Top hat and tales of excess
'Every luxury was lavished on me -- atheism, alcoholism and insanity,' says Sebastian Horsley of his childhood. With that kind of start, how could he possibly turn out normal? Here the artist, author and playboy talks to Victoria Mary Clarke about the newly published memoirs of his perverse lifestyle
I took an instant dislike to Sebastian Horsley the moment I laid eyes on him. The location was London's Soho House, the event was Nick Cave's birthday party and even among Nick's flamboyant assortment of friends (which included Kylie Minogue and Michael Hutchence), Sebastian stood out from the crowd. Possibly because he was wearing platforms (and he is already six feet two), possibly because of his dark, good looks, velvet suit and diamante jewels. He resembled a character from a romantic novel, and when he opened his mouth, he spoke like a Jilly Cooper rogue. Instinctively, that night, I tried my best to avoid him. But as all the best rogues do, he managed to get my number, anyway, and the next morning he called and invited me to lunch at The Ritz.
I accepted the invitation. I love The Ritz.
Many years later, Sebastian is one of my dearest friends. We even contemplated marriage, for a time. The fact of my already having a partner and him having a girlfriend, plus a crack and smack habit and also a habit of paying hookers for sex on an almost daily basis did not pose any problems that he could see. I wasn't sure I could be that liberal.
Today, I am interviewing Sebastian about his memoir Dandy in the Underworld, which has just been published to tremendous acclaim, and to some indignation, as well.
"Sebastian is a pervert who stands for everything that is wrong with British society today," Jeremy Vine is quoted on the cover.
I arrive at Sebastian's small but stylish oak-panelled Queen Anne apartment in the heart of Soho. The door is open, and inside he is posing for the photographer in front of his carefully arranged collection of human skulls and syringes, wearing a black three piece suit, an oversized top hat and twirling a custom-made cane.
"Doesn't it get tedious, being photographed so much?" I ask, as he strikes an endless array of poses.
"Tedious! It's only got tedious in the last week because there haven't been enough photo shoots!" he responds. "Last month I was in the papers or on the radio every single day, but it's starting to thin out now. So I've gone from narcissism to neurosis!"
I am envious, and I admit it. One of the things we have in common is our narcissism, and our passion for being admired. Where we differ is that Sebastian is not as interested in money as I am, maybe because he made millions at an early age by trading on the stock market and blew the whole lot on clothes, drugs and hookers.
All of which he documents in his memoir.
I had been afraid to read his book, at first, I admit. Had he been a terrible writer, what would I have said? Being a writer myself, I know how fragile the ego can be, and I hate to upset my friends. But all I had to do was read the back cover, which says, "I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn," to know that not only can Sebastian paint (he is primarily an artist) but he can also write.
It is a wonderful thing for any artist to be blessed with a horrible childhood. One needs material. But Sebastian's circumstances were not so much horrid as spectacular.
"When Mother found out she was pregnant with me, she took an overdose," he begins. "Father gave her the pills. The overdose didn't work. Had she known I would turn out like this, she would have taken cyanide."
Valerie, Sebastian's mother, was not maternal, it seems. But she was spirited, and shared her son's love of the important things.
"Give her the luxuries of life, and she dispensed with the necessities," he says of her. "Food and shelter were optional, hats and furs obligatory."
Valerie met Nicholas Horsley, Sebastian's father, while on a brief trip to New Orleans; the couple were married after a two-day courtship. At the wedding, a reporter asked if they were suited to each other.
"I have no idea," Valerie replied. "I've only known him a week."
It transpired that the couple were both alcoholics. Sebastian remembers that they drank all day, and that when they did leave the house, it was to go to the pub. Nicholas Horsley was, however, extremely rich, having established the food company Northern Dairies.
The relationship with his family was not a happy one for Sebastian. "Every luxury was lavished on me," he says. "Atheism, alcoholism and insanity."
The insanity made for really terrific material. He claims to have a family photo (which I have not seen) which proves how mad they were.
"Mother is on the floor, face down in a pool of her own vomit. On the sofa sits Gogo (his granny) her wig awry, her lipstick skidded across her face. Next to her sits Father, his drink in one hand, his cock in the other."
But there were compensations.
"Money, chiefly, and lots of it. Harrods doubled up as our corner shop," he confides. "We never asked the price of anything. It would have been unseemly for people in our position."
