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The Extraordinary World of Sue Tilley

For the inaugural episode of Reba Maybury's new counterculture column, Intrepid Lives, she meets the inimitable artist, author and model, Sue Tilley

Sue TilleyPhotograph by Eloise Parry

When we think of subculture, how often do we focus our attention on those who glue it together? Who are the closest friends to history's greatest eccentrics; the inspiring individuals who have propped up the counter culture but whose influence goes unrecognised? We endlessly reference their influence in fashion, art and culture, but neglect to understand or celebrate their importance; they are those who have refused to conform in a world that often celebrates a safe and palatably mediocre femininity. This column seeks to explore the history of the avant-garde through the women often relegated to the sidelines of media: placing them in the spotlight where they belong.

Sue Tilley is maybe the best example of this kind of backstage icon. Best known for her work as a model for Lucien Freud (his portrait of her, Benefit Supervisor Sleeping, sold for £17 million in 2008), and best friend and biographer to Leigh Bowery, Tilley has lived a life far beyond average – but rarely does she feature at the forefront of narratives. Her influence is monumental: her humour, style and unforgiving character were instrumental to both London's 80s nightlife scene and Bowery's legacy – a man whose influence most recently found its way onto the S/S16 catwalks of Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh. Her influence on counterculture is insurmountable and, having recently left her life-long job at the jobseekers office in pursuit of a newfound passion for painting, we met at her East London studio so she could discuss with us how to really have fun, her authentic rejection of the mainstream and what a ‘proper woman’ really is.

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Sue TilleyPhotograph by Eloise Parry

Reba Maybury: What do you enjoy most about being a woman?
Sue Tilley: I don’t ever really think of myself as being a woman.

Then what do you think of yourself as being?
Just a person. The world of ‘real women’ makes me feel a bit sick – you know, the ones that just sit there, guilty about everything, thinking about cupcakes and getting home after work to open the bottle of wine they can’t live without. I’ve got my own look outside of that – and another thing is that I don’t care that I’m fat. Women often obsess if they’ve put on half an inch, it’s a nightmare. I don’t really hang out with girls much. I hang round more with gay men and women who are friends with gay men; the type who don’t really want ‘a proper life’ with a man. When I was a teenager I had a boyfriend. We were engaged to be engaged.

Engaged to be married?
No, we were engaged to be engaged. We hadn’t even got that far. And he was always saying "oh we could get married." I know that I just would have ended up living in a little house in Luton or something, and that’s not what I wanted. He used to ask my mum, “Can we get married? Can we get married?” and I’d stand behind his back going to her, “Just say no, just say no,” because I just knew.

"You know how people say, 'Oh my clock’s ticking, gotta have some children'. Well, my clock never really wound up." - Sue Tilley

You liked him though?
Yeah, but I knew I didn’t want to be a housewife; that wasn’t of any interest to me. You know how people say, 'Oh my clock’s ticking, gotta have some children.' Well, my clock never really wound up. I’ve just always been quite independent; I like doing things myself, I don’t like to answer to other people. I don’t really like people giving me advice – in fact that’s one of the things I hate most in the whole wide world. I loathe it. You know men, proper men do it. I’ve got this funny business about proper men…

Go on, explain to us what a proper man is?
You know, men who have a house and wash their car on the weekends and they talk about their garden and they talk about what road they’re going to take to get somewhere and what route’s the best. I loathe them. And sometimes I find that I meet one, relations and that, and they always try and give me advice. It just makes me feel sick.

Do you think you made a conscious decision when you were younger to not involve yourself in the heteronormative structure?
I think so, yeah, because I’ve never had any wish ever to get in there. Ever.

And how important is your friendship to you with gay men?
They’re just the kind of people I like. I don’t like them because they’re gay men; I like them because of the way they are. And, to be honest, when I was young I was a bit of a slapper. And that’s the way the gay men often are. You can just do what you want; you don’t have to conform to this, that and the other. And I’ve always had a proper normal job [Tilley worked at a central London employment office for 20 years], which was a bit weird as well. But I like that, I like different. I wouldn’t want to be a full-time weird freak. I like the mixture.

You’re often called a ‘muse’ – how do you feel about that term?
Oh, I hate it. I didn’t ever think I was a muse; I just thought I was going to work and being a model. In my mind, I imagine muses to be a bit wet and wafting around, in love with the person who paints them. All skinny and pale looking.

