The first, definitive biography of the iconic, notoriously private British fashion designer Alexander McQueen “offers new insights...and provides unprecedented access to a misunderstood soul” (The Boston Globe).
When forty-year-old Alexander McQueen committed suicide in February 2010, a shocked world mourned the loss. McQueen had risen from humble beginnings as the son of an East London taxi driver to scale the heights of fame, fortune, and glamour. He created a multimillion-dollar luxury brand that became a favorite with celebrities, including Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. He designed clothes for the world’s most beautiful women and royalty, most famously the Duchess of Cambridge, who wore a McQueen dress on her wedding day.
But behind the confident facade and bad-boy image, lay a sensitive soul who struggled to survive in the ruthless world of fashion. As the pressures of work intensified, McQueen became increasingly dependent on the drugs that contributed to his tragic end. Meanwhile, his failure to find lasting love in a string of boyfriends only added to his despair. And then there were the secrets that haunted his sleep…
A modern-day fairy tale infused with the darkness of a Greek tragedy, Alexander McQueen provides “a thorough and emotionally compelling exploration…of a complex and enigmatic artist” (Publishers Weekly). Andrew Wilson’s “magnificent” (The Independent, UK) and “compelling and heavily researched bio” (Entertainment Weekly), featuring never-before-seen photographs and rare interviews, dispels myths, corrects inaccuracies, and shares new insights into McQueen’s private life and the source of his creative genius.
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About the Author
Andrew Wilson is an award-winning journalist and author. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times, and the Smithsonian Magazine. He is the author of four acclaimed biographies, a book about the survivors of the Titanic, and the novels, The Lying Tongue, A Talent for Murder, A Different Kind of Evil, Death in a Desert Land.
Read an Excerpt
A history of “much cruelty and dark deeds.”
When Lee Alexander McQueen was born, on 17 March 1969 at Lewisham Hospital in southeast London, he weighed only five pounds ten ounces. The doctors told his mother, Joyce, that his low weight could mean that he might have to be placed in an incubator, but he soon started to feed, and mother and baby returned home to the crowded family home at 43 Shifford Path, Wynell Road, Forest Hill. Although Joyce and Ron, in the words of their son Tony, “always said that he [Lee] was the only one they tried for,” the birth of the youngest of their six children did nothing to soothe the tense atmosphere in the McQueen household.
“My dad had a breakdown in 1969, just as my mum gave birth,” said Lee’s brother Michael McQueen. “He was working too hard, a lot of hours as a lorry driver with six children, too many really.”1 His brother Tony, who was fourteen years old at the time, remembers noticing that one day his father went unnaturally quiet. “He was working seven days a week, he was hardly ever home,” said Tony. “My mum got someone round and they institutionalized him. It was a difficult period for us.” Joyce, in an unpublished manuscript she compiled for the family, noted that her husband spent only three weeks in Cane Hill Hospital, Coulsdon, but according to Tony, “Dad had a nervous breakdown and he went into a mental institution for two years.”2
Cane Hill Hospital was the archetypal Victorian asylum, an enormous rambling madhouse of the popular imagination. Designed by Charles Henry Howell, it was originally known as the Third Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum, so called because the county’s other two institutions, Springfield and Brookwood, had reached full capacity. “Cane Hill was typical of its time, providing specialized wards for different categories of patients, with day rooms on the ground floor and dormitories and individual cells mostly on the second and third floors,” wrote one historian. “Difficult patients were confined to cells and those of a more clement disposition could walk the airing grounds . . . By the 1960s, the hospital had changed little.”3 Former patients included Charlie Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, and the half brothers of both Michael Caine and David Bowie, who used a drawing of the administration block on the American cover of his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World.
Lee McQueen was fascinated by the idea of the asylum—he featured the iconography of the madhouse in a number of his collections, particularly Voss (Spring/Summer 2001)—and he would have been intrigued by the rumors about a subterranean network of tunnels near Cane Hill. Over the years it has been suggested that the series of brick-lined tunnels housed a mortuary, a secret medical testing facility and a nuclear bomb shelter. Although the truth was much more mundane—the tunnels were built as bomb shelters during the Second World War and then taken over by a company that manufactured telescopes—the network of underground chambers “became somehow connected with the institution and the obscure rusting of machinery took on sinister new overtones, driven by the superstition surrounding the complex.”4
Years after the closure of Cane Hill, a couple were walking around the grounds of the hospital when, in the Garden House, they came across a bundle of faded yellow pages, remnants of the kind of questionnaire Ronald McQueen would have encountered while a patient at the institution. Many of the fifty-one questions, which patients were encouraged to answer with a response of “true” or “false,” would have had a particular resonance if they had later been applied to Lee: “I have not lived the right kind of life,” “Sometimes I feel as if I must injure myself or someone else,” “I get angry sometimes,” “Often I think I can’t understand why I have been so cross and grouchy,” “I have sometimes felt that difficulties were piling up so high that I could not overcome them,” “Someone has it in for me,” “It is safer to trust nobody,” and “At times I have a strong urge to do something harmful or shocking.”5
It’s difficult to know the exact effect of Ronald’s breakdown on his youngest son. A psychotherapist might be able to draw links between Lee’s later mental health issues and his father’s illness. Did Lee come to associate his birth, his very existence, with madness? Did the boy feel some level of unconscious guilt for driving his father into a psychiatric ward? There is no doubt, however, that in an effort to comfort both her infant son and herself, Joyce lavished increased levels of love on Lee and, as a result, the bond between them intensified. As a little boy, Lee had a beautiful blond head of curls, and photographs taken at the time show him to be an angelic-looking child. “He had preferential treatment from my mother but not my dad; he was a bit Neanderthal because of his hard upbringing,” said Michael McQueen.6
When Lee was less than a year old the family moved from south London to a council house in Stratford, a district close to the dock area of east London. “I think if you’re from the East End you can’t get used to the south side,” said Lee’s sister Janet McQueen. “They say you can’t move an old tree and it was like that. I think it was probably that a housing initiative came up and we had the chance of moving into a house, a new house.”7 The council house, at 11 Biggerstaff Road, was a three-story brick terraced house and although it had four bedrooms it was still a squeeze for the family. “We boys slept three to a bed in there,” said Tony McQueen. “My mum would say, ‘Which end would you like?’ and I would say, ‘The shallow end; Lee keeps pissing himself.’ ”8 Family photos show that the house was a typical modern working-class home with a fitted patterned carpet, floral sofas with wooden arms, papered walls and gilt-framed reproductions of paintings by Constable. At the back of the house there was a small paved garden with a raised fishpond and a white gate that led out onto a grassy communal area in front of a tower block.
