Sue Tilley lives in East London and works as a Civil Servant.
Sue is the subject of Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995) and the author of Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon.
iBeheld: So, Sue: tell me about your bad self … what are your must-have products?
Sue: Well, I’m not a fusser for pampering and that kind of thing. I’m very simple in my joys of life. I could recommend this (brandishes bottle) as the best product in the world: it’s Mitchum deodorant, Advanced Control 48 hour. This will last about six months. It’s dearer than normal ones, but not really dear in the great scheme of things, and you can usually get two for £3 in Superdrug. It lasts for ever, it’s no trouble at all, it doesn’t smell horrible, and I’ve recommended it to many people.
My other must-have beauty treats (Sue is chuckling) Dove Bubble Bath and Body Wash. I happen to have got Pro-Age because they were on special offer, but any one will do, really, and their body wash is so lovely. Expensive ones are rubbish in comparison. And this (waves bottle by way of emphasis) is a marvel, it’s so thick and creamy, especially if you use a nice sponge.It’s very thick, and – a word I absolutely loathe, because Davina McCall says it in the hair adverts – (whispers) it’s nourishing.
My final must-have is the No. 7 Protect & Perfect, which I find great. You can usually get it 3 for 2, so price-wise it’s not too bad. I use the face creams; I have got the serum as well but I can’t find it. But, I can say, I’m not as keen on it as my brother. I use a bit in the morning and at night; he goes through the whole routine. Cleanses, tones, moisturizes, serum; the whole caboodle. And he never buys the men’s No.7, it has to be the ladies’ one. He’s been using it for years. Sometimes he has other ones, if people buy them, but he’ll always go back to this. And I’ve bought my nephew Kiehl’s, to get him ready for the world of beauty and make-up like his Dad. (Sue’s gorgeous toddler nephew is is one of the most adorable children I’ve ever set eyes on.)
iBeheld: I wanted to ask you about your hair. I love your hair.
I’m just about to go to the hairdressers and I’m going for something a bit different. Of course I’m going to have my roots done but I’m having the ends done red. I know I’m a bit behind the times, but I thought red would be more entertaining than pale. And I like that when I put it up all the red bits will stick up all over the place. I’ve had blonde bits, red bits, bright red, but it’s always more of a dark hue. Never been properly blonde, always just blonde streaks. And it’s usually long, but I had a terrible accident once where it was short. I cried so much.
You’re playing with something very pretty as we speak …
Oh yes, my Accessorise headband.
You’re quite good with the old headgear aren’t you? I remember a phase of flowers –
And do you know one of the reasons? Cause my hair grows very quick and I’ve usually got grey roots: covers up anything. My root coverage secret. I straighten my hair with a GHD, no other straighteners will do. It’s a false economy, a cheap straightener. I bought one pair of GHDs, they’ve lasted; I’ve had them about 5 years, if not longer. The thing is I’m not like the hairdresser, when they do about three strands and do it all perfect. I get a clump and go … (mimes a very rough and ready straightening). But it does, because I don’t want it to look poker straight, just to get the kinks out of it. I always used to dye my hair myself, but it’s so messy and I got it everywhere. And now luckily, I’ve moved, and there’s a great cheap hairdressers right across the road, so I just go there now.
You do have everything literally on your doorstep!
I know! I have never lived in a better place. I never have to go anywhere; I can get everything I want. I’ve got a lovely chemist right underneath my flat and the other day I’d run out of my best foundation – I pop out, and I can just buy Clarins, and it’s usually reduced! It’s a fantastic chemist, such a wide range of stuff and there’s always some offer on. They sell cheap perfume and just before Christmas everything was 20% off, so that’s very handy …
Speaking of bargains, your Goddaughter and I went to see the Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and we liked it so much we actually had to splash out big money –
– Thirty pounds? (Sue is reading the price tag on the back of Freud at Work: Photographs by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson.)
