There is a usual pattern to the interviewer/interviewee scenario where Pete Burns is concerned. ‘I have honestly been having the same pathetic questions asked of me for the last 30 odd years, since punk.’ What’s the most repetitive question on the spin-cycle, mister? ‘What was it like working with Stock, Aitken and Waterman? What is it about plastic surgery? Are you and Boy George friends.’ He positively winces at this one. ‘Oh, look it up on the internet, dear. I’ve answered this question sixty times. Probably sixty times yesterday. Yes, we say hello. Yes, we like each other. No, I don’t want to rip his dick off.’
Ahem. Things were a little different when Princess Julia was assigned for the task of probing him for Ponystep back in June. ‘There is a total mutual appreciation society going on between me and Julia,’ he expounds, ‘I used to stalk her when she worked at PX, the new romantic shop in Covent Garden. I’d come down from Liverpool just to stare at this girl in her parachute shirt with her beehive. She was so special, sort of reminding me of Jordan who worked at Sex. They sold vile clothes in PX, dreadful stuff. But Julia would always be in Seditionaries.’
So in many ways the seeds were planted for this meeting of the minds in 1976. It was just about two old chums, venerable partners in punk attitude and heart, catching up and collecting their thoughts together again. ‘This wasn’t an interview,’ says Pete, ‘It was a civil conversation. God knows, you don’t get enough of those. Julia’s a real lady. She understands me and I understand her. She could ask me anything she wanted and she knew I’d be honest in return. That’s what I do, often of course to my own detriment.’
Pete claims never to have heard any of Julia’s recorded work. ‘But then I haven’t listened to music for the last nine years, dear. I haven’t bought a CD in 12 years. Music brought me great wealth and great misery.’ Instead, his televisual wing has kicked back in. Big Brother saw him assuming the Davina role manfully for the spin-off show. He recently filmed a Come Dine With Me for Channel 4, too. ’I was with Cleo Roccos – who of course is divine – some vile homophobic darts player and a closet case from Pineapple Dance Studio called Andrew Stone.’ He winces at that one, too. ‘I won. Put that.’
Of course he did. Enjoy!
Pete Burns: Nice to have a chat with you – the lady whose photo I kept in the 80s.
Princess Julia: Did you?
Yeah, from PX
Yeah, we kept your photo, we kept yours and Jordan’s pictures, because you just looked so breathtaking and we stalked you. And she just looked absolutely amazing. But then I think you were in PX at the time and you just looked amazing and stuff like that. You had a bouffant hairdo and everything. So we kept your photo.
And now we’re friends.
Isn’t it funny after all these years? It’s kind of nice to be friends with people who have been your idol and stuff like that. And you’ve been around a long time and I’ve been around a long time.
Yeah, well I heard about you..
Well we’ve seen ‘em come, and we’ve seen ‘em go. Getting older’s not so bad really because you’ve seen so much in your time, you know what I mean? It’s alright really except the pain in the knee becomes bone cancer. That’s the only bad thing about growing old that.
If you don’t address it I guess..
I address everything. I try and stay as healthy as I possibly can, but things like today really take it out of me because its standing in unnatural positions and I’ve got to say the clothes were shockingly uncomfortable! I kind of didn’t really expect that. I’m used to wearing uncomfortable clothes because I wear a lot of Westwood and stuff like that and they’re all twisted necks, but this was another dimension of discomfort and heat. But I loved it, it was like being a kid in a dressing up box. I felt like a little boy again. They made me into a fetish secretary. You look incredibly beautiful.Oh thank you. That’s lovely.
What’s a normal day for you like then?
Dull [they both laugh]. A normal day for me is wake up at five, and I exercise for three hours until eight. Then I get a bath. And then, Michael wakes up about twelve and we spend the day together, usually.
Michael interrupts: No we don’t!
And we shop. Or we stay in and watch movies and stuff like that. Obviously I couldn’t sleep last night so today I woke up at one thirty and worked out for three hours. I’ve been up since one thirty, so obviously I’m tired!
We’ve started to go out a little bit more, because we stopped going out completely. So we’ve started to go out a little bit more which is nice. But come twelve o’clock I’m ready to go home and have spaghetti.
