ISTANBUL: Touted as the “Turkish Liberace,” late singer Zeki Muren was fond of women’s clothes and outrageous makeup and was held up as a gay icon – an unlikely hero for modern-day Turkey. Yet a new show on his life is pulling in record crowds in Istanbul.
Muren bucked all trends in a country known for its conservatism. He was considered a national treasure by the time of his death in 1996, as dear to the hearts of Turks as Frank Sinatra was to Americans.
He neither confirmed nor denied suggestions he was gay, yet became a hero for the country’s homosexuals. Oddly, this never dented his popularity, even in Turkey’s often homophobic society.
A consummate entertainer, Muren was a beloved movie star as well as a prolific songwriter and eccentric vocalist, a master of sentimental “Turkish art music,” which has its origins in the court music of the Ottoman Empire.
This – and his extravagant clothing, baubles and oversized rings –- earned him the nickname “Turkish Liberace” after the flamboyant U.S. entertainer who died in 1987.
Entitled “Here I am, Zeki Muren” after one of his big hits, the Istanbul exhibition offers a rare look at his extraordinary life. Dozens of photos – from early childhood to flashy stage shows, films, world travels and nights out with stars – along with letters and shimmering artifacts pay homage to his legacy.
In its first 40 days, the show drew a record of 42,000 visitors to the Yapi Kredi Culture Centre in the city’s cosmopolitan Beyoglu district, the most for any exhibition held at the site.
Many said this was a sign that Istanbul cultural life remains vibrant, despite complaints that non-Islamic arts are being squeezed out under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“He’s just a part of our DNA,” said Veysel Ugurlu, one of the curators. “Everyone has heard a Muren song. Visitors say, ‘This is an exhibition about my life.’”
Muren, who never married nor had children, donated all his possessions to the Turkish Educational Foundation and the Turkish Armed Forces prior to his death.
Ugurlu said the material filled 15 trucks and took organizers six months to sort out – dresses, shoes, letters, records, handwritten lyrics – in chronological order to capture the nostalgia.
One room has letters from Muren’s mother Hayriye, addressed to “my one and only, darling son. “You are the world’s sweetest fruit,” a missive reads.
In another, she compares Muren to “a wingless angel brought to this earth from the moon by the Apollo 11 spaceflight.”
Other rooms show his sky-high platform boots, sequined jumpsuit, bejeweled capes and boldly patterned miniskirts, most of them designed by Muren himself.
Known as the first Turkish man to wear a skirt on stage, the star gave affectionate names to his outfits, like “Moon Prince,” “Purple Nights” or “Hero’s Dream.”
“As you know, the gravity on the moon is low,” he once said. “This makes it difficult for astronauts to walk on the moon. That’s why I’m wearing these boots.”
One of the biggest draws in the show is a hand-written recipe for a special “Muren Cocktail” made of of lemon, vodka and cognac, invented by the singer for “long and cold winter nights.”
“But don’t drink too much,” Muren warned. “One glass is enough to make you forget about all your troubles and bring you the sweetest of sweet dreams.”
After a life in front of cameras, Muren even died on stage, suffering a heart attack in 1996 at age 65 while recording a show for TRT national television in the western city of Izmir.
The channel had just given him the microphone he had used in his first radio broadcast in 1951. Overcome with emotion, the singer collapsed a few minutes later.
The entertainer’s death plunged Turkey into mourning.
“He was a groundbreaker. He taught us it’s OK to be different, to think differently, to express yourself differently,” Ugurlu said. “He will remain forever in our memory.”
The show, already extended twice, is now set to run until Jan. 15.