The pop idol and provocateur examines his past and his problems with the present. By Jonathan Dean.
Boy George pops up on FaceTime from his London lockdown location in a simple black hat and T-shirt. "I'll get excited about dressing up when this is over," he says, meaning the pandemic. His default setting, during a call that starts fast and goes on accelerating, is a big smile and cackling, cheeky, contagious laugh.
He has been isolating for four weeks. Does he do Zoom quizzes? No, he does Zoom raves. The other night he opened up a video chat for anyone to log onto, which ended after some Russian started showing porn. For daily exercise he rides a bike. Is he spotted in the city? "The people who always recognise me are homeless," he bellows.
We spoke last week, on a rare day that he had a schedule. First it was me. Later the director Sacha Gervasi was due to read George the screenplay for a film he is making about the singer's life. I say, when gigs start again, the line "Every day is like survival", from Culture Club's Karma Chameleon, will be cathartic.
"There are certain other songs of mine that have more gravitas now, such as Victims," he replies. "And Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" Like most, he is obsessed with Covid-19, taking in the odd conspiracy theory and complaining about people who stand too close to each other, which leads to an aside about snogging builders.
He seems calm, though. "I live alone anyway," he says, not in any way sadly. A friend dropped off some sourdough, and he has managed to put a wash on. "I needed some clean underwear."
Just over two weeks ago his mother, Dinah, was rushed to hospital. Is she OK? "Yeah," he says. (Since we spoke she has been discharged.) "She has lung problems, but it wasn't that [the coronavirus], thank God. She's strong. She's 82, and what's frustrating is she'd been isolating, so we thought she was safe, and what I'd love to do right now is cook for her. That would be my job, 24/7. Making her vegetarian!" He laughs so loudly, I wonder if he has a film such as Airplane! playing on a different screen. "Actually, I would happily cook for anyone right now, because it's so f****** boring!"
Last month, despite all, he released an album, This Is What I Dub, Vol 1. Mostly, it is bass and beat-heavy remixes of songs from his last solo album, but Isolation — which isn't on the album, but was released at the same time — is a gorgeous new ballad. It is not about our current condition. Rather, he met a man who owns a satellite, which "got him thinking" about isolation. Still, he has a microphone in his flat and will release more music from lockdown soon. He writes five songs a week.
"Yes, I had hits in the Eighties, whatever," he says. "But I'm a better writer now. Fame gets in the way and becomes a job in itself and takes over from artistry, so you're locked in a cycle of success and failure. I'm not distracted by mindless celebrity now and don't have to worry about that to the extent I used to. I mean, I probably didn't have to worry about it at the time, but I wasn't evolved enough to understand what was important. My motivations are different now — I don't really have any!"
In a press release for the new record, he says: "We need music now more than ever." Why? "I'll be specific," he says. "We need good music. There is a lot of bad music around. People have a different relationship with music now. It's like an affair. When we were kids it was commitment. You didn't walk around in a T-shirt of a band you didn't love. Now, it's, 'Oh, the Ramones? I got a T-shirt in Primark!'"
George is 58. He was raised in south London, one of five children to a father and mother of Irish descent, and despite living in America for a while, his accent remains the scrappy sound of the place he is from.
It is not where he was a teenager, though, but when — the 1970s — that made him who he is today. That was, he says, an "awful" decade, when everyone was "kind of explosive", and the moment those years come up in our conversation is the point from which we never really come back down.
"People aren't honest," he says, in reply to a question about pop stars today. "Because we're in sensitive times, when people get upset about anything. I grew up in the 1970s, where every day you were called faggot, poof — at home, at school, on the street. Policemen could hit you. You went to school knowing you could get whipped.
"Kids just don't understand. I don't want to sound like an old codger, but they don't get what people went through for them to be so precious, and I don't want to dull myself to the point that I don't have an opinion."
I say he wouldn't have lasted a week in cancel culture, which tries to curtail the careers of anyone who has fallen foul of some moral code. He shrugs, saying it's about how much notice you take of such outrage, and how most Twitter spats are only seen by about 15 people.
"But," he says, because he doesn't seem to have an off-switch, "the area we get into trouble is what it is permissible to say to a gay person. Address me as this, address me as that. You know, having been through what I went through to be who I am, I feel a little bit reluctant to pander to this idea of ..."
He trails off, but not for long. Earlier this year he tweeted "Leave your pronouns at the door!", followed by the claim that the specification of the pronoun you want to be known as, such as the recently popular "they", is a "modern form of attention-seeking". However, the counter-argument is that pronouns encourage inclusivity in the trans community and, as such, many called him transphobic.
