Will Brooker is a Kingston University academic who has decided to spend a year living out David Bowie’s various personas one month at a time. But why? We tracked down this dedicated kook to get the skinny on his 12 months of being Bowie…
Why are you living out an era of Bowie every month?
“I’m an academic, I write books about popular culture and the meaning to audiences and how they change over time. I wanted to write a book about David Bowie as he approached his 70th birthday.
“I started by reading about four biographies at the same time, reading through the same period in each biography to try and draw a pattern to try and separate probable facts from probable rumour to look at all the different stories told about Bowie at certain periods. I’d draw up a playlist of what Bowie was listening to, what books he was reading and what films he saw and try and build up a kind of framework of Bowie’s influences at certain points to see what was going in and see if that would give me any kind of insight into the art. I’ve always been an alright singer, so I started taking singing lessons to learn the songs to try and get an insider point of view.
“He used to paint, I started painting in the expressionist style, it’s not to an expert standard but, then, neither was Bowie. From there you start to think, ‘Well, what it would be like to wear that full, theatrical make-up like Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust and sit in front of the camera rather than behind it?’ So I thought I’ll give that a go and see how that feels. What would it be like to experience the notorious diet that we all know of? The milk and the peppers. How that would make you feel after a few days? How hungry are you and how miserable is it and how does it affect your mind? It’s impossible to be David Bowie, but we can perhaps try and come closer than traditional research would allow.”
You’ve been Ziggy and Aladdin Sane already and reached the Thin White Duke period of ‘Station To Station’ – what insights do you have?
“Two overriding things have come across. First of all what a miracle that Bowie is alive, what a miracle that Bowie survived the 1970s. It’s absolutely astonishing that he managed to recover when so many great artists went off the rails and actually died. Bowie sucked up everything, so many different influences and was just grappling for a framework of meaning.
“He was trying to find a way to frame it and make it mean something by trying various ideas. Buddhism, Christianity, the occult, Nazism, soul, ambient, rock’n’roll and glam and sometimes was inventing this sort of hybrid genre. It’s like he had this chaos in his head and, like the expressionist artists that he admired as painters, he was trying to get it out.”
Are you living in Bowieland 24/7?
“No, no. The make-up artist was a one off experiment and then I went to the launch of the Bowie exhibition in Melbourne, I did a talk there and so I did it there, a bit of dressing in that style with a bit of silly hair. My hair is currently dyed in a kind of ginger wedge with a blonde streak and that’s permanent, that’s with me every day. It being summer I can research at home and some of the clothes aren’t actually outrageous at all, like a 1970s suit, you can carry it off and that’s fine. Wearing vintage ’70s suits is actually quite nice and you can feel quite original.”
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Do you get people coming up to you asking you about your Bowie outfits?
“I get a pleasing amount of compliments on the hair actually, it seems to apply very, very well in 2015, it seems to be a haircut which isn’t dated and just looks good. When I’ve been more dressed up people can recognise something which could approximate the Thin White Duke like a white shirt with a massive collar and a waistcoat.”
What do your friends and colleagues make of it?
“Some friends are very enthusiastic and think it’s wonderful. I think mostly the response is, ‘Oh, there goes Will again’. English people have a real tolerance for eccentrics, without which we probably wouldn’t have David Bowie.”
Which have been the easiest and the hardest eras to recreate?
“Ziggy or Aladdin Sane are probably the hardest, visually. They’re incredibly elaborate and time consuming and, believe me, I had these make-up artists working on me for about two hours. Psychologically and emotionally I would say the Thin White Duke in 1974, 1975 Los Angeles, almost going off the rails into psychosis. Thin White Duke is kind of easy to dress as, but it’s a nasty personality, the stuff he was reading is nasty stuff.”
Where do you draw the line in terms of recreating Bowie’s drug abuse, bisexuality and Nazi and Crowley obsessions?
“They’re not exactly on the same level. Bisexuality is fine, Nazi salutes less so. That kind of cocaine use, it’s a wonder how he survived. Then there’s questions of legality and, even if you ignored those, the amount of money that Bowie was spending was absolutely absurd. There are some things that no-one except maybe a millionaire rock star could possibly reproduce. It would be crazy to actually try and replicate what Bowie did. I would die. I wouldn’t be here and what would be the point? Bowie wouldn’t want me to die.”
So what’s the game plan for the remaining eras?
“I’m going to go to Berlin in September which I’m very much looking forward to because it’s a new period, a new look, he gets rid of the hair colour and I’ve got all of these clothes already. A German mac, a flat cap, checked shirt, much more anonymous looking. I’m looking forward to walking round the areas where Bowie used to live and maybe going to the Hansa Studios. I deliberately planned this so that the ’80s, one of Bowie’s fallow periods after ‘Let’s Dance’, would fall during term time so I can put teaching first, and in 2003 of course, Bowie goes off the scene a bit to return in 2013 with ‘The Next Day’, which is perfect for me because I can legitimately write the book.”
Have you got any gigs planned?
“I’m friends with a Bowie tribute band called The Thin White Duke and I went to see them the other day and they suggested I come and rehearse with them with an aim of doing a performance.”
Would you headline Glastonbury 2016?
“Oh, you can’t get the real Bowie? Well, I hadn’t thought about it until you said it but we should think big right?”
What do you think Bowie would make of it?
“He’s done some crazy stuff himself, so I hope he would indulge it and hope it was a funny project rather than an insulting one.”
Have you got any tips for anyone else that might want to become Bowie for a bit?
“The hair is expensive, and try to keep your normal relationships in place, don’t isolate yourself and let yourself get into solitude. There’s other things in the world apart from David Bowie.”