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The teenage George O’Dowd growing up in London would not have believed that the 55-year-old artist who became Boy George is still in show business. “I was from Woolwich,” he says. “People from Woolwich didn’t become famous. I went for careers advice at school and I’d say, ‘I want to work in fashion or be a makeup artist or work with bands’ and they’d look at you like you were insane. ‘Maybe you should be a bit more realistic – factory work’.”
But as “the pink sheep” of his working-class Irish family, George wasn’t cut out for regular work. “I knew I wasn’t going to do a nine-to-five job,” he says. “My father had his own building firm, all my brothers worked for my dad, they went straight from school and I was like, ‘No way am I doing that’.” George has four brothers and one sister. “They all went into painting and decorating. I preferred to paint and decorate myself.”
It’s Sunday night and I’m with Boy George at Fox Studios in Sydney where The Voice is filmed. He has joined Seal, Delta Goodrem and Kelly Rowland as a judge on the top-rating talent show. After a long shoot, he’s energetic and happy to talk about his extremely colourful life.
The new George has sworn off all his vices and now bakes his own gluten-free bread. He consumes no sugar, alcohol or cigarettes. “No smoke or drink for nine years,” he says, “and I do yoga every day, which I love.”
Slightly chunkier in middle age but still with a mischievous sparkle in those famous green eyes, George is a different man from the androgynous, be-ribboned superstar who burst onto the scene in 1982 with Culture Club’s Kissing To Be Clever album and smash single Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?.
That breakout song reached No.1 in 16 countries and launched him as a pop-culture phenomenon, an ’80s gender-bending icon, drawing attention not just for the catchy tunes and soulful voice but also for his joyful embrace of being different.
But the fame and fun was tempered with some dark years, including heroin addiction and some highly publicised jail time in 2009 for falsely imprisoning a male escort. Eight years later, George is in a great place.
“There have been many times when I’ve crawled back from the abyss,” he says. “I’ve had troubles in my past. Music’s been the only thing that’s been constant. I’m very lucky I’ve always had music to turn to. Joni Mitchell says there’s comfort in melancholy when there’s no need to explain.”
With the new healthy life comes a new outlook. “I invest in joy now, which is something I would have thought was quite weird when I was younger: ‘What do you mean you can be happy?’. It used to be if something good happened, you were happy, something bad happened, you were miserable. I kind of didn’t know about the space in between.”
He talks about getting back together recently with Culture Club and how everything’s easier now. “Growing up is allowing people to be who they are,” he says. “When you’re young, you’re always trying to force your will on everybody. As you get older, you think, ‘I don’t need to make what I do unpleasant’.
“There are times when I slouch and I have to say, ‘Right, no, pull yourself together, be professional’. It wasn’t something I could do when I was 19. If I was in a bad mood, everybody got it.”
He has even secured a role as the face of fragrance giant Dior Homme.
“I’ve become a supermodel in my 50s. It’s very exciting. I said to my manager, ‘Why don’t you get me some modelling work?’ and he said, ‘I think you should forget about that’. I said, ‘Why not? I could model watches’. As a joke. Three weeks later he rang. ‘You remember you mentioned modeling. Shall we start at the top? Dior’. Genius!
“I’m Buddhist and I do actually believe that if you put things out there you do get them back. If you really want something and you put it out there, sometimes it does weirdly turn up.”
In early 1980s London, George was known around the clubs as a style guru and a “face” – a highly marketable one at that. He brilliantly married music, fashion, nightclub sass and that lovely voice, and waited for his break. And waited. “When I started Culture Club, every single person I knew had a record deal and we couldn’t get one. I think people saw me and thought, ‘He’s so extreme’.
“[Drummer] Jon Moss would go to record companies with pictures of the band and they would all say, ‘What’s the girl called?’ and he’d say, ‘It’s not a girl’. Hence me calling myself Boy George. It plays around with the idea of ambiguity.”
Growing up, he loved a bit of everything, from the glam of Bowie and Marc Bolan to the intensely private revelatory poetry of Joni Mitchell.
“I grew up in the ’70s, which was such a colourful, eclectic, bonkers period for music: glam rock, reggae, punk, electro, and in the ’80s, which was born of all of those things,” he says. “I am the sum of all the things I grew up with.”
George is enjoying his time on The Voice but says it can be tough to let people go. “But I tell them your career is shaped by how you use the disappointments and the successes.”
His contretemps with veteran Voice judge Seal might be real or might be a fun part of the “tension” of the show. “We have very different characters,” he says. “But I have a lot of respect for him as an artist and he’s a great singer.”
George still lives in London but spends a lot of time in Los Angeles. He has “half an album” recorded with Culture Club and they have written songs for the rest of it.
“But I might end up doing my own album first,” he says. He plans to tour Australia later this year as a solo act.
He was saddened at the loss last year of his childhood hero, David Bowie. “I knew Bowie wasn’t well, so I was kind of preparing for some bad news,” he says. “We were communicating up until 2002, when he first got ill. When he stopped responding, I knew something was wrong. I saw a recent documentary and got quite upset because I realised, ‘That’s what happened’.
“I have always been the biggest Bowie fan on Earth. Losing Bowie was kind of like losing a family member. All of my generation, all of my friends, the one thing we all have in common is that we are Bowie kids. He was like our father, so weird.”
George’s fame now is, of course, less hysterical than it once was. “It was a nightmare,” he says of being in the eye of the celebrity storm. “I saw a photo of Justin Bieber sitting outside a restaurant (while a group of young fans watched him eat). Even now, if I were to sit outside a burger bar with this outfit on I wouldn’t get any peace. But in my civvies I can slip by unnoticed. I do that most of the time. I’m not Justin Bieber, I’m not 19, it’s not my moment.
“I’ve changed my relationship with fame. I love being in the world. Yes, I love being Boy George, I love all the things that come with being Boy George but I also like to go out and have a cup of coffee or walk in the park.
“The worst is when you’re in a restaurant and someone sends their child who’s five and they don’t know who you are. ‘Hello, my dad wants an autograph’. I say, ‘Who do you think I am? Mickey Mouse?’.”
BOY GEORGE ON …
Bowie was an incredible lyricist. He created this ethereal, alternative landscape. I saw Bowie when I was 11 in 1973. I don’t know how I managed to get my father to let me go to the concert, but I did. And it was a life-changing moment for me. Bowie was singing about things nobody else was singing about. This was the time of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, Knock Three Times on The Ceiling If You Want Me, and Bowie was singing about “his nebulous body swayed above, his tongue swollen with devil’s love”. What is this man talking about?
Joni Mitchell is a poet. I’ve met her a few times. She’s nothing like you think she is. She’s tough. Oh my god, she’s fierce. I met her in LA at a brunch in the Four Seasons hotel. She blew my mind. She was kind of bitchy. She said the only good singer was Billie Holiday and everyone else was rubbish. It’s always interesting when you meet people and they are not what you think.
It feels like there are different rules for Adele. Adele can make music like people did in the ’70s and ’80s but nobody else is allowed to. Everyone else has to be a formula, but Adele can make an acoustic album or put a piano on a record. If anyone else did that people would say, “That’s so old fashioned”. It’s one rule for her and one rule for the rest of us.
Getting Culture Club back together
Bands and artists generally only make sense when they’re onstage. Sometimes it’s hard to get tours together, all these different egos and personalities, and then there’s that two-hour window on stage when you look around and go, “I like these guys. Don’t know why I ever hated you”.
Boy George is a judge on The Voice, on Channel Nine, Monday, Saturday and Sunday nights.