To the queer and many non queer residents of Birmingham the figure above will be immediately recognisable as our very own Twiggy. He’s the most recognisable persona of our LGBTQ+ scene, having emerged as a young man in 1981 on the alternative club scene.
Twiggy, like many of the city’s alternative teens, wasn’t attracted by the straight clubs of Broad Street, and actively avoided the mainstream crowds that frequented the likes of venues such as the Kaleidoscope, Faces and Snobs.
Instead, tribal identities were forged in night clubs such as Romeo and Juliet’s, The Power House, The Zig Zag, The Rum Runner and The Tin Can. Weirdness was celebrated dancing to music by Alien Sex Fiend, Birthday Party, Sex Gang Children, Sisters of Mercy and of course, Soft Cell. Marc Almond ‘s queerness spoke more to Twiggy and his tribe than Wham’s gorgeous George Michael ever could.
What began as an alternative way to dress and present to the world soon changed when at 16, Twiggy on a youth training scheme, was placed at a clothing factory. It was there that he found out just what industrial machines could do and in his own words “something exploded into a whole new dimension of being.” Thus, what had begun as dressing up to fit in to not fitting in, became something more. It became a realised passion, guided by an innate sense of artistry and the endless possibilities of creation, movement, and change.
As the 80s shifted along, Lee Bowry was already painting and creating himself. The art and culture of Club kid was rising to it’s peak and our Twiggy of course was right there with it; clubbing at every venue, London, Brighton, Birmingham and Manchester, welcoming the revellers at the club doors with his other worldliness of splendour.
However, it’s been more than clubbing or even club kid culture for Twiggy. For 40 years it’s been, and continues to be, his art, his love, his sweat and on occasion his blood and tears.
40 years of dressing this way has meant he’s seen and faced more real dangers than most: being chased by gangs of drunk young men, the verbal abuse, the spitting and the punches. As he says the “homophobia of the 80s has stayed about the same, it’s just phrasing of it is a little different, although, now as a man of maturity it’s a lot easier to handle and some services are better at picking it up”.
Peeling back the layers of time, of make-up and of costume it becomes apparent that his life’s work is about being his own creation despite it all.
Creation can start with something simple like the sequins for a cod piece, or the colour of a pair of tights, and Influences of medieval gowns, ghost silhouettes, garish wigs and scary clowns. It’s never been about looking like a drag artist – it’s been about being Twiggy. A genderless, multigendered contradiction of being that maybe once was human, who sits eagle eyed welcoming the night and visitors to Birmingham’s scenes. Twiggy’s stage shows range from acerbic commentary about love and relationships to serious satire raising questions about migration. All of it is done with love and the notion that life can be strange, but people’s shared humanity is ordinary.
So, what more for Twiggy? Well, I dare say he’ll continue to be a centre stage feature of Birmingham Pride but perhaps our Birmingham Mayor will give him the keys to the city? And perhaps our universities will award him with honorary doctorates in art and fashion? It would be fabulous and fair if we could now recognise and acknowledge this important Birmingham artist. He has spent his life creating art, fun, mischief and magic for us and deserves to be venerated and celebrated.
Over 40 years ago, when for the first time Twiggy set foot in Romeo’s, he remembers the song Memorabilia by Soft Cell called to him. This was perhaps portentous, because he’s spent a lifetime creating memorabilia in his art, in his life, and in our cities, being living art that can be experienced not in museums and galleries but in our streets and clubs.
Thank you, Twiggy, for creating you and being a beautiful and fantastical feature of our city.