A candid interview with the reigning king and queen of pop music.
May 1, 1985
John Wayne must be spinning in his grave: Shucks. It was bad enough to have that Michael Jackson fella singin’ all high-pitched and squeaky, but at least he was Amurrican. Then along comes this British, uh, person wearin’ braids an’ dresses an’ lip rouge an’ eye liner an’ God knows what else, for God’s sake. What the hell is this? Ol’ pal Ronnie Reagan is in the White House in 1985 and we have to put up with this . . . pansy stuff?
Yes, Duke, Boy George is alive and thriving in 1985. The 23-year-old singer and songweriter has, with the backing of his band, Culture Club, received more publicity and been the object of more controversy than any other pop act in years. And it isn’t just the music world that hasn’t known quite what to make of him: With his trash-glittery dresses and quicksilver switches in appearance and gender, the fashion world has been left bewildered and transformed.
Given the fact that his first album was released in 1982, Boy George has become a brand name in a remarkably short time: Everyone has heard at least one Boy George joke, and nearly everyone has heard a Boy George tune (Culture Club’s first album produced three top-ten hits, including “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”–the first debut album to do that since “Introducing the Beatles,” in 1963). Moralistic tub thumper Jerry Falwell has denounced Boy George as a pernicious influence on youth, and Boy has noted that without Princess Diana and himself, the world’s press would be bereft. In fact, he was publicly snubbed by another princess–Margaret–who pronounced him an “over-made-up tart.” (See this “Interview” for his response.) Customs officials at the French border once refused to allow him into their country because they didn’t believe he was male, as his passport indicated.
In this country, Boy George has proved a worthy sparring partner for Joan Rivers, who, while apperaing with him on the 1984 Grammy-awards show, cracked, “You look like Brooke Shields on steroids.” He never got to use the line he had rehearsed (“What’s the difference between Joan Rivers and the Statue of Liberty? Not everyone has been up the Statue of Liberty . . .”) but nevertheless became a favorite of Rivers’.
George has ushered in a trend heralded as the “invasion of the gender benders,” which may be hype but includes interesting company: Mick Jagger and David Bowie before him, and Michael Jackson and Annie Lennox with him, seem to be pushing the boundaries of sexual ambiguity. But with George, there is no doubt: He wears dresses and announces that he’s bisexual. To some, it seems that Boy George is not just a novelty but is spearheading an alternative sexuality.
It all began for the Boy when he was growing up in London in a working-class family; his father was a construction worker who sometimes coached small-time boxers. George says he began dressing outrageously in his preteens, even in Catholic school, when he would borrow clothes from his older brother, who was involved in London’s punk scene. George paid a price for his eccentricity and was picked on at school, developing a vicious wit a his defense. At the age of 15, he began attending london’s punk clubs, trying to outdo his friends by dressing more and more outrageously. He was finally kicked out of school when he showed up with his hair dyed bright orange.
the club scene became his life. He would spend as much as two hours primping in front of a mirror before embarking on his nightly tour of punk and gay clubs–not for sex or other kicks, he says, but just to be seen. During that time, he worked as a fruit picker, a clothing salesman and was once hired to help costume a Royal Shakespeare Company production. It was while he was working in a trendy clothes store that Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ former manager, recruited him to sing in a band named Bow Wow Wow. Shortly thereafter, he joined bass player Mikey Craig, drummer Jon Moss and guitarist Roy Hay to form a new group called Culture Club. Within months, they were making audiences gasp. Although their music has been critically praised for its infectious melodies and clever lyrics, it is Boy George’s personal impact that has propelled the group’s notoriety. As he has boasted, “Even if we never sell another record, we have made history.”
To recount some of that history, PLAYBOY sent Contributing Editor David Sheff and collaborator Vicki Sheff to interview George, starting with his tour of Japan. Their report:
“We flew into Osaka, and although George wasn’t ready to begin the ‘Interview,’ we discovered accidentally while strolling through the ancient Osaka Castle how far his influence has reached. A group of giggling Japanese girls, making a school tour of the castle, were dressed in various versions of Boy George; and although they didn’t speak a word of English, we could make out the lyrics of the Culture Club songs they were loudly singing. And at the sold-out concert hall that night, the Japanese audience chanted ‘Boya! Boya! Boya!’ to bring George Back for three encores.
