The cult singer rediscovered on TikTok

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Few pop stars have been quite as unique as the otherworldly maverick Nomi, who became the talk of the town in late-1970s New York. Forty years on from his untimely death, Nick Levine considers his legacy.

“Will they know me, know me, know me now?” That’s the question asked by visionary German singer and performance artist Klaus Nomi on Nomi Song, a self-referential gem from his eponymous debut album, first released in 1981. That LP, along with the rest of Nomi’s slender but influential catalogue, has recently been reissued to mark the 40th anniversary of his death. When Nomi died on 6th August 1983, aged just 39, he became one of the first high-profile figures to be claimed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.


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In the subsequent four decades, Nomi’s reputation has remained cult, even as his influence has been celebrated by mainstream figures. But thanks to TikTok, where clips of his performances have been viewed 4.8 million times, a new generation is discovering that this fascinating performer with a startling operatic voice is so much more than the David Bowie associate he is sometimes pigeonholed as.

“Klaus Nomi is a high-level queer reference point,” says George Heyworth, one half of British alternative cabaret duo Bourgeois & Maurice, who cite the idiosyncratic German as a major inspiration.

Nomi was famous for performing in heavy make-up and a black-and-white plastic tuxedo suit (Credit: Getty Images)

Nomi was famous for performing in heavy make-up and a black-and-white plastic tuxedo suit (Credit: Getty Images)

Lady Gaga, who was born nearly three years after Nomi died, has said that, during her formative years, she was “fascinated with” Nomi and another performance artist, the outlandish Australian Leigh Bowery. “I grew up with them, and sort of naturally became the artist I am today,” she told The Guardian in 2011. 

When Kylie Minogue performed at Glastonbury music festival in 2019, she was joined by a male backing dancer who paid homage to Nomi by wearing heavy white makeup and an imitation of his famous black-and-white plastic tuxedo suit. Sharing a picture of herself with the Nomi-alike, Minogue tweeted: “Spirit of Klaus”.

I really think he’s out there on his own. That’s the magic of Nomi for me: there isn’t anything like him, before or since – Olivia Laing

Nomi has also influenced fashion – Marc Jacobs, Jean Paul Gaultier and Bruno Pieters have all paid homage to his signature style – and inspired writing. In her acclaimed 2016 book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, British author Olivia Laing explores the way in which Nomi and several other artists including Andy Warhol convey an ineffable sense of loneliness in their work.

“I really think he’s out there on his own,” Laing tells BBC Culture. She describes Nomi as “an alien keening for his home planet” because of his unique look and vocal style. “That’s the magic of Nomi for me: there isn’t anything like him, before or since,” Laing adds.

An elusive genius

A certain otherworldly quality is Nomi’s hallmark, arguably heightened by his untimely passing, which only makes him seem more elusive as time goes on. However, Nomi’s alien-like persona also defined him when he was alive, and definitely enraptured David Bowie, who recruited Nomi and best friend and fellow performance artist Joey Arias to appear as uncommonly avant-garde backing singers for a famous 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

During his performance of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie wears a plastic tuxedo suit so unwieldy that Nomi and Arias literally have to carry him to and from the microphone stand. And during a medley of Bowie’s hits TVC15 and Boys Keep Swinging, Nomi delivers robotic dance moves alongside an inanimate pink poodle with a tiny TV screen in its mouth. The overall impression is deeply surreal, even today.

At the start of an 1982 interview on Belgian TV, a reporter asks Nomi, who is wearing an oversized trench coat and a bowler hat as along with his usual heavy makeup: “Who are you? Are you a mutant or a CIA agent?” Nomi’s reply is modest and ambiguous. “I’m just a regular person, I suppose, and I’m an artist,” he says.

Arias, who has served as the executor of Nomi’s estate since his friend’s death in 1983, says Nomi’s space-age style developed gradually and organically. When they first met in New York City in 1976, Nomi was working as a pastry chef, and still using his birth name, Klaus Sperber. “He was wearing a fedora, aviator glasses, a pinstripe shirt, beige Brooks Brothers chinos and a pair of penny loafers,” Arias recalls.

Nomi (far left) and Joey Arias (second from left) were backing singers for David Bowie (sitting, left) in a memorable Saturday Night Live performance (Credit: Getty Images)

Nomi (far left) and Joey Arias (second from left) were backing singers for David Bowie (sitting, left) in a memorable Saturday Night Live performance (Credit: Getty Images)

Arias also remembers that Sperber “made a good living” by supplying his “delicious cakes, cookies and pies” to high-end clients, including the World Trade Center. Before he moved to New York City in 1972, the Bavaria-born Sperber worked as an usher at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, and sang opera numbers at a gay club called Kleist Casino.

But when he and Arias first became friends, Sperber was only singing “once a year in a church at Christmas”. The two men bonded over a mutual love of everything from vintage rock ‘n’ roll to Billie Holiday, but for his annual church performance, Nomi would always sing an aria from one of his favourite operas.

