|Known for||Therapist, make-up artist, photographer, teacher and body painter|
Carolyn Cowan (born 1960) is a London-based psychosexual and relationship therapist. Prior to her career as a therapist, she was a fashion designer and photographer. During the 1980s, she earned acclaim as a makeup artist in the pop music video industry.
Cowan was born in 1960, the eldest of three children of fashion photographer John Cowan and Syddy Cooper. She grew up in Chelsea, London and was exposed to fashion at a young age, often posing as a child model for her father. In 1964, her parents divorced and her mother eventually married a broker at Lloyd's who took care of the family financially. Cowan has said that the loss of her father led to depression and eventually contributed to substance abuse. "Instead of blaming my father for his desertion, I idolized him and dreamed of the day he would reappear in my life. I would regularly abscond from the school in Sussex and take the train to London to look for my father. I was so obsessed with tracking him down that I would wander the streets of Chelsea, hoping to run into him. I never did."
During that period, John Cowan leased his studio at 39 Princes Place to Michelangelo Antonioni for interior and exterior filming of the film Blowup. His photographic murals are featured in the film. He also shot the title stills for 2001 A Space Odyssey.
From age 11 to 16, Cowan attended a Catholic boarding school, which she has called "a horrible experience," due to the abusive staff. During that time, she would often escape to the city to take art courses at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a way "to get out of school." When she was 16, she left school and moved to London with her then-boyfriend, music composer Hans Zimmer. It was around that time that she learned from a family friend that her father had returned to London. In an effort to reconnect with him, she invented a false name and went to see him at his agent's office on the pretense that she wanted a job as an assistant.
“I walked in there and there he was. I hoped for so much to come from our meeting but I was in for the worst possible disillusionment. He laughed in my face when I told him I was his daughter and said he wanted nothing to do with me." A year later, Cowan learned from her father's agent that he had died of lung cancer.
Early professional life
While in her early 20s, Cowan met members of the Italian group Krisma, a new wave band formed in 1976 with Maurizio Arcieri and Christina Moser. The lead singer of the band, Moser, allowed Cowan to paint her face for shows. Soon Cowan was doing body painting and wanted to become a makeup artist.
She returned to England and worked in the pop music video industry. She would eventually work with such personalities as Bryan Ferry, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, who were part of the booming 1980s video music industry. She also worked with singer Steve Strange. Among her achievements during that time was helping Duran Duran "perfect their decadent, glamorous look" for the music video of their hit song "Rio" and travelling to the South of France to film Elton John's video for "I'm Still Standing", where "everyone was flying around in their own private helicopters, including me."
Turmoil and David Bowie's intervention
By the time Cowan was 28, her life of excess was taking a toll. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol. "I was chain-smoking cigars as ordinary cigarettes weren't strong enough and regardless of the amount of alcohol and drugs I was taking, nothing could kill my pain." At 31, she remembered going to her younger sister's birthday party and looking in the mirror and being shocked by her appearance. "I was bloated, had bad skin and looked both exhausted and cynical."
During the summer of 1991, while in Dublin to do David Bowie's makeup for a video, Cowan said her life changed dramatically. "David Bowie took one look at me, hung-over, red-eyed and incoherent, and told me I was in trouble. He was in recovery from drug addiction and badly wanted me to get well, too." Cowan said Bowie encouraged her to stay sober and attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. By 31 July 1991, she had given up smoking, drugs and alcohol and changed her line of work, now focusing on photography.
During a 2011 interview, Cowan said that people sometimes need to reach a point of no return to grow and change. "Unless you hit something like depression, illness, death or addition there is no change. The moment you jump off that metaphorical cliff into the darkness you can always recognize other people who have done the same."
Photography, yoga and meditation
During the early 1990s, Cowan began a career as a photographer. Among her first jobs was an Ilford Photo-sponsored trip to India to photograph nomads. While there, she was exposed to Hindu spirituality and Sikhism, which would later fuel her passion for yoga and meditation. "I preferred this idea of choosing your experiences and transformation, that you can have all your past and drama and that could be your mountain on which you stand. Like the root of a tree that you become."
