Yet it’s hard to believe that it really is almost three decades since he first skipped onto the Top of the Pops stage in 1982, singing Do You Really Want To Hurt Me in that gorgeously rich soulful voice, and making a million households sit up and ask simultaneously: “Is that a man or a woman?”
In a single moment, the term ‘gender-bender’ was born. Gender-bending had been waiting in the wings for years, via Bolan, Bowie and glam rock, but never to the extent that a pop star actually had to prefix their name with their gender so that pop fans would know who was what, as it were.
Boy George, cloakroom attendant at the Blitz, the most avant garde nightclub in London, became instantly famous and the posterboy for androgyny.
Breaking onto an ‘80s scene where drag queens like Danny La Rue were still mainstream entertainment and being gay meant being asexually camp and jokey — John Inman, Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams — George became the nation’s favourite pop star by telling everyone he would rather have a nice cup of tea than sex. Thanks to comments like that, and his wizardry with the make-up brush, he appealed to everyone from teenyboppers to grannies. In reality, he was writing and singing his heartfelt love songs to fellow band member, the supposedly straight Jon Moss, with whom George was having a tempestuous secret relationship — unknown even to the other two members of the band, Mikey Craig and Roy Hay.
Since his Culture Club heyday, George has used up many of his nine lives, but unlike many of his Blitz Kids — the crowd of creatives and show-offs whose taste in music and fashion spawned New Romanticism — George never faded quietly away. He remains indefatigable, irrepressible and gobby as ever. No matter what life throws at him — superstardom, heartbreak, heroin addiction, career decline, career reinvention, cocaine addiction, public humiliation, jail time — George seems to have an uncanny ability to catch it and throw it back. Despite appalling behaviour at times, his honesty, wit and lack of self-pity (there are never any ‘poor me’ headlines) make him something of a national treasure.
George Alan O’Dowd was born in the Kent suburbs of South East London in 1961. His mother Dinah left Ireland in 1958, aged just 18. She met Jerry O’Dowd, a London Irish builder, in a Woolwich pub; he didn’t mind that she’d already had a child, Richard, and so they married and had five more — Kevin, George, David, Gerald and Siobhan. Jerry was violent and abusive throughout George’s childhood, and throughout his marriage.
“We put the ‘funk’ in dysfunctional,” George wrote in his first autobiography, 1995’s Take It Like A Man. Dinah herself went on to write about her 40-year marriage in her 2007 book Cry Salty Tears, which focused, not on her famous son, but was instead a portrait of a terrifyingly unstable husband. “My mother is a tank, a goddess,” said George.
George escaped his dysfunctional home but brought inbuilt dysfunction with him. Culture Club — so-named to reflect the Irish / black British / white British / Jewish mix of its four members — slowly disintegrated as George’s drug addiction worsened. When his brother David told the Sun about George’s addiction, a banner headline ensued: “Junkie George Has Eight Weeks To Live.” George chose life, cleaned up, and reinvented himself as a DJ via a flirtation with the Hare Krishna movement.
He wrote another terrifically entertaining autobiography, Straight, in 2005, which he dedicated to his father (“the most formidable force in my life”), who had died suddenly the year before, while estranged from his son. George was also heavily involved in the West End musical Taboo, playing the part of the late performance artist Leigh Bowery, and writing much of the music. He began fashion designing, and got into photography. He was back on track. “There are t-shirts to create, graphics to design, screens to print, frames to adorn, boys to adore, and of course, songs to write about them,” he wrote at the end of Straight.
This was not, however, the beginning of a straightforward ending. It all went wrong again — he moved to New York and once again drugs took over — this time cocaine. In the grips of paranoia, he called the police one night to report a burglary which was actually just a figment of his imagination; he was sentenced to community service — street sweeping — for wasting police time. The press loved it — George in an orange vest, with a broom.
Back in London, things got even worse. He ended up in jail in early 2009 for four months, having been convicted of assaulting and falsely imprisoning a male escort whom he thought was stealing images from his laptop. He was a bloated, drug-addicted wreck — a “parody of myself”, he told the press. His victim was horribly frightened and traumatised.
But once again, his survival instinct kicked in, and he faced up to himself, admitting his wrongdoing with trademark candour. These days he is into healthy living, recovery, not being a bitch (well, not as much as before anyway), and instead of professing to prefer tea to sex, he is proud to be “militantly homosexual”. Writing in Straight, he admits, “I fall in love on an hourly basis.”
And now that he’s 50, George is returning to what originally made him a household name. Throughout his up-down-up-down life, his songwriting has always creatively sustained him, although as a solo artist he hasn’t achieved the same levels of success as with Culture Club. This could explain why next year Culture Club are said to be releasing a new album, and reforming for a tour; whether it’s a nostalgia cash-in or a genuinely new creative venture remains to be seen. But whatever George, definitely no longer a Boy, ever gets up to, people will always be interested. Witty, acerbic, eternally creative, Boy George is pop’s trashy tranny Oscar Wilde figure. We love him — warts and all.