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Shattering Facts About Pete Burns, Pop Star Reinvented

Sarah Ng

Known for his brutal honesty and sharp commentary, Pete Burns stepped onto the 80s punk scene with a brimming personality in tow. Best of all, he had the image to match. There was a freedom in Burns’s artistic expression that set him apart. And while his extensive plastic surgery remained the focal point of his life, his greatest triumph was his ability to navigate its many trials and tribulations. If you don’t know about the enigmatic figure behind the icon song, “You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record),” it’s time to change that.


1. His Mother Fled From Danger

Pete Burns’s intriguing origins began with his mother—Evelina—a silent film actress from Berlin. Living in Germany during WWII, Evelina’s Jewish background posed an incredible danger, and she fled to Vienna to escape the Holocaust. It was there that she met Peter’s father—Francis Burns—an English soldier from Liverpool. When they started a family, she made sure to pass on her passion for the entertainment business…

2. He Arrived Late

While Evelina and Francis welcomed a bouncing baby boy named Tony in 1948, it wasn’t until 1959 that Pete entered the picture. By this time, his mother was already 46, and the age difference between him and his sibling was quite considerable. But this didn’t stop the two brothers from fostering a loving relationship. They had one very important thing in common…

3. They Both Dreamed Of Greatness

Pete and Tony bonded over their love of music. They didn’t see one another very much, but when they did, you could bet that records were playing and heads were bobbing. Music reverberated through the rooms of their home and both boys dreamed of a future on stage. Notions of fame were catching, and they imagined themselves in the spotlight.

Perhaps these dreams mirrored a desire for escape, as their home life was far from ideal…

4. He Was A Lonely Child

Five-year-old Pete was no stranger to prejudice. He grew up speaking German and children around the neighborhood would shout “Heil Hitler” outside his home. He was an isolated child, and his mother’s desire to keep him to herself and out of school only exacerbated his lonely upbringing. But this was only the beginning of Pete Burns’s unconventional childhood…

5. He Faced A Real-Life Nightmare

No doubt traumatized by her time in Germany, Burns’s mother turned to drugs as a coping mechanism. As a child, he’d come home to devastating scenes where he’d find his mother at the end of another failed suicide attempt—slashed wrists and blood painting the walls. But despite these harrowing moments, Pete Burns always managed to scrape at the silver linings…

6. He Looked On The Bright Side

Burns consistently maintained that he had “absolutely the best mother in the world.” And while her alcoholism and drug dependency were difficult to witness, he recognized that she also afforded him a great deal of “freedom and creativity”—a freedom that fueled his unique style and the eccentric personality that he’d one day become renowned for.

7. He Turned Heads

At the age of 14, Pete Burns began experimenting with his style. On one memorable morning, he strode through his school’s hallway sporting a massive earring, bright red hair, and no eyebrows. Unsurprisingly, this earned him a one-way ticket to the principal’s office. Teachers and peers alike didn’t understand his flamboyance, and kids teased him relentlessly.

Burns knew it was time to blaze his own path. He dropped out—but his struggles were only beginning.

8. He Brushed It Off

At around this time, something truly horrifying happened. A man took Burns for a drive to an isolated place, threatened him with a weapon, and assaulted him. But when relating the incident, Burns had a strange confession to make—although he knew that the assault should upset him, he remembers not being distressed at all. Thankfully, in lieu of this confusing incident, there were brighter times ahead…

9. He Met His Soul Mate

After dropping out of school, Burns took up a number of odd jobs around town, including a gig at a hair salon where he met hairdresser Lynne Cortlett. It wasn’t love at first sight, but soon neither could deny the magnetism between them. Cortlett later remembered, “He was outrageous as I was and we both had so much in common.” Her acceptance of his quirks and individuality was the strong foundation of their partnership.

But while their love started well, it didn’t have a happy ending.

10. He Made An Important Career Move

After dabbling in multiple odd jobs, Pete Burns finally found a perfect fit: A job at a record shop. At Probe Records, he steeped himself in the music he grew up loving and had the opportunity to meet a number of burgeoning artists who used the store as a communal hub. But as an employee, he wasn’t known for his sunny disposition and his attitude never earned him any customer service points…

11. He Had High Standards

In fact, Pete Burns soon gained a reputation for his absolutely horrible treatment of customers. He took his music very seriously and passed judgment on everyone’s purchases. Sometimes it turned into a violent affair and he’d throw their selections back at them. But besides a number of offended customers, Burns also met a number of like-minded musicians. And he didn’t just rub shoulders with anybody…

12. He Hung Out With The Greats

To name-drop on behalf of Burns, Probe Records saw the likes of Ian McCulloch from Echo & the Bunnymen and Julian Cope from The Teardrop Explodes. He even worked with Pete Wylie from The Mighty Wah! The ambition and inspiration garnered between these dusty stacks of records eventually spurred Burns to start his own band—a band like no one had ever seen before.

