Did David Bowie have different coloured eyes? The story behind his distinctive gaze

5 July 2024, 11:51

David Bowie in 1966
David Bowie in 1966. Picture: Getty Images

By Mayer Nissim

All the joy I see thru' these architect's eyes...

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As a singer, songwriter and actor, David Bowie was one of the most striking stars of the 20th (and early 21st) century.

He also had an absolutely unique look, which went beyond his often dazzling hair and snazzy wardrobe.

Some of the greatest photographs of Bowie show off his most distinctive physical characteristic: his eyes.

At a quick glance, it can look like David Bowie has two different coloured eyes.

That wouldn't be impossible. Some people are born with two eyes being a totally different colour.

Eye colour comes from the amount of melanin (a natural skin pigment) that's present in the iris – that's the coloured bit in your eye around the pupil that regulates how much light gets in your eye.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1973
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1973. Picture: Getty Images

There's a very complicated interplay of genes that results in different eye colours, and some people with heterochromia iridum or heterochromia iridis (literally "different colours in the iris") can have a rare expression of those genes.

Other people can have different coloured eyes not as a result of their genes, but because of physical trauma when they're born or later in life. But that's not the case with David Bowie.

David Bowie did suffer some ocular trauma when he was young, that's true.

In 1962, when Bowie was nearly 15, he had a serious bust-up with his best friend George Underwood.

A David Bowie portrait circa Aladdin Sane
A David Bowie portrait circa Aladdin Sane. Picture: Getty Images

"We both liked the same girl, Carol Goldsmith, so I invited her to a party David got absolutely rat-arsed, but I stayed sober and asked Carol out, and she said, 'Yes, next Wednesday at the youth club'," George told Mojo years later.

"David was a competitive sort, and he was furious. On the day, he phoned me and said, 'She doesn't want to go out with you; she asked me to tell you'.

"I thought, Oh well, but went out anyway, and another friend said, 'You're late. Carol waited and then left.' David's call was complete bollocks, and when I later heard him boasting about how he'd got off with her, I saw red.

"I hit him. I didn't know until a week later that he'd been rushed to hospital, so I went to see him and said, 'It's not worth it over a girl', and we stayed friends."

Liza Jane

During the altercation, Underwood thwacked Bowie right in the face. Hard. His knuckle connected with David's left eye. Apparently, his fingernail scratched the eyeball. Ouch.

"I wasn't really a fighter when I was younger but I literally just went up to him and hit him," George later told The Tab. "Probably also to prove to my friends that I was capable of getting my own back."

Bowie actually was hospitalised for several weeks. He had two operations, and thankfully didn't lose the eye.

But his iris muscles were paralysed, leaving Bowie with a condition called anisocoria: his pupils were a different size. In David's case, the condition was permanent.

David Bowie in 1975
David Bowie in 1975. Picture: Getty Images

So while Bowie's irises were both the same colour (a pretty blue), his left eye was left permanently dilated. From a short distance, it looked like they were different colours, but they weren't.

“Funnily enough he did say I did him a favour, later on," George said.

"I’m not exactly proud of it, but no one knew that was going to happen. I just wanted to give him a black eye because of the girl, that was about it – I didn’t think it was going to be a lasting mark."

The truth was, George felt terrible. And while this all started with David being a sneaky so-and-so, you'd have understood if he'd broken off their friendship given how serious his injury was.

David Bowie explains why his pupils look different (1987)

But Bowie forgave Underwood, and they stuck together, making music as members of the The Konrads and The King Bees.

Later on, George even worked as a freelance artist on the sleeves of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

Bowie had previously recommended George to his pal Marc Bolan to do the sleeve of the My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, by the band then-known as Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Bowie later confirmed that he could see out of his injured eye, but that his vision was somewhat "hazy" through it.

David Bowie as Halloween Jack in 1974
David Bowie as Halloween Jack in 1974. Picture: Getty Images

If you're wondering about whether Bowie's "Halloween Jack" character had anything to do with protecting his injured eye... nope!

Bowie's short-lived eyepatch era saw him with his right eye – his good eye – covered up.

The story goes that David actually was suffering from a bout of conjunctivitis which he decided to cover up with the patch, and liked the look so much he kept it a little while longer.

And that wasn't the end of the story of David Bowie's poor eyes.

David Bowie playing with Tin Machine at Brixton Academy in 1991
David Bowie playing with Tin Machine at Brixton Academy in 1991. Picture: Getty Images

On November 11, 1991, David was playing with Tin Machine at the Brixton Academy. During the performance of 'Goodbye Mr Ed', two songs in, someone flung a Marlboro cigarette packet onto the stage. It hit him right in his left eye.

He got patched up with a dressing, but apparently, the damage wasn't too serious and the bandage had gone by the end of the show.

But there was even worse to come. When she was playing at the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, Norway on June 19, 2004, some idiot in the crowd flung a lollipop on the stage.

Never the luckiest when it came to all things ocular, the lollipop somehow LODGED RIGHT IN BOWIE'S LEFT EYE. One of his crew legged it onto the stage and helped remove the offending confectionery, and Bowie carried on the show.

Lollipop hits Bowie's eye

"Where are you, creep?" Bowie is heard saying on an audio recording from the night in question.

"I guess it’s easier to get lost in the crowd, you bastard. Do remember? I’ve only got one, anyway. Fortunately, that’s the one that works. So I’ll find you.”

“Do remember? I’ve only got one, anyway. Fortunately, that's the one that works. So I’ll find you. The other one has become a little bit more decorative than it was before. Please keep your affection to yourself."

If you've seen a very cool painting of the incident doing the rounds online, it's not a self-portrait by Bowie, but apparently by Scottish artist Karen Orr.