Sunday, 30 March 2014

Pete Burns

I've been deliberating over writing a post about Pete Burns for quite a while now. You may know him as the front man of Dead or Alive, and, somewhere along the line, you are sure to have heard their one hit, You Spin Me Round (Like a Record). If you have lived in Britain, you may also know him as an outspoken and sometimes controversial individual, known for his dramatic cosmetic surgery, and for struggling to re-establish his former celebrity on shows such as Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother.

Androgynous: Burns in the 80's
What fascinates me about Burns is his deliberate changing of appearance. In the 1980's he was only one of half a dozen popular music artists who used deliberate androgyny as a theme for their appearance. But since then he has gone further and further down the path of cosmetic surgery, until he is unrecognisable from his former self. This article seeks to explore that a little.

One of the things I like about Graham Norton is that he is fearless in tackling any subject, but he disarms his subjects into revealing things by being funny and quirky and camp. One of the funniest things I have ever seen on TV is Norton's interview with will.i.am sitting beside Miriam Margolyes. Norton just sets the two of them up, and like a master conductor, sits back and lets them strike perfect comic sparks off one another. You can see it all here on YouTube.

Norton's interview with Burns took place sometime before 2006, although I can't quite establish the exact date. Here, Norton broaches the subject of Burns' cosmetic surgery:
Norton: Have you finished?
Burns: Oh no, no.
Norton: What next?
Burns: It depends on the boredom factor. It's very difficult for people to understand something like this, but in the 80's when I became a pop star, I saw myself on the front of so many magazines, on TV all the time, and I got really bored of looking at the same face, and I am sure most people do get bored of looking at the same thing. That's why women bleach their hair, that's why women buy makeup, that's why men grow a beard, that's why they shave the beard off. I just got really bored. And when I'm bored with things, I alter them.
Norton: So there's no attempt on your part-- it's not about masculine, feminine. You're not trying to become a woman in any way.
Burns: I think if I was going to try and become a woman, I know enough about women to be a darn sight better woman than this. I could be a very good woman because I know all the trickery and everything they do to build that image. I have absolutely no intention of being-- in fact, I have an absolutely ginormous knob. I would never dream of getting rid of that. It's Venus with a penis.
Supernatural beauty?
And that seems to be true from a certain perspective. Burns has not adopted a fem name. He has not had hormones (and I think we would reasonably know if he had, since he has revealed everything else about his appearance and personal life). No breasts, no feminisation of his voice, and by his own admission, no sex reassignment surgery.

And yet, his appearance is all woman: long hair, huge glossy lips, long sparkly nails, outrageous dresses and high heels. And it's this curious dichotomy which prompted me to write this blog post. At the time of the Graham Norton interview, Burns had been married to his wife, Lynne Corlett, for over 25 years, and gave every indication of being still happy; he even recommended to Norton (who is gay) that he should try marriage.