13. He Formed A Band

Pete Burns found solace in punk and decided it was time to expand his horizons. Alongside Julian Cope and Pete Wylie, the three formed the band Mystery Girls; a name influenced by a song title by the New York Dolls. Passionate and finally read to take the stage, Burns readied himself for an unforgettable debut performance…

14. He Had A One Night Stand

Sometimes high expectations lead to middling disappointment. The Mystery Girls were an interesting trio of androgynous and unstudied musicians, and their cohesive vibe seemed promising. Slotted to open for Sham 69 at the prominent venue Eric’s Club, they gave an intriguing and slightly off-kilter performance that gave new meaning to a “one-night stand.” That is, they never performed again.

Although the Mystery Girls only had one show, it wasn’t Pete Burns’s last. He got a taste for the stage, and he wasn’t about to let it go.

15. He Aimed Low

After the show at Eric’s Club, Burns didn’t perform for an entire year. But in February of 1979, he gave it another shot and formed a brand-new band named Nightmares in Wax with one self-deprecating goal in mind—to be the worst group in history. With the bar set low, anything was possible. The ripples he made were small but pulsing with contention…

16. He Took Creative Risks

The gothic rock band took people off guard with their only EP: Birth of a Nation. Taking its title from DW Griffith’s controversial 1915 film, this decision was bound to raise eyebrows. The lyrics were provoking and interpreted as anti-feminist, but Burns believed they encapsulated his dark humor. He didn’t seem to take the band and its music too seriously, saying, “We were rubbish, performing one-note songs for ten minutes.”

Nightmares in Wax didn’t last long, but it regrouped and reinvented itself, fresh and shiny with a newfangled band name—one you might have heard of.

17. He Made A Last-Minute Decision

In 1980, after replacing some of its members, Pete Burns stepped out with a revived group of musicians. With a looming radio session booked, the band still hadn’t found a name. That’s when drummer Joe Musker suggested, “Wanted Dead or Alive”—good but not good enough. Burns thought it was too long. So Musker shortened his suggestion to “Dead or Alive,” to which Burns responded, “That is amazing.”

They had found the perfect band name, and it set them apart—but that wasn’t the only thing that made them different.

18. He Brought Something New To The Table

Dead or Alive’s debut single “I’m Falling” excited people. The sound was fresh and over-the-top, tinged with something lurid and humorous. They were different. And this uniqueness built their fanbase and helped book gigs. But by far the biggest reason they stood out was none other than their bizarre, charismatic frontman Pete Burns.

The world had never seen anyone like him—and he was just getting started.

19. He Was Unapologetically Himself

Pete’s look was an affront to conservatives everywhere. Performing with a black frizzy updo and large nose-ring, his thick makeup and outlandish fashion made for a colorful spectacle. But not everyone found his sensibilities tasteful. When his bass player’s father said “He should be shot!” Pete unabashedly stood his ground and said, “I look like whatever I want to look like. I can’t be different or I’ll be unhappy.”

His image had a polarizing effect, drawing positive, and sometimes even dangerous, attention…

20. He Stopped Traffic

In 1980, Burns walked the streets of Liverpool and enjoyed a modicum of celebrity. Other creatives were jealous of his carefree approach to self, while others stopped their cars to attack him and his appearance. On some occasions, offended old ladies went out of their way to whack him with their purses. Harassed and bombarded by haters, Pete Burns developed the only defense at his disposal…

21. He Had An Evil Reputation

Protection came in the form of acidic wit and a sharp tongue. Burns learned to use his rhetoric out of necessity: “When you’ve got a gang of boys surrounding you with Stanley knives, you learnt to be witty pretty fast.” This earned him quite a reputation among his peers. Even heavy-hitting stars like Boy George heard about Burns, who noted in his autobiography, “I’d never met Burns, but knew of his…reputation for being evil.” And he wasn’t the only one…

22. Courtney Love Hated Him

Bolstered by his growing stardom, Pete Burns called himself “the local celebrity punk.” But not everyone shared this opinion. Courtney Love absolutely despised Burns. She called him names on the street and tried to deflate his swollen ego. When asked about Love he reminisced, “She had, like, a complete lack of respect for the divinity I had in the city at the time.”

When faced with her vitriol, Burns had a surprising reaction…

23. He Wrote A Song For Her

Pete Burns embraced Courtney Love’s animosity—it was something he could respect. She was consistent and intractable in her opinion of him, and in the end, this became a fruitful source of inspiration. Fifteen years later, he dedicated a song to her: A cover of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” that takes the glam and cranks it up to 11.