Ron couldn’t work because of his condition, and money was in short supply. Janet left school at fifteen and took a job in London Bridge in the offices of a dried egg import business to help support the family. Her brother Tony recalls how difficult it was for the family to survive. “My mum would give me the money to go on the bus to where Janet was working, to get her wages off her, and then I would bring the money back to my mum and meet her and do the shopping with her,” he said. “Mum was working as well, doing cleaning in the morning and the evening.”9
When Ron returned from Cane Hill to the house in Stratford, he trained to become a black-cab driver so he could work the hours that suited him. He had, in Joyce’s words, “wonderful willpower to get better again.”10 He took up fishing and snooker and finally started to earn a little more money. Life in 1970s Britain was, for many ordinary families like the McQueens, a rather grim affair. In 1974 there were two general elections and the country was gripped by economic and social unrest. Power cuts were a regular feature of daily life (a three-day weekly limit for the commercial consumption of electricity had been imposed), rubbish went uncollected for weeks and unemployment surged past the all-important one million mark (by 1978 it stood at 1.5 million).
Yet the work ethic was strong in the McQueen family—Ron eventually bought the house from the council in 1982—and he expected his sons to get steady and reliable jobs as plumbers, electricians, bricklayers or cabdrivers. The upbringing was strict, almost Victorian. If he saw his children “getting beyond or above themselves,” he would try and bring them back down to earth, quashing their confidence in the process. “We were seen and not heard,” said Lee’s sister Jacqui.11 By the time Tony was fourteen he had traveled all over the country with Ron in a lorry. “So my education suffered a bit,” he said. “That was me and Michael’s childhood.”12 Tony left school to work as a bricklayer and Michael became a taxi driver like his father. They were born into the working classes and their father believed that any aspiration above and beyond that would not only lead to personal unhappiness and dissatisfaction but would serve as a betrayal of their roots too. Creativity in any form was frowned upon and regarded as a total waste of time; dreaming was all well and good but it would not put food on the table.
It was into this world that Lee, a sensitive, bright child with a vivid imagination, was born. From the very beginning the cherubic-looking boy strived for something more, a desire that he found he could express through the medium of clothes. When he was three he picked up a crayon lying around his sisters’ bedroom and drew an image of Cinderella, “with a tiny waist and a huge gown,” on a bare wall.13 “He told me about that Cinderella drawing on the wall, I thought it was quite magical,” said his friend Alice Smith, who visited the house in Biggerstaff Road a number of times. “I also remember him telling me about how one day his mum dressed him up to go out when he was little. He was wearing trousers with an anorak and they were going to the park and he said, ‘Mum, I can’t wear this.’ She asked him why not and he replied, ‘It doesn’t go.’ ”14 His sisters started to ask him about what they should wear to work and he soon became their “daily style consultant.” “I was absorbed early on by the style of people, by how they expressed themselves through what they wear,” he said.15
When Lee was three or four he was playing by himself at the top of the house in a bedroom that looked out towards Lund Point, a twenty-three-story tower block behind the terrace. He climbed onto a small ottoman that sat beneath the window and pushed the window wide open. Just as he was stretching out to reach through the window his sister Janet walked into the bedroom. “The window had no safety catch and he was stood on the ottoman reaching out,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘No, don’t say anything.’ I went up behind him and grabbed him. I probably told him off because he could easily have fallen out of the window.”16 He was, by all accounts, a mischievous, spirited little boy. He stole his mother’s false teeth and put them in his mouth for a joke or repeated the same trick with a piece of orange peel cut into jagged, teeth-like shapes. He would take hold of his mother’s stockings and pull them over his head to frighten people. With his sisters he would go along to the local swimming club to take part in synchronized-swimming competitions. “You would hear our trainer, Sid, shouting, ‘Lee—Lee McQueen?’ and he would be under the water looking at us,” said Jacqui. “Or he would have a hula skirt on and suddenly jump into the water. He was so funny.”17 One day, Lee did a backflip off the side of the swimming pool and hit his cheekbone, an accident that left him with a small lump.
After Lee and Joyce’s deaths her treasured photograph albums were passed around between her remaining five children. Seeing images of Lee as a boy, looking bright-eyed and full of fun, was especially hard for the McQueens. Here was Lee with a swathe of white fabric around his head, his right foot wrapped in a bandage, his left eye smudged with makeup so as to give him a black eye, and a cane in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other; around his neck hangs the sign “All Because the Lady Loved Milk Tray.” There are plenty more taken at similar holiday camp competitions—one of him holding a prize while staying at Pontins and another of him, when he was only three or so, dancing with a little girl the same age, his blond hair falling down the side of his head, his mouth open wide with joy. There is one of him enjoying being picked up and cuddled by a man in a panda suit and another of him looking a little more self-conscious, probably a photograph taken at junior school, trying to smile but careful to keep his mouth closed because he did not want his prominent and uneven front teeth to show. One day when Lee was a young boy he tripped off the small wall in the back garden of the house in Biggerstaff Road and hit his teeth. “He was always self-conscious about his teeth after that,” said Tony.18 “I remember he had an accident when he was younger and lost his milk teeth and the others came through damaged or twisted,” said Peter Bowes, a school friend who knew him from the age of five. “So he had these buck front teeth, one of the things that would give him a reason to be humiliated and picked on. He was called ‘goofy’ and things like that.”19
Lee knew that he was not like other boys from an early age, but the exact nature and source of this difference were still unclear to him. His mother picked up the fact that her youngest son was a strange mix of surface toughness and unusual vulnerabilities and did everything she could to protect him. “He was this little fat boy from the East End with bad teeth who didn’t have much to offer, but he had this one special thing, this talent, and Joyce believed in him,” said Alice Smith. “He told me once that she had said to him, ‘Whatever you want to do, do it.’ He was adored; they had a special relationship, it was a mutual adoration.”20
• • •
When Lee was a boy he would watch in wonder as his mother unrolled an eight-foot-long scroll decorated with elaborate coats of arms. She would point out the names of long-dead ancestors on the family tree and talk about the past. Joyce was passionate about genealogy—she later taught the subject at Canning Town Adult Education Centre—and she told her young son that she suspected that the McQueen side of the family had originated from the Isle of Skye. Lee had become increasingly fascinated with the island’s gothic history and his ancestors’ place in it. It was on a holiday with Janet in 2007 that he first visited the small cemetery in Kilmuir—the last resting place of the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald—and saw a grave marked with the name Alexander McQueen; in May 2010, the designer’s cremated remains were buried in the same graveyard.