Thirty whole English pounds on this book, and the main reason we had to buy it was for these pictures …
I love these! (Sue is roaring with laughter…)
Those photos? I think I look mental! A lady from a mental home …
I went all round that exhibition going ‘Oh my God, he’s a Master of flesh, he’s a genius, he’s this and he’s that’, then I bought this home and was like ‘Well, he’s clearly NOT a master of flesh, because in these pictures you’re absolutely gorgeous –
You’re honey coloured! And then you turn the page to see Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995 – and although that picture is beautiful …
The other one is better, because I’m not all blobby and lumpy, you can see.
Absolutely! You’re smooth, you’ve got this lovely smooth skintone –
Yes – thank you to Dove for that! (much laughter)
So Freud’s trick was to de-Dove …
Yes – say you had a spot, he’d paint the spot in and that spot would go, and you might get another spot, and he’d paint that in as well. So like, over a range of nine months, you might have had about six spots, but only one at a time …
But he put them all in together?
Talking of Dove, have you ever been approached by anyone trying to pull you into a ‘Real Women’ campaign or anything on those lines?
No, and I’m surprised. Perhaps they know already that I’m – I’m not one to blow my trumpet: ‘oh, fat women are marvellous and everything like that: I’d rather be thin if it was easy, but I can’t be bothered. I thought someone might ask me, once … I always thought I’d rather like to advertise diamonds on my vast cleav-aage … but no-one has asked. I’m not really interested in diamonds, but, you know …
It would be a nice thing to do?
And a nice contrast with what you did with Freud.
Yes, a bit glamorous compared to that.
You have done loads of modeling – have you got a favourite thing that you’ve done?
I like the picture that Sam Taylor-Wood did. Which was that long panoramic. Didn’t take long. Just one day, instead of nine months. I wish Lucian had done a nice portrait, because I love the pictures he does of people’s faces.
Yes – but I’d like my face. (Sue gestures a frame around her lovely visage …)
Did you ever ask him to?
No, I didn’t really like to cause trouble. I used to hint. And I used to say “Oh, I wish you were like Matisse, and you had a cupboard full of dressing-up clothes that I could wear.” He just ignored me. When I read about Matisse and his dressing-up cupboard I was very jealous. He had clothes and jewellery and things and the models could go in and get dressed up.
I’d like to ask a little bit about what you think is beautiful, or who you think is beautiful.
Drew Barrymore. I love Drew Barrymore. She’s my favourite. I don’t know why, just something about her. She’s not what you’d call classic beautiful, but I like the quirkiness of her face. I like her manner and her behaviour. Who else? Vanessa Redgrave, in a severe kind of way, in a frightening, left-wing kind of way. I’d probably never get on with her, ‘cause I’m not one for a cause.
Who else? Ashton Kutcher. He’s got a certain nose. I’m very keen on his nose and his face. I like noses like he’s got: Marilyn, he’s got a nose like that, and my friend Dave Scott-Evans has a nose like that. I’ve got a thing about that kind of sculpted, pointy nose that goes up a little bit at the end. On a man I’m very keen on noses like that.
Who else at the moment? I like Harry Styles, (laughing). I still remember him on X Factor and the first time he performed I thought to myself ‘that boy’s got something special’, and I think he must have.
One thing that strikes me about you: how delightfully modern you are. You don’t live in the past, do you?
No. I like to keep up with modern things. I don’t want to be an old woman who’s all ‘Remember when we this, and remember when we that …’ No. I like to keep up. I’ve got a reading routine. I read The Sun in the week, the Guardian at the weekends, Heat every week, Vogue once a month: covers most bases. When I read Vogue, sometimes I want to vomit and I often throw it on the floor in disgust – it’s SO posh. For posh, rich people. I like the bargain page – but the bargain’s often £600. But then you forget that these people exist and if you go like, round Harley Street or Knightsbridge everyone looks like the people in Vogue. It’s just that I don’t know people like that.
