Back in 1972, a young South Londoner named George Alan O'Dowd saw androgynous glamazon David Bowie on Top of the Pops, and it changed his life. Roughly a decade later, when O'Dowd — now cheekily known as Boy George — famously performed on the same BBC program with his band Culture Club, his appearance had a similarly seismic effect on many starry-eyed pop fans. Wearing full-face kabuki makeup, flowing dreadlocks, and a knee-grazing smock dress, this girlish Boy played with concepts of sexuality and “gender-bending” in a way that was possibly even more radical and shocking in the ‘80s than Bowie had been in the '70s.
Flash-forward 30 years, as Culture Club embarks on a much-hyped (and already once-delayed) reunion tour, and the world has drastically changed. As George points out, now “Sam Smith can say, 'I’m gay,’ and no one goes on about it,” and Caitlyn Jenner has been enthusiastically embraced by the media and public at large. George is humble, but acknowledges that he and Culture Club helped pave the way.
Photos: The Many Faces of Boy George
“I always think that change is like a daisy chain,” says George, speaking exclusively to Yahoo Music in the Men’s Chorus dressing room at one of Culture Club tour’s stops, Los Angeles’s Greek Theatre. “People that kind of made my life easier, like Bowie, Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, Sylvester, Klaus Nomi, it goes on and on and on… there are people that get the glory. And maybe I was one of the ones that got the glory, in the same way as Caitlyn Jenner [is now]; you know, there’s a lot of other transgender people, but Caitlyn is in the moment when people are willing to embrace that. I think that’s such a beautiful thing.
“And in a funny sort of way, it’s the world that I wanted to be in. It’s that world I was fighting for in 1984. That was what I wanted. I wanted people not to care about whether you were gay, straight, black, white, transgender, whatever it may be… That being said, there’s more work to be done… I still want to change the world, absolutely. And I feel like we did back then was part of that.”
Looking back on his carefree youth spent dressing up in outlandish costumes at London’s legendary New Romantic club the Blitz, George muses: “I think there’s something really powerful about being yourself… When you’re 19, you have this unbelievable feeling that you have this undeniable right to be who you want to be. I look at myself at 19 and think I would never do what I did then now! I was so brazen, so confident, so fearless in a way. And remember, the world was a very aggressive place then. People would punch you in the face [for looking different] — and that happened a lot to me. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to dress up. It made me want to dress up more! How bizarre! It’s the Irish in me, I think. It’s kind of a teenage thing: 'I’m right, you’re wrong. Of course this is what I should look like!’”
It’s actually amazing to think that, despite his wild appearance and controversial persona, George became one of pop’s biggest mainstream stars back in the 1980s, loved by children and grandmas and everyone in between. (To get an idea of how massive Boy George was, he had his own Snoopy doll.) George was as amazed by his stardom as anyone. “The kind of fame that I experienced in the early part of my life was so extreme. It’s impossible to even explain what that was like. I wasn’t ready for it,” he admits. “And it also distracted from what I was doing musically. I was so busy being 'Boy George’ that I stopped being an artist.”
What happened next has been well-documented — by the tabloid press, in a VH1 Behind the Music special, in George’s two memoirs, Take It Like a Man and Straight. There was the soured secret love affair with Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, a harrowing battle with drug addiction, failed comeback attempts as a solo artist, multiple arrests, and even a stint in prison.
But George eventually triumphed, reinventing himself as a respected DJ in the EDM world and orchestrating a comeback that has included a guest-mentor stint on American Idol and a deal for his own upcoming reality show. (When asked if he’s felt a recent groundswell of critical support for what he does, George quips with a chuckle, “Not only have I felt it, I’ve orchestrated it!”)
“I remember one of the things I said to myself was, 'If you’re going to be Boy George, you might as well be the best Boy George you can be,’” George recalls of the breakthrough moment when he finally decided to get sober and “became sane.”
“I got sober in 2008. March 2, 2008; I know the date,” he says. “I always think of that date as the day that I became sane. I kind of planned to be sane at 40, but it took seven more years of research for me to reach a point where I was like, 'OK, this is not working. I need to not do this anymore.’ I kind of woke up one morning and thought, 'This isn’t going to get better.’
"In recovery, we talk about rock bottoms. And everyone has their own rock bottom; sometimes it can be really mundane. In my case, a lot of really terrible things happened to me and they didn’t seem to make any difference. For me, it was literally just one morning waking up and just having this overwhelming feeling that I was really unhappy and I needed to do something about it, that this was not my life… Like the Talking Heads song: 'This is not my beautiful life.’ Literally!”
Nowadays George, who is a practicing Buddhist and raw food/juicing enthusiast, still has a bit of fighting Irish attitude, but he’s not the “bitchy” diva many people assume he is. At age 54, with seven years of sobriety behind him, he seems to be a mellower, gentler George, at peace with the past; he’s finally amassed some good karma, if you will. “I don’t battle with authority like I used to. I spent 30 years fighting soldiers in tanks, and it doesn’t work! You do much more good with positivity. First of all, you have a nicer life, and secondly, you just get more done when you’re clearheaded… I have to say things have gotten increasingly better and better and better, the longer I’ve been sober.”
George isn’t battling as much with his bandmates, either, despite his turbulent romantic past with Moss and the struggles, chronicled in the fascinating but disheartening BBC4 documentary Boy George & Culture Club: Karma to Calamity, to get this band reunion and tour off the ground. He even lives in the same neighborhood as Moss, and the two have coffee together. “There’s animosity, there’s love, there’s indifference, there’s tension,” George jokes, likening Culture Club to a dysfunctional family and Moss to some “mad, eccentric Jewish uncle,” then adding: “I mean, we’re human beings… But human beings are incredibly resilient. It’s like, 'Oh yeah, I remember that fight with you. But who cares?’ What’s important is now. Everything is about now. It doesn’t really what happened four years ago, or last year… You can only be who you are now… None of us live in our past. We only live now.”
Frankly, many fans may be surprised that Boy George is even alive now, thriving personally and creatively, after everything he’s been through. “I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I’m very grateful that I’m here,” George asserts. “Getting old is a luxury; some people don’t [get old], some people haven’t. I’ve lost a lot of friends in my life. Being older is such a wonderful privilege. Use it well!”
Watch Boy George’s wickedly witty interview above for more of his reflections on aging, sobriety, the changing cultural landscape, the vocal troubles that led to this tour’s postponement, “seeing the glitter” even in the darkest of situations, and Culture Club’s forthcoming comeback album, Tribes.