David Bowie is one of the most legendary and influential artists in the history of rock music. With mega-smash hits such as “Space Oddity” and “Starman,” the musical legend made his name as a master of disguise and reinvention, experimenting with new and innovative styles and sounds throughout his career.
When Bowie passed away in 2016, the world went into mourning for this iconic and genre-defining rock star. His life story and legacy still inspire millions to this day—but not everyone knows the real story behind this musical giant’s rise to fame.
Let’s take a look back at David Bowie’s unique true-life story and the secrets behind his stardom.
A Star Man is Born
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947, in Brixton, South London, England. His mother, Margaret Mary “Peggy” Burns, worked as a waitress in a cinema in Royal Tunbridge Wells. His father, Haywood Stenton “John” Jones, worked as a promotions officer for a children’s charity.
It was clear that Bowie had a unique talent and undeniable charisma, charming everyone around him with his dynamic presence from a young age.
But no one could have imagined just how big of a star he would become.
Growing up in London, England, Bowie exhibited a unique talent as a musician, singer, and performer from an exceptionally young age.
It was clear to all his friends and family that the young Bowie was destined to be a star, and that he drew inspiration from a variety of places, in particular from his close bond with his half-brother Terry.
Nine years older than Bowie, Terry introduced him to music and literature and helped spark the passion that would see him become a star.
But little did anyone know, this inspiration would also become laced with tragedy.
As the young Bowie grew up and experimented with different music styles and became quite an accomplished saxophone player, something would soon happen that would rock his world and changed his life forever.
Bowie’s half brother Terry, who he had looked up to his entire childhood, was also struggling with a debilitating mental illness and was eventually hospitalized.
Seeing Terry’s struggles, and the pain that the entire family experienced due to his hospitalization, left a deep impression on Bowie—something that would later influence his art.
But this was only the beginning of the Bowie family’s tragic struggles.
A Sudden Loss
After watching his half-brother, Terry struggles for many years with mental health issues. Eventually, being hospitalized, his and his whole family’s suffering profoundly influenced Bowie and his sense of introspection.
Sadly, after many years of struggle, Terry eventually died, and Bowie kept his memory and inspiration close to his heart for the rest of his life. He would write the classic song “Jump They Say,” inspired by these lessons and Terry’s experience.
The young David Bowie was, unsurprisingly, an exceptionally gifted and talented student. He attended various schools during his youth, such as Stockwell Infants School, Burnt Ash Junior School, and Bromley Technical High School.
His schooling at Bromley was, in true Bowie fashion, an unusual school run by an eccentric and creative headmaster, and Bowie’s studies focused heavily on the arts and on honing one’s creativity—something that allowed the future star to blossom.
But it was not all smooth sailing at this unconventional school.
Rough and Tumble
During his high school time, David Bowie learned essential skills in music, performance, and creativity, but his school years weren’t without difficulty and conflict.
The young Bowie one day got into a fight with one of his fellow students, and the injuries he sustained would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Fellow aspiring musician George Underwood punched him in the eye, leaving him hospitalized and with a permanently dilated pupil.
However, this dilated pupil—and his friendship with George Underwood—would go on to define Bowie’s career in more ways than one.
After graduating from high school at the age of 16, the young David Bowie already knew what he wanted to do with his life—pursue a career as an artist and performer.
Armed with his vital education and an even stronger sense of determination, Bowie set to work following his dreams, and put together his band using his original birth name, Davy Jones and the Lower Third.
The band released several singles, but none of them gained much attention or success.
Bowie had to change up his game—and fast.
A New Name
Even though he was incredibly talented and had a unique charisma, Bowie struggled to make any headway with his band and their musical efforts. Suddenly, he had a thought. Could it be his birth name that was holding him back? As David Jones, his name was also very similar to Davy Jones, the frontman of The Monkees.
Inspired by the American pioneer Jim Bowie, the future superstar took on a new name—David Bowie. Would this be the critical stepping stone towards superstardom?
Now that he had a new name and a fresh burst of creative energy, the newly named David Bowie decided it was time to try something completely different with his music career and his quest for superstardom.
In 1967, he released his debut studio album, the eponymous David Bowie, with Deram Records. Despite Bowie’s skill as a songwriter and singer, the album was a complete flop, and he was no closer to breaking into the music industry.
After yet another disappointment, Bowie decided he needed to take some time away from his pursuit of showbiz.
After the disappointment of his first studio album, Bowie decided to take a hiatus from his efforts to break into the music industry and focus on growing himself as a person.
