After a seven year absence brought on by too many drugs and too few hits, boy George comes back with “The Crying Game.”
By Rob Tannenbaum
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor: Jennifer Crandall
Boy George is still performing for the previous interviewer, so I sit on the bed in his Manhattan hotel room, pretend to read his copy of Virginia Woolf's Orlando and eavesdrop. George has just been asked about Duran Duran, his fellow refugees from the U.K. Mascara Scare of the early Eighties, a group he used to insult mercilessly. Nothing quite as savage as when he said, "Prince looks like a dwarf who's been dipped in a bucket of pubic hair," but enough cruelty to start a public feud. Although I expect a breathless torrent of taunts, George grandly compliments his former foes. This is a shock, not unlike Tipper Gore inviting 2 Live Crew to a White House dinner. "Next! " he shouts moments later, with mock regalness. To start, I ask how he could now praise Duran Duran. "I hated them in the Eighties because I was childish and pathetic," he declares. "When I was younger, I slagged off everyone. I was so bitchy and defensive. I think it's to do with being gay. Everything you see growing up is alien to the way you feel inside: songs, TV, advertising. So a lot of gay people grow up feeling guilty and defensive. And that can often come out as anger."
It could just be delight over "The Crying Game" that's put George Alan O'Dowd in such a forgiving mood. His cover of the 1964 song, thanks to the surprising success of the movie of the same name, has become his first American hit in almost ten years. At thirty‑two, George is arguably the first in MTV's carnival of temporary stars, the most famous acknowledged homosexual in the music business, a has‑been turned is‑again. But there are also indications of a change in personality. Instead of the peacock feathers he favored during Culture Club's peak, he's wearing a long‑sleeved black T‑shirt and sweat pants, topped by a suede homburg. His striking green‑gray eyes are framed by a modest amount of makeup, and in between his plucked eyebrows is a yellow tilak, a U‑shaped face painting denoting his devotion to Hare Krishna. Set on the desk in front of us are small, framed pictures of Buddha, Krishna and Radha (Krishna's female counterpart).
Instead of pretending to be bisexual, as he did to disguise his relationship with Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, George now delights in camp playacting, repeatedly declaring himself "a queen." The phone rings: "Gay switchboard!" he says merrily. Also, an addiction to heroin ended six years ago, replaced by a vegetarian diet. "It's history for me," he says about drugs (which made him tabloid headline news in 1986, after he was arrested for possession of heroin). "The only time it comes up is in interviews. People want you to feel bad and apologize. But the reason people take drugs is because they enjoy them." Heroin, he continues, "is a great place to hide. It's like being in the womb. You stop feeling pain."
For George, his addiction reveals the same characteristic as his infamous feuds with other groups: "I've always been an excessive person." What does he do excessively now? "I analyze everything and don't allow myself to feel things. I never shut up, as you've probably noticed. I always have to be the center of attention." Perhaps his biggest excess is a passionate devotion to therapy, which he says, half‑jokingly, should be mandatory for schoolchildren. Our conversation quickly takes the form of a therapy session, with George alternately confessing and free‑associating about everything from sexuality ("For me, there's a certain superiority in being gay") to Freud's theory on the trauma of womb separation. He's an avid champion of Turning Point, a six‑day group workshop on self‑esteem, which he's attended with his parents as well as his boyfriend of seven years, who works in film production. "It can really drag up s‑‑‑, because it makes you see what's wrong with your life."
In place of drugs and celebrity, George's new religions are therapy and, well, religion. His path to spiritual enlightenment began nine years ago in a New York hotel; a Hare Krishna phoned from the lobby, and George met him, "to see what he looked like." The next day, a call came from a Krishna temple in Brooklyn. He doesn't believe in coincidence: "Obviously I was drawing it to me. " So why isn't he wearing pink robes and selling roses in an airport? "I'm not a fully pledged devotee," he explains. The big barrier is the Krishnas' disapproval of homosexuality. "There are devotees who think I'm terrible."
George screened The Crying Game before he agreed to perform the song, wary of being aligned with an immoral movie. The infamous plot twist didn't startle him, because he's known Jaye Davidson for years. ("He used to work at my hairdresser's ... and he's a face around London. When I saw the movie, I was so proud of him. He was very bashful about it ‑ typical queen.") His entire career is summed up in the title song, a weary testament to the fallibility of love. "I've always been a kind of sadness merchant. Culture Club songs were sad, but very chirpy, with these here-comes‑the‑ice‑cream‑man melodies, which I hated." His latest hit was produced by the Pet Shop Boys, and George took uncharacteristic care with his vocals. "All the Culture Club records are bluesy ‑ that's the polite way of saying they're out of tune. With 'The Crying Game,' I wanted it to be perfect."
Homosexuality, addiction, therapy, recovery, vegetarianism. It's a very Nineties tale, and George, of course, is writing it. His autobiography is not yet finished, but the opening line ‑"When I was a little boy, I wanted to be like Shirley Bassey" ‑ is the "Call me Ishmael" of rock‑star tomes. "The debauchery that went on! " he marvels. "The newspapers only knew a quarter of it. " Although he has included stories about having sex with Jon Moss moments before Culture Club shows, it's not a graphic tell all: "I haven't gone into 'He thrust his throbbing manhood into my ...'" He has even disguised the names of some participants, not wanting to write " a cruel book."
He's also been working on his next album, which he describes as a mix of house dance‑beats, reggae, Turkish influences and loud guitars. ("It's very unusual for queens to like rock," he says, sighing. "You're supposed to like Sylvester.") It sounds a bit extreme, and unlikely to return George to Culture Club fame. That may be his intent. "I have a real fear of becoming like I was before. I can't imagine a worse lifestyle than that of Michael Jackson, being hemmed in by fame. I don't want it." He lives in Hampstead, with his boyfriend and two dogs, buys his own groceries and rides the bus.
"When I'm all dressed up, I become transformed, like a monster," he says, as the March sky winds into a sunset. "But there's this other side of me that just wants to be left alone. It's such a contradiction."
A day later, as midnight approaches, George has been transformed: In a vivid Paul Smith Indian patchwork suit, he's dressed up for a Crying Game party at a downtown nightclub. And suddenly, he's not quite so generous. There are sharp digs at Sinéad O'Connor, David Bowie and Prince, whose show he recently saw ("Hated it"). He discovers that SBK Records has circumcised his video, a parade of transvestites, by adding images of hungry children. "It looks like a telethon," he snipes. The hotel room is full of friends and associates, all attending to George's quips. There'll be someone from the club to meet you at the front door, says his publicist. "I want to be carried in," he jokes. Maybe we'll use the back door, so you don't get mobbed. "What if I want to be mobbed?"
The private room is packed with New York's club regulars, many in elaborate drag. A dark‑haired dominatrix in a leather bra leads a beautiful young boy in a dog collar. A heterosexual couple lies on a small couch, in heated foreplay. It looks like a casting call for a Madonna video. Greeted like a hero, George circulates slowly, kissing cheeks, drinking Budweiser, until early in the morning.
"Human beings are brilliant at covering things up," he'd told me the day before when we discussed therapy. "The exhibitionist walks into the room screaming and shouting and everyone thinks he's really confident. But underneath he's quivering, desperate to be loved." Now, I wonder if he was describing himself.
Rob Tannenbaum profiled Steven Tyler in the April issue of 'US.'