Boy George: 'I forgot how good I could be'
The Karma Chameleon is touring, and at the same time trying to put his life back together again despite another court case, writes Christina Patterson
Friday 10 October 2008
When I told friends that I was going to interview Boy George, the responses were wide-ranging. "Send him a kiss from me," said a (straight, female) poet and academic. "Tell him I use his macrobiotic cookbook!" said a (straight, female) management consultant. "Ask him about his uncle in Margate," said a (straight, black male) gardener – "he offered me and my girlfriend a room half price when the bloke in the B & B opposite, which had a big "vacancies" sign in the window, turned us away." Only a gay friend, a big Boy George fan from an equally colourful family, looked shifty. "My sister used to supply him," he said. Right. Best, perhaps, not to mention that.
This, after all, is one of the biggest (karma karma karma) chameleons of the past 30 years, the man who captured the hearts and wallets of millions by singing like an angel and looking like a girl. This is the man whose band, Culture Club, notched up seven British and nine American Top 10 hits and sold more than 50 million records, the man whose huge, mascara-ed eyes and luscious lipsticked lips launched considerably more than a thousand complicated fantasies, the man who was having a passionate affair with his bass player but who told Russell Harty that he would happily eschew sex for a cup of tea. It's also the man who lost his heart, and wits, and soul, and looks, to drugs, got them back, and lost them again.
It's the man who found God – or Buddha, or Hare Krishna, or feng shui or something – and brown rice and tofu, but whose waspish wit has won him a reputation as a world-class bitch. It's the man whose waif-like frame, winsomely draped in the frills and sparkle of the über-New Romantic, has, according to reports in the press, been swapped for the body of a bruiser. And it's the man who attracts trouble like – well, like sycophants to the honeypot of celebritydom. There was that little incident in the US, when a reported break-in to the police ended with a table-turning arrest and five days of what was meant to be ritual humiliation cleaning the streets, and now there's a little problem of a Norwegian male escort who claims to have been chained to a wall. George O'Dowd, aka Boy George, is on bail, awaiting trial charged with false imprisonment, and I am not allowed to mention it. Boy, am I not allowed to mention it.
And here he is, waddling into the foyer of a posh hotel in Newcastle, on the sixth day of a month-long tour, and suddenly I don't want to mention it. "Waddling" sounds unkind, and suddenly I don't want to be unkind, but it seems like the right word for this plump figure, bustling us over to a corner and ordering us a cup of – yes – tea. There's something of the mother hen about him, something of the Buddha, something of the giant baby. He's not wearing make up – and won't be photographed without make up – but his skin is soft and clear. His bald head is tattooed with a blue Star of David, his black track suit is studded with sequins (pink rose on the T-shirt, silver cockroaches on the jacket) and his (chipped) nails are painted purple. If the overall effect is eccentric, it's also strangely benign.
"I've really enjoyed this tour," he announces with a sweet smile, "and I've never enjoyed a tour, never ever. It's a revelation. Everyone in the band is just fantastic, and I'm doing a pretty good job myself. I don't want to say there's more love and affection out there for me because I think that's always been there for me, but I've never really been as aware of it as I am now."
Gosh. I was expecting Russell Brand, and I've got Pollyanna. And yes, like Madonna and Gwyneth, he's still macrobiotic. "I'm on a really, really strict diet on this tour. I cooked salmon and spinach in my room last night." Boy George is, in fact, off the drugs, off the booze, and seeking solace in conversations with God. Or, rather, in Conversations with God, a series of bestselling New Age books, which explore the idea that We Are All One. His other current favourite is The Power of Now. "They've really hit the nail," he says, "but it's more that I'm ready to hear it. I think the past six months has really been about getting my life back."
Which, presumably, is why this I'm-in-a-really-good-place-right-now message is at the heart of his new single, "Yes We Can". The title, of course, is nicked from someone even more famous than Boy George at his Eighties peak. It's poppy with a strong dance beat and with that catchy-to-the-point-of-irritating quality that made "Karma Chameleon" not just a song, but a virus. Co-written with John Themis ("a Spanish guitarist, self-taught, Greek"), it is, says George, "a Greek-Spanish tragedy, like all my songs". Actually it's fantastically upbeat. Beginning with a little snippet from Barack Obama, it continues with George begging for forgiveness for "crimes against myself" and claiming that "we can make it to the promised land".
"If you take it out of context," he says of Obama's words, "it all makes a lot of sense to me. This time it must be different. It doesn't really have to relate to what Barack's saying, or what he's talking about. It relates to me."