Joyce spent years plotting out the family tree, but by the end of her research she had failed to find any definitive evidence linking her husband’s McQueen ancestors to Skye. But, like many things in Lee’s life, the romance of the idea was more alluring than the reality. Listening to his mother’s tales of Scotland’s brutal history, and the suffering that his ancestors endured at the hands of the English landowners, he constructed an imaginative bloodline across the centuries. One of the attractions of boyfriend Murray Arthur was the fact that he was from north of the border. “He was obsessed by Scotland, and loved the fact that I was Scottish,” he said.21 Lee’s bond with Scotland grew increasingly strong over the years—it inspired collections such as Highland Rape (1995) and Widows of Culloden (2006)—and in 2004, when his mother asked him what his Scottish roots meant to him, McQueen replied, “Everything.”22
Joyce McQueen’s journey back into the past started when her husband asked her to find out about the origins of his family: “Are we Irish or Scottish?” By 1992, she had gathered her work into a manuscript that told the story of the McQueens’ roots. “Researching family history can be fun, but more than this it can give us a sense of belonging and how we came to be,” wrote Joyce.23 For Lee, this was especially important as it provided him with a connection to history and opened up possibilities that allowed his imagination to fly.
Joyce noted how the earliest mention of the name McQueen on the Isle of Skye was in the fourteenth century during the reign of John MacLeod, Laird of Dunvegan Castle, a place that Lee visited later in his life. MacLeod “was a man of fiendish cruelty who on hearing that two of his daughters wanted to marry the two brothers of the MacQueen of Roag had his two daughters buried alive,” wrote Joyce. “The two brothers MacQueen were flogged to death and thrown over the precipice.”24 Another story unearthed by Mrs. McQueen and passed down to her son related to another supposed ancestor, Duncan McQueen, who in 1742, together with his friend Angus Buchanan, waylaid a merchant at Rigg, where they robbed and then murdered him. After both men were caught they confessed to the crime and were sentenced to death by hanging. “The history of Skye contains much cruelty and dark deeds,” wrote Joyce.25
In Joyce’s booklet on the history of the McQueen family she reproduced a rough sketch of two “Highland peasants” wearing “the actual clothing which was discovered on skeletons who lived in the early 1700s.” Detailed glimpses of historical costume, illustrating Lee’s intertwined passions of history and fashion, can be found throughout his mother’s manuscript. For instance, in the section on the Gallowglass sept (or clan), a cross between the Norse and Pict men who had invaded Ireland by the middle of the thirteenth century, Mrs. McQueen described how these “foreign young fighting men” were “of great stature, courage and fierce in battle” and dressed “in coats of mail to the knees and armed with battleaxes.” Joyce, and in turn Lee, learnt how the Clan McQueen were said to be of Norse descent and of how they invaded Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland. “Swean, Sweyn is certainly a Norse name as is Revan which appears among the McQueens’ early history,” wrote Joyce. “The Revan or Refan is Norse for raven, the black bird that is the emblem of the Danes.”26 (Later, McQueen would include references to ravens in his collections, such as Eclect Dissect and The Horn of Plenty.) It is thought that some of these early McQueens were subjects of a lord who settled in the area around Snizort on Skye, where one of the earliest effigies of a clan member can be found.
It’s probable that Lee felt a certain empathy with the unnamed knights whose graves on Skeabost Island his mother wrote about in her history of the McQueens. In the booklet she included a description of one effigy, which lies to the southwest of a neglected church, as having a “bluish schist.” In a sunken panel one could just make out the figure of an armed man wearing a bascinet, a camail of banded mail and a quilted coat that reached to his knees, holding a three-foot-long claymore.
Two events in Scottish history haunted McQueen’s consciousness and provided him with inspiration: the Jacobite rebellion and the Battle of Culloden in 1746, both of which he believed involved his ancestors. As his mother told him, the McQueens had joined with other small clans to form a body called the Clan Chattan, which, under the leadership of the Chief Mackintosh, helped defend their families on the Isle of Skye. But then in 1528, in Joyce’s words, “James V was responsible for a savage commission of fire and sword granted to his half-brother James Earl of Moray for punishing Clan Chattan for widespread discord . . . It demanded the ‘utter extermination and destruction’ of the clan and its supporters leaving none alive, but priest, women and bairns, the latter to be shipped across the sea to the Low Countries or Norway.” Although the order was not carried out to its fullest extent, it inevitably meant a dispersal of the clan. Following the Battle of Culloden the family suffered further losses on Skye, while “those that were not killed during these battles were taken prisoner and endured great hardships,” said Joyce. “By ship they were taken south of the border where they were imprisoned or transported to other countries. Many would die of disease or from their wounds before they had even arrived at their destination. Some sailed from Liverpool to the Virginias in America while others were sent to such places as the Tower of London, Newgate prison and Tilbury Fort in Essex.” However, some of the clan managed to receive pardons and others, who swore allegiance to the king, were released.
Joyce never could quite work out the exact connection between the McQueens of Skye and her husband’s forefathers, but she was certain that his ancestors would have suffered violence, poverty and fragmentation, a triumvirate that continued to shape the family over the course of the next couple of centuries. The more Joyce told Lee about his ancestors the more he came to identify with them, viewing them as brave outsiders who fought against a system. He would have been particularly intrigued to learn that his middle name, Alexander, had been passed down through his immediate family since the beginning of the nineteenth century when three brothers—Alexander, John and William McQueen, all stonemasons—settled in London, in the area of St. George in the East.
