Mad about the boy

Boy George has about a half hour to spare on the way back to his New York hotel, but he sounds as though the morning has treated him well. Speaking on a phone from the back of his limousine, he laughs often and speaks bluntly, not hesitating to deflect a question he dislikes by throwing it back at his interviewer.

When asked, for instance, what kind of stylistic legacy he hopes to "bequeath" to pop music, he responds with light-hearted indignation: "Bequeathed? I'm not dead yet, dear. That sounds like a question for some old geezer at the end of his career."

And another query about the 34-year-old former George O'Dowd's financial security, so long after his heyday as superstar and hedonist, prompts this response: "To be honest with you, I make a great living," George confides. "I mean, the way I look at it is, there's always somebody worse off than you, right? Last time I checked, my bank balance was OK." He pauses. "It's better than yours," he adds, slipping into a cascade of devilish laughter.

On an American tour to promote a new album (Cheapness and Beauty) and his new autobiography Take It Like a Man--a hilarious, raunchy, and bitterly self-analytical look at how enormous fame and money can lead bored people into very serious trouble--Boy George has already made scores of appearances in cutesy celeb columns and TV chat shows. The questions he has been asked, though, are more suited to a seance than a promotional appearance, with Boy George portrayed less as a performer with a new album in stores and more as a flamboyant ghost whose celebrity and career are long dead.

Right around the time Ronald Reagan was preparing to slide handily into his second term as president, America and Europe conducted a very brief, very strange love affair with the lead singer of a hastily assembled, middlingly talented group of British pretty boys. He was a pudgy, multi-culti-decked rag doll for fag hags who'd never met one, a sassy playmate who'd sing you retread Motown ditties when you pulled his string. He was, like any toy, a product of aggressive marketing--promoted at first through the self-aggrandizing campaign George waged as a leading light in the club scene of the late '70s, then by the international corporate behemoth of Richard Branson's Virgin Music.

George not only swished and swayed for the TV cameras with flirtatious abandon, he also perfected a mean Smokey Robinson impression. Boy George repulsed and intrigued first-time viewers in equal numbers, who watched him pirouette through jail and an upper-crust British restaurant in the 1982 video for the single "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"--a question to which the answer, for many people, was an unequivocal "yes."

Yet as pouty and provocative as Boy George played it for millions worldwide, he could never bring himself to honestly reveal his own sexuality to the public, though the answer was as plain as the makeup on his face. Instead, he dropped little diversionary tidbits that became oft-quoted, from his remark that "I'd rather have a cup of tea" than have sex, to his claim in a Rolling Stone cover story that he was currently seeing a woman and mostly avoided relationships with men.

"I think it was obvious to anybody with half a brain what I was," George says now. "I mean, I never tried to butch it up, or pretend my boyfriend was my manager, or anything. But when you reach a level of success that's bigger than anything you'd ever dreamed of, the idea that just saying 'I am homosexual' might end it all is terrifying.

"I've been out to my family and friends since I was 16. And most of the hardcore fans knew about my romance with Jon [Moss, Culture Club's bisexual drummer]. I mean, to me, being gay is quite normal, and when I say normal I mean boring normal. Like, I don't think much about it while I'm buying a pint of milk, you know? I don't want to become a species, one part of group that hides out just with each other. I want to surround myself with all different kinds of people."

Speaking of the people in his life, George reveals his ex-flame Moss has called Take It Like a Man "the predictable words of an ex-junkie." George giggles when he repeats the comment, then tosses off a mock-wistful non sequitur: "Oh, well, at least he was great in bed."

Actually, George isn't nearly as excited about the autobiography as he is about Cheapness and Beauty, his latest solo album for Virgin that is, George insists, "a soundtrack for the book" as well as "the best music I've recorded in the last 10 years, maybe more."

For anyone who knows Boy George's voice from the last Culture Club hit they can dimly remember, Cheapness and Beauty is a guitar-embroidered introduction to the unapologetic, fully sexed prankster who hid behind sugary Motown mannerisms to sell albums. This is the wise, eloquent, but still smug survivor of superstardom who finds endless inspiration in his own financial, romantic, and artistic dramas. The songs here are designed to confess, not console, and they finally capture the toxic honesty of Boy George's seen-it, lived-it, buried-it philosophy. This is smart dance music for people who value the sugar-shellacked, world-weary wisdom of a good pop-song lyric, delivered here by George O'Dowd with a plain-spoken, Lou Reed-like nasality.

"I had some problems in Europe with the release of the first single 'Funtime,'" George says, referring to the Iggy Pop cover. "So many stations didn't want to play it during the day because they said there were too many guitars. They complained it just didn't sound like a Boy George song. I've decided there must be a conspiracy in the worldwide music industry. There's one person out there who says you're cool, and then all the critics jump on and say, 'Yeah!' and then you sell a lot of songs. But if that same person says your music is shit, you don't get anywhere. Nobody cares about you."

Again and again in Take It Like a Man, Boy George emphasizes how quickly personal accomplishments can be squandered in the name of ego. Selling albums and packing arenas and halls all over the world, Culture Club made many millions of dollars during its heyday and its members lived their lives with the excess appropriate to rock star cliches. One of George's candid frustrations in the book is that at the very height of their success with the single "Karma Chameleon," a song he'd grown to loathe soon after its release, he was "locked in my flat drinking tea and plaiting wigs." It was only later, as the hits started to decline and the press notices grew nastier, that George leaped high heels-first into a circus of drugs, food, and sex.

In fact, a severe heroin addiction left him ragged shortly after the demise of musical artifact Culture Club; photos of a pale and wan George appeared in newspapers and magazines, prompting gadflies to speculate the man had AIDS, which wasn't true. He was a man who had made so much money in so little time; after 1984 his off-stage antics earned him the name "Boy Gorge." During the waning years of the '80s, when George was still fronting Culture Club, he was always being written up in the American and British tabloids for cussing an airport inspector or flipping off a fan. In 1991, stories flew throughout the Dallas gay and lesbian community about his concert at the Village Station, where he marched offstage during a song and began spewing obscenities.

"In America, it's very hard to be normal and be a star," George explains. "I mean, the press gets all excited when somebody says a cross word or gets in a bad mood. Then it gets written that 'so-and-so's a bitch' and everybody believes it. Back at home [in England], where I'm still pretty famous, I walk my own dogs and buy my own groceries and get on the subway. When I go home to my parents' house, I've still got to make my own cup of tea. I'm just 'George' there."

Referring to the stratospheric heights of his success with Culture Club through the mid-'80s and the heroin-addled fall that followed, George says, "I've always been lucky, no matter how famous I've been, that I've surrounded myself with good friends, people I can trust to tell me, 'Fuck off, you're being a bitch.' You know, I don't think there's anybody around to tell Madonna and Michael Jackson that they're bitches, and they probably need it."

Boy George will sign copies of his book at 6 p.m. October 4 at Crossroads Market, 3930 Cedar Springs, and at 7 p.m. October 5 at Borders Books & Music in Preston Royal.

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Jimmy Fowler