Boy George

November 2008 - Yes man

Boy George Boy George is currently on his first UK tour in many years. With the release of new single 'Yes We Can', and an album planned for 2009, he talked to David Hudson about staying clean, boyfriends and being back on stage...

Although it's tempting to say that Boy George is staging something of a comeback, he's never exactly been away. True, he hasn't troubled the music charts, but he has continued to release singles over the last few years - although usually under low-key aliases ('The Twin').
He has enjoyed a successful career as DJ, and has branched out - with varying degrees of success - in to fashion design, with his B-Rude label, writing and photography. In the early part of the decade he was heavily involved with the stage musical Taboo, and of course, he's been no stranger to the tabloids. In 2007 he was charged with cocaine possession in New York and forced to sweep the city's streets as punishment. Then, earlier this year he was charged with falsely imprisoning a 28-year-old man in his East London home. In November [2008] he is due to go to court on these charges. For legal reasons, he is unable to discuss the case today.

Given this wide-ranging portfolio though, it's easy to forget that Boy George was first and foremost a pop star. This is a fact that he seems to want to re-examine and re-assert. He is currently engaged on his first full UK tour in over a decade, playing a string of sold out performances with a set that dips into every part of his extensive back catalogue. He has finally cleaned up his act, and now no longer drinks or takes any sort of drugs. He is - by his own admission - at his most happiest and sanest for many years. He's even fully enjoying trekking around the country.
"It's fantastic, really good," he tells me during a brief two-day break back in London. "This is the first tour that I think I've ever enjoyed. I don't know whether it's a combination of my mental attitude, or realising how important it is now. There's been a lot of re-evaluating in my life and I realise that I'm really lucky to do what I do and get paid for it."
Why did it take him so long to return to recording and touring as 'Boy George'?
"I don't know really. I stopped recording when the whole boy band thing exploded, and for me the dance scene was just so much more exciting. I think a lot of it was about wanting freedom, because as a DJ nobody tells you what to play. You can play what you want. Someone can give you a record that they made in their bedroom and if you liked it, you'd play it. I liked that freedom that you have as a DJ, which is why I still do it. But I just thought that with the Internet, and the new ways of promoting yourself, you don't have to worry about record deals any more. And the record companies all seem to be folding at the moment, and it will be radio next - hooray! I think the Internet has opened up lots of new possibilities and you don't have to worry about the mainstream anymore. At a certain point, there was just one way of doing things. You had to put your record out and beg the radio stations to play it, and you had to do the press. For me, I never had any trouble getting the media, but radio was always a bit of a nightmare in this country - I don't get any play."
Indeed, his new single, the upbeat and classic-Boy George pop of 'Yes We Can', has received little airplay, and its video (despite receiving thousands of hits on youtube) has been completely overlooked by TV. Is he still bothered about achieving mainstream success?
"I'm not. It's a long time since I had any obvious chart success, but what I've now discovered is that you can have a life and a career beyond that. When I started Culture Club, I just wanted to make a record. I didn't have any expectations - I didn't know what was going to happen, and in a sense my success was a happy accident. It wasn't what I planned. I never really saw myself as a kind of mainstream popstar."
This seems slightly at odds with the man who once jokingly claimed that he was so desperate for fame as a teenager that he would have become a mass murderer if all else had failed. Are we to entirely believe that it was all an accident?
"I don't know if it was a case of wanting to be famous, I think I wanted to have a voice, to be heard," he now reflects. "Growing up... from about the age of six I was being called names and felt like an outsider, long before I even knew what I was. Other kids pointed it out and made me feel separate. And so, around the age of about 15 I adopted the uniform of the outsider and became stronger about my own identity, and really, music was the only place that I could escape as a kid. It was a refuge and very exciting and so important. And that's what I wanted - I wanted that lifestyle - that bohemian lifestyle that I imagined Bowie or Bolan to have. I never imagined them running out of milk or stubbing their toe on their bed, you know? It just seemed like they could be whatever they wanted to be, and it was that that attracted me. Yeah, I did want to be famous because I thought that everyone would love me."
And love him they certainly did. Fame was an unexpected rollercoaster ride, and one for which he found himself wholly unprepared.
"I think everyone has that when they become famous. You have that period when you think that it's never going to happen, and then suddenly it happens and everything happens overnight - or it seems like it happens overnight. And when you're that successful, you don't really do anything yourself. Yeah, you are on a rollercoaster ride, and there are people doing everything for you or on your behalf, and you do lose control of your life. In the 80s, which was a very greed-oriented decade, everyone was obsessed with record sales. I remember at Virgin there were these huge charts on the walls for Phil Collins' record sales. I think when you really get into that and become obsessed with sales that you can lose track with what you're actually doing. So, for me, at the moment, I just want to make records. I was listening to a lot of Rufus Wainwright earlier in the year and I was just impressed that he just kind of gets out there and does his stuff. Just put it out regardless of what happens with it.... you don't have to sell hundreds in the first week."