Then, in 2006, Burns separated from his wife, and began a relationship with male partner Michael Simpson. In in interview with talk show hosts Richard and Judy, he announced their engagement. (Wikipedia says they underwent a civil partnership later that year, split, and reunited. From what I have been able to determine, they are still together).
Judy: You had a perfectly normal heterosexual marriage for a long time, very happily in love, now you're with Michael, with whom you're very much in love--
Burns: That's, I guess, my first homosexual relationship, and we only have sex at home. So there you go. (Richard and Judy laugh) And I'm not bisexual because I don't pay for it.
Richard: So how long have you two been together now?
Burns: We've been together in former lives. I lost him a lifetime ago and I've been looking for him ever since.
Judy: That's how it came across in Big Brother, you missed him very much.
Burns: I don't care how anyone else felt in there. This is a different thing. He's a physical part of me. (...) We're just in love.
Overcooked?
Burns is making jokes: Home-osexual, Buy-sexual. I didn't get either of those on my first run through. Later in the interview, Richard goes on to talk about Burns' appearance:
Richard: How does it make you feel if I tell you that quite a few, 100% heterosexual guys in our office of varying ages, find your physical appearance very attractive? They describe you as sexy.
Burns: You know, the first time I've ever seen myself objectively was when I left the Big Brother house, when they showed [me] on the eviction screen, so I'd never seen myself, this is just the way it needed to be, so I don't need to look at it very often.
Richard: And what do you think? What do you think of the way you look?
Burns: What do I think? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I behold myself, and I'm exactly what I've always needed to be.
Richard: But the fact that heterosexual men find you attractive?
Burns: They always have. Gay men don't. But it's been since a child that heterosexual men have found me attractive. It's usually, unfortunately, and it's not a misogynistic statement, but most of the hatred that I've encountered on the street and in nightclubs has been from girls. And you know, I love girls. But I couldn't eat a whole one. (...) We live in an age of supernatural beauty, where nothing that we see is real. Even the young girls in pop videos, they've all been tweaked and nipped. It's mandatory now.
I found this interesting: "I'm exactly what I've always needed to be". Not wanted to be. Not felt like being. But needed to be. It's plain that Burns is driven to do this. Perhaps driven in the same way some of us are driven to express femininity? Perhaps not. But driven by what? Is he driven towards something, to become something? Or is he driven away from something? And in either case, what might that something be? I cannot possibly tell, and I wonder if even Burns is aware of it on a conscious level.

HolyMoly.com writes this of Burns in its most recent interview of him in 2012:
HolyMoly: Interviewing Pete Burns is difficult. Not because the Dead Or Alive frontman and Big Brother’s Bit On The Side star isn’t at all times charming, engaging and forthcoming. He really is. But because he clearly subscribes to the Quentin Crisp philosophy of interviews: say what you have come to say. So here’s Pete Burns answering almost none of our questions but being incredibly fascinating and entertaining all the same. Enjoy.
I think there is a leeeetle bit of manipulation here.
This observation is absolutely spot-on. In all the interviews I have seen with Burns (in research for this post), he has done exactly that. That makes it very difficult for me to try to interpret Burns' motivations and true character.

First, Pete Burns is a very quirky and interesting individual. He is indisputably talented, confident and forthright, occasionally abrasive. However, he seems to be a deeply fractured individual. As a man who has spent a lot of money and time cultivating a female appearance, he is undoubtedly fair game for this blog.

On the one hand, Burns craves the oxygen of celebrity. He needs it for his income, but in addition he is willing, almost desperate, to put himself in front of any sort of camera, and there was a period where he seemed to be on every single celebrity reality TV show imaginable, including one where he selects his new Personal Assistant. On the other hand, he seems to loathe celebrity and its emptiness and falsehood. This from HolyMoly:
Burns: It’s like now. My partner, my husband of nine years, he has a 16-year-old daughter and I get to hear what’s current in passing, through his daughter. And you know what, I wouldn’t fucking know one of Girls Aloud if they came up and spat in my face, but I know if I hear their records that it’s Girls Aloud. I have no interest in celebrity culture; I’ve never suffered from media sickness. It’s not me being rude, I genuinely don’t know who most people are.
Second, he seems to be desperately in search of beauty. I agree with Graham Norton's assessment, that for Burns, it isn't about seeking femininity. But for most of us, beauty equates with femininity: we are deluged with images of female beauty, and far fewer of male beauty. If you want adornments (nails, shoes, jewels, cosmetics) then you go for female beauty, and Burns seems to have gone for all those things in abundance.

Burns: seriously?
For Burns, that search for beauty has involved a lot of surgery, and he achieved a period where he really did look beautiful (and there is a reasonable argument about which point along the line was the peak). His comments above (about emerging from the Big Brother house) suggest that he had never really seen his own appearance until he saw himself on television, like catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror. This remark seems, at best, hopelessly disingenuous; at worst, complete nonsense. Burns has been obsessed with his appearance for all of his public life. He knows exactly how he looks, right down to the smallest eyelash, and he is completely unwilling to reveal his feelings about that to the rest of us.