I mean it’s hard for you to go out, really.
Yeah, I’m bothered a lot. It’s nice, but you know I’d like to be able to go out and have a dance and things like that, but you can’t because they’re all filming you and photographing you and talking to you. To be honest with you, that’s all since Big Brother. I got more famous with Big Brother than I did with a number one record you know, so it’s taken an awful lot of privacy away. Daytimes are fine, but I do find things like, we’ll be sitting in a café and someone just comes and fucking joins us.
That’s kind of weird. What, they just sit down?
Yeah, it really is weird
They feel like they know you.
Well I’ve been in their living room haven’t I? You know what I mean? I’ve been in their living room night and day so they do feel like they know me. So I say ‘excuse me do you mind, we’re having a private talk’, and they say ‘well I fucking hate you anyway, you fucking cunt’. So it’s a bit like that, but I’m not complaining. It just seems in the last few months my positions taken off a lot. I’ve got this shoot, I’ve got a record coming out with Rich Morale, he did Cyndi Lauper’s disco album, and there’s a lot of American dates on the horizon and I’ve done dates in this country, and there’s magazines wanting to interview me, and I’m doing the hosting on Celebrity Big Brother. I’m doing Davina’s job and they’re paying me a fortune for that. It’s kind of weird – you have these periods doing nothing, and then all of a sudden everything hits you at once. I just don’t know why because I’ve been around for fucking donkeys years, and now suddenly people are paying attention again. I can’t believe it, it’s so exciting. I always remember after Big Brother approaching Alexander McQueen to dress me and he went ‘fuck off, you’re just naff!’. He was vile, because I’d done Big Brother, and I thought fuck you. People – if you’re exposed – have a thing, they think you’ve cheapened yourself. But I got paid a fortune for Big Brother and I’ve lived off it ever since. I only work for money. My capital.
It’s quite good to draw the line though.
You have to draw the line Julia.
I think that’s a lesson I should learn really
People think that if you’re freaky you’re happy to jump up on a table and go go dance for free, but it costs money to be different. Money is the new God. To be different and express yourself you need money. Not like the old days when you could go to Oxfam. It’s all high fashion now so you need money. I work for money. I have years where I don’t work because the money has been so good I can settle down on it and concentrate on my marriage, and then I have years that I go absolutely skint. I go bones on my arse skint because I’ve spent so much. I used to have a thing when I was a child that I would die young so I didn’t need to save money, but now I’m kind of old I’m obviously not going to die young! I enjoy money for what it can get you. I don’t like hoarding money, like pound notes stuffed in the cupboard. I like the clothes and the glamour, and I love illusion. I love all those things. I love plastic surgery. My life’s been the most amazingly interesting journey, and I didn’t expect it to be. I thought it’d be dull.
I think you’re one of those people that just appreciates beauty and having beautiful things around you.
Oh I love beauty. I know that on the scale of values its weighs like a feather, but its just amazing to be surrounded by beautiful things and beautiful people. I love it. I was brought up by my mother’s father, his name was Hugo Quittner. He directed Marlene Dietrich’s early films in Germany. He was Jewish and he got gassed. My mother went to film school. My earliest memory is being woken up at four in the morning and carried downstairs, and she had a light rig that blew the one in this studio out the window, while she took four and a half hours doing her make up and I used to watch her.
I learnt nothing at school. I hated it. I was just really into David Bowie so I shaved off my eyebrows and dyed my hair orange, I was alienated in the seventies at school
Wow that was your mother? What was her name?
Evelina Maria Bettina Quittner Von Hudec. She was a Baroness. I remember watching her in the morning, she’d have a cigarette and a lighter, and she’d hold the lighter flame on the underside of a bowl until it burnt. She’d take the black off the china and smear it on her eyes. She’d always have cat eyeliner and wigs. We used to have wig parties. I’d get four wigs and put them on my head and we’d sell them. She was really into beauty. She had a garden but the garden was full of plastic flowers because they never died. She didn’t like real flowers because they died and disappointed her so she had plastic flowers and every so often she’d throw pearls on them, or diamonds or glitter, to make them prettier. She’d get washing powder and make fake snow. I was brought up a bit in a fantasy.