24. He Went Global

Burns’s life turned topsy-turvy with the release of Dead or Alive’s meg-hit, “You Spin Me Round.” The group tapped into the lively sound of the 80s gay club scene and the results were astounding. The song single-handedly ensured the survival of its producers and—as it continued to climb the charts—catapulted the group to global stardom. But Burns soon learned that fame wasn’t necessarily his cup of tea…

25. He Resisted Stardom

Pete Burns had difficulty dealing with the expectations of the public. Due to his colorful appearance and daring act, everybody assumed he was an open person who flourished in the limelight. In his last interview, he expounded on the price of fame and his trouble coping with it. His desire to make music was never with fame in mind, but rather, to make music for the sake of it.

26. He Spent His First Pay Cheque Unwisely

After the success of “You Spin Me Round,” the money started rolling in. With his first sizable paycheck, Burns decided to spend it on something that he’d been thinking about for years…his nose. After a fight in Liverpool resulted in a broken nose, he desperately wanted it fixed. But this harmless desire had disastrous consequences…

27. They Butchered His Nose

Pete Burns’s first encounter with plastic surgery was a complete nightmare. After waking up covered in his own blood and in immense pain, Burns realized that the surgeon had made a truly horrifying mistake—half his nose was missing. On the very same day, his song “You Spin Me Round” hit number one. Dead or Alive, expected to perform for the BBC, now had Burns’s wrecked nose to consider…

28. He Improvised

In order to hide the surgical mistake, Burns decided to wear an eyepatch that masked the damaged part of his nose. In one fell swoop, he fooled everyone and created his signature look. But despite the mishap of his first procedure, this was not Burns’s last dance with plastic surgery…not even close.

29. He Denounced Fame

By 1992, Pete Burns was ready to take a step back from the music industry. He had dreams of buying a house and settling down. This all came down to the price of fame. With his iconic look, he was unable to go anywhere unnoticed and the pressure became unbearable. Adoration quickly evolved into harassment, and on one occasion the media took it one step too far…

30. He Couldn’t Protect His Mother

In a detestable move, a  journalist, disguised as a nurse, entered Burns’s mother’s residence in order to snap a picture of her dying from lung cancer. Clearly disturbed by the lengths the media was willing to go, Burns counted this invasion of privacy as further reason to leave fame behind…

31. He Yearned For Simpler Things

Contrary to popular belief, Burns wasn’t the party-hardy or social butterfly everyone believed him to be. “I’m more interested in people, human beings. I’m more interested in sitting in a cafe and watching people go by. Just simple things. I’m more interested in taking a five-mile walk at five in the morning and coming home at two in the afternoon. They’re the kind of things that I do.”

32. He Was Unrecognizable

When Burns decided to rear his head in 1994, he appeared on the tv show Pop Quiz, sporting a new look—one undeniably fashioned with the help of plastic surgery. Believing that an artist should always look to recreate themselves, he used these procedures as a tool for reinvention. But as Burns soon learned, the path of cosmetic surgery proved a slippery slope…

33. He Trusted His Doctors

Unfortunately, not all surgeons are trustworthy, and this is something Burns learned the hard way. When his doctor insisted that he needed cheekbone implants, Burns went along with it. Long story short—the surgery was a mistake. The incorrect placement of the implants pulled on the skin around his eyes in an unsightly way making Burns seem grievously ill.

But despite another negative experience under the knife, Burns wasn’t about to give it up. Believe it or not, the worst was yet to come…

34. He Took A Risk

By 2004, Burns’s desire for lip injections trumped his better judgment. When his surgeon ran out of the solution used for the procedure, he suggested a substitute—something “similar”—insisting this was a safe route to take. And so, with a heart full of hope and trust, Burns received injections that were more experiment than treatment. The results proved disastrous…

35. His Lips Exploded

During a performance with the Scissor Sisters, Burns began to feel an intense burning in his lower lip. When he got off stage, the lip had formed a worrisome boil. Burns immediately contacted his surgeon and upon consultation realized something had gone horribly wrong. He later remembered, “He held me down on the operating table and he got two syringes and punched them in…at least a pint-and-a-half of yellow steaming fluid was vomited out of the lip.”