"In my mind, I imagine muses to be a bit wet and wafting around, in love with the person who paints them. All skinny and pale looking." - Sue Tilley

You have said you love gossiping – what is it about it that you like?
Oh I love to see what’s going on in people’s lives. I mean, Facebook was invented for me because on Facebook you can get all the gossip you like without having to go out. And I love that people share every detail of their lives on there; hours of fun. I can spend hours looking at people’s misery, the misery that they’re happy to share with the world. I even like it when people have big rows. Like, when Steve Strange was alive, him and Rusty Egan were forever having rows on there. Bitterness over royalties from their records and that. You just think “oh stop it!”

But you love it, Sue! Who’s been your favourite friend to have a gossip with?
Leigh Bowery.

Tell us why Leigh was so good at gossiping?
Perhaps because half of his was made up. He was amazing; in the morning, I’d ring him up and we’d be on the phone for three or four hours. And the thing is, phones were expensive then. It wasn’t cheap. Our phone bills were extortionate, especially during the day. Oh it was fantastic. We just laughed so much.

What do you think Leigh Bowery’s Facebook would look like?
Well it would be full of arty farty stuff, because towards the end he was getting quite arty farty. What would he be doing now? That’s the question I’d like to know. Would he have gone down the reality TV path?

Potentially.
Yeah, what else would he have done?

What’s been your favourite period of time in London?
The 80s.

Why’s that?
Oh, because it was when I was young, having fun and going out all the time.

But you’re still having fun, Sue!
I know. Actually I really love now. I don’t like to live in the past too much – but it was fun, back then. I was out practically every night of the week, meeting people, laughing, falling about, falling over. All the best pop records are from the 80s, and I just love pop music.

Off the top of your head, what are your top five pop records?
Love Action by Human League, Tainted Love by Soft Cell, Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode. This one is going to make you feel sick: Maggie May by Rod Stewart, because it came out when I was a teenager and I loved it so much. Now I’ve got one more… Mighty Real by Sylvester.

You can’t go wrong with a bit of Sylvester...
You can’t, you hear that tune…

And it’s euphoria!
Oh yeah, in the car, driving along. I love the fact they play it on Radio 2 now – quite often, too. I’ll turn it up and just be screaming out the car. I remember seeing it on Top of the Pops the first time and thinking, “this is fantastic!"

"What I say to people is that if someone asks you to do something, then say yes. Because you never know what will happen." - Sue Tilley

What do you think of London now?
I love it, but everything’s a bit too easy now. You know, when I was young, you’d have to wait for secret phone calls to find out what was going on, when to go to this party or that. Now it’s just there on Facebook. I mean, I could go to 20 things a night if I wanted. Don’t wanna. But you’re invited to all these things and it’s all out there, all open. Is there anything so special, so secret that I don’t know what it is?

I think for you, you see fun as this very normal and authentic aspect of your life. A lot of people don’t know how to have fun, do they?
They don’t let themselves have fun. People are frightened of fun. They think that something bad will happen to them. But it doesn’t. You know, how fantastic is my life? I’ve planned nothing. Used to go to work but to be honest I didn’t do a lot when I was there. No ambitions, and I just let life roll by and happen to me.

You made the most out of it, though…
Yeah, and all the best things happened. Basically, what I say to people is that if someone asks you to do something, then say yes. Because you never know what will happen. It’s better to have the experience than not have the experience. Everyone should just take every opportunity that comes their way – unless it’s boring. Just say yes, don’t think too much. Don’t analyse it. Mostly I just go along with things, see what happens. And look what has happened!

Well you’ve got a full life, and how many people can say that? So, what is the secret to a full life Sue?
Say yes! Have fun, don’t be frightened. Keep up with your friends. Be nice, don’t be horrible and don’t be a bitchy person.

But have a good gossip?
Yeah, I have good gossip but I’m never horrible. I don’t want to be, it’s nasty. Keep your moaning and your misery to yourself.

You made it, Sue.
Yeah, at last. So the message is: don’t give up. When I left school, it was my dream to live like this; I waited almost 40 years and it’s happened. And I still don’t need to revert to a glass of prosecco at the end of the day. I don’t mind prosecco, but banging on about it just is awful. Maybe that’s why I’m not horrible really, because I’ve not got anything to be miserable about myself. Because I know in the past when I have been miserable about things it does make you be horrible to people, because you’re bitter and jealous. And I couldn’t be happier!

Make-up by Molly Portsmouth.