Famous Bis: David Bowie

By Jennie Roberson

September 29, 2022



Whenever friends, strangers, or online communities get to talking about their favorite bi people, David Bowie is almost always mentioned in their first breath. The man is more than a rock god; he’s a pop icon and cultural legend. But I have a confession to make: while I’ve wanted to cover Bowie’s life for years now, I’ve been afraid to do so. Why? Because I wasn’t sure I could do justice to the sheer tonnage, not only to his expansive musical career, but to the totality of his history-changing tenure on this planet.

Portrait of David Bowie with a bight colored lightning bolt going down his face.

But then I realized that I don’t have to! Instead, I can provide anyone who may have recently discovered that Bow is an O.G. #bicon a sort of sampler of his life and journey. Bowie not only changed the course of music worldwide, he was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. There’s plenty more to learn about this fascinating figure, but if nothing else, this article is a good introduction for our favorite Starman.

Born on January 8, 1947, in Brixton, London to retired singer Peggy Jones and Haywood “John” Jones, Bowie’s birth name was actually David Robert Jones. One of his most formative early influences was Terry Burns, his older half-brother from his mother’s side, who introduced him to beat poetry, Buddhism, jazz, and the occult, among other things. Schizophrenia and related mental illnesses ran in Burns’s side of the family, which also left an impression on the youthful Bowie.

After moving around, in 1955 Bowie’s family settled in Sundridge Park (part of Greater London). As he grew up, young David was enthralled by modern music, especially Elvis Presley and Little Richard. He began playing the saxophone and experimenting with other instruments and sounds at the age of 13. It was during his teenage years that a schoolyard fight over a girl led to one of his most distinctive physical features. A punch to his left eye caused the pupil to become permanently dilated, also giving a false impression of a change in the eye color. Don’t worry, though ― the schoolmate who punched him, George Underwood, patched things up and the two even recorded some music together later on. (In fact, Underwood went into design and created some of the album cover work of some of Bowie’s best-known covers.)

After his graduation from Bromley Technical School at 16, David did not immediately find commercial success. He hopped from band to band and eventually recorded a solo album in 1967. Concerned he would be confused with Monkees frontman Davy Jones, he changed his surname to Bowie. But he didn’t make the splash he had hoped for.

Disheartened by his lack of success, Bowie stepped back from music for a time and lived in a Buddhist monastery in Scotland, where a monk encouraged him to continue writing music. Before doing so, however, Bowie created Feathers, a mime troupe. It was around this time that he met and married Angie Barnett, an American model, in 1970. A year later they had their only child, Duncan Jones (now a filmmaker) whom they nicknamed “Zowie”.

In 1972, Bowie entered what is perhaps his best-known era of glam rock with his alter ego, the bi, androgynous, alien rock star Ziggy Stardust. The subsequent album with his new band, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), launched Bowie into the cultural stratosphere. Stardust, Bowie would later write, was both an instant smash hit and a challenge to conformities of the day. A mishmash of cultural influences — from kabuki theater, to Presley, to Edith Piaf, German expressionism, Lou Reed, and the open-ended question on where rock would go — the group’s music clashed with the norms of 1970s music, style, and sexual expression.

To wit, throughout the Ziggy tour, Bowie infamously ended the night by fellating a guitar ― an iconic image that asserted the character’s queerness.

David Bowie as his alter ego persona, wearing a tight dancer's clothing, posing in front of a mirror.

But bisexuality was not solely confined to his creation of Ziggy — it was part of Bowie’s own experiences. In addition to his marriage to Barnett, Bowie also had affairs with Mick Jagger (confirmed by his wife and others) and Lou Reed (“Queen Bitch” is about him), among many others. He even moved to Berlin in 1976 in part to be with his trans lover Romy Hagg. Bowie was open about being bi throughout his life, including in interviews ― despite facing bi erasure time after time over the years. Bowie eventually divorced Barnett and married Somali supermodel Iman for over two decades until his death.

Despite his monumental success with Ziggy, Bowie eventually felt tired and trapped by the character and retired him in order to explore new iterations. Bowie continued experimenting with personas throughout his life, including albums such as Aladdin Sane (1973) and The Thin White Duke (1975), among many others. He enjoyed phenomenal success with many of these transformations, putting out classics such as “Changes”, “Heroes”, “Fame”, “China Girl”, “Fashion”, and “Let’s Dance”, as well as “Under Pressure” in collaboration with Queen (headed by fellow #bicon Freddie Mercury). With each new shift, Bowie felt free to explore different genres and create new soundscapes, which he then brought into mainstream popularity and critical acclaim.

Music wasn’t Bowie’s only creative outlet, however. He also made quite an impact as an actor, with indelible performances in films such as The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Prestige (2006). Some of his roles were comedic, such as his cameo in Zoolander (2001), where he spoofed himself as a judge on a male model walk-off. But perhaps his most memorable on-screen performance, and a personal favorite of mine, was as Jareth in Labyrinth (1986). It’s pretty hard to resist eating a hallucinogenic peach and then waltzing forever with the goblin king, in my opinion.

While Bowie toured up until 2006, he decided to step back from concert life after suffering a heart attack. Publicly, he said that he wanted to make sure he would be around while his daughter grew up. What Bowie didn’t reveal to the public before releasing his final album, Blackstar (2016) ― a bleak but stirring meditation on the themes of mortality ― was that he had been fighting a terminal illness for 18 months. Just three days after its release ― on his 69th birthday ― Bowie died from liver cancer in his New York home on January 11, 2016. Many considered the album his final gift to his fans, and it went on to garner multiple posthumous Grammys.

It is difficult to sum up the magnitude of Bowie’s impact on both music and pop culture. His musical transformations inspired the likes of such artists as Madonna, Jay-Z, Joy Division, the post-punk movement, LCD Soundsystem, and Arcade Fire, among many others. His life also served as the source of inspiration for the bi cult classic film, Velvet Goldmine (1998). His work was recognized with scores of awards throughout his life, including an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The only honor he ever turned down was a knighthood from the British crown — he didn’t see the point of it (how baller is that?).

As I said, Bowie lived a very full life. All I can hope to provide here is an overview of his legacy. There are achievements, accolades, allegations, and scandals I have not gone into. To do so would require a book-length treatment. There is plenty more to learn about the singer-songwriter, both online and in authorized biographies. Consider this a taster of the storied life and use this entry as a jumping-off point for further research.

Bowie’s work as a musician and overall artist transcended genre, taste, and style to reach a rarefied strata in the minds of billions of people across the world. What cannot be denied was that he was a deeply influential figure who was and is still deeply, sorely missed. And Bowie was very, very bi.