Before he was international superstar Boy George, Culture Club’s front man was George Alan O’Dowd, whose family hails from Co. Tipperary. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the 80s icon about his Irishness, the lessons of stardom and why he had to reform the band that defined his era.
Boy George and Culture Club are back for a highly anticipated U.S. tour (their first in 15 years) playing two nights at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan on November 25 and 26.
An icon of the 1980s to rival Madonna and George Michael, Boy George wrote some of the most memorable songs of that era and is still globally beloved by countless fans who have watched, riveted, as his crazy soap opera life played out before the cameras.
But the 53-year-old Boy George of 2014 is a much happier, healthier version than the brittle but brilliant 23-year-old star of 1984. It’s taken him decades to outrun his demons and find lasting stability, but there’s no question that he’s really done so at last.
I can vouch for this; I’ve seen him in person. Having loved this band more than any other since I was 14, I was utterly awed at the prospect of meeting him.
Turning up at the Gramercy Park Hotel last week, I reminded myself to breathe. How bad could it be, I asked myself? If he hates me it’ll be because I can’t string a sentence together. Just calm yourself, I reasoned. It’ll be fine.
As I was giving myself this pep talk, Jon Moss, Culture Club’s drummer and the man that George wrote many of his most famous songs about, breezes past me into the dark 19th-century foyer and swipes a special card into the VIP elevator.
Suddenly I’m 14 again and I’m not sure if I am the right person for this assignment. My confidence dissolves.
But minutes later I am guided into George’s penthouse suite by two of his handlers. I see the signature black hat first, then the man wearing it, who has a bright kind face and who is smiling at me.
“Did Sinead just play here?” he asks me right away. He means Sinead O’Connor. I nod my head.
“Then I just missed it, which is so annoying. Did you talk to her?”
“No, I didn’t! I can’t talk to her. I can’t even talk to you,” I gasp.
There’s a momentary silence. He looks at me and then he erupts in that famous laugh.
“Well, I’ve just done a dub album of my last solo work 'This Is What I Do' and she did a vocal on ‘The Death of Samantha,’ the Yoko Ono song I covered. It was beautiful to be doing it together,” he tells me.
Looking at him, I see the face on the cover of "Kissing to Be Clever," on the cover of "Color By Numbers" and "Waking Up With the House on Fire." I played those albums from cover to cover during my adolescence. I feel like I’ve just taken a bungee jump.
To save face I ask a question. Why have you decided to reform Culture Club and tour again, I ask him?
“Reforming Culture Club is sort of me getting my house in order,” Boy George tells the Irish Voice. “It was another major thing in my life that had been slightly neglected. It was like a room in my house that needed some TLC.
“And I think Culture Club was such a massive part of who I was and what I have created, I just felt it was a unique opportunity to do a really good record and surprise people with it.”
After the well-reported dark years of drug taking and running afoul of the law because of it, it’s also an opportunity for him have another, happier ending he suggests.
“In the band we’re all learning to have new relationships with each other. We’re not mates, we didn’t hang out in arts school when we were teenagers. In a way we’re kind of learning to be friends,” he says.
“In a year’s time let’s see what the energy is. The music is the important thing and we got distracted from that.”
"Every day is like survival," George sang in his biggest hit of the eighties, “Karma Chameleon.” At the time it was a throwaway line about his on again-off again love affair with Moss, but it turned out to be enormously prophetic about a life that has seen highs of every kind and lows that could have finished off frailer spirits.
“In the nineties, I started this journey (before the drugs took hold). In 1995 I made ‘Bow Down Mister.’ That was a kind of halcyon period for me and I was in a really good space.
“And my intention was to stay in that space. (He starts to laugh). I got slightly distracted. I think now I’m back to a similar space now and I’m following on from things I started around that time. It’s about the time when I first went to India and got interested in the Christian devotees and Buddhism. Sometimes it just takes time to find your way forward or even find your way back.
“The things I’m doing now, the enthusiasm I have feels very similar to the start of my career, when I was 19 and anything seemed possible.”
Fans who remember both the boy and the band from the eighties will remember the androgyny, the lipstick and the cheeky Irish smile. Then they’ll remember the unforgettable music, sung by a boy who looked like a girl, all those sweet soul ballads with reggae inflections and killer baselines. And some of them really don’t want him to change.
