Boy George (July 2017)
When I first met Boy George – lifetimes ago – in the early nineties, everything about him was a melodrama. He could be charming but he was also outrageous. He was always in trouble for saying the first bitchy thing that came into his head. He definitely did not understand boundaries. That was what brought him success but it also brought trouble. At the height of his fame, he was hooked on heroin. Friends and family didn’t expect him to survive. His younger brother even went on national television to expose the addiction, a desperate cry for help. George was always extreme.
We are astral twins. Born on the same day June 14th. We share this bond with Che Guevara and Donald Trump.
After the plea for help, George was arrested for possession. Over the years, his life continued to spiral. The arrests and run-ins with the law stacked up – all awful, predictable stuff. Then, in 2007, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for false imprisonment – he chained a male escort to a radiator.
A decade after this rockiest of rock-bottom moment, he is back on top of the world. After first appearing as a judge on the Voice UK, George has somehow rehabilitated himself via the unlikely medium of mainstream reality television.
In the US earlier this year, he was the runner-up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice. In Australia, he has become a household name once again after a feisty role as a judge on their version of The Voice. In supermarkets down under, kids who are far too young to remember Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me ask for selfies. “It’s funny that I’m so popular with seven, eight, nine years old,” he says. “These kids were really sweet – no attitude. There’s this niceness about Australia, it reminds me of England in the seventies.”
He also finds himself settling back into life on the road. After sporadic reunions, he and the original members of Culture Club set off to tour on a wave of 1980s nostalgia, first in North America (“land of second chances”), now the UK and, towards the end of the year, Australia. “We haven’t had a big row for years,” he says of his bandmates. “Even when we do argue, it gets resolved quickly.”
“I could be more fluid if I did my own tour. With Culture Club, the view is that the audience expects certain things and that’s what we’re going to give them. Rampages on stage are a thing of the past. It’s not that everybody loves everybody but we’re very structured.”
Structure is clearly a new thing in George’s life. After a lifetime of undoings, accelerated by drugs, his years of sobriety have given him clarity. He looks back on the old days with amusement, bemusement and, for the good times, a fair dose of nostalgia but now, as he puts it, “I’m happy.”
Are you in love, I ask the man who sang I Just Wanna Be Loved
Maybe that’s why you’re happy.
“Yes, maybe. I’m not in love but I’m open to persuasion. But I’m quite busy at the moment and I’d rather be working than loving. I’d rather get paid than laid.” Just like the old Boy George. The one who said he preferred a cup of tea to sex.
Work, work, work, then. When he’s not touring, he’s working on his new album. Next year he will have a residency in Vegas with Cyndi Lauper. He’s excited about being a star in Sin City and just how “fluid” that show will be.
But the fluidity has strict limits. Today, he is as dedicated to life as he once was to destroying it. “I talk a lot with my closest friends about happiness,” he says. “I try to find happiness in almost anything. Going to Starbucks, watching videos about new exercises, like ones you can do on a flight when you clench your buttocks.” We practice clenching and he bursts into laughter, neatly exemplifying the point. He likes to fit in a few moves as he walks down the street to Starbucks – if you cross your arms over your chest you burn more calories as you walk. “Finding happiness instead of misery at any given moment is not always easy but I do think it’s the key to survival.”
Food was the last excess to go and, after years struggling with his weight, he’s now back to his skinnier original self. He’s on a regime where he has to wait several hours between eating. Sugar is banned and exercise must be regular but, again, there are limits. “I have been reading articles about naked yoga classes,” he says. “Nudity is the enemy of style and I would never do it.”
George has always been about individual style. He is very anti the selfie generation. “Everybody on Instagram looks the same. Everybody looks like Kim Kardashian. I suppose we had a version of the selfie in the eighties when we would dress up and go to a photo booth but you had to make an effort. You had to have a bit of pioneering spirit. There was never the opportunity for such narcissism before.
Today, he’s using what he learnt in the photo booth to build a burgeoning modelling career.
“I thought if I could do some modelling in my fifties that would be a real triumph,” he says. “You know, you’re always looking at these things as a measure of where you are.” So at 55 he became a model for Dior. “I like to start at the top.”
He’s even taking up a new career in art and he’s planning an exhibition. “It’s a mixture of painting and graphic stuff with a narrative starting in the seventies, being the decade that really shaped me as a person. Glam rock, punk rock, all of the things that have remained my aesthetic. I’ve never lost my love of Vivienne Westwood. I don’t know where the exhibition is going to be but I’m very serious about it, even though it just started off as me doing stuff and people really liked it. A lot of my career moves have been accidental.”
There’s no doubt George looks good but be careful how you tell him that. “It really annoys me when people say you look good for your age,” he says. What does that mean? I’m like fuck off.”
Back in the very beginning of George, there were almost no gay pop stars. Obviously he was gay. He came out to his mum when he was 14. During his acceptance speech for best new artist at the Grammys in 1984, he said: “Thank you America. You know a good drag queen when you see one.” It was, of course, the first thing that came into his head and, even though it was obvious that he was gay, it still made his press agent weep. “It was a period in history where people didn’t want to have it confirmed,” he says now. “Radio stations stopped playing my records. Oh well. Can’t turn the clocks back now.”
