Boy George : "I Remember"
The 59 year old Culture Club frontman, fashion designer, DJ, and The Voice judge, talks about his illustrious career, struggles, and the important lessons he's learned in life
I grew up in Joan Crescent in Eltham. The road was nondescript and still is, and there was always the feint whirr of the A20 whenever you stepped into the garden or opened a window too wide. Growing up in south-east London was famously samey—it didn’t really matter who you were. You were in houses that felt comfortable and modern, but ultimately were there to bully families and individuals into conformity, sanity and normality, during times when there was always the dangerous hint of rebellion in the air.
We had nice family times and there was never anything unfulfilled about childhood, but I look back on it now and it was the epitome of normality. There was the telly, the record player, the vegetable patch, the trip to Danson Park. I always had the feeling I wanted to rebel against the sterility of it, although I did soon realise that sterility is a perfect breeding ground for love, affection and security. It is a fantastic platform.
Seeing David Bowie live was a huge moment for me. I was 11. He gave kids licence to say ‘you can be an adult and a fantasy character, a magician, someone other than yourself’. He inspired me, Space Oddity inspired me; and so many millions of others.
My dad was a tremendously hard worker and it was often at the expense of the one thing we truly craved from him—time.
I was a stand-out teenager, an exhibitionist, and in the rough climate of 1970s London, a lot of people didn't understand or tolerate that. I was chased down the streets by lads who wanted to kick the s**t out of me. Thankfully, I was blessed with Olympic—like athleticism and never got caught. I know I had to stay fit to survive, but it wasn’t a particularly comfortable existence—how could it be?
The attitudes now are obviously very different to when I was growing up. As a young man I would go through various episodes—some where I was elated to have freedom and individualism and expression, albeit most of those were in the bedroom of my modest house in Eltham.
London's diversity was as prevalent then as it is now, albeit perhaps in different ways. I would take comfort in the fact that you could be in some opulent neighbourhood, yet you’d turn a corner and find some rough and ready council estate. It gave me a nice metaphor for life and a lot of hope and optimism when things went wrong. It basically said to me, ‘however uncomfortable this may be, there could be somewhere quite beautiful around the corner’… sure enough, there was… usually Blackheath!
I was often lured to Blackheath by the greatest Oxfam shop in the whole of London. Given the sorts of clothes I was buying when I was discovering myself and my sexuality as a teenager, I didn’t want the visibility of going to the West End to be seen buying all this stuff. I had no need to anyway as Oxfam had some incredible clothes. Perhaps it’s because Blackheath itself is a bit eccentric compared to most of south-east London, but the clothes definitely followed suit. I still go there today—it’s one of my favourite areas in London. I love the space there—the fact you can stand in the middle of it and see just fields stretching away with just a rooftop or two in sight… and yet you are in the heart of south London.
It was in Oxfam in Blackheath that I met one of my best friends Myra, across the clothing rails, looking like a pair of freaks. If you want to meet people who have an alternative view on the world and who aren’t afraid to step outside the norm and do things differently, go to a charity shop.
I've always loved architecture. I remember a stunning red brick house by Blackheath Common that I used to stare at when I was a kid. It has this great big huge clear glass outhouse and I always wanted to see inside.
My life was one of pretty happy discovery in those early Culture Club days. The newspaper headlines were about love triangles, drug accusations and all that stuff, but in reality every day was exciting. I used to hide away from the press by going for long walks around Kenwood House—I still do. It’s across the Heath so it gives you a lovely walk beforehand in the morning.
That said, in the past I wasn't that cautious about what I put out there as regards my private life. Perhaps I got a little too stung by that when I was growing up and I’m certainly more reserved now in terms of what I say.
Touring was exhausting and always took a toll on us. I think our third album, Waking Up with the House on Fire, was a skeleton of what it should have been because we were all totally done in by a world tour we had just completed.
I almost didn't appear on the Band Aid Do They Know It's Christmas track. I was doing the David Letterman show in New York when Bob [Geldof] called me. I managed to get on the last Concorde flight of the day and make it back in time for the recording.
I have always had a mistake in me... but that's okay. As far as the troubles I had back in 2006 [he called police to his New York apartment to report a suspected burglary—officers instead found a stash of cocaine, which led to a month-long community service as a dustman on the streets of Manhattan] and 2009 [he served four months of a jail sentence after handcuffing and falsely imprisoning a male escort], of course they are things I am not proud of. Yet at the same time they remind me that I hadn’t shaken off that nihilistic attitude of the past, nor would I ever want to. And every mistake is a positive life lesson… it really is.
I always maintained that jail would finish me off, but it didn’t. You somehow find the strength. It was a life-changing experience and I feel I came out of that situation with some wisdom and knowledge. I really don’t view that period in my life as negative… but I wouldn’t want to go back.
Getting out on the DJ circuit and touring again was a revelation for me. It reconnected me with my past, without the chaos and without feeling I had to be the centre of attention. DJs are generally quite discreet—they hide in the background, they play for a couple of hours, then they disappear off again and go home.
Getting clean from the haze of drugs transformed my life in ways I didn't expect. There are the big things, of course, but getting sober also led me to taking in nature so much more too. I remember when I first got clean and walking over the Hampstead Heath thinking, ‘I don’t know this place, I don’t recognise that tree over there or that hill, or that meadow’, even though it’d been there forever.
I think I moved here a little prematurely in my twenties and didn’t properly appreciate it because of all the partying. I’m older now—I can say ‘wow, it’s really serene here’.
Nothing much changes in Hampstead which, actually, is why I live there. I remember there being a big hullabaloo about a McDonalds coming into Hampstead and there was a campaign to stop it, albeit an unsuccessful one. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same as it ever was: quiet, affluent and leafy. There’s a great Japanese restaurant called Jin Kichi who make the best, most delicious maki rolls. And the King William IV pub is nice to hang out in.
I've learned that when you dabble with chaos, disorder and nihilistic endeavours, it really is those things that make the ground beneath your feet bumpy and uneven. Essentially you need to decide which one it is you want, because you sure as hell can’t have both!
I don't take it all too seriously. And being able to laugh at yourself – for what you wore, what you did, what you said – it’s absolutely essential. And, to this day, I’m still laughing!
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