Cowan has been acclaimed for her photography, which includes nudes and family portraits. “Today we are so defined by the exterior, labels and what we wear. Clothes hide and mask who we really are. But if you take it away we are nothing else but ourselves. I am fascinated by bodies, regardless one being skinny, not skinny, fat, obese, wrinkled, aged or young. There is beauty in absolutely everything, even in a nude body, which is not perfect as none of us are. There is beauty in human vulnerability."
In her photography, Cowan said she strives to show the "magical spark" inside her subjects. "When I take a picture of someone it is always about redemption, a way of liberation if you prefer."
In 2010, Cowan made a series of photographs for She magazine with scarred women whose bodies had survived traumas. One image shows a woman who was run over by a truck across her pelvis, another woman had her breast cut off because of cancer, and another image shows a girl with a scar across her chest from a lung transplant. In an interview, Cowan said she wanted to make the women "look magnificent, as they truly are. This was also about empowerment and confidence." Her photos are featured on the art photography blog The Pandorian.
Psychosexual and relationship therapy
Cowan's professional life is now largely focused on her work as a psychosexual and relationship therapist. She is a member of the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT) and the Association of the Treatment of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (ATSAC). She works in all manners of addictive behaviours and sexual dysfunction, including working with same-sex couples, pre- and post-natal relationships, and sexual issues.
Cowan is one of a growing number of sex therapists who do not believe in the traditional concept of sexual addition. Going against current assumptions and trends, she debunks the idea that sex addiction is real. Instead, she says, the current concept of "sex addiction" is a belief system, supported by faith, moral conviction and religious principles, that represents an attack on sexuality and its expression. It was originally devised, as a system, in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, and does not support recovery from trauma, an abusive background, mental illness, etc. in its concepts and applications, she says. Cowan believes that labelling behaviours as sex addiction asserts a false, dangerous myth that undermines personal responsibility.
Cowan has been involved in a campaign to help gay men recover from addictions to "chem sex," an emerging practice in London and European cities of injecting illicit synthetic drugs before engaging in risky sexual practices. She is currently working on a campaign to promote the hashtag "#sobersex" for gay men seeking chem-free sex.
In addition to her work as a therapist, Cowan is also an international Kundalini yoga teacher who specialises in preparing mothers for birth. She runs a training called A Mother's Journey in which she trains midwives and health professionals to become active birth teachers and pregnancy yoga teachers. She also provides training for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction as well as sexual compulsion, porn addiction, shopping, gambling and cutting. The Mastering the Addictive Personality Teacher Training course certifies the practitioner to work in prisons and rehab centres.
Cowan also teaches at the annual Mind Body Spirit Festival in London.
She has produced numerous DVDs about vegetarian cooking, conscious pregnancy, overcoming addictive personalities and the art of meditation. She has been a spokeswoman and trainer for the charity Action on Addiction, and performed at the Mind Body Spirit festival in 2011. During an interview in 2006, Cowan described yoga as "a wonderful way of uniting the body and soul, and has been a crucial part of my recovery."
Cowan teaches body painting at the University of the Arts London.
Cowan lives in South London and has two children, Louis and Isadora.
Exhibitions and shows
- (1996) Indian High Commission
- (1997) Egg
- (1998) Horniman Museum
- (1998) The Sun and Doves
- (1999) Bhuj Museum, India
- (2010) Lingering Whispers
- (2011) City of Women – Slovenia
- (2012) WeDo Gallery, Bangkok
- Becky Sheaves. "David Bowie Saved My Life!" The Daily Mail, 17 October 2006.
- Staff writer. "On the Trail of the Swinging Sixties – 'Blow-Up', Antonioni's Cult Film, Hit Our Screens 40 Years Ago. Robert Nurden Goes in Search of the Places Used for Filming, from Notting Hill to a Neglected Park in a Little-Known Corner of South-East London" The Independent, 10 September 2006.
- "Carolyn Cowan Interview". Archived from the original on 10 December 2011.
- "Carolyn Cowan".