In 1806, Alexander, the eldest of the three brothers, married Sarah Vallas, a woman of Huguenot descent. Her heritage appealed to Lee, who was told by his mother that the “Huguenots were French protestants who flew from France after the edict of Nantes to escape persecution. Their most popular place of settlement was in Spitalfields where they worked as silk weavers high in the garret rooms near a large window which lit their looms.” Alexander and Sarah went on to have five sons, one of whom, also called Alexander, particularly interested both Joyce and Lee. In the 1851 census, Alexander described himself as a mat manufacturer who lived with his wife, Ann, and daughter Ellen. “But this was not strictly true,” wrote Joyce. “Alexander did not marry his wife Ann Seymour until their daughter Ellen was eighteen years old.” Ten years later the couple owned a lodging house at 28–29 Dorset Street, which was, in Joyce’s words, “one of the most notorious streets in the area, where few dared to stray for fear of being robbed or assaulted.” This stretch of dank, crowded doss-houses, the so-called worst street in London, would forever be associated with Jack the Ripper, the unidentified serial killer who murdered at least five women in the East End of London in 1888. “It was in this environment that our ancestors lived and one can only imagine their fear and apprehension during the time these terrible murders were taking place,” said Joyce.27
On 9 November 1888, the body of twenty-five-year-old prostitute Mary Jane Kelly, thought to be the Ripper’s last victim, was discovered at 13 Millers Court, a room at the back of 26 Dorset Street. In his report, Dr. Thomas Bond, the surgeon who performed the autopsy on Kelly’s body and who would later commit suicide by throwing himself from a bedroom window, described the horrific manner in which the woman had been mutilated. “The whole surface of the abdomen and thighs was removed and the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera,” he said. “The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds and the face hacked beyond recognition of the features . . . The viscera were found in various parts . . . the uterus and kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side and the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table.”28 Lee found this kind of macabre detail fascinating and later, while studying fashion at Saint Martins, he would take the name of the serial killer as inspiration for his graduate collection.
Tragedy and horror seemed to be a constant presence in the history of the McQueens. In 1841, while a branch of the family was living in Sun Court, Leadenhall Street, a two-year-old girl, Sarah McQueen, was so terribly scalded in an accident that she died from her injuries. Forty years later, in 1880, Ellen, the daughter of Alexander McQueen, who had grown up in Dorset Street, was living with her second cousin William MacQueen and her two-year-old daughter Clara in Hoxton, east London. One day Ellen was doing her washing with her daughter at her side, but “leaving the child for a few moments she returned to find that Clara had fallen into the tub of suds and drowned,” wrote Joyce. Such was the level of poverty, it was, she added, difficult for her to imagine how people survived. She consulted records that showed that, at one point in the mid-nineteenth century, twelve members of the McQueen family were living at 6 Bakers Court, Bishopsgate, a dwelling place that was subsequently knocked down to make way for Liverpool Street station. “The living conditions of these people must have been intolerable for it is known that a whole family would have to live in just one room or perhaps two if they were lucky,” wrote Joyce. Of course, she added, there was no such thing as hot running water. “There was only the fire to heat water and cook food. Light was provided by candle or oil lamps . . . In those days the poor people had to go to the Poor House for treatment if they were ill.”
In order to piece together the history of the family, Joyce McQueen spent hours at various libraries, including public record offices in Chancery Lane, Clerkenwell and Kew, as well as the Society of Genealogists and the Guildhall Library. Each day, after hours of work, she returned to the family in Biggerstaff Road and told them of her discoveries. Joyce brought the past to life in a way that made it so real to Lee that he thought he could almost smell it. Who were these men who went by the name of Alexander McQueen and who had died so many years before? There was, he learnt, Alexander McQueen the stonemason, born in 1847, who married an Irish girl called Jane Little, from County Cork, Ireland, whose father brought the family over to England after the great potato famine. Alexander and Jane had six children, including three daughters, Rose, Jane and another Jane, all of whom died young. This Alexander, by all accounts a rather large man, made his money by collecting the money from the stallholders of Petticoat Lane, while Jane took in washing. Towards the end of his life he laid paving stones for a living and by the time of his death in 1920 he was living at 5 William Street, in the parish of St. George in the east. “Perhaps it’s worth reflecting that had his only son Alexander not survived we might not have been here today,” wrote Joyce.29
That man, Lee’s great-grandfather, was born on 19 March 1875 in Spitalfields and although he attended a charity or Sunday school he left being unable to write. At the age of twenty he was working as a bricklayer and was regarded, according to Joyce, as the “black sheep of the family.” In 1897, Alexander married Annie Gray at St. John the Evangelist church in Golding Street, Stepney—“both made their mark with a cross because they could not write or spell their name,” wrote Joyce. By 1907, Alexander had been forced to give up work as a bricklayer after he fell from a tall ladder, breaking his foot; after the accident he took a job as a carman working down on the docks. “Annie, like thousands of women in her day, took in washing which draped in the rooms and all along the hallway to dry,” wrote Joyce, who from relatives learnt of Annie’s skill as a clog dancer. Annie, a large woman, and Alexander, a short man with dark hair, had at least twelve children, but their marriage was far from happy. “She was known to have suffered violence from her husband mainly through drinking, which in those days seems to have been the normal thing to do,” wrote Joyce. “She also witnessed a murder down Cable Street when a sailor was stabbed to death.”30 Three children did not live beyond infancy; a son, Walter Samuel, was injured at Dunkirk and died soon after he returned home; and another son, Henry, died at the age of twenty-eight from blood poisoning after a splinter lodged in his finger while he was playing snooker.
Alexander and Annie’s second-eldest son, Samuel Frederick, Lee’s grandfather, was born on 24 December 1907 in St. George in the East. He grew up to be a docker and also a presser who worked in ladies’ tailoring, a skill that he passed down to both his daughter, Irene or Renee, and his grandson Lee. In November 1926, while living at 5 Crellin Street, Lee’s grandfather married nineteen-year-old Grace Elizabeth Smith, a woman whose harsh upbringing resulted in a hardened character. Grace, Lee’s paternal grandmother, was the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Mary Smith and Ernest Edmund Jenkins, who worked at a paper stall in the City of London. “Grace was a hard and strict mother, she had no love for her stepfather, it was probably the hard life she suffered as a child that made her determined to be a survivor,” wrote Joyce.31
In May 1940, Samuel volunteered to join the Royal Engineers and later that year he was employed in the bomb disposal unit. “I think he pissed off and went into the army without her [Grace] knowing,” said Michael McQueen, Lee’s brother.32 Between July 1941 and September 1942 Samuel worked in Iceland “maintaining the ships until the Americans came to take over,” wrote Joyce.33 While her husband was away at war, Grace brought up her brood of children single-handedly—“they only surfaced to breed,” Lee said later.34 “Grace kept her home and children spotless but this left very little time to demonstrate any love to her children,” wrote Joyce.35
One day, Grace’s home in the East End was hit by a bomb and she and her teenage daughter, also called Grace, were buried under a mound of rubble. When Grace was at last pulled free she saw that “part of her ear was hanging off and had to be stitched back,” wrote Joyce.36 On Samuel’s return from war in November 1944, after being discharged from the army for medical reasons, the marriage deteriorated further. The couple’s eight children grew up in a home poisoned by domestic violence. “My mother told me that he was a very hard man, a drunkard,” said Jacqui McQueen of her paternal grandfather.37 Michael remembers Grace, the woman he knew as “Nanny McQueen,” as being “as mad as a March hare.”38 Lee confessed in an interview, talking of his father’s background: “He didn’t have the best mother and father himself. His dad was an alcoholic, his mother not much better.”39 When Grace was around sixty years old her marriage finally broke down and she obtained a legal separation and went to live on her own in a flat in Abbey Wood.