It was something out of a horror film, and the verdict on Burns’s lips was equally horrific…

36. Amputation Was In The Cards

Burns’s lips were so damaged that doctors warned lip amputation may be necessary. As a result of the bungled injection-turned-infection, Burns could barely speak or eat. Thankfully, reconstructive surgeon Giovanni Ferrando stepped up to the plate. He looked at the challenge in front of him and believed he could save Burns’s lips. The road ahead was daunting and promised unprecedented pain, but Burns clung to Ferrando’s optimism…

37. He Took A Chance

Pete Burns decided to follow Ferrando back to Genoa, Italy in order to focus on reconstructing his lips under the guidance of a new and trusted surgeon. On this emotional rollercoaster, he took his new partner Michael Simpson. This relocation became a testament to love and perseverance in all its forms. The couple planned to stay only three months, but three months quickly turned to two years…

38. He Hit Rock Bottom

During his time in Italy, Pete Burns underwent hundreds of dangerous surgeries. This rigorous journey affected him physically and mentally, sending him into a spiraling depression. Luckily, with unrivaled resilience and the support of his loving partner, Burns focussed on taking it day by day. But when he finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel, another hardship lay waiting in the wings…

39. He Had Nothing Left

Burns spent his entire life’s savings trying to save his face, and by the time he and Michael returned to England in 2006, the pop star faced potential bankruptcy. The same year, Burns sought a divorce from his first wife Lynn Cortlett in order to completely devote himself to his new love. It was a year spent figuring out his entire life—both personally and financially.

40. He Was Desperate

Desperate for money, Pete Burns returned to the very publicity he shied away from—he returned, not to pop music, but to reality TV. Out of pure necessity, Burns put himself back out there—vulnerable to the world once again. And so, Celebrity Big Brother cast him in their show, transforming Burns into an unforgettable TV personality.

41. He Was A Reality TV Sensation

Above all, it was Burns’s shocking look that excited new and old fans alike. Always open with his identity, Burns embraced his sexuality as a man but dressed as a woman. His flamboyant looks were only rivaled by his dynamite personality, which made for excellent TV. With the success of his season on Celebrity Big Brother, he had a brand-new audience who couldn’t take their eyes off him…

42. He Had A Gorilla Fur Coat

Pete Burns fearlessly disseminated his opinions on Big Brother. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the stunts he pulled and the unfiltered commentary that often accompanied them. In one memorable episode, he proudly claimed to own a coat made of gorilla fur. This obviously didn’t sit well with his fellow housemates…or the authorities…

43. He Rocked The Boat

After the episode aired, authorities came to the Big Brother house to arrest the unlicensed gorilla coat. In the end, it was all a farce. He led the house on for a laugh simply because he didn’t want to conform to the pompousness of some of the other celebrity housemates. Although Burns had a penchant for bad behavior, his antics often served a greater purpose…

44. He Wanted Out

Because Burns was only doing the show for money, a hasty elimination was the end goal. This meant less work for more money and he would escape the fame he so abhorred. He believed that the more aggressive and offensive he was, the less likable he’d be. But he couldn’t have been more wrong…

45. His Plan Backfired

Every explosive fight Burns had with fellow contestant Jodie Marsh—every unabashed opinion or pointed diss—enthused viewers. To them, he was an absolute riot! And so, in a very real way, Burns’s plan backfired. He didn’t want to stay, but now, he had to. In fact, he made it to the final, finished 5th, and helped define one of the most popular seasons of Celebrity Big Brother.

46. He Suffered A Meltdown

After the show, everything went from bad to worse…Hounded by the paparazzi and still facing money issues, Burns had a lot on his plate. To make matters worse, his relationship with Michael was on the rocks. When Michael showed up to a gay bar with another man, Burns suffered a complete meltdown and ended the night behind bars…

47. He Wanted Justice

Luckily, Michael dropped the charges, and going forward, Burns was able to maintain an amicable relationship with his ex. In early 2007, Burns was back in court for a completely different reason. This time, he came on the offensive, looking to sue surgeon Maurizio Viel for the lip injections that cost him his health and his wealth.

48. He Lost It All

Pete Burns won an out-of-court settlement for £450,000 after arguing that Viel’s injections destroyed his career and life. But despite appearing on a couple more reality shows to pay the lawyer’s fees, Burns just couldn’t keep up. He declared bankruptcy in 2014 after accruing up to £34,000 in unpaid rent. But money was, perhaps, the lesser of his worries…

49. He Wanted To Let Go

Due to the massive amounts of anesthesia and antibiotics that his system endured during his numerous surgeries, Burns developed blood clots and pulmonary embolisms in his heart, lungs, and legs. On one terrifying occasion, Burns’s driver found him unconscious and close to death. Rushed to the hospital, Burns remembers the experience fondly, likening his failing system to “a bath of velvet.”

But despite surviving, Pete Burns couldn’t escape the toll his lifestyle took…

50. He Left Too Soon

Tragically, in October 2016, Pete Burns passed away from cardiac arrest as a result of a pulmonary embolism in his lungs. He was only 57 years old. There was so much left for Burns to discover, particularly the quieter side of life that he was so fond of…

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8


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