It’s quite surreal sounding.
It was surreal, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. When I came into the real world at the age of sixteen I was shocked at how dull it was.
But you went to school and things like that?
I went to school until I was 14. I went to school at the age of seven but I only spoke German so I got taken out. Then I went from the age of nine until fourteen, but got taken out because I had learning difficulties because of the language barrier. I learnt nothing at school. I hated it. I was just really into David Bowie so I shaved off my eyebrows and dyed my hair orange, I was alienated in the seventies at school.
Your mother was quite a role model for you wasn’t she?
She was an absolute pioneer. She should have been a movie star. And her belief in beauty was influential, I really believe in beauty. I don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world, it just makes you feel so good. It makes you feel better than a hot bath when you see lovely things. You go out and you see people looking interested and its in lovely things, its beautiful. You see freaky people and its beautiful and its all like a great big fairyland. I don’t like dull, linear, grey things. I like things that please my eye. I’m not an aesthetic snob. I don’t necessarily think somebody ordinary is dull, I just like beautiful people.
Or people that have some sort of energy to express themselves?
I love self-expression. That’s the most important thing.
Even if it’s not like a standard kind of beauty, just a conceptual idea translated.
I love it. I go home, I think about it and I draw it. I draw people and I draw pictures and stuff like that and I think, ‘oh that was amazing, I’ve seen something really nice tonight’.
I’m not an aesthetic snob. I don’t necessarily think somebody ordinary is dull, I just like beautiful people
I didn’t know you did drawing.
I do a lot of drawing. I’m extremely good. If I see someone that looks amazing then I’ll draw them. I did it as a child. I drew faces. I used to move the features about, like a plastic surgeon. One thing I really wanted to be when I grew up was actually a plastic surgeon. I wanted to go to medical school to become one, but you had to become a normal doctor first and all I was interested in was the art of cosmetic surgery because I thought I could improve and change people’s lives. If you’re educated and you know what you’re doing I think it can really change your life and your life’s journey. There are so many people that get left by the roadside because they don’t feel worthy. I find that to be a real waste of human life. It is, it’s just a waste.
So can we look forward to a new album, or a new body of work?
I’m not going to do an album, I don’t want to do an album. I just want to do a single. I want a dance hit. I don’t want a chart hit, to hell with it, I want a dance hit. I want it in the clubs, and I want it remixed by as many people as possible. Then I’ll tour America with it and get a dance hit there too. I just want it to be that successful, and then I can go out and do gigs with a new track, because I’m bored of the old tracks, its been thirty three years since I recorded most of those.
I would love to hear some of the new stuff. We love the old tracks, but we’d like some new tracks too.
I know, everyone knows them! That’s what completely knocks me out because they weren’t that successful when they first came out, and now everyone knows them and they join in for the choruses and stuff. It’s such an amazing feeling that they all know them. Younger people are getting into me too which is absolutely amazing, but I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because of Lady Gaga, the influx of that, but it bewilders me. I don’t understand it, because I never made music as a living. I’ve been doing music since 1976. I started in the punk days and the only reason that I started to do music was so it could fund my Seditionaries habit. And it did. Then I started to make music in the eighties so it could fund my Nostalgia Of Mud habit. And then in the 90s so I could fund my plastic surgery. Then in the millennium so I could fund my travel. Its just been a soundtrack to doing amazing things. I’m certainly not passionate about music like Gaga. I don’t feel the need to get down and get my soul out to make music. I just go through the motions and I reap the rewards very well. I can honestly say since 1976 I have lived solely off music and TV, and I’ve had a very nice life. A lot nicer than some of my peers who’ve gone broke. I’ve had a very nice life. Very.
What I’m always fascinated by Pete is that you’re very wise.
I’m not wise!
You are. Your approach, and I might have this wrong…
You probably have!
…although you’ve come from this very fantastical upbringing there’s also a real groundedness to you. Very common sensical.
A knife’s a knife, a fork’s a fork…
It’s very German, black is black and white is white. To the point.
You’re very direct. You speak your mind.