Wherever he was at his most beautiful, he didn't stop there, and has gone further and further down the route of cosmetic surgery, until he looks hopelessly grotesque. Although he described it as getting "bored" with his face, I suspect that he is using surgery as a means to fix something deeper down; the fact that he has pursued more and more surgery tells me that surgery is not the answer to what Burns is looking for; that isn't where the problem lies. Most recently, he seems to have gone for a series of facial piercings.

When I think of other people who have taken cosmetic surgery beyond the attractive and into the grotesque, I think of Michael Jackson, and Jocelyn Wildenstein. What they (and Burns) seem to have in common is deep insecurities, which they seem to think can be fixed by surgery. One wonders if he will eventually reach a point where he looks in the mirror and thinks: Aargh! What have I done?

So what I see in Pete Burns is a man of deep inner conflicts: he wants to remain a man, but look like a woman. He wants to look beautiful, but he has had so much surgery he looks awful. He was married to a woman, then married to a man. He wants to be famous and adored, but he hates the culture of celebrity and professes no interest in it. And he comes across as being bold and confident and abrasive, but I think this is a fa├žade behind which hides someone who is lonely, profoundly insecure, and desperate to be loved.

Of course, this is only my personal view, and alternative viewpoints are always welcome!

23 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post! I didn't know much about Pete Burns until now, so it's interesting to read about how he got to this point. He is indeed a conundrum, full of contradictions, and it makes me wonder about the influence of our categories of gender and sexuality. Burns is clearly someone in revolt against having to fit in one set of categories (straight, male) and is doing all he can to confound them. It's not enough just to change categories, he is challenging their existence. I kind of love him for this. It would be amazing if he teamed up with a gender theorist like Judith Butler (who has written about drag, as I'm sure you know) to become a super-team promoting a post-gender utopia through theory and practice...

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    1. Hi Carina. I don't know anything about Judith Butler, but we should clearly keep Pete Burns well away from her, in case they take over the world!

      Vivienne.

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  2. I think this analysis reaches its conclusions rather hastily, and doesn't give much weight to Burns' descriptions of himself. He has stated several times that he is not interested in fame and celebrity; indeed, he only entered the music business because the owner of the nightclub which he regularly attended told him that unless he formed a band, he wouldn't be allowed back in the club. In his autobiography he states that he goes on TV shows because it's an easy way to earn money. As regards to the analysis that Burns wants to look like a woman, I think that's debatable. In his appearance he often mixes the 'masculine' and 'feminine', and has said that his ideal body to have would be very muscular and built-up. He also has expressed affinity for people who mix things up - in his autobiography he describes Michael Jackson's facial surgery as interesting because it had masculinised the lower half but feminised the upper. Burns is an interesting character and although he has himself acknowledged that his appearance is, at one level, a way of dealing with the world, I think it does him a disservice to reduce him to a dichotomy of being publicly brazen but privately unhappy. There may be an addictive element to his surgery, but I think he's happy with the way he looks, and he realises it's not everyone's cup of tea. I personally think it's better to regard him as a work of art, rather than trying to fit him into one gender or the other. Hope that doesn't come across as too critical of the piece!

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    1. Hi, anonymous poster. You can be as critical as you like provided you do it politely, which you have. Could you give some sort of name to distinguish yourself from other anonymous posters?

      My analysis is only my own, and I admit I am no expert. However, in my defence, I did watch all those programmes where Pete was featured, Celebrity Big Brother, Celebrity Wife Swap, Pete's PA, and so on, at the time they were aired. So I am not basing my views on a few short web clicks (but I haven't read his autobiography).

      I think there are plenty of ways to look more beautiful as a man, but I think Pete hasn't seemingly gone for any of them: the lips, the eyes, the cheekbones, the hair, the cosmetics, the nails, the high-heels. It all says "woman". It doesn't even say "androgyny", at least not to me.