George has never hidden who he is, unlike the other eighties George, George Michael. In the eighties, the two Georges were compared constantly “We both were called George. Of course we were rivals.” Boy George had plenty to say about George Michael’s reticence to come out. “It was the eighties. That’s what people did. They were bitchy.”
Boy George said everything that came into his head. George Michael was the opposite. He didn’t use drugs flamboyantly but he used them consistently, and never attempted a clean-up. He only came out after his mother died because he knew she would have worried about AIDS.
“I cried when George died,” he says now. “I felt very sad. You know I was never close to George. We never really became friends. We tried a few times. We had a lot of mutual friends. There were a few evenings where the girls from Bananarama tricked me into going for dinner and he was there and whenever we met we got on great. We had more in common than we didn’t.”
“Don’t you think that there was lots of stuff that was manipulated about him? If shower them with luxuries you are partly to blame as well. I feel you can always separate what you think about somebody on a personal level from what you think about them artistically.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of George Michael’s music recently. I made a playlist the other day as a reaction to when someone put the boyfriend’s 999 call online. I just tweeted ‘I’d rather hear this’.”
People always thought of George Michael as an outsider but Boy George was just as much of an outcast, albeit for different reasons. “Back in the day I used to be not invited to quite a lot of things. Remember that song, Don’t bring Lulu she messes up a party? That was me. During the eighties I would hear about these fabulous Elton parties that I was never invited to. There’s a price for being opinionated.”
Today, he is far from reticent but he is certainly slower to unleash his feelings. “As I grow older I think I get better at being a human being,” he says. “I’ve got better at not saying everything that I think because I do believe in our most intimate relationships, we are held together by the stuff we don’t actually say. I try to not put myself in situations that are bad for me like eating the wrong things, being unreasonable. It doesn’t necessarily stop you doing A, B or C but the clean-up is quicker.”
It’s taken him all of his 56 years to get to this point. For most of his life, his first reaction was an extreme one. He was quick to explode with pain, anger, rage, whatever, and just as quick to get over it. “Perhaps that’s because I grew up with a father who would throw the entire Sunday dinner on the floor and then be, ‘OK let’s put the kettle on.’ He would be fine so everyone else had to be.”
His father Jerry was a boxer and a violent man. When he walked out on his mother after three decades of marriage in which they raised six children, their relationship broke down altogether. They made up shortly before he died and these very different days, George enjoys boxing as part of his fitness repertoire. But he has had plenty of time to process his feelings on fame and bad behaviour.
“When you are successful, people allow bad behaviour just to get things done,” he says. “For instance if a record company is trying to get you on a TV show and you are behaving appallingly they condone your behaviour just to get you to the microphone. If that is repeated over a period of time, you start to think it’s OK. The good side of things that I learnt from my father is don’t dwell. I don’t hold grudges. There isn’t anybody in the world I wish harm to but I said some things that I shouldn’t have just to get a laugh.”
One thing he hasn’t got over easily was the death of David Bowie. Without Bowie there would have been no Boy George, no Culture Club. He was the major influence on the teenage George O’Dowd. “I knew he wasn’t well but you never know how unwell,” he says. “He first got ill in 2002. We were talking a lot during that time and then, quite suddenly, communication halted. I never really understood why. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong so I took it personally. We were never big mates but I did feel like he was my family. The first time I met him I’d just been dropped by Virgin and I was backstage at a Nine Inch Nails and Bowie gig. All the heads of Virgin were there so it was awkward and then Bowie opened his dressing room door and shouted “Georgie Boy!” and gave me a big hug. He was very real, very genuine but, of course, he was complex too. He managed to create this mystery around him. The worst thing that could ever happen is that people think you’re ordinary.”
Of course, he’s right. Ordinary is bad for business, but isn’t it also important if you want to stay sane, saty balanced?
“I don’t know, maybe,” he says. “Maybe nowadays, I can be ordinary.”
To the point of settling down.
“No, that’s not for me. Everyone thinks I’m alone and miserable but I have suitors. I’ll never go hungry. When people say where is this going, I say why does that matter? In that respect, I’m an old-fashioned gay man. I like that fact that being gay exempts you from the military. Gay marriage? Of course you should be able to do whatever you want but I don’t want to marry anybody. I’m happy with my own company. I can close the door and watch TV. I can have people come to stay but I like to see the return ticket.
“I don’t do the App thing. The worst thing that could happen with one of those is ‘Do you know who you look like?’ I prefer a cool customer. I’m not interested in anyone who’s a little bit eager. If there are 30 people in the room I’ll be interested in the one who isn’t giving me attention. “
With sobriety comes emotional self-sufficiency. Or maybe that was always there. “I think I am emotionally self-sufficient. I think you have to like yourself. I’m quick to judge and quick to say I was wrong about all sorts of things. Of course I make mistakes. Some people are exciting to be around and that’s fun. Too much of it is exhausting.”
I leave the new Boy George checking out the contents of the many hat boxes in his room, just a small part of his distinctly unordinary collection of beloved, bejewelled head gear. He is still exciting to be around. He is a long way from ordinary but he’s a long way from the old Boy George too. He’s survived the dark years, he’s paid the price of fame and he’s happy on this side of the boundary.