The middle-aged man who answers the glass door could be anyone, though the fact that Boy George has owned this house on a hill in Hampstead for the past 16 years does narrow the possibilities. And it definitely is his house because on the gate posts, as you wait to be buzzed in, you see fans have scrawled messages to him in felt-tip – some are fresh, some faded.
Japanese tourists especially used to track him down here. He thinks they bribed taxi drivers to show them where he lived, then they would wait with their cameras. ‘I’m thinking of putting up a plaque,’ he says. ‘Boy George lives here. Go away.’
He also has a house in Ibiza, and had an apartment in New York, until his unpleasant experience there a couple of years ago, which we shall come to. He moved back to London after that, but not before he had this house ‘exorcised and blessed’. The place has gothic turrets, around which you half expect bats to be circling. Come to think of it, what with his shaved head, there is something of the Uncle Fester about the man himself. There is a blue Star of David tattooed on it, with a pink lotus blossom on the base of his skull. He has luminous pale eyes, wears no make-up and is dressed in a black hoodie and sweatpants – a Buddha in a tracksuit.
Even as a svelte youth playing on his androgynous looks, he had the suggestion of a double chin, one which he used to disguise with shadowy make-up. Now, at 47, he seems comfortable with himself, but different… different from the man who was once one of the most recognisable people in the Western world, after Diana, Princess of Wales and the Pope. So different that it is possible not to recognise him at all, as Italian police discovered a couple of days before my visit.
‘I lost my passport when I was in Italy and because I didn’t have a driving licence I had to show my credit cards, and when they still wouldn’t accept who I was, I had to do the Boy George thing, which I rarely do. I had to say, “I’m Boy George”, then they let me go. They clocked I had nail varnish on and that caused great hilarity.
‘You’d think people would get over it, but they never do. Look,’ he holds out nails that are chipped and varnished black. ‘It isn’t even proper nail varnish. It’s scuppered and butch. It’s manly nail varnish. In a way, it is reassuring, like police sirens.’
The varnish helped convince the Italian police that he was Boy George? ‘I suppose so. Anyway, they let me go, which was a relief. Thought it was going to be pasta for a week.’
He still does nice lines like that. Indeed, they trip off his tongue relentlessly. He talks quickly and breathily – wheezily, actually, because he suffers from asthma. On the subject of which, he couldn’t have eaten pasta for a week, because he is on a special no-wheat diet. No sugar, either. The asthma doesn’t stop him smoking, though. ‘When you smoke as a singer you lose a few octaves, but you gain something as well. Pure jazz, my voice.’
In a curious way, his voice is more recognisable than he is these days. The cadence is still vaguely East End, still archly camp, or camply arch, and it is still punctuated with laughter – albeit the laughter of habit rather than mirth. He always laughed like that when interviewed on television, but I never realised until now that it was a nervy, defensive laugh. Perhaps it has become so over time.
Boy George was just 19 when he found fame as the singer of Culture Club. The reggae-influenced New Romantic band released their first record in 1982 and went on to sell more than 50 million, notching up seven British and nine American Top 10 hits, and going to No 1 in both countries with Karma Chameleon. Boy George played upon his androgyny not only in the way he dressed – the beaded hair, the geisha make-up, the big hats – but also in what he said. When talk-show host Russell Harty asked if he was keen on sex, he said he’d sooner have a cup of tea.
Actually, he was very much gay, as well Harty knew, and when he did officially come out in America, two years later, he had to wear a bulletproof vest because of the death threats – with admirable insouciance, he worried that it made him ‘look chunky’. Examples of his self-indulgence were legion, but perhaps the most rock-star-ish was his insistence on flying the opposite way around the world to the rest of his band for a show in Japan – because it was better ‘nine ki’ energy.
Despite this better energy, the band split up in 1986 and Boy George checked into rehab for his heroin addiction. Some solo success followed, both as a singer-songwriter and as a club DJ. But his biggest come-back was his autobiographical musical, Taboo, which did well in the West End, and not so well on Broadway. He also launched his own designer clothing label (B-Rude) and wrote a memoir, Take it Like a Man.
He has just started a new tour, his first in 10 years, but it may be cut short depending on what happens next month. George O’Dowd, to use his real name, is due to stand trial in November after being accused of falsely imprisoning a 28-year-old Norwegian male escort and chaining him to a radiator in his former flat in London. O’Dowd pleaded not guilty to the charge in February and was released on bail. He faces a possible 15 years in jail. ‘I would love to be able to talk about the trial but I can’t,’ he says now. ‘I’ll talk to you about it afterwards because there is a lot I would like to say.’
Is he apprehensive? ‘No. I’ll think about it when it happens. You wouldn’t want to think of me spending all these weeks panicking in anticipation. It would be so bad for me.’
He says his spirits are kept high by the fans who come to his concerts, as well as by the people he bumps into in the street. Some may consider his behaviour seedy, but there seems to be a deep-seated affection for him as well. ‘People are funny in England. They will cheerfully shout out, “Hey, George, I hear you got nicked again, you’re a one!” Sometimes it can be annoying, but usually it makes me laugh. In America, no one says anything. They are too embarrassed to bring it up.’
