Boy George grows up

From the androgynous highs of the 80s and Culture Club to a spell in Pentonville, George O'Dowd's life has been nothing if not colourful. But now, aged 50, he tells Catherine Deveney why he finally feels proud of himself

Warra bitch, as Catherine Tate's Nan would say. Warran absolute bitch. Boy George arranges to meet at his north London house, a gothic pile apparently, luring me like you would a kitten with a saucer of milk, then half an hour beforehand says his friend's dogs are being a nuisance so we'll meet down his local instead. Nothing for it but to stomp disconsolately past his black wooden gate, peering above it in the hope of spotting a few bats rising from the turrets, cursing the sprawling green-and-red-veined autumnal foliage that hides the windows from prying eyes like mine. All those glories inside! Wonderful paintings and gilt crucifixes, I hear, because George is very spiritual and says things like, "On Tuesday I was in India at this temple…" as if he'd just popped down the King's Road. Religious artefacts that bend the knee to Jesus Christ and Muhammad and Hare Krishna – let's hedge our bets because all are welcome here – to say nothing of the contents of George's wardrobe and make-up box. He used to hoard jewellery in a biscuit tin as a boy and I bet it's still under his bed in there. It is too bad. Swapped for what? Ye Olde White Bear pub.

But actually, it doesn't matter. George opens his mind the way others open their front door. Not that he answers everything – as we'll see – but he has an unusual emotional honesty. Those infamous, acid-tongued retorts of the Culture Club frontman, who became famous singing, "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?", never did fully conceal the vulnerable Boy who wanted to be loved more than your average Joe. But George O'Dowd is not a boy any more. At 50 he has produced a photographic album of his life, a glossy coffee-table book called – wait for it – King of Queens, in which he is pictured in all his pouting, arresting androgyny: bows in his topknot and ribbons through his dreadlocks, pencilled eyebrows arched in permanent outrage above sculpted, blushered cheekbones and puckered lips. It costs £500, but is expected to follow the pattern of a similar publication on John Lydon which become a collectors' piece, selling on eBay for far more than the cover price.

At first, I think George looks pale today, almost peaky, dressed in black with a baseball cap, a few straying grey hairs peaking out at the temples. Then the obvious strikes. He's not unwell. He's just not wearing make-up. No bold sweep of eyeliner; no dramatic waves of colour across the lids. No warming blusher. Oh, George can still be a drag queen when he wants. He just doesn't need to be. There is something stripped back, a comfortable-in-his-skin quality that the absence of make-up is merely a symptom of. At 16, he thought it was his divine right to walk down the street in Woolwich dressed as a nun. It still amuses him when people get outraged at his appearance. But he recognises the strange dichotomy of drag. "You are wearing a mask, but on the other hand trying to draw attention, so it's a kind of, 'Look at me, don't look at me.' I can laugh at some of the shit I used to do. I am grown up now and I couldn't have said that 10 years ago. It would have been surrender, giving in. But it's so empowering to be able to say it. It's a wonderful thing."

He certainly has the life experiences of a grown-up. George was the anti-drugs 80s pop star, and later successful club DJ, who fell long and hard into addiction. In 2006, after moving to New York with his musical Taboo, he was sentenced to sweep the streets of New York for possession, and in 2009 was jailed in Britain after a bizarre case involving the false imprisonment of a 29-year-old Norwegian male escort and model, Audun Carlsen. After a drug-fuelled session with Carlsen, George accused him of stealing photographs from his laptop. He was sentenced to 15 months after handcuffing Carlsen to a wall and lashing out at him with a chain. He once said addiction was a fundamental lack but has revised that view. "A lot of it is proximity. If you are around it too much, you are going to get dragged in. I don't put myself in those situations now. If I think people are going to get drugs out, I won't be there. There was a point where I was like, oh yeah, fine… I don't do it. But it's not fine. It's never fine."

Legally, he cannot talk about the case, though you sense he has a tale to tell. "I think it's very unfair of you to ask me," he says, apparently without rancour. (Later, I discover he was uncomfortable with several questions but, interestingly, there is no real visible sign; no strop.) But does he have an instinctive emotional response to the episode – perhaps regret or guilt or shame? "No, I don't think about any of those specifics. I think about consequences of my addiction generally. Everything that happened in life when I was addicted was a consequence of being an addict. When I first went to prison, I had a kind of sense of outrage and then I thought: 'Actually, less is more.' That's one of the things I have learned in the last five years. Less is more."

