“There is a radius of deep water around him that you dive into in his presence,” said Björk, who performed a duet with Antony in Icelandic on his most recent album.
Such soulful depths mask a flinty determination. “He knows exactly what he wants, and trying to stop him is like trying to stop a freight train,” noted longtime collaborator William Basinski, an ambient sound composer, of the drive that has helped Antony navigate the tricky crossover from club scene to concert stage. When he first arrived in New York in 1990, Antony shaved his head, dyed his eyebrows blue and yellow, and wore slips and combat boots. For good measure, he inked the words fuck off on his forehead to ward off the curious. These days he’s as likely to wear organic cotton T-shirts as he is custom-made capes; onstage he has cocooned himself in mohair sweaters, ruffled collars, and Grecian gowns.
From his earliest days, Antony explained, his gender was ambiguous. “It was always clear to everyone that I was transgender, or whatever they would have interpreted that as being. There was no coming out for a kid like me—I was never in.” The term “transgender,” he was careful to note, encompasses “a huge realm of experience,” with his own definition avoiding easy notions of duality. “I have access to masculine and feminine aspects,” he said, “although obviously there’s a limitation to both of those things. I have an experience that’s unique to being me, which isn’t just being stranded between two things. It’s another frontier, with its own expansive possibilities.”
Only after much hesitation did he reveal that he’s in a romantic relationship. “I give everything,” Antony said, “so I like to put a gentle shroud around these little treasures of privacy.”
Antony began singing as a boy in the choir at his Catholic elementary school, and then in the death rock band he formed as a teenager after his mother bought him a keyboard. Born in 1971, the second of four children, he spent his earliest years southwest of London in Chichester, West Sussex—though his father, an engineer, and his mother, a photographer, moved the family to Holland before settling in San Jose, California, when Antony was 10. At home, his mother blasted Laurie Anderson’s experimental debut, Big Science, and produced slide shows for art museums. “Her sense of fantasy—seeing the world in a more twinkling way—had a big influence on me,” Antony said, recalling the cartoons and crafty things he made as a kid.
At the arts high school he attended, he wore his black hair teased and was “borderline anorexic,” he said, trying to be beautiful “so a man would like me.” By then, he’d discovered Boy George, the first transgender reflection of himself that he saw in the greater world. George’s “intense beauty aesthetic” resonated with Antony, as did his voice, “pouring with emotion.” (Many years later the two sang together on Antony’s “You Are My Sister,” and they remain close.) Of course, David Bowie had flirted with gender-bending a decade earlier, but Antony noted a critical difference: “When Bowie adopted effeminacies, it was plumage, almost the prowess of a mating ritual. Whereas with George it was a revelation of his femininity, which was so much more dangerous because of the extremity of his tenderness and the incredible power of his music.”