"My whole professional life is an act," the singer told PEOPLE

By Nick Maslow
January 11, 2016 02:55 PM

In 1976, David Bowie was a 29-year-old androgynous enigma whose skilled manipulation of gender roles paved the way for the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga.

“I am an actor,” he told PEOPLE in his September cover story promoting his movie The Man Who Fell to Earth that year. “My whole professional life is an act. I slip from one guise to another very easily. One guise plays into another, and the extreme comments force it into another direction.”

The late rocker‘s name conjures images of colorful alter egos – including the lightning bolt-barring face of Aladdin Sane and leotard-donning Ziggy Stardust – but Bowie’s road to reinvention started when he was a schoolboy in south London. Teachers sought to correct his lefthandedness, but it only “cemented into me the idea that I’d have to invent my own world to be fulfilled,” he said.

David Bowie on the cover of PEOPLE in September 1976

Despite his interest in painting and a short-lived career in advertising design, music ultimately offered him the escape he sought out. “I wanted my freedom quickly and looked for a profession that would let me be eccentric and express all my idiocies,” Bowie told PEOPLE.

His birth name David Jones wouldn’t be part of the journey to stardom. As he told PEOPLE, Jones was traded for Bowie in 1965 because it was “the ultimate American knife.” He noted that Bowie “is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions. I have no confidence in David Jones as a public figure.”

As brave Bowie, the star wielded his pop culture influence by introducing the concept of sexual fluidity. Indeed, he became the first rock musician to publicly identify as bisexual. (“I was hitting on everybody,” he said in an interview with the BBC in 1997. “I had a wonderfully, irresponsible promiscuous time.”)

But, to PEOPLE in ’76, Bowie said that his bisexuality was “just a lie,” adding, “they gave me that image so I stuck to it pretty well.” (However, he also added that he’s “proud” that he never tried to hide his sexuality.)

Still, Bowie separated himself from his persona in that early chapter of his life. “He’s like a Lego kit,” he explained to PEOPLE. “I’m convinced I wouldn’t like him, because he’s too vacuous and undisciplined.”

Ever a mystery, he added, “There is no definitive David Bowie.”

The artist continued pushing boundaries leading up to his death. In “Lazarus,” his final music video released on Tuesday, Bowie alluded to the end of his battle with cancer. Lying in a hospital bed, Bowie sings, “Look up here – I’m in heaven.”

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