“Before the ‘Interview,’ we had wondered What do you wear to interview Boy George? We were pondering that and other weighty questions in our hotel room when there was a knock at our door. George, who doesn’t allow anyone into his private rooms, had decided that the ‘Interview’ should take place in our room. He was wearing a black-and-white-checked overcoat that bloused down to his knees, covering tight gray trousers that zipped from the ankles. He used his sunglasses as a band to keep his long tresses away from his face. His white nail polish was chipping, presumably from superstar nail biting. He removed his shoes before walking on the tatami mat, exposing tasteful green-and-pink socks. In photographs, he seems a small, delicate man; far from it. George is tall, heavy and large-boned, even husky. He settled down on the mat and began bitching immediately: He was tired of green tea. ‘All I want is a good cup of English tea.’ He then volunteered, as if we were being blessed, that this was the first interview he had ever done without make-up, which meant that he was wearing only foundation, eye liner and mascara, light blush and maybe a touch of rose lipstick. We drank green tea and talked until five A.M., by which time an unmistakable five-o’clock shadow was sprouting through his make-up base.
“In that and subsequent sessions (some of them with the more familiar make-up on), George was bright, charming and entertaining; yet there would never fail to be moments when he was a 23-year old kid snickering over the fact that he has succeeded–and quite well, thank you–at pulling the wool over the eyes of just about the entire world.
“On our last day in Japan, we were waiting with the rest of Culture Club in the hall of the band’s row of suites, preparing to head out to a Tokyo Chinese restaurant. The band members were waiting–and not altogether patiently. When someone screamed at him to hurry, George puffed back, ‘Fuck off.’ Jon Moss explained the delay: ‘George can’t decide whether or not to wear his shoulder pads.’ Ah, but it’s tough at the top.”
PLAYBOY: It’s not as if you haven’t heard this question before, but tell us again why you dress up the way you do.
GEORGE: I think I look like a pig without make-up on; it’s no more complicated than that. If I wore a skirt and a blouse, I’d look a right idiot, but I don’t really wear that kind of thing. More often, I wear a cassock like the ones Arabs wear. It is a style of clothing, not necessarily male or female. In England, there’s this guy who looks a lot like me sort of put through a mincer. He’s as fat as I am, but he wears leotards, with his balls kind of hanging out the side on stage. I think he looks ridiculous, whereas I think I look smashing. My look is androgynous but not effeminate. I’m a big guy and I don’t look ridiculous in dresses. You know, I was the first man to appear on the cover of the british edition of Cosmopolitan. I also did the cover and six pages of beauty shots for Harper’s Bazaar Australia. Those are things that no other man has ever done and I take pride in being the first.
PLAYBOY: some people think you’re a passing fad; others think you’ve had an effect beyond your looks and your music. What do you think?
GEORGE: Maybe it’s cheeky, but I think I’m having an effect. Because of the music, people are at least considering something they probably would have dismissed completely–being different. I think, or hope, that people are coming around and saying, “I like him. He’s OK. I’m not afraid.” That’s the first step. They might then accept their neighbor who is different from them. Attitudes change over long periods of time. [Shrugs] On the other hand, maybe I haven’t changed anything. Maybe I’m just another stupid pop star like David Cassidy. Maybe I don’t mean a thing.
PLAYBOY: You mean something to people such as Jerry Falwell, who has accused you of subverting America’s youth, and to many others, including students who boycott your records and call your music “queer music.”
GEORGE: What can you say to ignorance? Of course, in the name of religion, there have been many atrocities. As to the Reverend Falwell: If he thinks that I’m a Communist plot to subvert the youth of Western society, what is he–a strong believer in democracy? Or does he have his own brand of Communist policies that prevent anyone who doesn’t follow his beliefs from breathing God’s free air? It’s funny that the Russians also think that Boy George and Michael Jackson are Western society’s way of subverting their youth. Well, maybe we’re neither. Maybe we remain in our own politically free zone. As for those students, they’re the sort of kids who would laugh at a girl who is fat. I’m not the only thing they dislike. And it’s not just kids; some kids never grow up. There are 40-year-olds who go around picking fights at bars and calling people names. Hopefully, kids grow up and learn to accept other people. It’s a shame, but I really don’t care. They’re frightened, but there’s nothing to be frightened by.
Interview conducted with Vicki Sheff-Cahan