In 1967, the future superstar spent some valuable time working on his inner self while living at the Samye Ling Monastery, a Buddhist monastery in Eskdalemuir, Scotland.
He was so enamored with the profound teachings he found that Bowie was seriously considering becoming a Buddhist monk for the rest of his life.
But just before taking his vows, one of his most esteemed teachers urged him not to give up on his musical destiny.
After he had returned to England after his time at the monastery, Bowie was ready to emerge himself once again in the world of performance and showbiz, and pursue his destiny with even more determination and energy than before.
That same year, he enrolled at the London Dance Centre, where he studied under legendary dance teacher Lindsay Kemp.
“He lived on his emotions,” Bowie said of his teacher and mentor. “He was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen.”
And it wasn’t just the sense of inspiration that Bowie gained from his time with mentor Lindsay Kemp.
The following year, Kemp was working on The Pistol Shot, a BBC play in the Theatre 625 series, and he employed Bowie as one of his dancers.
Onset, Bowie met another dancer, Hermione Farthingale. The chemistry between the two dancers was undeniable, and they quickly began dating. Before long, the happy couple had moved in together and were sharing a flat in London.
Bowie and Farthingale seemed completely inseparable; the two dancers were very much in love, and it seemed that nothing could tear them apart.
However, tensions grew when both of their respective careers meant they had to spend more and more time apart, mostly when Farthingale flew to Norway to star in the 1969 film Song of Norway.
Eventually, the couple went their separate ways, but Farthingale’s influence on Bowie’s work is undeniable. Many of his classic songs, such as “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” are inspired by his experiences with the dancer.
Light as a Feather
Though we all know Bowie as a talented musician, singer, songwriter, and actor, there was also a stage in his life where he followed a career in a very different performing area.
You might be surprised to learn that Bowie was also a keen mime artist, going so far as to incorporate mime performances into his latest band, a collaboration with guitarist John Hutchinson.
Initially, Bowie had included Hermione Farthingale in his plans for the group line-up, but the group was reduced to just him and Hutchinson after their split.
Love is in the Air
Even though he had gone through his fair share of heartbreak after splitting up with dancer Hermione Farthingale, it wasn’t the end of the road for Bowie in his search for true love.
After his heart had finally healed, he started dating American actress, model, and journalist Angela Barnett. In 1970, the happy couple tied the knot, and the following year they welcomed their first child—a son, Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Haywood Jones.
With his home life settled happily once again, Bowie was time to resume his musical career.
Around this time, Bowie returned fully to his pursuit of a music career, eventually signing a record deal with the super successful Mercury Records.
Bowie’s first single with Mercury was the surreal and haunting “Space Oddity,” inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic science fiction movie Space Odyssey.
The single became Bowie’s first-ever record to enter the top 5 of the UK Singles Chart and won him national acclaim.
Bowie was finally on his way to becoming a bonafide megastar.
Now that he had finally gained some success in the UK Singles Chart, Bowie knew he had his foot in the door and had to keep working his way up to superstardom.
His follow up album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, certainly did not disappoint—fans lapped up the more massive rock sound and the more emotional lyrics.
One particular song that moved listers was “All of the Madmen,” a heartfelt memoir of his late half-brother Terry. The beautiful sound and poignant lyrics touched the hearts of everyone who heard it.
Nowadays, we think of David Bowie as one of the most seminal artists in rock; other artists draw inspiration from and are influenced by. So it’s funny to remember that his earlier works were often written as tributes to musicians and personalities that Bowie himself admired.
For example, his next album Hunky Dory contained lyrics that directly paid tribute to rock legends Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground, as well as famed artist Andy Warhol.
Little did Bowie know that he was paving the way to eclipse their fame with his own in honoring these stars.
Mixing it Up
During this time, Bowie was quickly becoming one of the most recognizable and celebrated stars of the alternative and rock music scene.
With his public image so incredibly popular and his music speaking to millions, you’d think that a man of this success would merely be seeking to maintain it—but not Bowie.
No, he didn’t just want to maintain—he tried to keep his fans guessing.
So with his continued fame, Bowie decided it was time to take on another persona.
A New Man
In 1971, Bowie unveiled a new public persona. It was the height of the glam rock era, and Bowie burst back onto the scene with an alter-ego that perfectly personified this—the vivid, eccentric fictional rock star character Ziggy Stardust.
Stardust’s character was an enigmatic and alluring space alien arrived on Earth to deliver hope and love messages.
Bowie delighted fans and critics alike with his symbolic and satirical look at a larger-than-life and surreally celebrated rock star.
