Context. Optical observations from 1989 of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) B[e] supergiant star LHA 115–S 23 (in short: S 23) revealed the presence of photospheric Hei absorption lines, classifying S 23 as a B8 supergiant. In our high-resolution optical spectra from 2000, however, we could not identify any Hei line. Instead, the spectral appearance of S 23 is more consistent with the classification as an A1 supergiant, maintaining the so-called B[e] phenomenon. Aims. The observed changes in spectral behaviour of S 23 lead to different spectral classifications at different observing epochs. The aim of this research is, therefore, to find and discuss possible scenarios that might cause a disappearance of the photospheric Hei absorption lines within a period of only 11 years. Methods. From our high-resolution optical spectra, we perform a detailed investigation of the different spectral appearances of S 23 based on modern and revised classification schemes. In particular, we derive the contributions caused by the interstellar as well as the circumstellar extinction self-consistently. The latter is due to a partly optically thick wind. We further determine the projected rotational velocities of S 23 in the two epochs of spectroscopic observations. Results. Based on its spectral appearance in 2000, we classify S 23 as A1 Ib star with an effective temperature of about 9000 K. This classification is supported by the additional analysis of the photometric UBV data. An interstellar extinction value of $E(B-V) \simeq 0.03$ is derived. This is considerably lower than the previously published value, which means that, if the circumstellar extinction due to the stellar wind is neglected, the interstellar extinction, and hence the luminosity of the star, are overestimated. We further derive a rotation velocity of $\nu \sin i \simeq 150$ km s -1 , which means that S 23 is rotating with about 75% of its critical speed. The object S 23 is thus the fourth B[e] supergiant with confirmed high projected rotational velocity. The most striking result is the apparent cooling of S 23 by more than 1500 K with a simultaneous increase of its rotation speed by about 35% within only 11 years. Since such a behaviour is excluded by stellar evolution theories, we discuss possible scenarios for the observed peculiar variations in S 23.

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