"I even feel uncomfortable trying to explain what I meant," he says, with a confidence suggesting he isn't uncomfortable in the least. "I met my first friend who was a transsexual when I was 15. She used to really rib me. She used to pull her penis out. She was absolutely gross!
"When I was growing up nobody used the term transgender, because it was almost like a medical term. So this transgender thing is new, and, for our generation, it's just getting our heads round it. But people want to be offended, because they think that whatever's going on for them is much more important than anything else. But I'll call you whatever you want. I've spent years calling people fake names. Boy George. Siouxsie Sioux. Johnny Rotten. Of course, it's not the same as your sexuality."
In the early 1980s George stood out — the most androgynous in the room, and something of a social pioneer. Is it harder, I ask, for people at the forefront of an old movement to adjust to a new one?
"No, it's more that we think they're homing in on things that aren't important to us," he says. "Also, let's not forget that everyone's trying to create a moment now. Everyone's a producer, so there's pressure to be more interesting — and if you're not interesting enough, what have you got wrong with you? What have you got to tell us?"
He cites an example of someone who says they have mental health issues or are transgender. "For me, growing up …" He looks off-camera. "Let me just turn my cooking off."
I am left looking at an empty seat, accompanied by a clatter of pans and the near-distant cry of "I've burnt it!" Some more clatter. "Well, I won't be eating that," he says when he comes back. No monk's beard for George today.
I ask if all this is why he wrote "Boomer" by his Twitter handle. Was it mischievous? "Of course. People think if you're of a certain age you have nothing to say, but just because you're young it doesn't make you interesting. You've got no experience!"
In a year or so George's life will be on the big screen. Understandably, given Gervasi's pending call, the singer is preoccupied with the film. "Fascinating," he says of the imminent read-through. "Because I don't think people do really know me."
For the first time in our interview he sounds sombre. Will the film help that? "No! It will enhance whatever myths there are," he says, buoyant again. "It's like when I met Prince and he was quite odd. I didn't walk off disappointed. Come on, I'm not interested in dull people and don't want to be one. And I don't think I am."
When it comes to sex and drugs, the biopic will not hold back — it will be more Rocketman than Bohemian Rhapsody, and George admits that public image wise, he has hardly been careful. "I fly by the seat of my pants!"
However, even more than Elton John and "Freddie" (who George says was "adorable"), the Culture Clubstar has a past one could kindly term troubled. "Me and authority don't mix well," he says, maybe in reference to arrests for hard drugs, plus community service and time in jail after his conviction in 2008 of the assault and false imprisonment of Audun Carlsen. "I grew up with a strong anti-authority streak and it has not served me well. It really hasn't. You need authority, but you swerve it. You don't go into a head-on battle with it!"
Three years ago, in an interview with Piers Morgan, George said of the assault case: "I was prosecuted on my own evidence. I sent myself to prison." He adds that he was ashamed, and had stopped Carlsen leaving his flat.
"I'll be really honest with you," he says. "The only bit of the film that I'm worried about is my court case. It's one thing to read about this stuff, but different to have it in a movie.
"[With a lot of interviews I've done] there is this underlying stench of basically trying to get me to apologise for something I didn't do. And, you know, the reason I never talked about it was because so many great things were happening in my life that I thought, why jeopardise this to talk about something that didn't happen? It's so frustrating."
So why now? "One of the great things about isolation is I've had a lot of time to really think about why I've not spoken about it," he says. "Why I've protected myself. And it's because I needed to rebuild my life.
"But I've had to live with it for 12 years and I'm just no longer going to say I did something I didn't do. I want my truth in the movie. The only thing I care about right now, in terms of this movie, is how they portray that."
He still protests his innocence then. "But because it was written in the newspapers, people feel that they have the right to repeat it. But I've always been good at owning what I've done. I've never blamed anyone for anything that's happened and always accepted the consequences of my actions, even if the facts weren't completely true.
"I've had to take responsibility for the life I've chosen to live, but, at the same time, it's frustrating to have stuff written about you that isn't true. It isn't fair."
Make of all that what you will, but George has been spending a lot of time doing yoga, even using a drama teacher from Rada to "access truth". He admits he has a rage issue, but controls it far better now and is more aware of other people's feelings. "When I went through all my stuff 12 years ago, I knew I had to rebuild my life, and that's what I've done," he says.
He claims he is much more conscious of what he says to people now. How that fits in with outbursts on Twitter is one to mull over, but, over our hour together, he constantly brings up worries about those less well-off and how they will be after the pandemic. It is genuine empathy from an eccentric mind, but he talks so much and chucks out so many verbal darts that of course some are caustic, others caring. He is a brilliant, messy human being.
"All the people I've ever cared about are flawed," he says at one point during this whirlwind FaceTime chat, and I cannot help but think he is largely talking about himself.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London