drunk on cheap lager or a snakebite. It wasn't like these clubs now where you have the £1000 bottles of vodka that everyone sits round sipping. It was just filth.
Kate: What was it like to be friends with Leigh Bowery?
Sue: Leigh Bowery was the most extraordinary person you could ever meet really. He was just like a human dynamo on legs. He was just so full of energy and life and he'd change your life if he met you, if he liked you. But at the same time he was vulnerable and kind and, you know, he used to be rude to people sometimes but that was the fashion in the 80s. But even if he was rude to you people would be thrilled and never forget it because at least he'd noticed you, and it's better to be noticed than just ignored. When I first met Leigh it was like he wasn't really his freaky self, I think he was like everyone else. I met him in Cha Cha's, he was a fashion designer, that's what he wanted to be, but then he just got bored of it. So he knew he wanted to be famous, and then of course he worked with people, you know, so he did the costumes for Michael Clark and then ended up in the ballet, and then he modelled for Lucian, but he wasn't really in charge, they were, if you know what I mean, he was working for them. So he wanted to do something that was him and all him, so he thought he'd be in a band, so before he died he was in a band and he was hoping for fame and fortune. But to be honest, I said, "I don't think they're really ready for a great big man naked prancing around on stage". But although he was a weirdo, he came from the same sort of background as me, that his mum and dad were quite church-going, they were in the Salvation Army. We just liked the same things, we just laughed so much. You know, he'd do anything to entertain you, like when you went round his house even, he'd open the door and there'd be no one there, you'd look down and he'd be lying on the floor, just so you'd trip over him just to entertain you. Or you'd be sitting in the front room and he'd go out the room and come back in all dressed up as a woman and do a dance for your entertainment. He had this assistant called Nicola, she was quite small, so he came on stage dressed as like Dawn Davenport, who's a Divine figure from one of the John Waters films, and he had like a huge stomach and he was on heels. Then he started prancing around the stage and sort of leant back on this table and waved his legs in the air, and he had tights on but they sort of had velcro, and then suddenly the velcro opened and Nicola who'd been strapped inside him all the time popped out like she was a baby being born all covered in red paint! And it was just so shocking the first time you saw it, but so amazing that he did it. I mean for about a half hour he was dancing round on stage with her tied to him - in heels! So he, you know, really worked hard for his art. I think Leigh liked extreme and he just thought it was funny to shock people and do as much as you could without breaking the law, if you know what I mean.
Kate: Did he ever try and get you to do a performance?
Sue: Ah, I did a couple of things for him but, I mean I got my bosoms out and put them through a fun fur smiley face. But, you know, he knows that I wasn't really a performer. I can't learn words, I can't learn dance steps or anything, I'm not an actress.
Kate: Was being an exhibitionist for that night, was that exciting?
Sue: I just, you know what I'm like, it was alright but it was a bit bizarre. Because I couldn't really see who was there, there were people just grabbing my bosoms, I didn't know who it was.
Kate: Cos you had the smiley face over your face?
Sue: Yeah, it was a great big piece of cardboard covered in fun fur with a smiley face drawn on it.
Kate: And people were grabbing your boobs?
Sue: There were two holes in the eyes of the smiley face and my bosoms were poking out like the two eyes. People just grabbed them. But I mean they were there waiting, what, you know, you couldn't really say it was wrong because they were there... If I didn't want them to do it I shouldn't have had them out, should I?
Kate: Well I think there's an argument that your body is your body and no one else should be touching it.
Sue: [laughing] I didn't mind though, it was funny.
Sue: I never, slightly didn't fit in this whole time because I had a proper job and worked in a jobcentre, so everyone thought I was a bit peculiar because I had a proper job and I wasn't really arty and creative. But it was inside me waiting to come out. But the people at the job centre thought I was odd as well because I went out all the time and had all these weird friends. But then things used to cross over because half the people who came in I knew from the nightclubs, come to sign on.
Kate: You were sort of like Batman leading a double life. How much did you enjoy that contrast between quite a sort of straight forward day job and then this alternative nightlife world?
Sue: Oh I liked it! Because I like, I feel that I've got a foot in each world, and so I kind of know the normal world and the freaky world.
Kate: What was a day at the job centre like?
Sue: Oh, well. When I was younger, I'd generally fall in, I'd feel sick because I was so hungover, I'd lie on my desk then I'd ring up my friend and we'd discuss what we did the night before, then I might see a few customers. You know, it was so easy, you didn't have to fill in a form saying you'd been looking for work, you didn't get sent on courses, you just came and signed on and got your money. But the dole was only £17 I think. People went to the doctors and said they were mental and things like that, you know, just to get a council flat. Trojan and Leigh got theirs because Trojan put paper that was on fire through the letterbox and said that they'd been gay-bashed, but really it was him. Trojan was a club kid and an artist who we were all friends with, you know, he was all in our gang. Leigh was in love with him, it was all very tricky, but he died very young, before he was 21 – drugs. Which was horrible. Then they started dying of AIDS after they died of drugs.
