Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: academic to spend year as David Bowie's many personas

Professor Will Brooker will spend months at a time experiencing the star’s life at different points through his 40-year career – from Ziggy Stardust to Let’s Dance

From Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke, a professor in London is living his life as David Bowie for a year to gain a better understanding of the pop icon’s mind and work.

Will Brooker, who teaches film and cultural studies at Kingston University, is spending a few months at a time experiencing specific moments of the star’s five-decade career – from adopting Bowie’s eating habits and poring over the literature he read, to visiting the same places as the English singer-songwriter.

Brooker – who has transitioned away from Bowie’s 1974 Philadelphia soul period, and from wearing thick blue eye shadow with shock of orange hair – has already been to Brixton, Bromley and Beckenham, and plans to go to Berlin next month.

This has been one of the more unusual days in my academic life

— will brooker (@willbrooker) July 15, 2015

“The idea is to inhabit Bowie’s head space at points in his life and career to understand his work from an original angle, while retaining a critical and objective perspective at the same time – a kind of split persona perhaps,” Brooker said.

The academic, who has been commissioned to write a monograph about the singer called Forever Stardust, said his starting point as Bowie was the late 1960s.

A bright yellow suit, marking Bowie’s 1983 comeback tour, black waistcoats and large collared white shirts have also been lined up in the academic’s wardrobe. “These things are quite hard to source and I had to go to a tailor,” he said, adding that most of his secondhand Bowie-like outfits were pulled together from online marketplaces.

Brooker is also preparing for the 80s bleached perm, which he said Bowie himself described as a scrambled egg sitting on his head.

I think my immersion has confirmed the reason for Bowie's supposedly boring "Heroes" album hair. He wanted to become more anonymous

— will brooker (@willbrooker) July 19, 2015

He plans to watch the same films Bowie would have done, and claims he has submitted himself to sleep deprivation and, some weekends, eaten only red peppers and drunk only milk. The project also involves listening only to songs Bowie would have heard.

He has read works by William Burroughs, the postmodernist writer of the Beat generation; Aleister Crowley, the English occultist; Michael Moorcock, the science fiction author, and ideas about the death of God and existentialism by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“If you’re reading some strange science fiction and books about magic you can kind of get into Bowie’s head and see it’s sometimes quite a strange place. A dangerous place, a place you wouldn’t want to live too long.”

“The levels of cocaine Bowie was consuming is not just illegal for a professor like myself, but it’s much too expensive – as well as unhealthy,” Brooker said. “So at the weekend I had a six-pack of energy drinks to try and simulate the experience of illegal substances,” he told the Guardian. “It made me very jumpy.”

Brooker added: “The thought that kept returning to me was: how did Bowie survive the 70s? He really made himself very ill. So it’s wonderful that we had him through the 70s.”

Although a few makeup artists have helped Brooker with some of Bowie’s more elaborate looks, the culture professor said he did most of it himself, with “quite a collection of makeup”, and that the pigment of the strong 70s makeup is still in place when he wakes up in the morning.

For replicating Bowie’s Thin White Duke era, Brooker lit black candles in his room and painted expressionist pictures while listening to German music. “I just wanted to have that immersion,” he said.

“No one could be Bowie again, and I’m thinking no one would want to go through everything he went through, not really. But I want to get some taste of it.”

Unbelievable - I just dreamed a whole new Bowie song in my sleep and now I can't remember how it went #bowiesymposium

— will brooker (@willbrooker) July 19, 2015

He added: “It’s fortunate that I’m going through his career chronologically. Because I think by ’83 he was pretty clean. I think I’ll get a tan, get fit, get my hair changed again, get my teeth whitened.”

During his teenage years when Brooker first came across Bowie, he repeatedly listened to a cassette of the Let’s Dance album on his Walkman.

He said he felt an affinity with Bowie, who had achieved a “balance between success and strangeness, between a necessary commercial pragmatism and a core of personal authenticity”.

His undergraduate students have not seen Brooker teach since he began his project, and he said he could assure them he would not be lecturing while in fully Ziggy regalia.

Brooker said he was not sure how Bowie would feel about his latest project: “I hope he would be interested in and amused by my research. I do feel, though, that everything he says and does in public is performance, so if he did hear about it, we would be unlikely to know what he genuinely thought.”

On Tuesday – as a picture disk was released commemorating the 40th anniversary of Bowie’s first No 1, Space Oddity – a spokesman for the singer said he had no comment on the transformation of the professor into the pop icon.


Aisha Gani

The GuardianTramp

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