But it bugged him that he was what he calls "a parvenu", not quite top drawer. And his greatest fear, it seems, is to be mediocre, which is what he thinks the middle classes are.
"But better to be nouveau riche than no riche," he admits.
Predictably, the young Sebastian devised all kinds of ways to get the attention of his parents. Even if they had given him the normal amount of attention, he explains, it wouldn't have been enough.
"I cannot live within my income of praise," he says, quite seriously. "From the very start, I wanted to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral."
Having discovered Marc Bolan, he decided to become a pop star and began dressing up in his mother's feather boas and lipstick and posing in front of the mirror. That didn't work so he decided instead to become an artist.
He applied and was accepted at St Martins, and moved to London with his girlfriend, Evlynn, where he began to experiment heavily with drugs, and became obsessed with a Scottish gangster. The obsession led to a move to Edinburgh, where he married Evelyn and worked with the now reformed criminal running a charity dedicated to helping people who had just come out of prison.
"Murderers, junkies and loonies," as Sebastian puts it.
Unfortunately, one day, Sebastian caught the gangster and Evlynn in flagrante in his kitchen.
"I did not utter a word," he says. "I walked away and got ready for bed. Confusion is the most honest response."
The relationship with the gangster became even more complicated when Sebastian started to have sex with him as well, and for a time the two men enjoyed splashing their cash on champagne and Rolls Royces in an orgy of ostentation.
"We traded them in as soon as the ashtrays were full," he declares.
Around the same time, Sebastian had learned that he had a talent for playing the stock market, by taking enormous risks. He made money, but it didn't make him happy.
When, inevitably, the marriage with Evlynn and the relationship with the gangster collapsed, he threw himself fully into taking drugs. He describes the descent from Ecstasy as a hell that ended with him never leaving his apartment, never even opening the door to the dealer, who would simply deliver through the letter-box. Having come as close to death as it is possible, without dying, he then got clean. And then finally after 10 years of rejection as an artist, he was offered a show by a gallery in London.
He began to paint in earnest, and to keep regular hours. To paint Great White sharks, he travelled to Australia and went down in a cage to meet the creatures in person. Another near-death experience resulted when one of the sharks smashed open the door of the cage and tried to eat him. But he lived to paint the sharks.
Unfortunately, the show was not a success. "To be a failure in London is to starve to death outside a banqueting hall," he says. "I marinated in failure."
To cheer himself up, he became a prostitute. The job was short-lived; it ended when he was summoned to have sex with a very fat woman, while her husband watched. He couldn't bring himself to do it, and fled.
"My appetite for depravity had finally sickened," he says.
However, when the idea of getting crucified presented itself, he decided to make a trip to the Phillipines, and give it a try.
"Christ, after all, had profound style," he reasons. "He was the ultimate dandy."
The crucifixion was filmed by Sarah Lucas, and the film toured along with the resulting paintings, but didn't get the reaction he had hoped for.
"A year ago I had been unknown throughout England," he says. "Now I was unknown throughout the whole world!"
Nor was he pleased with the reaction to his book; when he turned in the first version of Dandy in the Underworld, it was rejected by the publishers who had commissioned it and he was devastated. We discussed his desire to kill himself. I did my best to persuade him not to abandon hope.
Luckily, he didn't, and after several years of reworking, the book is finally in the shops. Mostly, the reviews have been rapturous, but, on our way to lunch, we stop at the offices of the Literary Review to pick up the latest edition, in which there is a bad review.
"Not even Jesus was loved by everyone," Sebastian says, having read it. "I think it is important to be disliked by the right people.
I consider this, having disliked him, myself, at first. "A posturing popinjay," is another of the quotes he has put on his book jacket. But the truth is that behind the facade, behind the "neon narcissist" that he pretends to be, Sebastian Horsley is a gentle soul who has had the courage to express himself in the full spectrum of his palette, whatever the cost. One has to admire him for that -- although I do make what I consider a radical suggestion, just before we part company.
"What about getting a really ordinary job, and trying out a really normal life? You know, maybe being a secretary, or working in a bank?" He considers.
"You know, that might be revolutionary!" he agrees. "Don't tell anyone that idea! It's brilliant!"
'Dandy in the Underworld' is published by Sceptre (e25.65)