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.