On the couch with Sue Tilley
When you think of the word ‘muse’, several people come to mind: a mid-nineties rock band, obviously Kate Moss in all her forms, the Pre Raphaelite poser, Elizabeth Sidall and last but not least, St Leonard’s based Freudian nudie, Sue Tilley.
Photography by Clare Hughes
“I don’t like animals”, she said as she entered the French Depot antique furniture warehouse where myself and Clare, the photographer, had meticulously laid out a bear rug, a stuffed flamingo, a ceramic collie, a cow, two chickens and a leopard print day bed. Ooops!
It was between 1994 and 1996 that Sue posed naked for one of Lucian Freud’s most famous paintings, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and it was one of five paintings of her by the artist who referred to her as ‘Big Sue’. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping sold for a whopping £17.2 million in 2008 and was bought by none other than rich Russian, ex-Chelsea owner and pal of Putin, Roman Abramovich. Apparently, it adorns a wall of his superyacht which I imagine also sports a bear rug and a stuffed flamingo. “When that painting sold, they tried to make out that I was just a simple woman who worked in a job centre because I suppose that’s a better story” she told me, wanting to show that she is more than ‘that painting’.
I showed Sue the results of our photoshoot before I sat down to interview her in her home in St Leonards. I thought I would begin by reassuring her that she looked eccentric, brilliantly-lit and glamorous AF. She told me that she didn’t mind being the centre of attention at the shoot but that if this had been happening to her when she was younger, she’d have been insufferable.
“I had to remind myself that he sees naked people all the time. It’s like going to the doctor, it’s not sexual or tantalising or anything.”— Sue Tilley
I began by asking Sue about her early years growing up in London, “I had a very nice childhood, no complaints whatsoever!” she said. “We lived in a big house in Paddington with my auntie, my uncle and my cousins, so there were four children and we always had someone to play with. Every day that there wasn’t school, we’d go to Hyde Park and if it rained we’d hang around Paddington Station, it was a big treat. It was a bit rough round there with prostitutes then but even at that young age I was fascinated by them!”
Sue had been creative from a very young age: always making things, cutting things up and driving her mum mad, she admits. “I was always making people have drawing competitions and quizzes. It’s funny how things have turned out in my later life!” she laughed (Sue has been known for her pub quizzes and online art lessons). Sue spent three years at teacher training college, training to be an art teacher. “It was a waste of three years but it all worked out, I met all the people I wanted to meet. I was too nervous to apply for St Martins but I met lots of people there without even going there, I mixed with people from that world.”
Now I cannot imagine for one moment that Lucian Freud, fancy-pants grandson of Sigmund, was hanging out in a Jobcentre in Hackney, begging to get his housing benefit paid (trust me, I’ve been there and I would have spotted a posho a mile off). So I wondered how their paths crossed.
At the time, she was hanging out with Stephen Luscombe from Blancmange and her best pal, performance artist Leigh Bowery. “Lucian Freud had so many children that you were bound to know at least one of them!” she laughed, “and Leigh ended up modelling for Lucian. Leigh liked to boss people’s lives around so he decided that I should work for Lucian. He told him all about me but because Lucian was such a control freak, he had to make him think that it was all his idea. The first time I met him I was doing the door at one of Leigh’s nightclubs and I could see Lucian staring at me, he commented that I was wearing the wrong colour lipstick… and he was right! Someone had given me a Cristian Dior lipstick and I was so thrilled but it was a bluey pink and I’ll never put anything mauve near my face now!”
Sue sat for nine months consisting of three to five days per week for each of the five paintings. “I started off on twenty quid a day but I managed to get it up to thirty-three by the time I’d finished. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter how much I got paid. It was a life experience. Some people would pay him to be in that position. I’ve got a lot to thank that picture for, it’s given me lots of opportunities in life.” I asked Sue how she felt about getting naked at first. “Well, I had to remind myself that he sees naked people all the time. It’s like going to the doctor, it’s not sexual or tantalising or anything. Although, when I got up to go to the toilet, even though there was no one else there, I wrapped something around myself.”
This was all happening during the time when ‘supermodel waif’ and ‘heroin chic’ was all the rage. “Do you think there was a bit of rebellion against that going on?”, I asked? “Either from you or from Lucian?” “No, he really enjoyed painting the flesh and I think I looked rather nice on that sofa, I fit it well”.
“When I was younger I used to be terrified of cancer but when I got it I didn’t even cry. I was over 60, I’ve got no children and old age looks pretty horrible”
Obviously, Sue’s body has gone through some changes in the almost 30 years since Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. She’s a bit thinner “but not much” she says “although I think that painting made me look fatter than I was be honest. When people would see me they’d go Oh, you’re not quite as enormous as we thought!”
Sue has had bad knees since falling out of a window at a wedding many years ago and has recently taken up going to the gym every other day in order to get fit ahead of an operation on them. “I feel so much better when I go, I can feel my muscles working.” Sue has also lost a breast to breast cancer, “how did you feel about this?” I asked. “I shocked myself because I couldn’t care less!” she said. “When I was younger I used to be terrified of cancer but when I got it I didn’t even cry. I was over 60, I’ve got no children and old age looks pretty horrible. The only difference is that it makes me irritated with people, like when they moan about a poxy little cold.”
So what’s next for Sue Tilley? Well, after jokingly saying once that she’d never strip off again for less than a million pounds, an Irish artist named Ian Brennan is currently trying his very best to secure the money. He has painted Sue and is attempting to sell this piece for £1 million, which he will then pay to Sue to sit naked for him.
Sue is also about to embark on teaching art classes at The Old Rectory… see, those three years of training to be an art teacher wasn’t a waste of time after all!
With thanks to Darren at The French Depot and all of its weird and wonderful stuff. (thefrenchdepot.com)
Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley is available on Kindle. ⚫