This craving for control could also be partly down to the fact that for a large number of years, George has not been fully in control. He famously became addicted to heroin in the mid-80s. Although he managed to ditch that drug, his love affair with dance culture led him to experiment with plenty of other substances, and it's only recently that he has managed to stop using alcohol and cocaine. He won't reveal exactly how long.
"I'm not going to tell you that," he laughs. "You're not my psychiatrist! It was recent but long enough."
Does he wish he'd done it years ago?
"Well, it's pointless worrying about that really," he sighs, "because you can't change what's done. I'm just glad I'm happy now. I'm glad that my head's screwed on properly again and I'm functioning 100% all the time, and that's great."
He's also wary of giving advice to any other addicts, recognising that most will be in various stages of denial.
"It's really difficult because when you're in that situation, you just don't want to hear it. It's only in hindsight that you can look back and think 'God, I wish I'd listened' or 'I wish I'd gone to an NA meeting or I wish I'd done this... It's really difficult. I look at someone like Amy Winehouse, and I look at her family and the people close to her trying to help her, and she's just not hearing it. I've been there. I've been in that situation where people that I love - my mother, my sister - I've been blind to their feelings and concerns - it's really a personal thing. You have to make that choice yourself. People can hassle you all your life but it just doesn't stop until you want to. And that's the sad thing about being self-destructive. Until you actually want to stop it, it just carries on."
He admits that over recent years, friends had despaired over his drug use, holding several interventions in an attempt to force him to seek help, or just pleading and imploring with him.
"I had friends crying on the phone to me begging me to stop, but I was in denial. A lot of people close to me were on my case the whole time, but it took me reaching a point where I thought 'there's nowhere for this to go' - I just knew that it would never end unless I did something about it. Happily, I thought that I had to stop. And there were some people close to me, people like the [DJ] Fat Tony, who had been clean 18 months, he'd been hassling me for a long time, so there was a lot of support around me. You only tend to hear about people getting fucked up, but you don't hear so much about getting clean. Tony was the sort of person who was never going to get his life together, but when he got clean it was like 'wow - if he can do it anyone can do it.'"

Although he still loves good dance music, George rarely goes out clubbing socially these days. Although he's often been hassled in clubs, it's got worse with the advent of camera phones ("And they never ever work. The number of times people have come up to me with camera phones and then they can't get them to work and they're like 'hold on a minute', and you're there for half an hour!" he laughs). He is amused that there's a Blitz reunion club running each month, with its own page on Facebook ("I haven't joined that... but I might go"), and is heartened that so many of the old club kids that he used to run around with are still out there and now easily contactable over the internet. I wonder if there's a boyfriend or partner in his life to share his new-found happiness.
"Erm, I wouldn't say it was a boyfriend... and I wouldn't say he was a partner really," he again chuckles. "You don't really need to have those labels any more, do you? I've been seeing someone for about two years, but it's kind of casual, even though it's been two years. I think the difference for me, for the first time in my life, I'm not neurotic or jealous or overly questioning. I kind of got to a point where I just sorta thought, why don't I just enjoy it and not worry about where it's going to go? You can waste so much energy trying to guess what they're thinking, that you miss so much stuff. So I've just managed to kind of enjoy it. It's healthier, because when I fall in love... it's dangerous! When someone starts telling me that they love me - there's something about those three words - and I go a bit Glenn Close. There's all this pressure to explain your relationship or make sense of it, and I think that a lot of the time it just ruins it. So, I think for the first time in a long time I've managed to kind of not do that."
Perhaps actively 'living one day at a time', he isn't looking too far into the future with regards to his relationship. I ask him if he can ever envisage having a civil partnership.
"No. Not really. I get into so many arguments about the gay marriage thing and some people have said that I'm anti gay marriage, but I'm not. I just have a problem with the whole church thing. They don't like gays. I don't know why people would want to have a blessing from the church. I mean, if you really are in love with someone and you want that, then I support it. I just worry that gay people are asking for acceptance, when I just think there's nothing wrong with our relationships, or our lifestyle, or being gay."

Behind the make-up, George has always had a political streak. In 1988 he released 'No Clause 28', in protest again the Conservative government's infamous legislation against 'the promotion of homosexuality'. He's a big supporter of Barack Obama, and his new single borrows a 'Yes we can' sample from one of the senator's speeches. Despite his wariness towards civil partnership, he's conscious of the advances in gay rights over the last two decades, but believes the public have some way to go in catching up with equality legislation.
"We have greater visibility now, and we have more information, so that if you are gay, there's maybe more place to look, but I'm not sure if people are any more reasonable than they were. I think what's important is that the gay community has got a little stronger. People are more proud of what they are. A few years ago people used to say 'I wish I could be normal', but I don't hear that any more. We are normal."
Normality... it's possibly the last thing you think of Boy George embracing, but perhaps that's what he's been searching for all these years.

Boy George's new single, 'Yes We Can' is out now. An album - Blahemia - is due to follow in 2009. He will be playing the Shaw Theatre in Euston on 15 November 2008. For full details, check www.boygeorgelive.com

An abridged version of this interview was published in Out In The City,
November 2008 David Hudson


Update: In December 2008, George was sentenced to 15 months in prison for the false imprisonment of a male escort at his home in 2007. He served four months of his sentence, and was released at the beginning of May 2009.



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