Bowery was born and raised in Sunshine, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. From an early age, he studied music, played piano, and went on to study fashion and design. In Australia, he began to feel that he didn't fit well with his conservative surroundings, and became interested in London and the New Romantic club scene while reading British fashion magazines. Bowery then moved to London, where he worked in a clothing shop and appeared in a number of commercials for Pepe jeans. He soon became an influential and lively figure in the underground clubs of London and New York, as well as in art and fashion circles. He attracted attention by wearing wildly outlandish and creative outfits of his own making. He became friends and roommates with two others, Guy Barnes (known as "Trojan") and David Walls. Bowery created costumes for them to wear, and this trio became known in the clubs as the "Three Kings."
He was known as a club promoter, and created the club called "Taboo", which began as an underground party, and then opened as a club in 1985. Taboo soon became "the place to be" with long queues for those waiting to get in. Drugs, particularly ecstasy, became a part of the dancing scene for the attendees. Taboo was known for defying sexual convention, for embracing "polysexualism", for its wild atmosphere, and for its sometimes unexpected song selections.
As a fashion designer he had several collections and shows in London, New York and Tokyo. He has influenced designers and artists. He was known for wildly creative costumes, makeup, wigs and headgear, all of which combined to be striking and inventive and often kitschy or beautiful.
He also designed costumes for the Michael Clark Dance Company. When that company performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1987, Bowery won a Bessie Award for his work on "No Fire Escape in Hell".
As a performance artist he enjoyed creating the costumes, and often shocking audiences. He first appeared at the Anthony D'Offay Gallery in London in 1988. In a signature performance, he would appear on stage in outlandish drag or other costume, looking very huge. He would sing and dance about. Then suddenly, much to the audience's surprise, he would drop onto his back and simulate giving birth to a petite and naked young woman, who was his friend and assistant Nicola Bateman. She had been hidden for the first part of the performance by being strapped to Leigh's belly with her face in his crotch. Then she would slip out of her harness, and appear to pop out of Bowery's belly along with a lot of stage blood and links of sausages, while Bowery wailed. Bowery would then bite off the umbilical cord and the two would take a bow. Boy George said he saw it a number of times, and that it "never ceased to impress or revolt".
In London in 1988, Bowery met the noted painter Lucian Freud in his club, Taboo. They were introduced by a friend they had in common, the artist Cerith Wyn Evans. Freud had seen Bowery perform at Anthony d'Offay Gallery, in London. In Bowery's first public appearance in the context of fine art, Bowery posed behind a one-way mirror in the gallery dressed in the flamboyant costumes he was known for.
Bowery used his body and manipulation of his flesh to create personas. This involved almost masochistically taping his torso and piercing his cheeks with pins in order to hold masks, as well as wearing outlandish makeup. Freud said, "the way he edits his body is amazingly aware and amazingly abandoned". In return, Bowery said of Freud: "I love the psychological aspect of his work – in fact I sometimes felt as if I had been undergoing psychoanalysis with him ... His work is full of tension. Like me he is interested in the underbelly of things." Bowery posed for a number of large full-length paintings that are considered among Freud's best work. The paintings tend to exaggerate Bowery's 6-foot 3inch, and 17 stone physique to monumental proportions. The paintings had a strong impact as part of Freud's exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. Freud said he found him "perfectly beautiful", and commented, "His wonderfully buoyant bulk was an instrument I felt I could use, especially those extraordinary dancer's legs." Freud noted that Leigh by nature was a shy and gentle man, and his flamboyant persona was in part a form of self-defense.
Jonathan Jones, writing for The Guardian describes Freud’s portrait, Leigh Bowery (seated):
Bowery is a character out of Renaissance art - perhaps Silenus, the companion of Dionysus. His flesh is a magnificent ruin, at once damaged and riotously alive. Who knew skin was so particoloured? To count the hues of even one of his feet is impossible: purple, grey, yellow, brown, the paint creamy, calloused, bulging. In a velvet chair tilted down towards us on the raked stage of the wooden studio floor, his mass looms up and dwarfs us. Walk close your eyes are probably the height of his penis. Bowery's violet-domed, wrinkly tube hangs between thighs marked with sinister spots or cuts his knees are massive. Bowery is a painted monument who quietly contemplates his existence inside this flesh.
