Interview: Boy George, King of Queens

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

He’s one of the world’s most instantly recognisable people. He’s sold more than 50 million albums. He’s the lead singer of Culture Club, a singer-songwriter, a world-famous DJ, an author, a fashion designer, a gay man, a former drug-addict and now an ex-con. A new coffee table book called King of Queens documents his life to date. Laurence Watts interviews Boy George.

Our interview begins four hours later than scheduled. Boy George has a good excuse: he got stuck in a lift with ten other people in Hampstead underground station and afterwards had to rush to an Italian singing lesson. It turns out George is recording a limited edition EP in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care. The new release will feature him singing four songs in Italian, celebrating the great Italian ballads of the 1960s and backed by a full orchestra and choir.

“I’m singing some really famous songs like La Vita and Il Mio Mondo. People know the English versions, My Life and You Are My World, but those songs were originally Italian. Il Mio Mondo was written by Umberto Bindi and it turns out he was gay and had quite a hard time of it. So it’s kind of beautiful that I’m singing it because I feel like I’m paying tribute to him. I’m quite excited because I’ve always had a lot of love from Italy.”

I ask him about his new book. Having already released two written biographies, 1995’s Take It Like a Man and 2005’s Straight, what made him decide to publish King of Queens?

“I think people can look at a picture and make their own mind about what it’s saying,” he tells me. “So in a way pictures do tell a thousand stories. I also think sometimes pictures are better than talking and at this point in my life I feel like I’ve said too much anyway! A lot of the pictures in the book are non-digital. They’re a bit like old vinyl. Pictures taken in the 60s, 70s or even the 80s have a certain kind of quality to them. I call them analogue pictures.”

Boy George is, of course, the perfect photographic subject. It might have been his voice that propelled him to global stardom in the 1980s, but his celebrity was fuelled by the way he looked and dressed. Does his make-up laden public persona made it hard for him to attract guys? I’ve heard he likes his men a little rough around the edges.

“I think I don’t really have a type,” he laughs. “I like all kinds of flavours. I suppose I like real men, though of course that’s something of a myth. I think when you’re young you have a fixed idea about what you find attractive. Then as you get older it kind of changes and you look for different things. I’ve always been versatile when it comes to guys. I like blokes in suits, pretty boys, camp boys.” He laughs again. “I like them all. It depends on what you can get, doesn’t it?”

I tell him I remember reading a story about him being turned away from London’s Shadow Lounge because he wasn’t wearing make-up or a trademark hat. The bouncer didn’t believe it was him. Does that mean he can leave the house and not be recognised?

“I think it depends on how you channel yourself. I mean I go on the bus and the tube everyday. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t go anywhere without being bothered. Occasionally now someone will come up to me now and say: “Are you Boy George?” I just run away. I’m not rude, but like I wouldn’t go up to Brian Ferry on the tube. I just wouldn’t. It’s the wrong time. I was in Sainsbury’s the other day and Alan Bennett was standing behind me in the queue at the till. That was obviously the perfect time to say hello, but if he’d been looking at tomatoes I probably wouldn’t have bothered him.”

His mention of Alan Bennett is opportune. That last time I saw Bennett, he was standing on stage next to an actor playing him in The Lady In The Van. George had a similar experience when his musical Taboo was playing. What was it like for him to be on stage next to someone playing Boy George?

“It was interesting when we did Taboo in New York,” he begins, “because Euan Morton, who played me, was getting all the love and people over there couldn’t deal with Leigh Bowery, who I played. They didn’t know him and of course the first appearance of Leigh in the musical was from a toilet singing I’ll Have You All. It was fine, though. The hostility just made me get into character more. I wanted to be even more obnoxious. That’s what Leigh would have been like.”

Luke Evans, the British actor currently making waves in Hollywood with roles in The Three Musketeers and Immortals, appeared with George in Taboo playing Billy. I ask him what he thinks of Evans seemingly stepping back into the closet.

“I don’t want to talk about him specifically,” George answers, “but I understand why people do it. The fact is you do get penalised in acting if you’re out and it’s wrong. That’s why it’s called f**king acting. If you’re a good actor you can play a tree, you don’t have to be a tree, do you? It’s not the actors who are to blame it’s the industry. I’m really pleased Luke’s doing well, and if he’s good at what he does that’s all that matters.”

In 2009, George served four months in HMP Edmunds Hill for assault and false imprisonment. It wasn’t his first run-in with the law. Given well-known infractions by the likes of Stephen Fry, George Michael and more recently Michael Barrymore, I ask George if he thinks gay men are particularly prone to crime?

“I think you’re just making that connection because you’re gay,” he counters. “Because there are loads of straight people who get arrested every day. It’s not a gay thing. It might be connected to being famous, or it could be insecurity or drugs. In most of those cases drugs are the deciding factor. Are gay men more likely to be into drugs? I don’t really know. It’s terrible to generalise, but with less responsibility, different lifestyles… maybe there’s some truth in that.”

What effect does he think prison had on him? Did he come out of prison with a renewed determination to make the most of life?

“The change in me happened before I went to prison. I got clean a year before I went to prison, so for me it was about getting sober. I always thought when I got to 40 I would stop being self-destructive and get my s**t together. It didn’t quite work out like that. It took me another seven years to sort my life out. I went into prison with a very clear head so I was able to cope with it.”

I apologise to him for the flippancy of my next question, but does he think a spell in prison would be good for most people?

“I don’t really know what it does, other than give you a bit of time with yourself. I suppose that’s the only plus side. If you go to prison and you don’t accept it, then it doesn’t really do you any good. A lot of people go to prison and feel they shouldn’t be there. They spend the whole time rallying against it rather than surrendering. It really depends how long you’re in for. Four months is very different from five years or ten years. When you go in there for ten years you kind of feel like you’ve got nothing to lose.”

In 1988 George released No Clause 28, a year after his debut solo single, Everything I Own, went to number one. His latest single, Turn 2 Dust, also deals with homophobia.

“What I find interesting is that 30 years on I’m still singing about the same thing. It’s weird because in the 80s it really felt like we changed the world. Things always seem to go backwards. This whole gay-marriage thing is hysterical. If they’d just let it happen they’d soon realise nothing is going to change. We heard it under Thatcher, that if you talk about it you encourage it. It’s like, hello? That’s not how it works, love. I was queer yesterday, I’m queer today and I’ll be queer tomorrow. Nothing you say is going to change it.”

Talk of same-sex marriage makes me think of America, where the fight for equality is particularly animated. In light of his recent conviction, is he still able to travel there?

“Not at the moment, but I’m working on it,” he says. “I want to go back to America so much. That first American gig is going to be very emotional for me. I know I’ve been to prison, but in the eyes of the law I’ve paid for what I did. Being banned from a country, it’s just prolonging my sentence. It’s like the idea of rehabilitation doesn’t really exist. It’s a horrible feeling being told I can’t go back. Especially after I cleaned up New York and was commended for doing such a good job! I just want to get on with my life.”

Getting on with life is Boy George’s new mantra. He feels he has a lot of work to do. In the near-term that work includes a new album with Culture Club.

“We’ve already started writing the album,” he tells me. “We’ll start recording it in the New Year and we’ll have it ready for when we tour in the spring. We’re actually going to Australia for New Year’s Eve to do a live show in Sydney Harbour, which is pretty exciting. I can actually say I’m pretty happy right now. I’m the most career oriented now that I’ve ever been, partly because I’ve finally realised how great my life is and how lucky I am to do what I do.”

King of Queens goes on sale 12th December, published by Kitchen Sink Publishing.