Today news broke that British pop star Pete Burns had died in London, aged 57, of a heart attack.
If you were a kid in the Eighties, you will remember Burns and the band he fronted, Dead or Alive. Their breakthrough hit was the 1985 single You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record Baby). Factoid: it was the first chart-topper produced by Stock Aitken Waterman.
Its tinny, synth-heavy sound and catchy hook felt like a revelation at the time – remember, this was pre-Kylie, pre-Rick Astley. And Burns, with his crimped brown locks and lipstick, one eye covered with a pirate patch, looked the part. He was New Romantic fantastic. The perfect poster boy.
Peter Burns was born near Liverpool in 1959, the only child of an exotically named German immigrant, Evelina Maria Bettina Quittner von Hudec, and her British soldier husband, Frank.
A high school drop out, he was fascinated by fashion and identity from an early age. He was kicked out school at 14 for dyeing his hair, and wearing makeup and earrings. He formed his first band, Mystery Girls, in the late Seventies, and founded Dead or Alive in 1980.
By that point, he’d taken to the eye patch as a way to detract from a dodgy nose job, and those luscious locks were the work of his hairdresser/fashion stylist wife, Lynne Corlett. They were married for 26 years, before Burns married his second life-partner Michael Simpson.
Around the same time, 2007, Burns became a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother (UK), where he “did everything in heels” and showed the world just how much fun it was to dress in what he called “drag”. But he rejected labels. In an interview that year with the Guardian UK, he said simply: “I have never had a reason to separate gender. I've had two very powerful people in my life, my ex-wife Lynne, and my husband Michael, and that's it.”
“Everyone's in drag of some sorts,” he continued. “I'm not trying to be a girl by putting on a dress - gender is separated by fabric. I was brought up with an incredible amount of freedom and creativity. Society has put certain constraints on things.” Ten years later, everyone from Lady Gaga to Young Thug, is saying similar things.
Burns’ attitude to cosmetic surgery was also ahead of its time, although it caused him as much pain as pleasure.
By his own estimation, Burns undertook more than 300 cosmetic procedures, many in the attempt to fix a harrowing series of botched jobs, for which he sued his Harley Street surgeon. Dr Maurizio Viel’s mistakes, said Burns, left him looking in the late-noughties like “one of the worst science fiction horror movies you’d ever see” – and nearly cost him his life.
And yet Burns continued to alter his appearance surgically as well as with makeup and costume. “I see it as an art form,” he said in a TV interview in 2010. “I see myself as my own clay, and I was remodelling it.”
Asked where the desire to change his appearance came from, he said: “Since my early childhood when I was getting bottles of Dylon shoe dye and pouring it over my head to make my hair green.”
For Burns, messing with his face was perhaps simply an extension of the performance he called life, the ultimate expression of his outward fabulousness. Is it possible that he wasn’t made miserable by it at all – that it is only us on the outside, who did not know him, who need him to be have been tortured within in order to to validate our own discomfort? Maybe he just wanted to be ready for his close-up, and in doing so was anticipating a wider trend for fake beauty that we’re only now, as a society, beginning to come to grips with?
Anything is possible.
You might say it’s quite a leap from hair dye to changing the shape of your jaw and contouring your cheeks. To plumping up your lips to grotesque proportions with fillers, and turning yourself into a cartoon in the name of perfect beauty. You might say, you’d have to be mad.
Then again, you might say that great leap is rapidly shrinking to a baby step.
Teenagers don’t stick posters on their bedroom walls these days – they have Instagram for that. And it’s full of digitally altered pictures of surgically created Kardashians.
Burns told The Guardian that as a kid he didn’t have posters. “I didn't have any icons either,” he said. He didn’t need them – he was his own fantasy.