An Interview With That Guy Living as David Bowie for One Glorious Year

Will Brooker as David Bowie

There’s this wonderful guy out there. And he has the best job in the world; being David Bowie.

No, he’s not the actual David Bowie. His name is Will Brooker and he’s a professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University in London. He’s also an author, an expert on Batman, and living as Bowie for a year.

Professor Brooker is working his way through Bowie’s life and enormous body of work in order to better understand his prolific subject. He has dressed, eaten, slept, talked, sang, and read like the famous musician, actor, artist, and fashion icon and will continue to do so for an entire year. He plans on taking his hard-won knowledge and writing a book on Bowie and his experiences.

While moving chronologically through the time periods of Bowie’s life and sharing pictures and thoughts on Twitter (@willbrooker), Professor Brooker has garnered a fair amount of interest. His experience has been mentioned in publications including The Daily Mail, Rolling Stone, and The Huffington Post.

As a Bowie nut myself, I was gripped by terrible jealousy when I heard about Professor Brooker’s immersion into Bowie’s life and music. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a year. I had so, so many questions. He was kind enough the answer some for me.

Sarah Olive Bergeson: Why Bowie? 

Will Brooker: This is an open question and I could answer it in a variety of ways. I write about popular culture and cultural icons, their meanings to audiences and the way they change over time. That is my job and what I do. So that’s one reason “why Bowie.”

In terms of rock icons, I don’t think there is anyone comparable to Bowie: in fact, calling him a rock icon reduces him. He is a popular culture pioneer, particularly influential in music and fashion but with significant contributions to video, cinema and art, with an incredibly sustained career, and a particularly breathtaking output in the 1970s. I find him an extremely complex and fascinating figure. He’s given a great deal to late 20th and early 21st century culture — I think his work has given a lot to me personally, for years — and this is my way of celebrating and connecting with him, through writing, analysis and research.

I could also say that I’ve written or edited three books on Batman now, and don’t want to write another book about Batman. So I’m moving on, and Bowie is a good thing to move onto.

SB: Are you listening to the Bowie albums that correspond to the period you’re dressing for, or are you just listening to whatever music Bowie would have listened to at the time?

WB: Yes, I am listening constantly and repeatedly to Bowie albums up until the point I am currently focusing on. With “Low”, “Heroes,” and “Lodger” I decided to take them all on at once during August, as they are considered part of the same Berlin period. I’ve been reading about those albums and about Bowie’s Berlin years this month, while also painting in an Expressionist-inspired style as Bowie did. After I visit Berlin (in September) I’ll finally move on to “Scary Monsters.”

I do of course allow myself to listen to anything before the point I’m working on, so the Bowie back catalogue (and list of Bowie influences) grows over time. The same applies to the Bowie songs I work on in my weekly singing lessons.

SB: Do you perform or lip sync to Bowie’s music, alone or in public?

WB: I’ve been learning better singing technique through private tuition and have covered a handful of Bowie songs so far (from the period up to around 1978). I’ve been invited to join a couple of bands for rehearsals, with an aim to perform Bowie covers with them at some point in the future.

Will Brooker as David Bowie

SB: Bowie is notorious for disliking attention when he is out and about. Do you get a lot of attention when you go out dressed up? How do you find yourself reacting to the notoriety? Do you pretend to actually be Bowie in your interactions with others? 

WB: We have to remember that the famous Bowie outfits are stage outfits and personas. So I don’t wear the more iconic and recognisable styles except on special and public occasions. The ‘Low’period hair is permanent though (until I change it for the Berlin period) so I am increasingly, because of the recent publicity, being recognised even when I’m just out trying to be anonymous.

Prior to that, people certainly recognised who I was “being” when I was out wearing the “Life On Mars” make-up and hair, or the Thin White Duke outfit. They often assume I’m a professional lookalike and that it’s my job, which I take as a positive comment.

The problem with acting like Bowie is that during the 1970s he’s usually quite awkward, stubborn and rude in interviews. I’m inclined, by contrast, to try to be nice and friendly to people if they ask about my research project. I’ve sometimes slipped into a Bowie manner on these occasions after a champagne or two, and it risks coming across as obnoxious.

