October 23, 2016 – Peter Jozzeppi “Pete” Burns was born on August 5, 1959 in Port Sunlight, Cheshire, England. His mother was the daughter of a German Jew and had escaped Nazi Germany before the war. She met Burns’s father, Francis Burns, then a soldier, in Vienna, from where they returned together to Liverpool.
Burns described his upbringing as unconventional. His mother was an alcoholic, and attempted suicide several times when Burns was growing up.
“As far as parental skills go in the conventional, normal world, she certainly wasn’t a mother, but she’s the best human being that I’ve ever had the privilege of being in the company of, and I know that she had a special plan for me,” he said. “She called me ‘Star Baby’ and she knew that there was something special in me.”
“I lived, I know now, a very solitary childhood. I had nothing to compare it with, so it seemed fine to me. I rarely left the house. I didn’t need to; I had a secret world I shared with my mother. In those early years, I couldn’t possibly have wished for a better friend. She gave me the power to dream, the power to remove myself from where I might not be having any fun, and go inside my head and be somewhere else.”
Burns spoke German until he was five, which resulted in local children spending days outside his door shouting “Heil Hitler”. According to Burns, school was “almost non-existent”, and his mother frequently kept him away so he could spend the day with her. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 after being summoned to the headmaster’s office because he had arrived at school with “no eyebrows, Harmony-red hair, and one gigantic earring”. At around this age he was raped by a man who took him for a drive; Burns later recalled that he wasn’t upset by this, though he knew that people would expect him to be. He stated that he already knew the man, who drove him to Raby Mere and threatened him with an air gun.
While building his career, Burns worked at a Liverpool record shop, Probe Records, which became a meeting place for local musicians. Burns was notorious for his maltreatment of customers, sometimes throwing their purchases at them because he disapproved of their selection. Burns first performed as a member of the short-lived Mystery Girls, who gave one performance only and comprised Burns, Pete Wylie and Julian Cope, who stated that Burns’s performing style drew on that of the transgender punk performer Wayne County. Burns was next in Nightmares in Wax, a proto-Goth group that formed in Liverpool in 1979; they released a 12″ single, “Black Leather”, and a 7″ single, “Birth of a Nation”, each containing the same three songs, but never produced an album. In 1980, after replacing several members, Burns changed their name to Dead or Alive.
Dead Or Alive’s first album, Sophisticated Boom Boom (1984), had paved the way for the group’s success by reaching the UK Top 30 and yielding a Top 40 single with a cover of KC & The Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way (I Like It). The following year they released Youthquake, which was produced by the upcoming hit-makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman and not only contained You Spin Me Round, which became a number one hit in the UK, and a top 20 hit in the US, but also gave them a No 9 album in the UK and reached 31 on the US Billboard chart.
His heyday as a pop star coincided with the rise of the “New Pop” epitomised by Boy George and Culture Club, Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. With his ambiguous sexuality, androgynous look and spectacular fashion choices, Burns, after several years of trying, found himself in the right place at the right time. “Everything goes round in circles and luckily we’ve got the current sound of the moment,” he commented in 1984, a remark pointing to his inherent scepticism about fame, fashion and pop music.
Despite further hits with Lover Come Back to Me, In Too Deep and Brand New Lover, the huge success of You Spin Me Round was not to be repeated. Dead Or Alive continued through the 80s, but by the end of the decade had been reduced to the core duo of Burns and the drummer Steve Coy. Their album Nude (1989) gave them a belated chart fling by delivering a No 1 hit on the US dance charts with Come Home With Me Baby, while Turn Around & Count 2 Ten reached No 1 in Japan.
During the 90s, Dead Or Alive released several albums in various territories outside the UK, with limited success. In 1994 Burns sang and co-wrote the single Sex Drive for the Italian techno act Glam, and that same year Burns and Coy recorded David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, calling themselves International Chrysis. Fragile (2000) was Dead Or Alive’s final album of new material, though some tracks were remixes and cover versions. The new century brought the compilations Evolution: The Hits (2003) and That’s The Way I Like It: The Best of Dead Or Alive (2010).
Burns’s decision to embrace reality TV came after he had spent years protesting that he would never do it (“I still have a career, and I don’t really do reality,” he said in 2003), but his outsized personality and caustic manner made him a natural. The sight of him dancing with the politician George Galloway, both of them dressed in lycra leotards, on Celebrity Big Brother was unforgettable for any number of reasons. Burns triggered further controversy on Big Brother when he claimed to be wearing a coat made of illegal gorilla skin, though tests proved it was made from the skin of the colobus monkey, using pelts that pre-dated legislation outlawing their use.
In 2007 Burns appeared on Big Brother’s Big Mouth and Celebrity Wife Swap, where he swapped places with Leah Newman, partner of the footballer Neil “Razor” Ruddock. Also on the show was Burns’s husband, Michael Simpson, whom he married in 2006 after his divorce from the stylist Lynne Corlett whom he had married in 1978. The three remained on good terms. In the series Pete’s PA, on Living TV, contestants competed to become Burns’s assistant.
In 2015, Burns was evicted from his London flat after running up £34,000 in rent arrears. Last month, Burns appeared on Channel 5’s Celebrity Botched Up Bodies and talked frankly about his horrific experiences with cosmetic surgery, which had given him near-fatal blood clots and pulmonary embolisms as he underwent further procedures to try to correct mistakes.
In the end Pete Burns later became a living advertisement for the dangers of plastic surgery. Burns, who died of a heart attack aged 57, on October 23, 2016, claimed to have undergone 300 surgical procedures, many of them in an attempt to repair previous botched efforts.
Pete Burns defied categorization and challenged those who pitied or sneered. The chaos, flamboyance and craven attention-seeking were matched by genuine eccentricity and intelligence. And despite bouts of depression and years of agony and ill health as the result of a botched lip filler operation, he appeared to be entirely lacking in self-pity. As he explained after the publication of his 2006 autobiography, Freak Unique, “I’m not thinking ‘Why me?’ but ‘Why NOT me?’ ”
A statement released by his partner, Michael Simpson, his ex-wife, Lynne Corlett, and his manager and former band member, Steve Coy, read: “All of his family and friends are devastated by the loss of our special star. He was a true visionary, a beautiful talented soul and will be missed by all those who loved and appreciated everything he was and all of the wonderful memories he has left us with.”
A couple of years after divorcing his wife Lynne and marrying his partner Michael Simpson, they separated and Burns remarked: “I view marriage as a sacred institution. I think two men naturally are predators. Gay relationships are a commercial break, not a whole movie. The relationships I’m aware of, apart from one … it’s as though there’s some kind of emotional inadequacy or narcissism, where they feel emotionally inadequate and need more validation, from either a father figure or a mirror image of themselves. I’m not condemning it, I think it needs researching and help.”