This latest charge follows his arrest and trial in New York. In 2005, O’Dowd falsely reported a break-in at his Manhattan flat – and police officers who responded found 13 grams of cocaine there, allegedly, but their over-eagerness to search without a warrant ruled out the possibility of drugs charges. He was found guilty of wasting police time and a judge made him sweep the New York streets on a five-day community-service order. O’Dowd called it ‘media service’ because of the paparazzi frenzy that followed. With his state-issue orange vest, he wore Capri pants and shoes without socks. It was meant to be a humiliation, but O’Dowd reckoned his working-class background meant it wasn’t. ‘My mum was a cleaner, my dad was a builder,’ he shouted across to the scrum of reporters, as he got to work with his brush. ‘Know what I mean?’
Does he take drugs now? ‘Never, ever, ever do drugs again and I don’t drink either. My job of giving the police something to do is over.’
How long since he took them? ‘It’s been a long time. Telling you exact days and months is only helpful to me, not you. I can say that now and mean it, because I’m in a good place. But there was a time when I could have said it knowing I didn’t mean it.’
A curious distinction. Drugs brought him pleasure to begin with, presumably, but if he had his time again would he take that first line, that first needle? ‘If I had known what a dreary old road it would be? Never. And if I can stop anyone else starting on that road, I will. Time is precious and drugs waste time. I think Amy Winehouse is going to realise that soon. Hers is the most played-out drug addiction in rock’n’roll history. Like a living soap opera. But pain makes a wonderful sound. Her terrible vulnerability is touching. So raw and effortless, not even pushing the notes. From a singer’s point of view that’s scary. You notice she is hitting these rich notes without trying, tossing them away like a handbag.’ Pause. ‘And I love her hair-do.’
He’s sort of talking about himself, of course. And on the subject of soap operas, why did he agree to be filmed for The Madness of Boy George, an unflattering Channel 4 documentary a couple of years ago? ‘They pursued me until I surrendered. It was dreadful. A piece of trash. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever, ever done.’ He laughs at his own exaggeration. ‘No, it’s not. Of course there have been much worse things I have done, and will no doubt do, but as a piece of television it was lazy; trying to turn me into a headline.’
They didn’t have to try too hard. ‘You mean because I was doing the community service when they were making it? Yes, but why did they have to go on about that?’
Well, it was a bizarre episode, even by his own standards. ‘As much as other people might like to cling on to it, it’s over. Done. It means nothing to me, Oh Vienna.’
So he didn’t learn anything about himself from that experience? ‘I learnt that I don’t like getting up at 6.30 in the morning and that Chinese people chop vegetables really small, which makes them hard to pick up off the pavement.’
Does that make him shallow? ‘Oh God, you’re really trying hard, aren’t you? No, there is nothing remotely shallow about me: I could probably talk for hours about my community service, but it means nothing. Nothing. It was only five days. I don’t know whether that makes me shallow, or enlightened and Buddha-like.’
Well, he’s Buddha like in one respect. He even seems to have a shrine to himself in the house: two shelves of curiosities including two wooden name plates: one that reads George O’Dowd, the other, Boy George. We are sitting in his high-ceilinged kitchen, which has stairs leading up to a balcony.
On one wall there is a giant mirror, on another a stencil painting saying, ‘F— you. Hate you.’ There is also a photograph of David Bowie, a crucifix, an assortment of candles and a gothic-looking throne-like chair, whose arm rests are fashioned in the shape of two large phalluses. ‘They were made for me,’ he says when I do a double-take. On another shelf are books about Andy Warhol, Marc Bolan and Oscar Wilde.
It may sound unlikely, but there is something Wildeian about Boy George. He is known for his bons mots, after all – at one point he says to me,’Honesty is a curse. It will get you charged every time,’ which is pure Wilde – but also, like Wilde, and every hero of a Greek tragedy, he seems to have been the author of his own downfall.
He shakes his head when I put this to him. ‘If I sweep the streets that does not mean my life is totally tragic. It’s not who I am and it doesn’t take away from the fact that I sold millions of records. I know the media don’t get that and it frustrates the hell out of me. I think I’m generous because I don’t have a blanket attitude to the media, despite what it has done to me and what it continues to do to me.’
Blimey. Get arrested. Blame the media. ‘I’m not blaming the media for that. What I mean is… I’m letting you into my home. I’m not saying there are any questions you can’t ask me. Try asking Madonna or Sting some of the questions you have asked me, and someone will step in and tell you you can’t. Interviewing me is a luxury and you should appreciate it. I’m an intelligent man. I’m exciting company. You can analyse me all you like, but please do a good job. Don’t be boring.’
Blimey again. And OK, I’ll try. He comes across in print as being pricklier than he is in person. Actually, he is likeable and funny, once you get past the nervous tension and the drama queeniness. But he seems to have little equilibrium, no shame, and no self-control. What he does have is self-pity, self-destructive impulses and delusions of grandeur. He can seem wounded and spoilt, but also, at times, worldly wise. And he is an odd mix of vanity and self-loathing.