I enjoy this radio interview (starts 10 minutes in) as I had just come from a live TV feature and was in quite a hyped-up mood, so I think I start to speak a little more like David at some points.

SB: What will your book be like? A narrative of the experience? Bowie biography?

WB: It’s an academic book called “Forever Stardust” due to be published in 2017 — a study of Bowie as author and artist, in terms of his recurring themes, motifs and meanings. But I was always considering writing a separate piece of some kind about my experience, and that’s still a strong possibility. I’ve been asked recently if I would think about writing a Bowie biography in the future, too. Those would be in addition to the academic book, and wouldn’t directly overlap.

SB: What’s the most compelling insight you’ve gleaned (about Bowie and/or yourself)?

WB: I think I have, through this process, developed a strong and original sense of what personal drives and fears motivated Bowie’s artistic choices, and what lies behind his work, during the 1970s at least, and I think also his later career (1980-2015). It makes sense of pretty much everything he’s done, in a new way. That’s my feeling, anyway — that I have gained insight into a pattern that explains everything. So, that’s compelling. But vague.

SB: Do you have a significant other who is living through this with you? If so, how do they feel about it?

WB: Yes, like David Bowie in the 1970s, I am married. Unlike David Bowie’s marriage in the 1970s, I consider it a very good marriage. She already knew what I was like, of course, but my wife is both supportive and very no-nonsense, which is extremely valuable in terms of keeping me in touch with the real world.

SB: Did you smoke before your immersion? Are you now?

WB: No, I’ve never smoked. I think there have to be limits to the simulation, just as it would be unwise in many ways to attempt to replicate Bowie’s drug habits of the mid-1970s. I doubt that David Bowie would want me to start smoking because he once did, though it’s true I think that it’s an important aspect of his vocal style, both sung and spoken, and his visual image.

SB: Do you have help in creating Bowie’s looks? Were you into hair and make-up before this process started?

WB: I pay a considerable amount to hairdressers, beauty salons, make-up artists and providers of vintage clothing. But yes, I liked hair and make-up beforehand, and I do a lot of the make-up myself.

SB: Why do you think people find Bowie so compelling?

WB: I think we all have our own David Bowie and our own reasons for loving him. Certainly, objectively speaking, he is a hugely talented and creative individual, with a great deal of charisma and a vast body of diverse work, so there is a lot to love. But I think he speaks to all of us in slightly different, personal ways, and we will all have our stories about why he and his music are important to us.

SB: What’s you favorite Bowie album? What’s your favorite Bowie song?

As I’ve been working chronologically through Bowie’s albums and listening to them repeatedly and closely, the last one I’ve been immersed in tends to be my current favourite. It was “Aladdin Sane” for a while, and then it was “Young Americans” and then “Station to Station” (it has never been “Pin-Ups”). Right now I am revaluating and re-experiencing “Lodger”, and I have a note written today that it may be his pivotal album along with “1.Outside” — that’s an example of an observation I might well reconsider and reject later, but it’s an interesting thought and there is logic behind it.

The first Bowie album I really connected with personally was “Let’s Dance,” and I will always like “Low” because it has the best cover art. But it’s been enjoyable rediscovering and finding new pleasures in each of his albums so far.

My favourite Bowie song also changes as I go. Like Bowie (in the 1970s at least) I am quite an impatient person and appreciate novelty. Again, I was very much into “Aladdin Sane,” the song, when I was interviewed in Melbourne in July, and more recently felt that “Station to Station,” the song, must be his masterpiece. Now I’m getting more into “Low.” My first favourite Bowie song, as above, was from “Let’s Dance” — “Ricochet,” the first track on the b-side. Lyrically, I think Bowie’s best is “A New Career in a New Town.”

And to all those out there who might not know Bowie’s work as well as Professor Brooker, “A New Career in a New Town” has no lyrics. It’s an instrumental. So, perhaps what Professor Brooker is saying (much like Bowie himself might) is that the music speaks for itself. And that you have to work for things a little. If you’ve never heard the song before, give it a listen. It’s on the album, “Low”, one of my personal favorites. And it’s saying some beautiful things.

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Image: Will Brooker