Kate: I read in your Leigh Bowery memoir that people got very blasé to death at one point because there seemed to be so much of it. Was that really the case?
Sue: Yeah, I think so. Because all my friends died. I mean, when I was really young at school I used to think about it, I'd think, "If someone I knew died I think I'd just be a wreck, I'd never be able to cope" – but you do, you just have to, because you can't lose your life if someone else has died. You know, if I died I don't want anyone else to be mourning their whole lives and not enjoying themselves. It was weird though, it was horrible, and you kept thinking you were going to catch it.
Kate: So there was a lot of misunderstanding about it?
Sue: Yeah, you'd think you could get it just from touching someone. You know, like, when the first people who got it, the way they were treated was horrible. When I first stated going out AIDS wasn't there and it was a lot of mix between the straight people and the gay people and everything. Then once AIDS started coming it all became very segregated, the clubs were much more gay and straight people wouldn't go to them. It was like a terrible fear, and lots of friends were going to tests just thinking they might have it. And then some people I knew got it very early are still alive now, and it's kind of really affected their lives because they didn't expect to be alive and they are.
Kate: What went through your mind when you realised you were going to lose your best friend?
Sue: Leigh told me and we both sat there crying and sobbing, but then the next day he kind of went back to himself, he goes, "I can't just live my life" – a bit like me, he goes, "I've just gotta get on with it", and he did work much harder once he knew. He didn't have those days lying around doing nothing, he just got on because he knew that he had less time to achieve whatever he wanted to achieve. But then my flat mate had AIDS as well, and he said to me, "That's practice for you". I went, "Oh, thanks". [laughing]
Kate: Why did Leigh not want to tell anybody he was sick?
Sue: He just didn't want people to say, "Oh he's doing this because he's got AIDS". And like a lot of people he'd know, their minds had gone and they had started acting really weird because they had it, because it physically got inside their brains - it's not like their mental state, it was physical. And he thought, "I don't want people to think I'm doing what I'm doing because I've got aids and my head's gone funny – I want them to think it's me".
Kate: How did you and Leigh come to encounter Lucian Freud and end up as his models?
Sue: Well as you may know, Lucian's got quite a lot of children, and so you're bound to know some of them. But, no, a friend of ours went to university with one of his daughters and so she introduced him to Lucian and he worked for Lucian. He told Lucian about Leigh and so Leigh started for him, and then Leigh decided it was so good for you that I should work for him, because he didn't really like me working in a jobcentre, he thought if I worked for Lucian my life would change and it'd expand - took its while, but it did work. And so he sort of put the idea into, he couldn't say it directly to Lucian, he had to play his sort of machiavellian tricks, and try and make Lucian think it was his own idea. And so he sort of arranged meetings between us where we'd bump into each other, then in the end I was asked to model.
Kate: How would you describe the painting that you're in, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping?
Sue: Oh I loved it, that's my favourite, it was always my favourite one. But I think it looked very cosy on that sofa, and it's just nice. I don't know why, you know, it's just, I fit the sofa, it's squidgy. But you know, when it was being painted I never dreamt that what would happen did happen.
Kate: What happened?
Sue: Well I was sitting in the job centre and someone rang up and went, "Oh, it's the Evening Standard here for you", and I thought it was just for, about work or something. Then he went, "Oh, did you know your painting's being sold, it's the most expensive painting in the world?", I went, "Well how do you know that then?". I didn't realise then that the art world's a right old palaver and everyone knows everything and who's going to buy it and who's gonna sell it. They said, "Can we do an interview", I said, "Alright then". They said, "Well we're sending a photographer round", so I go upstairs and put my lipstick on, quickly got on Google when I was upstairs - nothing there. I'm going, "I think it's a trick". Most bizarre.
Kate: Really those paintings went for millions and millions of pounds. How much did you get paid for modelling for them?
Sue: About £25 or something. But I didn't mind, who cares - don't you think in life sometimes experience is more important than money? You know, it was a little bit of money and I got taken out for lovely dinners, and to be honest I've been living off it more or less ever since, because I know that all the jobs I get I wouldn't have got if I wasn't the woman in those paintings. Each painting was about nine months, about three days or three nights a week, about eight hours a day.
Kate: You must've talked a great deal?
Sue: Yeah. But the thing is, I wish I'd written it down, but I can't remember much of what we talked about, just general gossip. But we knew lots of people in common, then he'd tell me about the olden days when he met Judy Garland, when he was in a car with Cecil Beaton, so it was quite thrilling. He had these really scary eyes that stared at you funny.
Kate: How does the word muse sit with you?
Sue: I'm not very happy with the word muse. When people would call me it, I don't think I was really a muse, I was just working there. Because in my mind a muse is a bit wafty and in love with the person and sort of, might have TB even – you know, like in the pre-Raphaelites paintings, that poor woman who had to lie in the water and almost died - I imagine that's more of a muse, and they're madly in love with the artist and all this business. I wasn't, yeah, you know. I just did it really. Most of his girls who worked for him were very kind of blue stockings and didn't wear a lot of makeup and things, and skinny... and I was just sort of very down to earth. I wasn't in love with him, which I think made sitting with him much easier, because a lot of the girls there was affairs going on and everything which obviously gives a different dynamic to the painting because of all the emotions and that. But I had no interest in romance, and he had no interest in me, so it kind of made it easier because that wasn't there.
