Pete Burns died in October 2016 of what was reported as a "massive heart attack". He was 57. Although I wrote this article in 2014, I have edited it into the past tense.
|Androgynous: Burns in the 80's|
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.
And yet, his appearance was all woman: long hair, huge glossy lips, long sparkly nails, outrageous dresses and high heels. And it was 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 later reunited. Simpson and Corlett released a joint statement after Burns' death, implying at least that he remained on good terms with both).
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.
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.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 was driven to do this. Perhaps driven in the same way some of us are driven to express femininity? Perhaps not. But driven by what? Was he driven towards something, to become something? Or was he driven away from something? And in either case, what might that something be? I cannot possibly tell, and I wonder if even Burns was aware of it on a conscious level.
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.
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.|
First, Pete Burns was a very quirky and interesting individual. He was indisputably talented, confident and forthright, occasionally abrasive. However, he seemed to be a deeply fractured individual. As a man who spent a lot of money and time cultivating a female appearance, he is undoubtedly fair game for this blog.
On the one hand, Burns craved the oxygen of celebrity. He needed it for his income, but in addition he was 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 seemed 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 seemed to be desperately in search of beauty. I agree with Graham Norton's assessment, that for Burns, it wasn'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 seemed to have gone for all those things in abundance.
Wherever he was at his most beautiful, he didn't stop there, and went further and further down the route of cosmetic surgery, until he looked hopelessly grotesque. Although he described it as getting "bored" with his face, I suspect that he was using surgery as a means to fix something deeper down; the fact that he pursued more and more surgery tells me that surgery was not the answer to what Burns was looking for; that wasn't where the problem lay. And where, I wonder, do you find a doctor who says "Sure, Pete! No problem. I can do even more surgery on you."?
|Oh Pete, you poor thing.|
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) seemed to have in common is deep insecurities, which they seemed to think could be fixed by surgery. I wondered if he would eventually reach a point where he looked in the mirror and thought: Aargh! What have I done? But this last picture of him suggests not.
Ironically, he was reported as saying "I hope God doesn't recognise me when I get to heaven".
So what I saw in Pete Burns was a man of deep inner conflicts: he wanted to remain a man, but look like a woman. He wanted to look beautiful, but he had so much surgery he looked awful. He was married to a woman, then married to a man. He wanted to be famous and adored, but he hated the culture of celebrity and professed no interest in it. And he came across as being bold and confident and abrasive, but I think this was a façade behind which hid someone who was lonely, profoundly insecure, and desperate to be loved.
Of course, this is only my personal view, and alternative viewpoints are always welcome!