Er, yes. There's a word for this. I think it's solipsism. But Obama's message does, George admits, have a wider resonance. "No one is going to change everything overnight, but I think he'd be a great person to represent America because he's intelligent. Being black in America means you're an outsider and I relate to that as a gay man." Sarah Palin, he thinks, is "humourless, like a schoolteacher. I'm not," he adds, "a big fan of that whole survival of the fittest, Thatcherite thing. It's just not that easy to do if you're a single mother on the dole. What worries me most about that whole swing to conservatism is that people have such short memories. They forget what the Tories did."
And Brown? "I think," he says, pausing for a micro-moment, "Gordon Brown's smart. I think he's got integrity. I'm bored of everyone attacking him. It's a sign of our times. If you look at our TV, it's all about people ganging up on the individual. I think people have turned politics into a reality TV show. When people turn on you, I know exactly what it's like. I know what it's like to be Gordon Brown. I'm very conscious that people think I'm a disaster. People tend to believe what they read."
Today, in fact, Boy George is smarting from an interview published at the weekend, an interview in which his laughter was described as "the laughter of habit, rather than the laughter of mirth". He's clearly hurt, and I have to fight an urge to hug him. "I try not to have a blanket attitude to the media," he says, "but I didn't like the guy from the moment I met him. You sometimes get these straight men and they're a bit smug, they've written you off."
That, I think, would be unwise. When Culture Club collapsed, Boy George relaunched himself as a solo artist and globe-trotting DJ. He set up a dance label, More Protein, and wrote a musical, Taboo, based on his life, which ran in the West End and (briefly) on Broadway. He has co-written two alarmingly frank autobiographies, does photography, has a fashion label, B-Rude, and has just come back from a tour of South America. For him, it was always about the music, but sometimes he forgot about the music. Was that, I wonder, why things went wrong?
"I think," he says with a captivating smile, "they just went wrong because that's what happens when you're famous. It's predictable. Fame. Drugs. Religion. It's a cliché. That's why clichés are so annoying. Because they're so true. But yeah, I do define myself by what I do musically. It's the way I express myself. I want to have my life back and I want to have my career back. I don't want to be number one. I want to be great. I hate it when people call me a brand. I'm not a brand. I'm a person. I don't want to sound arrogant, but I forgot how good I could be."
It would be hard to deny that Culture Club came up with some of the great pop hits of the Eighties and, if some of his solo music was less than riveting – Sold springs to mind – some of it, like his 2002 album U Can Never B2 Straight, had a lyrical, acoustic simplicity that lingered. Best of all, of course, is the voice. Andre Harrell, a former boss of Motown, described it as one of only three white soul voices acceptable to aficionados of black American R & B.
Culturally, too, he has more than made his mark. In a world where fashion is largely about following the herd, he has stuck – triumphantly, eccentrically, endearingly – to his own look.
"I don't think I'm unattractive, but I like myself more when I'm painted," he explains. "Music's an international language, but fashion is also a way of saying, 'this is who I am'. Maybe it's not as important as politics or social issues, but it's a great way of making a stand. I'm not going to rush and buy a T-shirt with some designer's name on it. I'm quite thrifty with clothes. I'll go to Oxfam shops, Marks and Spencer's, Primark."
So, a man with a Gothic pile in Hampstead, a house in Ibiza and (until the recent unpleasantness) an apartment in New York, who shops in Primark. A man who hates reality TV, but was filmed for a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Living with Boy George, screened last weekend. ("I regretted it," he says. "They took a lot of the fun out of it.") A man who claims that he's trying to take responsibility for the mistakes in his life, but who says that the "nine ki" energy (a kind of global feng shui) for his time in New York was wrong.
This explosive, erratic, contradictory, talented, waspish, warm and irresistibly loveable man is, however, clearly making gargantuan efforts to calm down. "I can be a bitch with my friends," he says, "but I don't do that stuff publicly any more. It's not really who I am. I've got this great friend, an Italian New Yorker, and she always says to me, 'you've got a loose tongue, but you don't have a malicious bone in your body'."
For what it's worth, I think she's right. I don't know about Norwegians, or chains, or S & M, or M & S, but I'll tell you this. Boy George is a sweetheart. A sweetheart who, at least at the moment, appears to be happy. So, I ask him, is the shock horror headline, "Boy George is happy?"
"No," says Boy George, with a peal of laughter which is unequivocally mirth. "I think it's going to be, 'I understand Gordon Brown'."
The Boy is Back in Town tour runs to 2 November (www.boygeorgelive.com). 'Yes We Can' is out on 12 October
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
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