I do speak my mind, and that actually gets me in a lot of trouble and offends people, but I often find that I’m only saying what people are thinking. I’m like a conduit for it. If I say something out loud it’s what other people are thinking. I think ‘lets get to the fucking point’. I’ve got zero patience and tolerance, especially with fools. I find it very tiring and I don’t want to get tired so I’ll just say it like it is.
What’s your marriage like?
It’s very conventional, we have a very homely life. People probably expect me to have a bizarre marriage and to sit at home in a leopard print catsuit, well I don’t, I sit at home in an old dressing gown with my hair in a bun. We just have a great time. Really good.
Do you enjoy performing?
Yes. I didn’t before, but in the past five or six years I’ve started to really enjoy it. The thing is, with all the surgery and the make up and the wigs, my icon is actually Cher. She is ever ready. I mean she’s just done that movie Burlesque, and in ten years time someone will call her up to do another movie, and she won’t go, ‘I’ve got to go on a diet, I’ve got to have a facelift’, she’ll be ready. I want to be ever ready. It gives me a real purpose in life. It’s the reason why I work out. I’ve got a reason to do everything. Today gave me a real sense of a reason, it gave me a reason for the last chin implant or the last lip augmentation or that fantastic botox party that we had.
That was fun though wasn’t it?
Yeah. I really enjoyed it, it was fascinating.
It was a party with a twist wasn’t it? You, bitch, just don’t need anything done! Things like that are so much fun because I’m not a party-thrower and that was like a party with a difference. Everyone was so lovely when they came. I always kind of like to muck in and help people, in a basic way. If someone needs something doing, I’ll fucking pay for it, you know what I mean? Its like oh go on, just get it done. Enjoy the minute. Because let’s face it, if you lose your fucking make up bag in the club, you’ve lost more than a facelift. Make up is so fucking expensive! I mean look at my make up, there’s tons of it!
People think that if you’re freaky you’re happy to jump up on a table and go-go dance for free, but it costs money to be different. Money is the new God
You’ve got a cat haven’t you?
Yes Lily. A Persian. She’s nineteen or something
I love that.
She’s really old. I’ve got a lot of fur coats as well, the cat’s terrified! I love fur. I really love fur. I love luxury items. I love diamonds. But I have the feeling that as I get older I’m never actually going to be rich because I’ll give it all away. I give it away, and I pay people’s rent, and I do things like that
That’s very nice.
The reason I have this life is because I believe in giving. I’m really interested in things. Really interested. Like you do the djing, I’m really interested in what you play. I did a night’s djing and I got four grand for it and I didn’t know what the fuck I was playing.
Sometimes I don’t though.
Your discipline amazes me though. You look so… Do you know who you look like? It’s not an insult by the way, this is something that Lynn observed, but you look so like my mum.
I’ll get a photo of her.
I remember you saying you were a voracious reader.
I read medical things really. I’m very interested in medicine again and getting people well. And I read biographies. I’ve just got the most amazing biography of Marlene Dietrich where it’s showing her make up techniques. I go to the local bookshop. I went the other morning with my credit card and bought a load of books. I’m over fashion magazines because I think fashion dictates things, do you know what I mean? People have got to have the latest bag and the latest whatever, but that’s not what I’m into. I’m into jumble and people just being themselves. But my life’s lovely, I really cant complain about one single thing.
Do you think that’s something that comes with living through the various ups and downs of your life?
Well I’ve had some real downs, I mean I’ve been in jail, Wandsworth, because Michael and I had a serious fight. He went to stay with a friend who worked in Joe Allens, and I’d been to divorce court and I walked to Joe Allens and said ‘I’ve just got to see Michael’ to the guy he was staying with. And the guy said ‘just fuck off and die’. So I said to this guy ‘I’ll fucking kill you, I will fucking kill you’ and the next thing I know I’m being arrested by fifteen policemen and thrown into Wandsworth prison for six weeks. I’ve had crack-ups and ended up in mental institutions, but I always seem to rise in a much stronger way. I was someone who suffered from really bad depression, things would just get on top of me because I felt so alone in the world. I felt there was no-one like me until I got this really great doctor who only really treats people in showbusiness and he medicated me with an anti-depressant and my life has totally changed 180 degrees. I don’t suffer from depression anymore. I haven’t got a blue day in me. When you are freaky as we are you do sometimes have a sense of isolation, you feel totally alone. I am married so I don’t feel completely alone, but you do feel totally alone sometimes. On the street you’ll feel alone, looking at other people you’ll feel alone, it’s a lonely place to be but you’ve just got to do it. You’ve got to do it because you’ve got to express yourself. Our upbringings affect us and we’ve got to express ourselves. If there’s one thing I love its self-expression. I love the freedom it brings. I love people being a bit wild. I just think life is absolutely fantastic if you cut out all the bullshit.
