For a year, British cultural scientist Will Brooker lives the life of David Bowie – diet, clothes and singing included.
Will Brooker had his eyebrows plucked for his research. Photo: Ksenia Burnasheva
site: Mr. Brooker, you’re wearing a bright blue shirt and an open bow tie. Which David Bowie are you portraying with it?
Will Brooker: The one from the 1980s. Last week I arrived in 1983, a seminal time for Bowie.
That’s when his pop music album "Let’s Dance" came out, for which he reinvented himself again.
Yes, and becoming that Bowie took a whole afternoon. I had to change my appearance completely: I had my hair dyed blond, my eyebrows plucked, my teeth whitened, and I sprayed on a full-body tanner.
This is all part of your research project: For one year, you embody David Bowie, from 1965 to the present day. You’re a cultural scientist, teach at Kingston University – why don’t you just read books like everyone else?
Actually, I do what I always do when I do research: I try to put myself in others’ shoes. Only now I’m much more physically involved with the subject matter. It’s a kind of auto-ethnography: I observe myself. It wasn’t planned as a public project, by the way. That happened when the story hit the media. At least now I can relate a little bit to what it’s like to be a public person. Of course, on a much smaller scale than Bowie.
So you dress like him. What other rules have you subjected yourself to?
First, listen only to music that existed up to the time you’re in. Second, try to go to the places where Bowie was, recreate important appearances in performances to honor those moments. For example, I walked around the beach in Hastings where he shot the music video for "Ashes to Ashes," was in Berlin at the gay bar "Anderes Ufer" next to which Bowie lived with Iggy Pop in the ’70s, or suggested to local politicians here in London that they put up a commemorative plaque at the pub "The Toby Jug" because he made his very first appearance there as Ziggy Stardust – which, by the way, is only ten minutes from my apartment. Soon I’ll also have a gig as Bowie in a club with his songs from the 80s, where I’ll be wearing his yellow "Let’s Dance" suit.
45, is a cultural studies and film scholar at Kingston University in the United Kingdom. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Batman. His Bowie project will continue until early summer 2016. Will Brooker on Twitter.
Wait, you sing, too?
Right. I also took extra singing lessons to better understand Bowie’s vocal range and pitch. To recreate his work and his being as physically as possible, I also painted expressionistically like him and, like him, slept only two hours a night for a while in the ’70s.
And did you then also live only on red peppers, milk and coke?
Yes – only without the coke, drugs are illegal, I’m a university lecturer after all, I can’t go that far. Nevertheless, I have come to a dark core of my self. Also because I read all the books about National Socialism and Nietzsche that Bowie was dealing with at the time. Fortunately, he lived healthier in the 80s, my current "present," drank much less. My fridge is now full of eggs and steaks. And the 70s clothes are also back in the attic.
Healthier lifestyle, suits in the closet: How does it feel to be an 80s Bowie these days?
Thanks to the cocky clothes with the thick shoulder pads, it’s easy to be very self-confident and full of oneself. With this look, he suddenly embodied a businessman and tried to portray a "normal guy", pretending to be one of us. Motto: "I just earn my money, like you guys." Before that, his disguises seemed more like, "I’m an alien and I’ve come to take you all to another place." But ultimately, the suit serves the same function as the other costumes: it’s a shield.
Why did you actually choose David Bowie?
Quite simply, it takes me an average of three years to research and write a book. And because I invest so much time, I always look for a topic that I’m passionate about. In 1983, when "Let’s Dance" came out, I was 13: Since that album, I discovered Bowie for myself. And now I tried to approach Bowie’s work scientifically, read all the books, studied all the song lyrics – and suddenly realized: You can never fully understand him if you don’t know yourself what it’s like to wear all that makeup and those costumes.
Bowie is famous for always slipping into new roles. Whatever we get to see and hear from him: He’s always impersonating someone. So is this embodiment the only way to approach him?
At least it gives me a better idea of him. When you’ve spent a year immersed in a man’s life, as I have, watching hundreds of interviews, you discover certain patterns.
I can’t reveal that – it’ll be in the book! Just this much: You discover leitmotifs, changes.
You wrote your doctoral thesis on Batman. Another guy who hides behind masks and his alter ego.
In fact, he and Bowie are very similar figures. Bowie, too, is ultimately a fictional construction: we don’t know him. Of course he’s alive and probably doing something normal right now, drinking coffee, eating breakfast. But he is a cultural construct, an icon. And I look at how such icons change over a certain period. You have to put it this way: he has made himself a work of art.
One look at the social media channels is enough to see: Everyone is constantly reinventing themselves these days. Was Bowie ahead of us all?
At least he practices it much more extremely than the rest of us. And he makes us think: about the masks we wear every day and about our performances, with which we portray a version of ourselves. Unlike the era I’m currently in, pop stars today document their entire lives on all channels themselves, on Facebook, on Twitter. It’s become totally normal to see what Taylor Swift is up to on a daily basis.
By embodying him, you expand the cult around him. Not afraid that this will become hagiography?
No, definitely not. And it’s not like I’m celebrating him with the book: in my estimation, he has a lot of bad qualities – I wouldn’t have guessed that before my project.
What do you mean by that?
In the ’70s and ’80s, he hired a lot of people for his albums and never contacted them again afterwards. His impulse for self-protection switched, he was so on guard that he sometimes became paranoid, hostile, cold.
So did you?
Yes, some of the people around me felt my coldness. That’s exactly why I put the subject off for so long: I didn’t want to find out that Bowie was a bastard. But my pleasure in him is now just more complex. Sorry, I have to change now. I have a lecture later, so I have to put on the garish red outfit from the video for "Glass Spider". My students will be happy.