      It's a fair point that Burns pursues celebrity only as a meal ticket, without embracing the trappings of celebrity in the way other celebs do.

      I tend to think (and this is only my opinion) that people who persist in changing themselves outwardly are struggling with something inwardly, a deep yearning, longing, or unresolved issue which manifests in a persistent restlessness. Most people simply accept their appearance; others change one or two things and stop. For people who go on changing and changing, this implies they can never be satisfied, and in my opinion this is because their appearance isn't the actual issue; it's something else. I don't think he is happy with the way he looks; otherwise he would stop (somewhere) and say "Yep. This is finally it".

      I am certainly not trying to fit him into one gender or the other, but I am not sure I would come to view him as a work of art. I wholly accept him as a very unusual individual, but I think he deliberately hides his inner feelings beneath layers of wit, humour, sarcasm and occasionally acidity. I therefore think the inner Pete Burns is hidden, and all we can do is to interpret what we see from the outside.

      Thanks for posting.

      Vivienne.

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    2. Hello Vivienne

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'm sorry I hadn't given myself a username - I tried several signing options on the drop-down menu, but they all wanted a url as well as a name, so I assumed I needed to have another account somewhere else. Anyway, I've given myself a name this time.

      You make some good points. I agree that people who persist in changing themselves outwardly are (or may be) struggling with something inwardly. My initial comments on your piece were actually more a reaction to what I thought was an oversimplification of Burns' psychology, plus it also seemed a trifle unsympathetic. Despite his sometimes abrasive nature, I find him rather intriguing. I have read an interview with him when he confessed he wouldn't overly analyse the psychological underpinnings of his behaviour, and he likened doing so to looking down while walking a tightrope - the danger being that he'd fall off. So he is aware of his own position, at least to a certain extent. Publicly he has stated that his appearance is 1) the result of a need to become what he should be 2) a way of keeping people away 3) a result of boredom and an artistic, expressive nature 4) a physical manifestation of 'freakiness'. Take your pick!

      Your statement that you don't think Burns is happy with the way he looks is interesting, and I concede you have a point. However I was thinking more generally - I think he's happy looking a certain way, even if other people don't care for it. And of course lots of people change their appearance constantly, they just don't use surgery, but it doesn't mean they're unhappy.

      If you read his autobiography, it's apparent that Burns' early life was very unusual. Although he grew up in Merseyside in England, he only spoke German for the first few years of his life (his mother was German), and local kids used to do Hitler salutes outside his house. He barely attended school. His mother had a nervous breakdown when she found out her father had been tortured and killed by the Nazis. She then became an alcoholic and tried to kill herself several times - on one occasion Burns found her "and she'd nearly severed her hands". Burns left home at 14. He was raped in his teens by an older man who was carrying an airgun.... So, all in all, not a very typical childhood, and it wouldn't be surprising if as a result Burns hides his inner feelings - probably even from himself. But does this relate to his appearance? Is it possible to say? Burns has stated that from an early age he knew that he had "come out wrong", and his changes to his appearance have been trying to correct that. Yet he refuses to be categorised as transexual or in need of gender reassignment. As he says, "I'm just Pete".

      Sorry all that's a bit long, and it probably doesn't express anything particularly cogently, but hopefully it conveys a little of the complexity of the intriguing Mr Burns.

      Lorelei

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    3. Hi Lorelei,

      Thanks for taking the time to post this reply, and thanks for all the trouble choosing a username. Simply signing your anonymous posts would have been perfectly sufficient!

      I am sorry if this blog post appears to come across as unsympathetic. As someone who enjoys not fitting into gender categories, I find Pete utterly fascinating. I admit I am struggling to make sense of why any trans people do what we do, although there are some patterns which seem to describe most of us. Pete doesn't fit into any of those patterns, which makes him very worthy of attention.