Kate: Do you ever begrudge being the star of other men's stories? Like Lucian's, like Leigh's?
Sue: Never even crossed my mind to be honest, because I don't think, I've got to the point now where I think I'm just as important as them. I know it sounds really vein, doesn't it, but Leigh would be so jealous! If he was alive now he'd be so bitter that my picture cost more than his! [Laughing]
Kate: How did you come to be a painter yourself?
Sue: Oh, I've always, all my life, I was painting when I was a child and I did art a level and I got grade A! I remember going to a parents day at school and the art teacher saying, "Yes, I can see Susan being a painter", and then finally when I was 60 it happened! It's all very bizarre. Then what happened? Oh, I've got a friend, he goes, "Right, I'm gonna get the Guardian to write an article about you and your art". I went, "What?". So anyway, he did and they rang up and I thought it would be a bit of, one paragraph, and it was half a page in the Observer about how Lucian Freud's model is now an artist. And then I read the comments, which I love reading the comments, and people going, "How can she say she's an artist? I've looked at her Twitter, if they're anything like her Twitter she must be useless". Made me laugh so much, and so, I thought, "Right", because it was so hilarious I put it on Facebook. Then this man I didn't know who ran a gallery saw it, and it made him laugh so much he said, "Do you want an art exhibition?". So this is my life. I'd never had an exhibition or anything before, I thought, "Well I better get going, hadn't I?". A luckily just before, a few months before, I got made redundant, so I found a studio and started working. I did pictures of all my family, like a big family tree and then I did all the things I like in life, like I drew bottles of Dove body wash and Häagen-Dazs ice cream and custard creams. I worked for Fendi for their spring/summer menswear collection 2018 - I know! Very bizarre, who would've thought? So that's another one of my dreams came true after I made 60, cos when I was young I wanted to be a fashion designer, but really I made no effort to be one. Because I just moved here, so I had the builders in and I was sitting in a spare room surrounded by boxes just drawing these pictures for Fendi that were gonna go on garments costing a fortune.
Kate: Sue, do you really, really believe that you're a regular person?
Sue: [Shouting] But I am! My best treat is going to Marks and Spencers in Bexhill! No, I'm a mix, I love the fact that I'm a mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Kate: Where do you get your inspiration from now, what kind of things do you draw now?
Sue: Same. Leigh and Trojan, very popular. And then I don't really know what to draw, then I think about it and something in the middle of the night will come to my mind like, because I always wanted Lucian to paint me with my clothes on. I was just, cos who was it? Matisse or something had a room full of clothes for his models to try on, I'd go, "Why don't you get one? Go on. Let me dress up fancy". I thought I would draw famous paintings but with me as the person in them, change them about, and also just before that I'd had breast cancer as well, so I've only got one of my magnificent breasts now. And so I put that up in it as well, because I thought that was a bit tragic [laughing].
Kate: For somebody whose body has become so famous through being a model for Lucian Freud, to lose one of your breasts, a big sort of defining part of your character, was that particularly hard?
Sue: No. I was amazed myself, because when I was young I was petrified of cancer, I had this thing about it, it'd be so scary, it was the worst thing on earth. Then when I got it, I know it's bizarre, I never even cried once really. Didn't even care. It's so bizarre. You know you amaze yourself at how strong you are, no. So I just went and had it done, I had it chopped off, and I was out of hospital in two days. People came to see me the next day and they went, "Are you sure you've had an operation? You just look normal". I go, "Well I am".
Kate: Where does that desire to brush things off come from?
Sue: I don't know. Because I think it is that I've, sometimes in the past, you know when you get so het up, I had a time at work which was so horrible, and I was like so stressed for about three years, I thought, "I can't live my life like this", and so I said to myself: don't get worked up about things, because it only upsets yourself. Because say you're like cross with someone, they don't know you're cross with them, they don't know that it's eating away at you inside and it's driving you mad. And then when you're like that, you're quite horrible as well, sometimes to your friends, because you're so stressed and upset, and I thought, "I don't want to be that person". So I worked on myself, the last few years I've managed in life just to drift through without anything upsetting me – much to the bitterness of various people who go, "How can you be like that?". I go, "Because I want to be, so I am". I thought if people had cancer they must think all day long every day that it's gonna come back – never really crosses my mind, you know. I just dealt with it. I don't want to ruin my life, spend my life worrying about things, I want to enjoy everything that I can.
Gabriela Jones: This episode was produced by me, Gabriela Jones. For more in the series, subscribe to The Last Bohemians wherever you get your podcasts, and check out the portrait series by Laura Kelly over at thelastbohemians.co.uk.