This new alter ego propelled David Bowie from a successful pop star to a bona fide worldwide megastar and musical legend. His outlandish costumes and wild stage persona, symbolizing what many came to see as the epitome of the new era of rock music, inspired fans worldwide and made Bowie a real cult figure.
The Woodstock era of the 1960s and truly over—it was now the age of glam rock, and Bowie was the king at its helm.
And it wasn’t just the persona that captivated the attention and love of the world for David Bowie. The music he created under this alter ego also completely encapsulated the dizzying glamor and imagination that came to define the 70s.
Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was certified platinum in the U.K. and eventually gold in the U.S.
Not only had Bowie finally made it as a superstar—he had also cracked America.
Don’t Stop Moving
Despite his new persona’s stellar success and the accompanying concept album, Bowie didn’t rest on his laurels and settled into the Ziggy Stardust character’s continued direction.
No, only a year after the album release, Bowie retired the mega-successful altered ego and turned his attention to other pursuits—including producing albums for other megastars of music at the time, such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
He also released another album of his own that year, Aladdin Sane, which featured a collaboration with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
David Bowie had now enjoyed massive success across two incredibly popular creative personas. Yet again, it was time for Bowie to reinvent himself yet again. Not content with his already mega levels of stardom, he was determined to keep his fans challenging himself with new and creative ways of making music and art.
So in 1974, Bowie’s image had changed entirely once again. Now presenting himself in a more natural persona, he released the albums David Live, followed by Young Americans the next year.
This included the single “Fame,” written together with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar—which would become Bowie’s first U.S. number one.
Now that David Bowie had established himself as one of the giants of pop and rock music throughout the world, it was time for him to look at expanding into other ventures. Sure enough, in 1976, he took on his first film role, playing an alien once again in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Bowie followed this up with a more severe and challenging part, playing the title role in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man, and receiving widespread critical acclaim for his performance.
The Berlin Era
Through his success in the UK and the U.S., Bowie was fascinated with another culture, the burgeoning German music scene. After some personal struggles, in 1976, he decided to move to Berlin, where he shared an apartment with Iggy Pop.
While there, Bowie had created another three critically acclaimed albums—The Berlin Trilogy: Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979). The albums and saw him experiment with elements of electronic, krautrock, ambient, and world music.
But although mega-successful at this point, towards the end of his stay in Berlin, Bowie’s personal life was about to experience a hit—in early 1980, Bowie and Angie finalized their separation.
Continuing his acting endeavors, in 1986, Bowie took on a role fit for a king, playing the terrifying yet strangely attractive Jareth the Goblin King in the dark fantasy adventure Labyrinth. The movie starred a young, pre-fame Jennifer Connolly, and was directed by the legendary Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas.
As you can imagine, the movie was rich in imagination and wild imagery, featuring some of Henson’s most creative and memorable puppets. The film remains a cult classic to this day, beloved by fans across the world.
After an astonishing run of mega-successful pop personas and history-making albums, as well as branching out into the movie industry, it was inevitable that eventually, Bowie might see somewhat of a dip in his productivity.
He continued to deliver in both music and acting, but his work didn’t seem to be reaching the same heights of success as the previous ones.
His fans began to wonder what was the reason behind this slump—but the truth was, Bowie was distracted by something else very happy going on behind the scenes.
Even though his fans wondered why Bowie’s career seemed to have taken somewhat of a relative dive, they had no idea that this was because he was distracted by his personal life—for a pleased reason.
In 1990, David Bowie attended a dinner party where he was sat next to Somali supermodel Iman. Straightaway, the starman knew that he had met the woman of his dreams.
“My attraction to her was immediate and all-encompassing,” he said to Hello magazine. “I couldn’t sleep for the excitement of our first date.”
Sure enough, the attraction seemed immediate for Bowie and Iman, and the two quickly began dating and fell in love.
In 1992, the happy couple tied the knot at a private wedding ceremony in Lausanne, France, before solemnizing their vows a few months later in Florence, Italy.
“That she would be my wife, in my head, was a done deal,” Bowie said. “I’d never gone after anything in my life with such passion all my life. I just knew she was the one.”
Even though she hit the headlines across the world after her marriage to David Bowie, Iman is a bona fide megastar of her own accord.
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1955, the multi-talented star came to America while still a college student at the urging of famed photographer Peter Beard.
Iman has starred in some of the most high-profile and glamorous fashion campaigns in history, appearing for Versace, Calvin Klein, and Yves Saint Laurent.
Bundle of Joy
With Iman and David Bowie being such super famous powerhouses of creativity, it was no wonder that they would turn to focus on building up their home life and family with the same dedication.