What frustrates you?
I’ve always found this industry, the industry of making music to be very frustrating. In the eighties when I was signed by CBS Records all they were interested in was turning me into Bros, and that was never going to happen. That’s why I’ve always thought I’ll never have a stylist because they’ll make you bleach your hair and wear a white jacket and that is never going to happen. Every record I ever made they said was crap and that it wasn’t going to be a hit and then I had nine top forty hits, do you know what I mean? I did really well.
And two number ones in America. I’ve sold 17 million albums and 36 million singles so I’ve had a good career. I spent it all, but I’ve had a ball spending it. I often wonder where some of my peers are. Do you know what I mean? The people who were rising up around the same time we were. Where’s Paul Young for instance. Probably skint singing in a pub somewhere…
Yeah, where is he?
He was huge! Where’s Alison Moyet, where have they gone?
Oh Alison’s around. And she looks amazing. I interviewed her actually, and then I saw her again at the Kirsty McCall benefit thing, she sung at that, she’s lost all the weight.
Oh fantastic, how did she do that?
I don’t know how she did it but she did it.
And you interviewed her?
Yes, and I saw her at the afterparty and she looked really astounding. I think she’s been on tour as Yazoo, which she said she wouldn’t do because she does her own stuff. She had an album out about three years ago now of stuff that she’d written.
So she’s still trucking?
Yeah she’s around, and like you, with a really positive air and really enjoying herself. I think that’s the thing as you get older you sort of grow into yourself.
Definitely. I wonder what happened to Haysi Fantayzee and things like that?
Kate Garner, she’s still around. She did some lovely photographs of me and then she disappeared.
What’s happened to Marilyn?
I don’t know, its probably best to ask George. I think they are in touch.
He was a train wreck, wasn’t he?
I think Marilyn lives with his mum in Bromley.
I think he had to do that.
He’s probably a junkie. I used to wonder what happened to Steve Strange, and then oh, there he is, there he is…
He lives in Wales. He comes to London when there’s work or a party or something.
Is he financially okay?
I’ve got absolutely no idea.
But you two were kind of close weren’t you in the eighties?
Yeah we were really good friends.
Well that’s good isn’t it? That’s one thing about a lot of those eighties people, we’ve all carried on doing something, and diversified. I try and avoid those Here & Now nostalgia tours because I don’t feel like a nostalgic thing, I still feel current. With the upswing of people like Lady Gaga I think more people will pay attention to me because, and this sounds incredibly arrogant, but I could have been Gaga. That could have happened for me. I’ve had so many creative images, I’ve been a chameleon. She doesn’t impress me.
I would imagine that her people might reference you.
Well, they’ve just hired a load of my stuff from Rellik. A corset Mr Pearl made for me.
Yeah, they’re referencing you.
Yeah, but they wouldn’t give me any fucking credit. That’s what I find lacking, that they don’t give you any credit. She doesn’t inspire me. I like some of her records but I don’t think, ‘Oh Lady Gaga’s got a black and white wig, give me a black and white wig’. I don’t need that, I’ve got my own look. And the people responsible for that are Lynn and Michael really. Lynn sits making the wigs, and Michael sits pulling the clothes around me, pinning them up and putting belts on me and stuff. I’ve been referenced by a lot of people, including Prince, but that’s okay. As long as I can live my life…
Hair Lynne Corlett
Photographic Assistance David Deas
Fashion Assistance Victoria Higgs and Ian Luka
Digital Operator Linas Sikunas
Retouching by Greenlight
Special thanks to Walt Utz
Shot at Spring Studios