Yes, there was THAT stretch in prison, drug addiction and a spell spent sweeping the streets of New York – but Boy George is nothing if not a chameleon, and he tells Event how he’s reinvented himself as a primetime TV star, reformed Culture Club …and is reaping the rewards second time around
‘Sometimes I want to be Elton John,’ says Boy George, dabbing at the green sparkly make-up at the corner of his eye. ‘When I go round his house, it’s so grand with butlers and staff running about pouring cups of tea. But then I realise I’m just a boy from Woolwich. I’m a punk. I make my own tea.’
George O’Dowd is 56. He is wearing a dark tailored suit and dark-grey T-shirt, and from the (tattooed) neck up he is immaculately made up. His hair is ‘all here’, and slicked back across his (tattooed) head. His eyebrows are perfectly lasered and his skin smooth. As punks go, he’s a very expensive-looking one.
There is a palpably different vibe about George these days: he’s softer, more emotional and less sensitive. The infamously barbed comments are thinner on the ground
‘I’m not doing badly,’ he says, referring to his appearance. ‘The great thing is we’re living in a time when, for musicians at least, it’s good to be old. All the musicians out there filling venues day in day out are the old ones – Sting, Peter Gabriel, The Stones. We all sing live. We all know how to put on a great show and the audiences just love it.’
There is a palpably different vibe about George these days: he’s softer, more emotional and less sensitive. The infamously barbed comments are thinner on the ground. He even has good words to say about Madonna, the woman he has so often declared ‘vile’.
‘I love her really,’ he laughs. ‘In the end, you’ve got to admire all those bloody great egos. I’ve met her, she just doesn’t speak to me. Can’t blame her really. One of the things that happened to me when I got famous was I lost my sense of humour about myself. It happens.
‘I remember being cross when they got Frankie Howerd to present me with my Brit Award [for Best British Single with Culture Club in 1984]. At the time I was like: “Oh yes, get Frankie Howerd to present the award to the gay guy. Very funny.” I didn’t appreciate it at the time because I was too wrapped up in myself. Now I think, “What a bloody amazing moment that was.”’
The reason for the change in George is that he’s living a life he never expected to have. He has reinvented himself as a television star after appearing on shows in the US, the UK and Australia, where he is currently midway through his second stint on The Voice. He is also filling arenas all over the world with Culture Club, sharing the bill with Eighties stars such as Belinda Carlisle, The Thompson Twins and The B-52’s. He travels frequently, often by private jet. ‘Or the Tube,’ he adds. ‘As long as I’m not wearing make-up.’
Things could have turned out very differently. He went from living in a London squat and working as a cloakroom attendant to becoming a pop phenomenon in 1982 with Culture Club. The band sold 50 million albums and went on to break America, winning Grammys, Brit awards and Ivor Novellos for songs such as Karma Chameleon, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me and Church Of The Poison Mind. With his full make-up, dreadlocks threaded with ribbons and fantastic hats and outfits (most of which he custom-made himself), no one had seen anyone like him.
Culture Club in 1983, from left, Roy Hay, Boy George, Mikey Craig and Jon Moss
He thought on his first-ever appearance on Top Of The Pops in October 1982 that he was channelling his hero David Bowie, and his appearance would be both thrilling and unsettling. He was wrong. While the newspaper front pages were full of the ‘gender-bending George’, his fans included old ladies and young girls. ‘I was put into a fluffy pink box with a ribbon round it – a user-friendly gay,’ says George. ‘But I always had an edge, I just wasn’t supposed to show it. But then I’m never one for doing what I’m told.’
Neither was he supposed to show the fact that Culture Club was, for him, less about being part of a band and more about being part of a love affair with the supposedly straight drummer Jon Moss. But as Culture Club’s fame escalated, the relationship ended. The group disbanded in 1986 and George went from national treasure to bad boy, losing himself in sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
George has survived – miraculously – long enough to be part of his own redemption. It is clear from the way he talks he is grateful to the public that the misdemeanours of his past – including battles with drugs and a brief jail sentence in 2009 for false imprisonment after an incident when he handcuffed a man to a wall while under the influence of drugs – have been forgiven and forgotten.
He will categorically not, any longer, discuss the demons of his past. This is a choice he has made. It is not about pulling the celebrity ‘I refuse to talk about that’ card (he has talked about them endlessly in his books and in various documentaries) but because he has made a conscious decision that a happy and productive future requires a fundamental change in the way he thinks about his past.
It is a lesson he’s learnt from the world of sport and in particular his manager of the past five years, Paul Kemsley, a British-born former vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur and multi-millionaire who is now based in Los Angeles and married to Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills star Dorit Kemsley.
‘I was put into a fluffy pink box with a ribbon round it – a user-friendly gay,’ says George. ‘But I always had an edge’
‘I was looking for a change,’ says George. ‘I wanted someone with a vision who had nothing to do with the music world. I needed a different perspective. Paul was managing the footballer Pelé and we met. He said: “Do you know who you are?” I said: “I’m Boy George.” He said: “No. You are ***king Boy George! You are an icon.” He then reeled off all my achievements. I’m used to people telling different sorts of stories: you’re very British; you put yourself down; you let other people put you down because to do otherwise is boastful. It was weird to hear someone painting this very different picture of me. He said, “I want you to stop everything you’re doing for one year [George had been DJing and dabbling in fashion and music] and then I’m going to get you on to The Voice on BBC1 as a judge.”