      The details you provide of Pete's childhood are new to me, and speak of a turbulent and traumatic upbringing. One way (and not the only way) to look at it would be to say that Pete has not adequately resolved some of those childhood traumas, and they are finding their way out in his extreme appearance and compulsion to undergo cosmetic surgery. I think the same was true of Michael Jackson: he was attempting to use cosmetic surgery to become somebody else completely different.

      I think Pete is driven to change his appearance. I don't think he chooses to do it because he likes it. I think he feels compelled to do it, because something about it quiets his inner yearnings for a while-- but not permanently. I don't think he has any choice in the matter (his own words would seem to suggest as much), and I don't think any other activity provides the same respite.

      In that sense, he seems to have some things in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder. On the other hand, he has something in common with me: I feel driven to crossdress. If I don't do it, I get really cranky and irritable. Nothing else provides the same relief. And no matter how lovely the experience, the relief is only temporary.

      So my analysis of Pete was part of the ongoing question: what do Pete Burns and I have in common? And what are the things which separate us? And does that tell us something about me, or him?

      Interestingly, several of the applicants on "Pete's PA", the program where he chose a new personal assistant, were crossdressers, and Pete treated them all with indifference, and sometimes scorn or disdain. I was puzzled by this (as I am sure, were they). Surely Pete would have some sympathy for "fellow" crossdressers? (Which is why, I feel sure, they applied for the job: I can finally work for a boss who "gets it"). (The clips are on YouTube but I can't access them here in NZ for some reason). But in fact, from Pete's point of view, he had nothing in common with them, and seemed to think they were just weird.

      Vivienne.

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    4. Hi Vivienne

      I haven't seen much of Pete's PA, but I'm not that surprised at Pete's reaction to the crossdressers. I can hazard some guesses as to why he might have treated them with indifference:
      1) Pete dresses and acts the way he does 24/7; if a crossdresser had different personas expressed in different modes of dress, that might have been an alien concept to him.
      2) I don't think Mr Burns cares very much for people feeling sorry for themselves (in his autobiography he states that he hates victims), so if a crossdresser had any kind of underlying feeling of being 'vulnerable sisters together', that would probably elicit short shrift
      3) He might have found them lacking in glamour

      It's interesting that you find Mr Burns fascinating because you believe he doesn't fit into any kind of trans pattern; I similarly have pondered over why he is impossible to ignore. I can't offer any kind of definitive answer, though I'm inclined to think it has something to do with the fact that, visually, he sort of combines genders within one entity. He's not trying to present the appearance of being one or the other. Yes, he has feminised his face and wears clothes which most men would never wear, but his body and voice are unambiguously masculine, and he doesn't shy away from being verbally quite aggressive. Or to put it another way, despite his appearance, he isn't actually very girlie. I'm not totally convinced that his manipulation of his appearance is directly related to any early life trauma - he was experimenting with it from a very young age (i.e. toddler). I think it's more likely to be a combination of things, including the fact that he grew up outside of society's norms. Plus there's probably a genetic element, as his mother was also fiery and very particular about her appearance. I don't know whether you've watched any of Pete's music videos as part of your research, but I find a lot of them mesmerising, and can enjoy watching them even without sound; all his expressions and gestures are really OTT, as if inside him there's twice as much lifeforce as most people have, and it just has to explode out!

      Lorelei

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    5. Hi Lorelei,

      This is very insightful. I think Pete would have shunned those transvestites for all three of the reasons you suggest.

      I don't actually think Pete is a trans person. I think his motivations are driven by something quite different from other males who are attempting to feminise their appearance. He certainly isn't girly!

      Vivienne.