Grace and Samuel’s eldest son, Ronald Samuel—Lee’s father—was born on 19 April 1933 at 3 Raine Street and later moved with his parents to various addresses around Wapping, St. John’s Hill and Artichoke Hill. Ronald attended Christian Street School in Stepney on the same street where his father worked as a tailor’s presser. Ronald and his brothers and sisters were brought up Catholics and they attended St. Patrick’s Church, Tower Hill, where for a time Ron served as an altar boy. During the Second World War, the boy was evacuated to Newton Abbott and taken in by the Easterbrook family; Ronald always had fond memories of his time in Devon and later spoke lovingly of Mrs. Easterbrook, “to whom he grew greatly attached.”40 No doubt he saw her as the mother he might have had: kind, loving and attentive. The return back to his real parents, Samuel and Grace, must have broken his heart. “My nan [Grace], she was pretty hard,” said Tony McQueen. “I think she was quite stern with all the children and rumour has it that she hit my dad once with a milk bottle on the head. So he had a rough upbringing. His upbringing made him what he was.”41 According to Jacqui, Ron “had to take over being the breadwinner. He had three jobs and the money was taken from him. And then his mother took out her temper on him.”42
After leaving school, Ronald worked at the British Road Service depot in Aldgate where he was in charge of looking after two horses, Bill and Daisy. It was his job to prepare them ready for work—“horses were still being used after the war as a form of transport, for coal delivery and by milkmen,” wrote Joyce.43 The creatures grew so accustomed to hearing Ronald walk into the yard each morning that they would both neigh at the sound of his approaching footsteps. When Ronald was twenty, his sister Jean introduced him to her friend, Joyce Barbara Deane, the woman he would marry. “I cannot put into words the love your father and I had for each other,” Joyce wrote to her children just before she died. “He worshipped the ground I walked on.”44
Later in life, Joyce said she had traced her own family, the Deane line, back to the Normans, but when she told Lee this he replied, “I feel more Scottish than Norman.”45 On the scroll Joyce made about her side of the family, she documented the origins of the Deane name—“a Saxon word meaning ‘a clearing in a wood or valley where swine feed.’ ” As these clearings became inhabited by people, they in turn would call themselves “of the Deane.”46
On the same scroll, fashioned on graph paper, Joyce painted in watercolor a number of heraldic shields relating to the family: a white cross on a red background belonging to Drue Deane, a knight of Edward I; five black stars arranged in an upturned V shape on a bright green background, signifying Sir Henry de Den, Lord of Dean, who died in 1292 in Gloucester; and a black lion, the animal’s paw raised in the air in a gesture of defiance, the escutcheon of Sir John de Dene who died in the first part of the fourteenth century. The mystique surrounding these long-dead historical figures was a very long way from the reality of life at Biggerstaff Road. For Joyce and Lee the past was a way of escaping the poverty of everyday life.
Joyce’s father, George Stanley, worked as a grocer’s warehouseman, while her mother, Jane Olivia Chatland, grew up in a desperately poor family. Jane’s father, John Archibald Chatland, could not work because he only had one leg. From a young girl Jane suffered from malnutrition and had to be admitted to Bethnal Green Infirmary at the age of one, and by the “age of five or six [she] was sent to a home in Kent by nuns because she was so thin and undernourished,” recalled Joyce. Later, Joyce remembered her mother telling her that she often went to school without shoes. “Her father was a bully and made their lives miserable,” wrote Joyce of her mother.47 Jane met her husband, George, at the age of thirteen and the couple married in August 1933, at Christ Church, Hackney. Six months later, on 15 February 1934, their eldest child, Joyce Barbara, was born.
Joyce attended Teesdale Street School in Bethnal Green and at the age of five was evacuated to King’s Lynn, Norfolk, where she lived with six different families, an experience she must have found deeply disturbing. During this time she also suffered a broken nose after being knocked down by a delivery bike. At the end of the war in 1945 Joyce returned to London to live with her parents at their new flat at 148 Skidmore Street, Stepney, first attending a school run by nuns off Cambridge Heath Road and then going to Hally Street School, Stepney. While still at school she worked at Woolworth’s and then, after leaving Hally Street, she took a job in a solicitor’s office in Moorgate. In her spare time she liked going to the cinema and enjoyed a night out at the Poplar Civic with her friend Jean McQueen. One contemporary observer noted that the Civic was a “big dance-hall and, though expensive, had a really good band, with girls from all over the East End, not the usual bunch one saw every night.”48
One day in 1953 Jean introduced Joyce to her brother Ron, then a lorry driver. The attraction was instant and on 10 October 1953 the pair married at the Roman Catholic Church of the Guardian Angels on Mile End Road. A photograph taken at their wedding shows a handsome young couple about to cut the cake. He is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie, and she a simple, tailored white dress with an elaborate lace veil. On the table by their side is a spray of carnations and a lucky horseshoe.
Their first child, Janet Barbara, was born on 9 May 1954, followed by Anthony Ronald in 1955, Michael Robert in 1960, Tracy Jane in 1962, Jacqueline Mary in 1963 and then, in 1969, after a gap of six years, Lee Alexander. He grew up to be known in the household as “Blue Eyes”—not only because of the color of his eyes, but also a reference to the fact that he was the baby of the family and as such occupied a special place within the home.