Does he feel like a victim? ‘For other people it may look like I was built up to be knocked down, but actually I don’t have that kind of perspective. I was sweeping, now I’m not sweeping. I suppose on the last day I did try to keep my orange jerkin as a souvenir. It was a weird experience and…’ He laughs. ‘Now you are making me think about it!’
But it sounds as if he’s not the sort of person who has regrets. ‘Know what? I have loads. But lately, I’ve been thinking I don’t have to be that person and behave in that way. I’ve never noticed this before in 47 years.’
How has he not? ‘Because there has been too much hairspray in the way. You don’t notice because even when your life is dysfunctional you think that’s normality.’
I begin a sentence about the fame he enjoyed, or endured, in the 1980s, a time when he was one of the most recognisable people on the planet… But he cuts me off… ‘What do you mean “was”? I still am and always will be. Your talking about me as if I’m not here gets on my nerves. I’m here, in your presence!’
Then he redeems himself. ‘I sound like Gloria Swanson, don’t I? Look, no one can take any of that stuff away from me because it’s mine. I’ve learnt to appreciate what I have. My life is amazing. Being Boy George, putting on a hat and make-up, is amazing. And easy. Being George O’Dowd is the f—ing battle. I still moan as much as I always did, but I stop myself now. When things are kicking off, I can tell myself, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be nasty, you don’t have to be an a—h—.”‘
I mention that he seems to have a lot of anger just below his surface. ‘I come from a family that explodes. Mine is the great exploding family.’
Does he enjoy exploding? ‘Actually, I don’t. I don’t find it therapeutic. I’ve come to realise that when I snap at people they get hurt. When you care about someone… which is the difference. I care if it is someone in my family. When it’s someone from the record company it doesn’t mater if I shout, Yahhhbllagghh!!! at them.’
Record company executives don’t have feelings? Or is it more that he doesn’t care if they do? Isn’t that a little selfish? ‘You’re trying to narrow me down to a headline aren’t you? Yes Boy George was selfish, but he’s not now. I was a b——, but I recovered.
‘I need to go out and perform to the people who always forgive me for everything I do and that is the Great British public, God bless them. I go out there and feel so lucky. They still sing along with my songs.
‘To be honest, when I started this tour, I thought: “Who is going to want to come and see me after all this time?” But when you get to Norwich and Newcastle, I mean, all these weird people come along to see you, all these old ladies who dance and sing along to Karma Chameleon and shout [he adopts a Geordie accent], “I f—ing love you George.” In Northampton, there were all these stage-door hangers-on and they were my mum’s age; it was really sweet and really funny. I’ve become Barry Manilow!’
He can laugh at himself, and that is his redeeming feature. As well as being a builder, his father, Jerry, was a boxer, one who used to beat up his wife. By wearing make-up as a teenager, George was rejecting his father’s masculinity, clearly. But he may also have begun wearing black lipstick to get his father’s attention (he was one of six children, after all).
He still craves attention, which may partly explain his almost Tourette’s-like tendency to insult people. ‘It sounds like a name-drop, but Elton John rang me up the other day and it was really exciting,’ he says. ‘Elton John has my number! I had a barney with him a couple of years ago and I loved the fact that I had pissed him off [he had called him a ‘humourless grand old dame’]. I can’t believe I’ve registered with him. He was fuming, “I’m going to kill that Boy George!”‘ A result.
Does he fall in love easily? ‘I fall in lust easily, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in love. I look back and think was that love? But I’ve never been in that stage where I think I don’t want anyone else.’
According to his memoirs, his longest relationship was with Jon Moss, the drummer of Culture Club, who is now married with children. He wrote the band’s first hit Do You Really Want to Hurt Me about Moss. (Actually, it was the other way round. Boy George would throw bottles at Moss and once broke his fingers.) I ask if Moss was the love of his life. ‘I thought so but, with hindsight, I’m not sure he was. He was certainly the great drama of my life, but I’m not sure I love him more than I love my mother. No, I definitely love my mother more. Was it love? I cried. He punched me. There was music.’
Was he ever beaten up because he was gay? ‘By my own brothers. By kids at school, every day from the age of six they would shout “poof” at me. School was a hellhole.’
Did he ever fight back? ‘I can fight but I don’t like fighting. You scratch your nails.’
What about ‘muscle Marys’ such as Rupert Everett: gay men who work out? ‘I’m much tougher than Rupert Everett. I could knock him out in five seconds. Muscled men are the most scared because they are building a wall. We are the only culture who identifies with our persecutors, gay men trying to act straight. The toughest ones are the drag queens. They are the suffragettes. They are the warriors. You ain’t a man till you’ve walked in heels.’
John, his business partner, arrives for a meeting and George asks him if he will do him a favour and go out and get a packet of cigarettes.
‘You’re vile,’ George says.
A few minutes later the buzzer sounds again. It is someone called Lady Pat, a man, who is also expected at the meeting. ‘Do you smoke?’ George asks before buzzing him in.
‘I hate you’