In 2000, the happy couple welcomed a daughter, Alexandria “Lexi” Zahra Jones.
Iman opened up to Hello magazine about how having a child enhanced the strength of their marriage. “We’ve always been very close,” she said. “But if it’s possible, we’ve been drawn even closer. There’s a joy or a contentment that’s almost palpable to both of us. Overnight, our lives have been enriched beyond belief.”
Although both Bowie and Iman have kept mostly quiet about their private lives, people were always curious to know what their marriage looked like.
When asked by Icon magazine in 2010, Iman agreed to share that, “David doesn’t fight. He is English, so he stays quiet. I’m the screamer. Then he always makes me laugh. It’s like a cabaret. I keep him entertained too. I still fancy him—totally!—after all these years.”
She also shared, jokingly, that “David takes five minutes [to get ready] Me? I don’t do anything by myself. I have a whole crew to get me ready every day.”
Matters of the Heart
After his marriage to Iman and the joyous birth of their daughter, David Bowie’s heart was genuinely full of love, and he was ready to return to his life as a performer and artist.
However, the superstar singer suffered a scary blow to his heart in a very different way, when he suffered a heart attack live on stage in 2004.
Fortunately, the star made a full recovery and continued to produce classical music for himself and other acts such as Arcade Fire and Scarlett Johansson.
The honor of a Lifetime
By the early 2000s, David Bowie had well and truly established himself as one of the biggest names in music and cinema and was undoubtedly a rock legend with his place in musical history.
This was first cemented in 1996 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, but the most significant honor came in 2006.
This was the year that Bowie’s incredible contribution to the world of music and film was recognized with one of the highest accolades—becoming the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Even after receiving the honor of a lifetime, Bowie continued to delight his fans with new music and creative pursuits. In 2013, he released the album The Next Day, which went straight to number 2 on the Billboard charts.
In 2015, he co-created the off-Broadway rock musical Lazarus, which revisited Bowie’s classic character of the same name from the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth.
But as Bowie continued to create and produce stellar works of art, no one had any idea, the shocking tragedy that was just around the corner.
A Darker Note
On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, he released his 25th album, Blackstar. Critics hailed the album for its creativity and boundary-pushing, particularly praising how it focused on darker issues such as mortality and life’s frailty.
No one had any idea of the right reasons behind this album’s sudden shift to a darker mood. Still, only two days later, the world was hit with some devastating, unexpected news that would explain everything—and give the success of this latest album even more meaning.
Loss of an Icon
Merely two days after his 69th birthday, the world was stunned when David Bowie’s family announced that he had passed away.
Though many people had not been aware of it, the truth was that Bowie had been struggling with liver cancer for the previous year and a half.
“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer,” said a statement on his Facebook page. “While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”
As the world reeled from the devastating news that David Bowie had passed away, the tributes began to roll in for the legendary musical icon.
“David’s friendship was the light of my life,” wrote fellow rock superstar Iggy Pop on Twitter. “I never met such a brilliant person.”
The Rolling Stones also paid tribute to him on their official Twitter page, calling him “a wonderful and kind man” and “a true original.”
And these weren’t the only high profile celebs who paid tribute to the musical legend.
As well as the rock musicians that Bowie had worked with and shared the stage over his glittering career, other famous singers of the day came out to pay tribute for how his legacy had inspired them across generations.
Madonna, who cites David Bowie as one of her biggest influences, wrote on Twitter, “this great Artist changed my life!”
And Kanye West also paid tribute to him, Tweeting, “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations.”
However, though celebs from all over the world came to pay tribute to this musical legend, no one felt his loss more acutely than his beloved family.
“I get the fans’ grief,” Bowie’s widow Iman opened up to Net-a-Porter. “But it’s not the same. They have lost someone they look up to; we have lost a husband and a father.”
Bowie’s son Duncan Jones also described his father as “a big gravitational pull on my life,” but added that he was grateful he got to spend his last moments with him.
“I was very fortunate we got a chance to say our goodbyes,” he said to the Independent.
Even after his death, David Bowie continued to achieve honor and praise for his musical and creative works.
Several months after he had passed away, Bowie’s final album Blackstar swept the board at that year’s Grammys—winning Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, Best Recording Package, Best Alternative Album, and Best Rock Performance.
Bowie’s son Duncan Jones summed it up best in an emotional Tweet stating, “So proud of you, dad! Would hold you up forever”.
Bowie’s musical influence will truly live on forever, and even today, remains an inspiration to us all.