• • •
At the age of five Lee enrolled at Carpenter’s Road Junior School, a newly built single-story structure a couple of minutes’ walk from the family home. Peter Bowes was a pupil at the same school—indeed, the two boys would remain close friends throughout junior and secondary school—and remembers his friend with fondness. “Even then he liked to draw, he would rather draw than read or write,” he said. “He was in the football team in the juniors and although he joined in with everyone, there was always something about him, even at a very young age, that made him different to all of us. I wouldn’t say it was to do with sexuality, it’s just that he was different. He was very artistic, a bit flamboyant, a bit of a showman, and yet at the same time he could be quite shy, which is an interesting contrast. He wasn’t feminine or sissy-like. He was actually someone who could look after himself.”49
Later in life, Lee would talk about how he realized that he was gay—or “queer,” as the other boys called him—when he was still a young child. He told the journalist Lynn Barber that he was six years old when he first realized that he was gay. On a family holiday to Pontins he won a “Prince of Pontins” competition, “but I wanted the boy who came second to win because I fancied him!” he said.50 He claimed to have been at ease with his sexuality from an early age—“I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said. “I went straight from my mother’s womb onto the gay parade.”51 In interviews he would often call himself the “pink sheep of the family,” but this was, as McQueen’s former boyfriend Andrew Groves said, merely a pat quote to stop further discussion of the subject. The truth was much more complex, and disturbing.
When he was nine or ten something happened to Lee which was to have a profound effect on his later life: he started to be sexually abused by his brother-in-law, Terence Anthony Hulyer, a violent man who Janet married in 1975. Janet knew nothing about the abuse until about four years before Lee died, when he confided in her. The horrific news came as such a shock to her that Janet did not know what to say. She simply asked him whether he held it against her and he replied no, he did not. But she still felt overwhelmed by guilt and shame and despair. Why had she not been able to protect her little brother? she asked herself. After that brief conversation Lee never mentioned the abuse to Janet again and she didn’t want to ask any more questions because she felt so sickened by what her first husband had done.52
Over the years Lee talked, sometimes obliquely, about the sexual abuse to a number of close friends and boyfriends, but he rarely went into detail about what it consisted of or for how long he had been forced to endure it. “Lee told me he had been sexually abused and that it massively affected him,” recalls Rebecca Barton, who was a close friend of Lee’s when he was at St. Martins.53 “Once when we were at my flat in Green Lanes he broke down and said he had been abused,” said Andrew Groves. He believes that the sexual abuse contributed to McQueen’s unsettling “sense that someone was going to screw him over” and an inability to trust those close to him.54 Once, when Lee was feeling particularly overwhelmed by a sense of darkness, he had “a real heart to heart” with his boyfriend Richard Brett “about why he went to the dark place” and he told him too about the sexual abuse, but again kept the exact details to himself. “But I got the impression that some nasty stuff had happened to him when he was a boy,” said Richard.55 Lee also confided in Isabella Blow and her husband, Detmar. “He was hurt and angry and said that it had robbed him of his innocence,” said Detmar. “I thought it brought a darkness into his soul.”56
Lee’s friend BillyBoy*, whom he met in 1989, believes that the sexual abuse shaped McQueen for the rest of his life. “I got the impression that he endured it for a very long time,” he said. “He was not well adjusted, he was angry, and he never had a relationship that lasted any length of time. Some of the men he had were like rough trade. I didn’t trust them; they were like thieves. I didn’t want them near me because they were on the make. One of his ex-boyfriends was an ex-prostitute. But he was attracted to that. He was masochistic and insecure and unhappy and had very low self-esteem, which is strange because he had a great talent and people told him that all the time. Anna Wintour and people would tell him endlessly how much they admired his work, but it was so sad because it didn’t compensate for his insecurity.”57
Janet knew Terence Hulyer was a violent man before she married him, but she was only twenty-one and desperate to leave home. For years she suffered at his hands—once he beat her up because she took it upon herself to order a cup of tea and didn’t let him speak to the waitress in the café. “I did lose two babies as a result of violence,” said Janet, who went on to have two sons, Gary and Paul, with him.58 Yet although Janet knew her husband had a bad temper, she never suspected he could be capable of hurting a young boy, let alone her brother. Lee not only had to endure sexual abuse at Hulyer’s hands but he also had to watch as his elder sister got beaten senseless. “I was this young boy and I saw this man with his hands round my sister’s neck,” he told the journalist Susannah Frankel in 1999. “I was just standing there with her two children beside me.”59
In his imagination, Lee began to fuse his experiences with Janet’s. Both of them had suffered abuse at the hands of the same man and he felt the need to purge the stew of feelings—anger, revenge, despair, corruption, guilt and fragmentation—that he felt growing inside him. He saw his sister as the archetypal woman, vulnerable but strong, a survivor, and she became the blueprint for everything he did later. This was the woman he wanted to protect and empower through his clothes; the patina of armor that he created for her would shield her from danger. “I’ve seen a woman get nearly beaten to death by her husband,” he said later. “I know what misogyny is! I hate this thing about fragility and making women feel naïve . . . I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”60
The bruised, battered and bloodied models that he sent down the catwalk wearing the most graceful and bewitching creations carried traces of both his sister and himself. Through the medium of his work he aligned himself with his sister, and with each new collection he revisited and replayed the abuse that both of them had suffered. He managed to take something ugly and, through the transformative power of his imagination, recast it as a thing of beauty. “I gave adults a lot of time in my life when I was young and some of them hurt me,” he once said. “And that way I learnt even more. Let’s say I turned the negative into a positive.”61 The result was intoxicating, a mutant hybrid, the product of a strange metamorphosis.
• • •
In the autumn of 1980, Lee moved from Carpenter’s Road to Rokeby School, a boys’ comprehensive situated off Stratford High Street. On that first day, Lee, dressed in his uniform of black trousers, black blazer and a white shirt, made his way down Biggerstaff Road to his friend Jason Meakin’s house on Carpenter’s Road. Then the two boys called for fellow pupils Peter Bowes and Russell Atkins and they all walked the ten minutes to school. They laughed and joked, but the bravado only covered up their anxieties at entering a large, single-sex school that had a tough reputation. Once inside the building the new boys were told to make their way to the main hall, and there they were lined up in alphabetical order “and read the riot act.”62 The boys were streamed according to their perceived ability using a system based around the letters making up the school’s name, Rokeby: the most academic were placed in “R,” the top set, then “O” and down to “Y.” In the first year, Lee was assigned “E”; by his second year he had dropped down to “B.”
