Pete Burns: A British Pop Queen Makes His Final Transformation

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Peter Jozzeppi “Pete” Burns was an ‘80s new wave rock star.   A fashion designer/hair dresser turned U.K. pop idol,  Burns crossed the pond and was known mainly in the States for his band, Dead Or Alive’s 1985 hit, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”.

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The song became a ubiquitous post-disco MTV smash –  the first for the noted British songwriting team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  “Spin” was repurposed by Flo Rida as “Right Round,” a chart-topping 2009 Billboard single which featured the recording debut of Kesha.

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Like his British new wave compatriots,  Boy George, Marilyn and Visage’s Steve Strange, Burns brought a bisexual flamboyance to the scene.  He followed fellow artist Malcolm McLaren,  also starting out as the proprietor of a clothing boutique on Liverpool’s Casey Street  at the very dawn of the punk era.

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Pete Burns at the Carling Academy, Liverpool 2008.

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Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Burns died of a massive heart attack on October 23, 2016,  at age 57,  just five days before the release of a compilation album, Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI.   Long before transsexuality and Caitlyn Jenner dominated the media, Burns was a sexual adventurer, who gradually assumed an androgynous/ female identity and a grotesque, Elephant Man appearance.

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Pete Burns went through a series of more than 300 plastic surgeries, originally to reset a broken nose suffered during a punk run-in when he was 25.

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Burns loved playing with the public’s perception of him, stating once, “People always want to know – am I gay, bi, trans or what? I say, forget all that. There’s got to be a complete different terminology and I’m not aware if it’s been invented yet. I’m just Pete.”  His most famous quote was, “I hope when I die, God doesn’t recognize me.” He was married to a woman (fellow hairdresser Lynne Corlett from 1980 to 2006) and a man (a civil union with Michael Simpson).

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The Merseyside-born Burns’ mother was a German-born Jew who fled the Nazis, and married an English soldier whom she met in Vienna.  They moved to Liverpool, where Burns suffered from alcoholism and attempted suicide several times. He grew up isolated, and was kicked out of boarding school after shaving his eyebrows, wearing an earring and dying his hair red.

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He worked at a Liverpool record shop, Probe Records, where he regularly insulted the clientele’s  music purchases.

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He formed the short-lived Mystery Girls, named after the New York Dolls, with fellow musicians Pete Wylie (who later went on to form Wah!) and Julian Cope (leader of the post-punk psychedelic group The Teardrop Explodes), with performance influences including transgender New York punk Wayne County.

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Probe Records, Liverpool 2012.

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Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Burns’ next group was Nightmares In Wax, which combined the doomy guitars of Goth with the drum machine/synths of the “cancer floor”.   Burns and the band – with new moniker – Wanted Dead or Alive –  scored a 1984 hit with a cover version of KC and the Sunshine Band’s  “That’s The Way (I Like It),” anticipating the success of bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

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“You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” was a worldwide hit, a chart-topper in the U.K., Ireland, Canada and Switzerland, reaching #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.  While the band continued to score chart success in the U.K. and eventually, Japan, with songs like “Brand New Lover,” “Love Come Back To Me” and “Something in My House,” Burns became a ubiquitous figure in Britain as a reality star.

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He was a performer on shows like 2006’s Celebrity Big Brother 4, where his fellow contestants included basketballer Dennis Rodman and Parliament member George Galloway, with whom he memorably danced in matching leotard tights. He caused a media stir on the show when he claimed his coat was made of gorilla skin, which riled up members of animal activist groups and caused the police to confiscate it. That same year, he published his memoir, Freak Unique: An Autobiography.

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After his death, Galloway praised Burns, calling him a “cross between Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. You don’t get more brilliant than that.”

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Burns was a tabloid mainstay in his homeland, the paparazzi documenting his every facial change, as Pete went on to appear on U.K. reality series Celebrity Botched Up Bodies and Celebrity Wife Swap.  “People redecorate their homes every few years and I see this as no different,” he told an interviewer. “Changing my face is like buying a new sofa.

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Burns released a solo single, “Never Marry an Icon,” in 2010.  In recent years, he had fallen on difficult times, having declared bankruptcy and been evicted from his London home in April over 34,000 pounds in unpaid rent. From all indications, he died penniless.

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Boy George, whom Burns once accused of stealing his act, ended up paying for his friend’s funeral after first wife Lynne said she couldn’t afford to give him one.

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He was one of our great true eccentrics and such a big part of my life,” said Boy George.

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