‘Bowie said he’d sell his soul to be famous’: Suzi Ronson on sex, ruthless ambition – and dyeing David’s hair red | David Bowie

One Saturday morning early in the summer of 1971, Suzi Ronson was busy at work at the Evelyn Paget hair salon on Beckenham High Street when a couple walked past pushing a pram. The woman was wearing black jeans and a furry jacket, the man was in a flowing gold midi dress. “Everybody rushed out to have a look,” recalls Ronson, who then went by her maiden name Fussey. “Everyone was like nudging, poking each other, asking, ‘Who’s that?’ Then someone whispered, ‘It’s David Bowie.’”

Ronson had vaguely heard of Bowie: the success of his Space Oddity single had made him a local celebrity and the singer’s mother was a client. But she recalls: “He was in an arty clique, not my world.” However Ronson would end up becoming part of Bowie’s world, the only working woman in his touring party – as her new memoir Me and Mr Jones relates.

Bowie and his wife Angie lived on the middle floor of a mansion called Haddon Hall, in the south London suburb of Beckenham. Stepping inside it felt like entering another world. “I’d never met people like this before,” says Ronson. “There were gay guys – I had never met anyone overtly gay before – and there was Daniella, who was West Indian with a cockney accent, hair the colour of an egg yolk with big brown eyes. I was only three miles from home but it might as well have been a foreign land.”

‘He was a dick for not telling his bandmates he was killing off Ziggy’ … Ronson today. Photograph: Alecsandra Dragoi/The Guardian

And at the centre of it all were the Bowies. Ronson had been invited to Haddon Hall by Angie, whose hair she had cut. “They wanted to change David’s look,” says Ronson, “and Angie knew I was willing to experiment.” Bowie showed Ronson a magazine photograph of a model used by the Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto. The model had short, red spiky hair and the singer asked if she could copy that. So Ronson got to work. “It was the colour that really sold them,” she says. “I used fantasy colours – Schwarzkopf Red Hot – from the salon. God knows why we had them in Beckenham. No one used them.” That day, the Ziggy Stardust hairstyle was born.

Ronson was welcomed into Bowie’s circle, finding it both unsettling and intoxicating. “I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood,” she says. “My family were a little fucked up so I left school at 15 and was always looking for an escape.” Bowie offered that escape and soon Ronson was on the payroll as hairdresser for the band. It’s clear from Me and Mr Jones just how influential Angie was on Bowie’s and Ronson’s lives and careers.

‘Tall, cool and bold as brass’ … Bowie and his first wife, Angie. Photograph: Zak Hussein/Corbis/Getty Images

“Angie was American, she was tall, cool and as bold as brass,” recalls Ronson. “I couldn’t believe how amazing she was.” Angie championed Ronson, to ensure she was given a paid position by Bowie’s manager – making the fact Ronson slept with Bowie somewhat awkward. Bowie had invited her to Haddon Hall ostensibly for a haircut but had other intentions. “It was scary as hell,” says Ronson. “I could have lost my job if I slept with him, or if I didn’t. David marked his territory. He slept with everybody. I mean, everybody slept with David – and Angie appeared to encourage it.”

When Ronson went on tour with Bowie, her role stretched beyond hairdressing: she would dye his jockstrap red and iron the sweat from his stage outfit. “There were many costume changes,” she says. “So David would come to the wings where I would be standing with a glass of red wine and a Gitanes cigarette. While Mick [Ronson] was playing his guitar, I would change David’s clothes.”

By the time the tour reached the US, Bowie’s fame was growing, as was his female fan base. “They were insane and they had money,” recalls Ronson. “They would follow us around. They’d catch the plane – and they had their own rooms in our hotel.”

Ronson was responsible for deciding which female fans were invited to meet the band. “I would say, ‘Do you want to come and meet the guys?’ I would tell them I could get them on to the tour bus.” She would stand on the bus steps waving the prettiest girls and boys aboard. Ronson writes about introducing a 16-year-old girl to Bowie. They end up in Bowie’s hotel room and then the girl’s mother comes to the hotel angrily demanding to know where her daughter is.

In her book, Ronson describes the scene in almost comic terms but surely looking back … “Oh God,” she says, before I can even form the question. “Horrified. Can you imagine if it had been my daughter?” Did she regret her role as “tour madam” (her words)? “I should’ve age-checked girls as they got on the bus,” she says, “‘but that girl had full makeup on and looked about 20.”

Did she have any regrets? “I was just caught up in that whole world and they certainly wanted to be there,” she says. “I was not dragging anybody in there.” But, she adds, “I was a bit complicit with that girl – if I had not facilitated it, that girl would have gone home after the concert with her mum.”

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‘It might as well have been a foreign land’ … Bowie at Haddon Hall in Beckenham, London, in 1971. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

The Ziggy Stardust tour began in Britain and visited the US and Japan before returning to the UK. The final show was at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on 3 July 1973. Ronson remembers being backstage towards the end of the gig as Bowie told the audience this was “the last show that we’ll ever do”. She had been tipped off that Bowie was intending on killing off Ziggy, but for the rest of the band the news came as a shock. “He had had enough and he was exhausted,” says Ronson, “but he was a dick for not telling Woody and Trevor.” She is referring to Mick “Woody” Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder, the respectively drummer and bass-player with the Spiders from Mars.

In her book, Ronson describes Bowie’s treatment of his band as a display of “raw, naked ambition, and a bloody-mindedness that is particular to a few people”. Mick Ronson, who later became her husband, was hugely influential in Bowie’s rise but was treated and paid poorly. “David was a folk singer before Mick came along,” she says. “Mick transformed him both on stage and in the studio. Mick had done all the arrangements and he found the members of the band, but we later found out he was being paid 50 quid a week. I was being paid £20 and I was the hairdresser.”

The demise of Ziggy Stardust also marked the end of Suzi’s working relationship with Bowie. She went on to join Mick on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour, finding herself around the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell before moving to Woodstock and then Long Island. Despite being at his side during the Ziggy days, that final night in Hammersmith was the last time she saw Bowie.

The £50 guitarist … Suzi and Mick Ronson in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

The book ends in 1977 with Suzi marrying Mick. Since then, she has spent her time raising their daughter Lisa and working in various music industry jobs. Lisa has yet to read the book. “I never told her I slept with David Bowie,” says Ronson, “so that is going to be a bit of a surprise.” Mick died in 1993 from liver cancer but, just before that, Bowie asked him to play on his album Black Tie White Noise. He performed on a cover of Cream’s I Feel Free, and the album was released in April 1993. Mick died later that month.

Me and Mr Jones concludes with a coda: Suzi Ronson learning via a phone call that Bowie had died. It was January 2016. Not long after that, she was contacted by a producer at the Moth, a New York-based nonprofit group dedicated to the art of storytelling, asking if she wanted to tell her story in front of a live audience. Ronson wrote a 15-minute story called The Girl from Beckenham, which she later performed in London. Its success is what inspired her to work on a full-length book, revisiting her past and re-evaluating the man who so changed her life. “David used to say he would sell his soul to be famous,” she says. “But he was also otherworldly – and you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”

Me and Mr Jones: My Life with David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars by Suzi Ronson is published on 4 April (Faber & Faber)

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