‘I just laughed. I told him there was no way the BBC would touch someone like me. I’m too controversial, too much of a past. There have been times in my life I thought people would never speak to me again, let alone give me a job. I told him the BBC would never employ me. Maybe in America – because America is the land of second chances – but not in Britain. And then they did. I got the job. No one was more surprised than me. And you know what? I was so grateful. It was a massive thing for me. I’m still grateful. I’m focused on the positive and I’m looking forward.’
It’s a story that tells of an unexpected level of humility in a man who has fought for acceptance all his life. His persona is outrageous and in-your-face, but George has never really been quite as he appears. As we sit, he talks with equal pleasure about hanging out with Elton John and Arcade Fire and helping his 79-year-old mother in her garden at the weekend. (‘I kept telling her to drink some water because I thought she was dehydrated, but she kept telling me off for being bossy.’) ‘I have two sides,’ he says. ‘I definitely have a dark side, an edge, but that’s part of who I am.’
Culture Club sold 50 million albums and went on to break America, winning Grammys, Brit awards and Ivor Novellos
The son of Irish parents, Jeremiah and Dinah, George grew up the youngest of five brothers and a sister. His father died in 2004 but the family are superglue tight. He talks about a moment, one of the lowest of his life, when he swept the streets of New York in 2005 after a drug offence required him to serve five days of community service in the city. ‘When I flew back into London all my brothers were standing there at the airport waiting.’ He looks for a moment almost helplessly emotional. ‘I mean, I wasn’t expecting it, I didn’t want them there, but I did really. We didn’t talk about anything. We went out and got chips on the Old Kent Road. My family has always stood right by me.’
Being gay in the Seventies was no picnic. At school he was regularly beaten up. ‘I was constantly being called Larry Grayson and hit,’ says George. ‘I’d tell some of the kids I’d get my older brothers on to them, which sometimes worked. And if it got really bad, my dad would be down the school.’
At 16, George was arrested after arriving at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning (‘looking way too young to be on my own’) to wait for an older boyfriend who was flying back from a holiday. He refused to give details of his lover, but the love letters in his pocket were taken off him and he was made to wait at the police station for his father, a builder.
‘He arrived in a van full of all the guys he worked with,’ says George. ‘So I had to come out not just to him but to all of them, which was pretty embarrassing. But my dad just said, “You are still my son.” I had to promise not to see the guy again. I did, of course. My mum told me she loved me. I think they thought I’d keep everything low key but from that point I just went for it, going out clubbing and back-combing my hair into mad shapes in the sitting room. I’d have all my weird and wonderful punk mates round with my mum making breakfast for them saying, “That Claire with the hair is a lovely girl, isn’t she? If only she’d take all that muck off her face.”
‘They’ve always just accepted who I am. Now I’ll make a weird vegan avocado mousse and my mum will be tut-tutting, and then she’ll try it and say, “I wouldn’t mind that again.”’
George cooks a lot for his mum. He is vegetarian – no longer vegan. He is less about the extremes. The most extreme relationship of his life was with Moss, who is now touring alongside George with Culture Club. How hard is that to be back with someone who broke your heart? He shrugs. ‘Weird. OK. Just like being around any ex-boyfriend. We’ve both put it behind us. It was a very different time, and my relationship with him was totally out there. Sometimes I look at him and think, I don’t really know you.
‘When you’re young you confuse real love with absolute passion, but those relationships never end well. It’s like having too much chocolate cake. A lot of my early music was about not having love, being the victim, cutting off my ear and feeling the pain. Ordinary love makes you happier than extraordinary love. And I’m happy now.’
Despite his TV work, George remains first and foremost a musician, although he admits, ‘I would like to have my own reality show, but I’d never want any of those awful set-up scenarios. My whole life is non-stop scenarios.’ It is true. We talk about the things he loves (cooking, travelling, Twitter, watching movies, art) and the things he wants to do – a make-up range, a clothes line and work more with his protégé, Vangelis Polydorou, who was on his team during his stint on The Voice in 2016. He talks about his house in north London, and how he got caught up in an international ecclesiastical art theft. He picks up his phone and shows me a picture of him carrying a religious icon, a large piece of wood with a golden image of Jesus painted over it.
Boy George with will.i.am, Paloma Faith and Ricky Wilson on The Voice in 2016
‘I bought it from an art dealer when Culture Club first got big in 1982, and I loved it. I put it on the wall in my sitting room. I always had this feeling it was special. Then a few years ago, I did an interview on Dutch TV, and a Greek Orthodox archbishop saw the icon and contacted my management to say that it used to belong to a church in Cyprus but that it was stolen after the 1974 Turkish invasion.
‘As soon as I heard his story, I knew he was right because I’d always felt it never actually belonged to me. I told him, “Meet me tomorrow and you can have it back.” He was completely taken aback. He thought I would keep it, but I told him it needed to go back where it belonged – a little church in northern Cyprus. They had a massive ceremony when it was returned and I’m going to go and see it there. For months afterwards I’d have Greek ladies coming up in the street and kissing me.’
He plays me a rough version of his new single on his phone. It is anthemic and sounds a little like an old Culture Club song, but the lyrics are all about being loved and lifted up.
‘There are loads of times when I ask myself why the public have always been on my side,’ he says. ‘You can go around thinking the world is full of haters but you get to this age and you think actually most people are pretty nice. I’m lucky, and I finally realise that.’
Culture Club tour the UK in November, eventbrite.co.uk