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    6. Hi Vivienne

      Yes, it's interesting, isn't it? Pete himself has stated that there isn't a word to describe what he is - he says, "I'm just Pete." I imagine he might know more than that, but perhaps doesn't want to reveal himself too much (as you stated above). In one of his songs - "Isn't It A Pity" - he sings,
      "Isn't it a pity that I'm not the prettiest girl in the world,
      Sometimes I feel, when I kick off my heels in the sun,
      I'm the loveliest one."
      - so there's definitely desire there not to look like a man, or at least an attraction to beauty and looking beautiful.
      (Actually that's quite a clever song - there's another couplet which is revealing:
      "I have found my image has obscured all that I am
      But who said you could mix vinegar with jam.")
      Maybe he's a bit of both - a bit of vinegar and a bit of jam!

      Lorelei

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  3. Nobody's perfect. I think Pete is unique person, very talented and intelligent. Well, he may be inconsistent, but who doesn't?

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I think there is inconsistency, and there is overt contradiction, and I think Pete Burns lies towards the contradictory end!

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  4. Thank you for clarifying the "buy-sexual" pun; I didn't get it at first...anyhow, a very interesting article, like all of yours I've seen.

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    1. Thanks for your comment and compliment, Una!

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  5. I love Pete Burns, and I believe that he has Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
    (Sorry for the very late reply; I just discovered this blog's existence a few minutes ago).

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Clacker. You may be right!

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  6. Pete Burns, a fascinating person. I've read his book and seen and read interviews and youtube. I find him so interesting because while seeming not to give a damn and witty in the way Oscar Wilde must have been, he is extremely guarded in his responses. He has certain pat responses to answer questions that he repeats. One thing I did notice on his CBB appearance was his hostility to the women on the show (he was snarky with everyone but vicious with the some of the women) and I wonder if there was a certain competitiveness he never acknowledges. Thanks for this write up, Pete is so complex that it can only scratch the surface but I thank you for tackling a psyche of a fascinating person and trying to get beyond the "shock" factor people seem to gravitate to when he is discussed.

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    1. Many thanks for your comments. I am glad that my older articles still pick up attention and comments from time to time!

      You are right that my analysis is only a superficial attempt to get under the surface of this very interesting individual. Any insights of your own would be very welcome as comments.

      Vivienne.

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  7. Pete and his ego would probably enjoy reading your article.

    I'm glad you addressed many of his contradictions, I got the impression from him that he's deliberately trying to confuse people. If you get a chance to read his recent interview with Ponystep magazine, he mentions that he loves mystique which to me implies that his dichotomy is completely intentional and if i'm going to be cynical would assume that this intentional dichotomy helps keep his television personality intriguing because nobody actually knows what he is or thinks. I personally think the theatrical element to his persona successfully hides any true honesty. Like you mentioned he responds to interview questions with flippancy and because of this flippancy I don't regard his answers as completely honest. I also don't personally buy into this "I'm just Pete" bullshit, on the principle he is far too constructed and precise in appearance and dialogue for it to come off as natural.
    I don't know who Pete Burns is because quite frankly he does not want me to know who he is and that gives him control.
    In my opinion he manipulates the perception of himself in more ways than one to control other peoples perception of him.
    The real question is "Why?". Only he truly knows why but judging by his opulence this intrigue has served him well.

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    1. Thanks Tom. It has crossed my mind more than once what Pete might say if he actually read this post. However, if we believe him, he doesn't care what people write about him. I agree he remains a deliberate enigma.

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  8. I think there are psychological factors that led him to alter his face this extent, an accumulation of things that he may have lived in the past that found their way out of him in this manner. I'm sorry but no one changes his face like this out of boredom.

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    1. Yes I know! In one sense it seems a hopelessly disingenuous statement. On the other hand, Pete seems to have this deep dissatisfaction with his appearance, and one label he could give this could be "boredom". That might be more palatable to him than "unhappiness" or "yearning".

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  9. I think that your article and point of view are great. I didn't know much about him, and I found your writting, so easy to read, really interesting,one of a kind. Nowadays people try to over complicate things. I think just the way you do about how the may felt. Thank you.
    Paula

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    1. Thanks for your delightful comment, Paula.

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