“I can only be the Boy George I am now. I can’t be the one I was 20 years ago,” he says, drawing a line under the past.
“There are things that happen to all of us as we get older and we change, so I am who I am now. I try not to engage with the commentary online. I don’t engage with anyone who has something negative to say about the way I look or sound.
“If you don’t like who I am there’s nothing I can do about that, just f*** off. I do a lot of blocking on Twitter.”
People who realize that life goes on, that you grow up, you make choices are the ones he’s interested in, George explains. Did he ever wonder what his life would have been life if his parents had stayed in Ireland, I ask him?
“Well, when we went there as kids it was like going back in time. Things that we could do at home we weren’t allowed to do at my aunt’s house in Ireland,” George recalls.
“Say like read certain newspapers, watch certain TV programs or stay inside – we were always told go out! Not that that didn’t happen at home. There were just a bit more rules in Dublin about what kids could and couldn’t do. We definitely had far too much personality for some of our relatives in Ireland back then. My mum was told, ‘Look at the way you’re bringing up these kids!’”
George, who was into Bowie and pop music, felt Ireland to be quite restrictive then. But there were also lots of good things about it, he says.
“My mum’s sister Phyllis lives in Finglas (Dublin) and they were more relaxed than the cousins in Tipperary. There was a different spirit in Ireland that was quite exciting.”
That wasn’t the only contrast. “I was very lucky in some ways because I came out to my family when I was 15 and they pretty quickly accepted me. It took them about a year or two. To start with they said spare us the details. They weren’t particularly surprised,” he recalls.
“But as I got more flamboyant and more outrageous I remembered being quite determined that they were going to deal with it. I remember thinking I’m not just going to pretend it’s not happening. Because I knew that all my brothers would be bringing their girlfriends home and sharing their lives with my parents and I thought, well, why shouldn’t I do that, you know?”
When he first started dressing up his folks assured themselves he would grow out of it. Then it turned into his career.
“For my mother and father, when I got the band together it was almost like a relief. I wasn’t working. I was drifting around doing odd jobs and being on the dole, or working in a fashion boutique. They were worried about what I was going to do.
“So once the band started they said, okay, so this is what he’s going to do. I think they were quite excited about it.”
There really hasn’t been a pop star like you since you, I tell him. I’m glad when he agrees.
“I think Lady Gaga is interesting visually, but in terms of what she does musically it isn’t that different to a lot of other things. It’s kind of Rihanna, it’s kind of other familiar things. I think that’s because the nature of the business now is so much about formats. You have to make a certain type of record to fit into it. It dilutes individuality, you know what I mean?”
Like Taylor Swift, I suggest? “My little nephews and nieces love her so I’m not going to say anything. Also because I just met her.” She’s like the fifties. She’s as bland as it gets, I say.
“You said that, I didn’t,” he laughs. “I haven’t really heard her music so it would be unfair of me to comment. I know that when my niece and nephew met her they were so excited.”
Another gifted gay Irishman has been pivotal in George’s career. Hatmaker Phillip Treacy from Galway has designed some of the most iconic hats for Boy George, and George adores him.
“Phillip Treacy is amazing,” George nods. “A real artist, totally insecure and lacking in confidence. It’s hilarious. A couple of weeks ago I was telling him how talented he was and he couldn’t bear it.
“I said this place where you work is like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of hats. You’re the Oompa Loompa of hats, I told him. I had him in tears. He’s a talented man and a lovely, lovely person. He’s one of my favorites.”
As I’m leaving he tells me that he’s planning to live in New York for a few years. When did you come here first, he asks me? I tell him in the nineties to study. Then I met my husband here, I tell him.
He laughs and suddenly he singing to me: “You’re an Irishman, you’re a legal Irishman, you’re an Irishman in New York.”
My heart just about keels over. I was overjoyed to meet him, but I never thought I’d hear him sing to me.
Stepping out onto the bright street from the darkness of the foyer, I realize it’s a good idea to be pick your heroes carefully. When they’re men like George Alan O’Dowd they never disappoint.
Follow Boy George on Twitter at @BoyGeorge or www.boygeorgeuk.com.