Boy George was the creative force, the lyricist and performer in the musical Taboo, which was loosely based on Bowery's club, "Taboo". The musical was produced in 2002 on the West End in London, and then opened on Broadway. As a performer, Boy George played a character named "Leigh Bowery".
In an interview conducted by Mark Ronson for Interview Magazine Boy George said that Bowery would sometimes speak with a posh English accent, and one didn't always know if he was sincere or mocking. He seemed to be "in character" at all times. He decorated his flat in a style that was similar to the way he dressed, with Star Trek wallpaper, mirrors and a large piano. He was a ringleader of misbehavior, and with his club, Taboo, he created a place where there were no rules. At the peak of his fame in the clubs he would distort his body in various ways, so that he would appear deformed, or pregnant or with breasts. Bowery once said, "Flesh is my most favorite fabric."
In 1993, Bowery formed the band Minty with friend knitwear designer Richard Torry, Nicola Bateman, and Matthew Glammore.
In November 1994, Minty began a two-week-long show at London's Freedom Cafe, including audience member Alexander McQueen, but it was too much for Westminster City Council, who closed the show down after only one night. This was to be Bowery's last performance. The show was documented by one photographer A.M. Hanson with imagery subsequently published in books about Bowery and McQueen. Minty was a financial loss and represented a low point in Bowery's colourful career. A spin-off band called The Offset later formed including artist Donald Urquhart.
Although Bowery always described himself as gay, he married his long-time companion Nicola Bateman on 13 May 1994 in Tower Hamlets, London. He died 7 months later on New Year's Eve, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness at the Middlesex Hospital, Westminster, London. This followed on from a five-week battle that only a handful of friends were informed about.
Bowery influenced other artists and designers including Meadham Kirchhoff, Alexander McQueen, Lucian Freud, Vivienne Westwood, Boy George, Antony and the Johnsons, Lady Gaga, John Galliano, Scissor Sisters, David LaChapelle, Lady Bunny, Acid Betty, Shea Couleé plus numerous Nu-Rave bands and nightclubs in London and New York City.
Bowery was the main inspiration for the Tranimal drag movement, which emphasized an animalistic and post-modern take on drag.
The look of the character Vulva in the third episode of British TV comedy series Spaced was inspired by Leigh Bowery.
In Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy season 2 episode 2, Noel is advised to give his fantasy block a physical / visual form. He describes it as ...rotund but kind of stylish, like a Leigh Bowery creation. Bowery had been an influence on Fielding's outlandish costume characters.Leigh Bowery Verwandlungskünstler, editor Angela Stief, published by Piet Meyer Verlag, Vienna, (2015); ISBN 9783905799316
Leigh Bowery Looks, by Leigh Bowery, Fergus Greer, published by Thames & Hudson Ltd; New Ed edition (2005); ISBN 0-500-28566-7
Leigh Bowery Looks by Leigh Bowery, Fergus Greer, published by Violette Editions (2006); ISBN 1-900828-27-8
Leigh Bowery, Violette Editions, London, (1998), ISBN 978-1-900828-04-8
Minty discography at Discogs
Hail the New Puritan (1985–6), Charles Atlas
Generations of Love (1990), Baillie Walsh for Boy George
Teach (1992), Charles Atlas
A Smashing Night Out (1994), Matthew Glamorre
Death in Vegas (1994), Mark Hasler
Performance at Fort Asperen (1994)
Flour (single screen version) (1995), Angus Cook
U2: Popmart - Live from Mexico City (1997), Dancer during 'Lemon Mix'
Read Only Memory (estratto) (1998), John Maybury