The night that changed everything

Sperber’s transformation into Klaus Nomi began when he found a flyer for the New Wave Vaudeville Show, an anything-goes cabaret showcase that would take place at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza in 1978. He decided he wanted to take part, but knew he would have to reinvent himself to stand out.

“He said to me, ‘I can’t go as Klaus Sperber – that’s not a star’s name!'” Arias recalls. Instead, Klaus and his friend Adrian Richards rearranged the letters of sci-fi magazine Omni to give him an intriguingly ambiguous stage name: Klaus Nomi. “It was kind of like saying, ‘Do you know me?'” Arias says.

Klaus is proof that you can become something amazing if you want to, in spite of prejudice – Joey Arias

On the night, Klaus Nomi’s debut performance was a revelation. Black-and-white footage that appears in the 2004 documentary film The Nomi Song shows him singing Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix, an aria from Camille Saint-Saëns’s 1877 opera Samson et Dalila.

Nomi’s crystalline countertenor vocals transported the listener back to the previous century, but his latex space suit and robotic movements, both elegant and enigmatic, seemed to come from the future. “The place went bananas,” Arias recalls. “It was totally pop, but also surreal and weird and beautiful and very Downtown New York.”

Thanks to its inclusion in The Nomi Song (and ready availability on YouTube), this formative performance continues to cast a heady spell. “It’s sort of floating above what you would normally expect from cabaret, and that was a big inspiration for us,” says Heyworth. His Bourgeois & Maurice bandmate Liv Morris adds: “The fact Klaus gave a performance of that calibre at a late-night queer event definitely showed us what was possible when we were starting out on [London’s] cabaret scene.”

Kylie Minogue's celebrated 2019 Glastonbury set featured a Klaus Nomi lookalike (Credit: Getty Images)

Kylie Minogue’s celebrated 2019 Glastonbury set featured a Klaus Nomi lookalike (Credit: Getty Images)

After the New Wave Vaudeville Show, Arias says “everything fell into place” for his friend. Nomi was booked to perform at edgy Manhattan venues including Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club and assembled a backing band that included Kristian Hoffman, who would go on to write some of his best-loved songs, including Total Eclipse and Simple Man.

Nomi also gave himself a “sort of Mohawk” hairstyle to exaggerate his receding hairline. Combined with his ghostly white makeup, his patented alien-like appearance took shape. Nomi soon built such a buzz that Bowie, always a savvy talent scout, befriended him and Arias, then hatched the Saturday Night Live performance. According to Arias, the rock icon told them beforehand: “People are gonna freak out when they see this, and your careers are gonna blast off.”

His short recording career

Bowie wasn’t wrong. Shortly afterwards, Nomi signed a record deal with the European arm of Bowie’s label, RCA, leading to the release of his self-titled debut album in 1981. Though Nomi is generally associated with the new wave scene that emerged from punk, his music is too disparate and theatrical to fit this mould.

His music is amazing. It’s not cabaret and it’s not camp – it sort of defies categorisation – George Heyworth.

On his eponymous debut, he saw no reason not to blend operatic arias with electronic beats and impish pop covers. Among the highlights is a cover of Lesley Gore’s proto-feminist song You Don’t Own Me, on which he changes the titular refrain in some instances to “you don’t know me” – another play on his stage name – and delivers the line “Don’t say I can’t go with other boys” with a queer-coded wink.

“His music is amazing. It’s not cabaret and it’s not camp – it sort of defies categorisation,” says Heyworth. Laing points out that “what makes Nomi so unique vocally is the combination of his beautiful countertenor [voice] and the bizarre and wonderful things he does with it”. She also notes that no one else has “brought that kind of operatic sound into pop”.

Because Nomi’s recordings are so distinctive, it feels especially tragic that his second album, 1982’s Simple Man, would be his last. (A third album, Encore, featuring a mix of old and new work, was released posthumously in 1983) Among the highlights are After the Fall, a poignant ballad written by Hoffman that seems to predict an apocalypse. Bourgeois & Maurice have covered it on their upcoming album Pleasure Seekers because, Morris says, it felt “especially relevant” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bruno Pieters' Hugo Boss collection, above, is among the fashion that has been inspired by Nomi (Credit: Alamy)

Bruno Pieters’ Hugo Boss collection, above, is among the fashion that has been inspired by Nomi (Credit: Alamy)

Nomi was taken by an earlier pandemic, HIV/AIDS, just nine months after Simple Man was released. Arias believes his friend could have become “one of the biggest acts in the world” if he hadn’t become ill, but he takes comfort in the fact that Nomi continues to resonate with anyone who has a unique viewpoint. “Klaus is proof that you can become something amazing if you want to, in spite of prejudice,” Arias says. “He was excited about life and he took chances, and that’s something that will always inspire people.”

Klaus Nomi’s albums have all been reissued to mark the 40th anniversary of his death and are available now

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