From the outset, school never interested McQueen, and at the end of that first term the head of year wrote in his report, “I feel quite confident that if Lee is prepared to try to come to terms with Rokeby, he will discover that not only will he feel happier but his work will improve too. However, without this effort he is going to become increasingly unhappy.”63 His punctuality was regarded as “poor”—he missed a total of six half days during that first term—and he was thought to be too much of a chatterbox and a distraction to the other pupils. His form teacher believed that the boy was finding it “difficult to cope in a large comprehensive school.”64 In English he scored 58 percent, with a C for effort; in his geography exam 38 percent, together with a comment from the teacher urging him to settle down and “begin to act like a comprehensive pupil instead of fooling about all the time”; and in math only 23 percent, together with an observation that his “class behaviour interferes with his work.” On 15 December 1980, McQueen’s father Ronald, after reading the report, wrote back to Lee’s form teacher, “Lee has always been too interested in everybody else instead of getting on with his own work. I have told him about this and hope he will listen. Also he is sent to school at 8:30 every morning but tells me he waits for his friend. I am very annoyed over this. Apart from this I know he likes school and will settle down as he matures.”65
His next surviving report, which Lee brought home to his parents in March 1982, did show some signs of improvement. In math he scored 49 percent, with a B for effort; his English teacher gave him an exam result of 54 percent, and a B+ for effort; in history he came eighth in the class, with 63 percent and an A for effort. However, some teachers noted some problems with his behavior during class. The French teacher said that Lee needed “constant goading to get his attention down to his work. He too often day-dreams and enjoys chatting”; the RE tutor wrote that he was “very erratic in his work. He concentrates well at times and does very little work sometimes”; and the head of the lower school summarized the report as a “mixed bag—he has the ability but seems to choose when to apply it.”66
There was one subject, however, which captured his imagination from the beginning: art. In his first-year exam he scored 73 percent, with a B for effort and a comment from the teacher, “Lee has done some good work in art this term,” while fifteen months later his teacher gave him an A- for art. “Excellent,” he wrote. “Lee has artistic ability and always works hard.”67 Lee started to read books about fashion from the age of twelve. “I followed designers’ careers,” he said later. “I knew Giorgio Armani was a window-dresser, Ungaro was a tailor . . . I always knew I would be something in fashion. I didn’t know how big, but I always knew I’d be something.”68
His friends noticed Lee’s passion for drawing. “He just seemed to be sketching, drawing all the time,” said Jason Meakin. “I never thought he would be famous, but I always remember him drawing dresses.”69 Peter Bowes recalls that in school Lee would always carry a little book around with him. Instead of listening to the teacher or doing the work assigned in a particular class Lee would bring out his sketchbook and a clutch of pencils and draw. “It was full of nutters,” McQueen said later about Rokeby. “I didn’t learn a thing. I just drew clothes in class.”70 One day Lee showed Peter some of his sketches, drawings of the female form. “He was drawing clothes, people, figures, he knew how the female form worked, but it was nothing rude,” he said. “He lived in the art department and his work was always superb.”71
After a morning of lessons, Lee and his friends would go to the nearby pie and mash shop, where a meal of a broken pie and potatoes would cost ten pence; the rest of the boys’ diet consisted of “bread and jam and chocolate and chips.”72
Outside school, Lee loved watching the birds that would circle around the tops of the tower blocks and he joined the Young Ornithologists Society. “It’s almost like Kes, isn’t it?” he said.73 Later, he told a journalist that he envied birds because they were free. Free from what? “The abuse . . . mental, physical,” he said, refusing to elaborate.74 He also liked playing with the family’s pet dog—a black chow, officially named Black Magic of Chang Li, rechristened Shane and described by Joyce as “gentle as a lamb.”75 When Shane died, aged around fifteen in 1983, Lee was heartbroken but soon learnt to love its replacement, Ben, a red chow with a blue tongue. According to Peter Bowes, Lee helped to buy the dog with money that he had saved from his after-school job collecting glasses at Reflections, a pub situated near the school gates. One day Lee and his school friend Russell Atkins came out of Rokeby and as they were walking past Reflections they were asked by a barman whether they would like to earn a little extra money bottling up. The boys accepted immediately as the hours—the occasional lunchtime and Saturday and Sunday mornings—and pay (around £30 a week) suited them perfectly. They were also impressed by the flash interior—all the walls were covered with giant mirrors, hence the name—and glitzy bar. “I wouldn’t say there were villains in there, but it was quite a hard pub,” said Russell. After a few months, the manager, Kenny, asked the new boys whether they would like to work nights, collecting glasses; Russell turned down the offer, but Lee accepted. “There were fights in there, but then there were fights everywhere,” said Russell. The two boys worked there until they were sixteen, when Reflections closed down. “We went there one day to get paid to find the police there,” said Russell. “Something had happened, I’m not sure what, but they told us we couldn’t go in.”76
Homework was not Lee’s strong point, and he preferred messing about with his friends on the estate. He and Jason would throw stones at the caravans belonging to a group of gypsies that pitched up on a patch of industrial wasteland at the back of the estate and then run as fast as they could. They loved getting into abandoned shopping trolleys and riding them around the streets. The boys would also tie a rope from a nearby footbridge and use it as a swing; one day, when another friend, Raymond, was playing on it, Lee and Jason cut the rope and the boy came crashing down. They carried out the same trick on another boy who was playing on a swing under the railway bridge; but this time “the kid fell in the river—we were pissing ourselves,” said Jason.