He got clean the year before he entered prison. "That gave me a really strong place from which to encounter it. I got a job in the kitchen, had my own cell and made friends. I had to get used to being with me, learn to sort of like myself again." He read constantly – all the classics he claimed to have read already and never had – but television made him scream. "After a while I thought: 'Fucking hell, you've no idea what I am going through. Loose Women!'"

Prison developed its own normality. "That's the most terrifying thing about prison. I was only there about four months, but when it was time to go home I was thinking: 'Oh my God, I've got to go out of here and deal with my life. I am not sure I want to leave!'" Yet the experience changed him positively. "Once you get clear and get your head screwed on, you see the potential. You look at what you are doing and your behaviour. There was a big shift in me. I just thought, 'You are fucking around. And you can't any more.'"

The drama queen instincts have dissipated. "I look back now and most of the drama in my life was self-inflicted. I don't need to make up so much drama now. I watch my friends and think… and? He said… she said… Twitter…" He was once king of the bitchy put-down – "Imagine if one of your parents had been attractive" – but now opts for dignified silence, blocking unpleasant people on social networking sites. But he does admit it kills him not to have the last word. Part of him still wants to say, "You ugly bastard – fuck off!"

It's hardly surprising he once gravitated to drama. He grew up surrounded by it. I once interviewed his mother Dinah, a warm, chatty, Irish matriarch. (George loves and admires his mum hugely but steered clear when he was messed up. She saw through him and he couldn't take the scrutiny.) Dinah suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband Gerald, who dominated the house, but left her after 43 years of marriage. When Gerald died, the family did not recognise the saintly man described at his funeral. Yet George loved his dad. "He was a formidable character who shaped who I am. If you can write someone off as a bad person then it's easier, but when someone is also great and noble and generous and kind and funny and contradictory, it gets harder. Now I think about the great things. I don't really think about him smashing the house up."

Childhood wasn't unhappy, but it was full of volatility, with his father's violence, his mother's attempted overdose (she's very different now, he says: very strong) and later, his brother's psychiatric problems. Only after his father's death did they achieve a real unity. "I think his death got everyone back together. Not consciously. I don't think anyone said, 'Dad's gone so let's get together,' but I think we are a better family than we have ever been. In the past, everyone would turn up for a crisis. Now, we all turn up for dinner."

Surprisingly, his father was very supportive when his son came out. "I remember thinking: 'That's it, I'm finished. He's going to kill me.' But he was great," says George.

He loved music and dressing up, but was always conscious of being an outsider. "You are made to feel different long before you understand what it is. Other kids pointed it out. You don't walk like other boys. You don't talk like other boys. But at six you are not thinking about your sexuality."

It has been suggested that he trawled the internet for partners and escorts, but he says it's not true and is typical of the way people stereotype gay sex. He subscribes to Eddie Izzard's idea that sexuality is like a ruler: homosexuality at one end, heterosexuality at the other – and lots of grades in between. Where is he? "Pretty gay," he laughs. Ever had a relationship with a woman? No, he says instantly – then hesitates. Well, there was his friend Alice, who was like a beautiful boy. "We had this sort of… little… I don't know what it was, really."

He is no longer certain he's ever been properly in love. "I'm not sure. There was a lot of drama. I have a more loving relationship with a lot of my ex-partners now I am no longer with them. I am really close to Michael [a former partner] and love having him around. I don't fancy him any more, and I'm sure he doesn't fancy me, but the complicated stuff has gone. I love him and care what happens to him." His last few relationships have dissolved quite healthily, unlike the old days. "Not necessarily in the way I wanted, but I didn't go crazy."

Next year, Culture Club will re-form for a 30th-anniversary tour and album. Will it be difficult working with Jon Moss, Culture Club's drummer and the object of his affections and obsessions in all those early songs? No, but he admits their history gives a certain frisson. "It's a slightly weird experience. There's a kind of… of course… but I like it. I give a shit what happens to Jon. I regret a lot of the things I said. We experienced something so huge and magical together. I don't know if we understood what really happened. Sometimes, I think I know Jon better than I do, and then I think I don't really know him at all."

He walks me to the station, still talking. He doesn't need to, but he's kind in small ways, you can see that. And who would have believed that dignity would end up being so important to him? There is something admirable about the unadorned George O'Dowd, the way he has turned himself inside out, then learned from it.

"It doesn't matter what has happened in my life," he says. "Right now, I am proud of myself. That's a great place to be. A really wonderful place to be."


Catherine Deveney

The GuardianTramp

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