Oh, I hope the recorder picked that up because I do believe that beauty is very much of the mind – you can’t just have a shell of beauty with nothing informing it. That’s the best beauty regime tip I’ve ever heard.
Well, as Lucian Freud said “Libraries should be re-named Beauty Salons.” Nothing on earth gives me more joy than finding a book I’m really enjoying reading. Nothing. Telly … going out … no. Just to be stuck in a book.
Not really. It was simple; it wasn’t hard. I think I’m very lucky in life – jammy. You know people struggle for years, writing books, they sit in the attic and they try and they send it off … I had no wish whatsoever to write a book and then a publisher went ‘Do you want to write a book?’ So I wrote it. (laughs) I don’t like putting myself up for things and getting turned down, so I do what I’m asked to do and I don’t go out of my way …
I’m really fated with that book of yours, because you know how much I like it but I can’t keep hold of a copy! (Every time I come into possession of a copy, the relationship with the person that gave it to me is destroyed … and worst of all: they keep the book!)
Many people I know have lost it and lent it around … Sometimes I think it’s just Leigh causing mischief. (Sue laughs) I’m not really a believer of people doing things after death, but I’ve had so many little bits of mischief from him.
We should talk about the object of beauty that’s just behind you on the sofa, and which now I’m going to allow myself to look at properly …
My Louis Vuitton Jake and Dinos Chapman blanket? Do you know what I think is lovely about it? That it’s bright red. I love bright colours. At the Womanswear show, Marc Jacobs wore pyjamas in this material.
How gorgeous. And cosy.
You don’t really think of Vuitton as doing cosy, but obviously they can do it very well.
I was thinking I could get it made into a dress, but I think I’ll leave it as it is.
The dresses that Leigh made for you –
Oh yeah, I’ve still got a lot of them, but you can only wear them on a VERY special occasion, because they’re so big. The red velvet one I usually get out at Christmas, but the others I very rarely wear. I sometimes lend them to drag queens for a show.
Didn’t one of them appear on the X-Factor once?
Yes! My friend Scottee was asked to do a dance with Riannah and he wore my blue dress with big white spots on that Leigh made me, so I was thrilled by that and she was going ‘that dress is great, where d’you get it from?’ They have been re-created, a couple of them for Taboo in Brixton. I lent them to the designers and they copied them.
You’re very supportive of Taboo.
Oh, I am!
It seems you always go and meet the New Sue and give her your blessing!
(laughs) Any opportunity to show off, get a bit of attention!
The Freud paintings are amazing, and they have achieved – and you have achieved – a kind of immortality.
I suppose. In years to come people will look at them and they’ll go ‘there’s that woman…’
‘What deodorant did that woman use?’ they will say …
Exactly! You know The Mona Lisa? We don’t know much about her: me, you can find anything you want to know because of the world of the internet.
And you’re not stand-offish, are you?
No, no – I’ll tell anyone anything they want to know really. (Sue laughs) I haven’t kept myself – exclusive.
We did this interview at Sue’s flat, so I was completely distracted by the need to nosey around. As a consequence, the photos I remembered to take were appalling even by my low standards, so all product pictures were taken sneakily at a leading UK chemist. The GHD shot was pinched from their website.
I’ve used my phone to snap two pages from my treasured copy of Freud At Work: Photographs by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson, as they were essential to add context to the interview. I hope no-one objects, as they are such lovely pictures and so interesting.
The portrait of Sue with her ombre tips, the shot of her Vuitton blanket and the picture of Sue in her red velvet dress were all stolen from Sue’s facebook. The red velvet dress photo was taken by Ursula Leitgeb.
To find out more about Sue Tilley via the glorious world of the internet, click here to see a couple of videos featuring her Bad Self.
To buy Sue’s wonderful Leigh Bowery biography, click here.
To buy Freud at Work: Photographs by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson, click here.