There used to be a petrol station on the corner of Jupp Road West and Carpenter’s Road. Often the boys would tie an old wallet or purse to a length of fishing wire. Then they would place the wallet on the forecourt of the petrol station and hide. They thought it was hilarious when someone stopped to pick up the purse and they would pull it away; even more hilarious was the sight of a man or woman chasing the wallet across the ground or around the petrol pumps. “We were just terrors, making people’s lives a misery,” said Jason. In the run-up to Bonfire Night, Lee, Jason and their little gang would try to light the bonfires of rival gangs on nearby estates; for hours on end they would stand outside in the freezing cold guarding their own tall piles of broken pallets and waste wood.77
One day in 1983 their schoolboy pranks nearly got them into trouble with the police. “I stole some drink out of a drinks factory when I was about fourteen,” said McQueen later when asked whether he had ever broken the law.78 Jason recalls the incident well: a favorite game involved trespassing on the Schweppes industrial unit situated by a walkway near Abbey Lane. The boys would climb over the fence and steal into the backs of lorries, where they would enjoy a tonic water or a ginger ale. “I remember once we heard the coppers walking past and so we hid, but they found us,” said Jason.79
Peter Bowes maintains that Lee was “quite a tough guy—he wasn’t scared of people,”80 and, despite Lee’s nickname at school of “Queeny” or “Queer boy Queeny,” Jason “didn’t believe he was gay.”81 After school, and on weekends, Lee and Jason would go to the back of a local engineering firm situated near the River Lea. There, Lee would kiss a string of local girls—there were Sharon, Maria and Tracy, who was a dwarf. “I don’t want to go into details but I know three girls who Lee kissed and cuddled,” said Jason. “One of them went a bit further, not full sex. It was messing around. As far as being gay, no way—that was a big surprise.”82 One detail Peter noticed, but never commented on, was the fact that often Lee wore girls’ white socks to school. He never knew whether this was because Lee had to borrow his sisters’ socks due to the family’s economic circumstances or whether it was a way for his friend to express an aspect of his sexuality. “And if he was alive today I would ask him,” he said.83
A black-and-white photograph taken in Lee’s third year at school shows that style or fashion did not feature prominently in the lives of the boys from Rokeby. At the end of term they were given permission to shed their uniforms and come to school in their own clothes. Most boys chose to wear parkas made from nylon, most probably the coats they wore over their blazers each day, together with nondescript shirts, sweaters and trousers. Stylistic references to pop-cultural movements such as punk or the New Romantics are noticeably absent—it’s even difficult to spot one pair of jeans—and the boys look like miniature versions of their working-class fathers. Neither is there anything striking about Lee’s appearance. Dressed in a functional monochrome jacket, he looks directly to the camera, with a smile on his face. Perhaps he’s smiling because he knew he was going places.
Sometimes Peter and Lee would take the lift to the top of James Riley Point, one of the tower blocks on the estate, and smoke Embassy Number Ones sitting on the back staircase looking out towards Essex. There the two boys would chat about school, the estate and their futures. Lee had a sense of yearning, a desire to achieve something, but he was realistic enough to know that he was, in the eyes of his teachers at least, “just another East End oik going nowhere fast.”84 “I don’t think he knew where he was going, but he wanted to do something artistic, something creative,” said Peter Bowes. “But you’ve got to remember that we were boys on an inner London estate. We never really got opportunities. The school was a factory—get you in, keep you safe, push you out at the end and whatever you got, good luck to you.”85 Peter remembers one conversation he had with Lee about his middle name. “He was fascinated by Alexander the Great and he claimed to have found in his family a link back to him,” he said. The allure of the past was working its magic on Lee; for him it would increasingly represent a place of romance and security, an escape from the harsh reality and pain in his life.
Towards the end of his time at Rokeby, Lee started to suffer from sudden attacks of frustration and anger. “I wouldn’t say he was bipolar but he had his ups and downs with moods,” said Peter. “He had a bit of a temper on him as well. I remember in certain lessons he would be chatting and he’d get told off. He would erupt and kick off and get thrown out or put into detention.”86
None of his friends at school could have realized it, but Lee later claimed he was suffering yet more sexual abuse during this period, this time at the hands of a teacher. Again Lee kept the abuse to himself, only telling his sisters later in life. Years later, when Jacqui learnt of the two counts of abuse suffered by her brother everything began to make sense: the anger had to come out somehow and Lee later expressed it through his work, an opinion echoed by the Metropolitan Museum’s Savage Beauty curator Andrew Bolton, who said, “McQueen sewed anger into his clothes.”87
On 27 May 1985, just as Lee was preparing to sit his O levels, his brother-in-law Terence Hulyer left the house on Marlborough Road, Dagenham, that he shared with Janet and his two sons, to get a morning newspaper. As he drove down the street the thirty-five-year-old factory worker suffered a massive heart attack and lost control of the car, which careered into a nearby house. He was taken to Oldchurch Hospital, Romford, where he later died. Hulyer had been a diabetic from the age of eighteen and in those days, according to Janet, sufferers “used to take pork insulin, derived from pigs, and it furred up the arteries.”88 Lee must have felt relieved at the death of one of his abusers, but perhaps he also felt guilty; after all, he must have wished his brother-in-law dead on more than one occasion.
McQueen’s puberty and sexual awakening in the eighties coincided with the rise of a virus that was widely dubbed in the media at the time “the gay plague.” As a result, Lee was, in the words of New Yorker writer Judith Thurman, “forced to witness a primal scene that haunted the youth of his generation: sex and death in the same bed.”89 For a young imaginative gay man like Lee, the specter of AIDS was all too real. The imagery associated with the disease—from the television adverts featuring grim reapers and icebergs to the newspaper front pages showing men as thin as skeletons—sent out a seemingly ineluctable message that if you were a gay man you had a high chance of dying young. In addition to the roll call of famous faces—Rock Hudson (who died in October 1985, age 59), fashion designer Perry Ellis (1986, age 46), Liberace (1987, age 67), Robert Mapplethorpe (1989, age 42), actor Ian Charleson (1990, age 40), artist Keith Haring (1990, age 31), Freddie Mercury (1991, age 45), Anthony Perkins (1992, age 60), Rudolf Nureyev (1993, age 54), Leigh Bowery (1994, age 33), Derek Jarman (1994, age 52) and Kenny Everett (1995, age 50)—there were thousands of mostly gay young men in Britain whose lives were cut short by the disease.
“I lived through a period in the late eighties, early nineties, when there was a whole tsunami of close friends who died from AIDS,” said artist and filmmaker John Maybury, who later became both a collaborator and friend of McQueen’s. “I lost twenty close friends in two or three years. Lee’s generation saw this other generation decimated. It was horrific beyond all imagining, but the wider society at large chose to ignore it. These kids like Lee were beginning to create their sexual identities at a time when this shadow, this spectre, was hanging over them.”90
Despite the large, bustling household on Biggerstaff Road, and the fun that he had with his straight friends from school, for a great chunk of his adolescence McQueen felt terribly isolated and alone. “I didn’t have any gay people to look up to,” he said later. “No gay friends.”91 Lee also had to endure the casual homophobia of his father, a man who would come home after driving his cab around London and joke in front of his son, “God, I nearly ran over a bloody queer last night in Soho.”92
Escape was uppermost in Lee’s mind. By the time he left school in June 1985, with one O level—a grade B in art; “I had to draw a stupid bowl of fruit,” he said later—he had made up his mind to try and do something with his life. His resources were limited, he knew that, but he reasoned it was worth a try. “It’s not heard of to be a fine artist in an east London family,” he said. “But I always had the mentality that I only had one life and I was going to do what I wanted to.”93