Originally best known for his 1985 chart-topper You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), made with his band Dead Or Alive, Pete Burns later became a reality TV star, coming fifth in the final of Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, as well as a living advertisement for the dangers of plastic surgery.
Burns, who has died of a heart attack aged 57, claimed to have undergone 300 surgical procedures, many of them in an attempt to repair previous botched efforts.
His heyday as a pop star in the mid-1980s coincided with the rise of the “New Pop” epitomised by Boy George and Culture Club, Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. With his ambiguous sexuality, androgynous look and spectacular fashion choices, Burns, after several years of trying, found himself in the right place at the right time. “Everything goes round in circles and luckily we’ve got the current sound of the moment,” he commented in 1984, a remark pointing to his inherent scepticism about fame, fashion and pop music.
Dead Or Alive’s first album, Sophisticated Boom Boom (1984), had paved the way for the group’s success by reaching the UK Top 30 and yielding a Top 40 single with a cover of KC & The Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way (I Like It). The following year they released Youthquake, which was produced by the upcoming hit-makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman and not only contained You Spin Me Round but also gave them a No 9 album in the UK and reached 31 on the US Billboard chart.
However, despite further hits with Lover Come Back to Me, In Too Deep and Brand New Lover, the huge success of You Spin Me Round was not to be repeated. Dead Or Alive continued through the 80s, but by the end of the decade had been reduced to the core duo of Burns and the drummer Steve Coy. Their album Nude (1989) gave them a belated chart fling by delivering a No 1 hit on the US dance charts with Come Home With Me Baby, while Turn Around & Count 2 Ten reached No 1 in Japan.
Burns was born in the model village of Port Sunlight in Bebington, Cheshire (now in Merseyside). His mother, Eva – Evelina Maria Bettina Quittner von Hudec – was a German aristocrat who had been born in Heidelberg but fled to Vienna because of her Jewish background. There she met a British soldier, Francis Burns, who became her husband. The young Pete grew very close to his mother, speaking only German and a little French until he was five, and though she developed addictions to alcohol and tranquillisers, he recalled that: “I was brought up with an incredible amount of freedom and creativity.”
He dropped out of his Liverpool boys’ school at the age of 14, after his red-dyed hair and huge earring provoked official outrage, and got a job at a record store, Probe Records, where he met numerous local musicians. He was briefly a member of the Mystery Girls alongside future Liverpudlian stars Julian Cope and Pete Wylie, before forming the Goth-influenced Nightmares in Wax in 1979. Their sole recording was the EP Birth of a Nation, including the track Black Leather, which incorporated That’s The Way (I Like It). The latter was reworked by Dead Or Alive, which was the new name Burns gave to an overhauled line-up of Nightmares in Wax the following year.
During the 90s, Dead Or Alive released several albums in various territories outside the UK, with limited success. In 1994 Burns sang and co-wrote the single Sex Drive for the Italian techno act Glam, and that same year Burns and Coy recorded David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, calling themselves International Chrysis. Fragile (2000) was Dead Or Alive’s final album of new material, though some tracks were remixes and cover versions. The new century brought the compilations Evolution: The Hits (2003) and That’s The Way I Like It: The Best of Dead Or Alive (2010).
Burns’s decision to embrace reality TV came after he had spent years protesting that he would never do it (“I still have a career, and I don’t really do reality,” he said in 2003), but his outsized personality and caustic manner made him a natural. The sight of him dancing with the politician George Galloway, both of them dressed in lycra leotards, on Celebrity Big Brother was unforgettable for any number of reasons. Burns triggered further controversy on Big Brother when he claimed to be wearing a coat made of illegal gorilla skin, though tests proved it was made from the skin of the colobus monkey, using pelts that pre-dated legislation outlawing their use.
In 2007 Burns appeared on Big Brother’s Big Mouth and Celebrity Wife Swap, where he swapped places with Leah Newman, partner of the footballer Neil “Razor” Ruddock. Also on the show was Burns’s husband, Michael Simpson, whom he married in 2006 after his divorce from the stylist Lynne Corlett whom he had married in 1978. The three remained on good terms. In the series Pete’s PA, on Living TV, contestants competed to become Burns’s assistant.
In 2015, Burns was evicted from his London flat after running up £34,000 in rent arrears. Last month, Burns appeared on Channel 5’s Celebrity Botched Up Bodies and talked frankly about his horrific experiences with cosmetic surgery, which had given him near-fatal blood clots and pulmonary embolisms as he underwent further procedures to try to correct mistakes.
He is survived by Michael.
• Peter Jozzeppi Burns, musician and television personality, born 5 August 1959; died 23 October 2016
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