If you're ever given 60 minutes to sit down with Boy George, one of the most beloved pop icons of the 20th century, in Norwood, a private club on the west side of Manhattan in the middle of February, take them.
In the course of that hour, you'll not only be treated to stories about how as a teen, his brothers would cross the street so they didn't have to be seen with him and find out if he ever considered transitioning to the other end of the gender binary, but you'll also quickly realize that he is one of the most thoughtful -- and refreshingly honest -- interview subjects you've ever had the pleasure of encountering.
In anticipation of the release of his new album, "This Is What I Do," his first in 19 years, which is out today in the US, Boy George also spoke to us about gay rights in Russia, why he wanted to cover Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," how he really feels about Madonna and more.
The Huffington Post: Tell me about the new songs. Is "Live Your Life" based on your own personal experiences?
Boy George: It’s more to do with the fact that a relative of mine’s son came out and the conversation around that was just bonkers to me. It was like, are we still having this fucking conversation?
How old was he when he came out?
Oh, like 18. Fierce, unapologetic, no remorse. Because I think when you’re young, you forget that your family has an adjustment. You’re so selfish when you’re that age, you think, Oh, fuck you all! This is MY thing, and you forget that your parents grieve and they have to make adjustments. So, the song really came out of that. There’s no better time than now to be who you are. But I didn’t want to make it gender specific, I didn’t want to make it just about sexuality, because there’s lots of people out there who struggle with one thing or another. It’s about being different, really, because I think that message, with what’s going on in the world, is still as important as when I started my career. And I feel like I’m in kind of a better position to do it now because I think there’ve been points in my career where I’ve been kind of more attacking and I think, at this point, it doesn’t feel like that’s the answer. It doesn’t feel like wearing a t-shirt with Putin in drag is the solution. I think it’s got be something a bit more educated than that. There’s a guy in London named Ben Cohen who is doing great things. In a way we need people like Ben –- we need straight guys to come out and say, “What’re you worried about? Get over yourself.” That’s what we need! Because no one’s listening to us -- certainly no one is listening to me.
On the flip side, though, another straight ally, Macklemore, got a lot of heat from people after his Grammys performance of “Same Love.” A lot of queers were like, “Who are you, straight man, to be speaking for us and profiting off of this alleged gay anthem?”
I went through [thinking] that myself. And then I thought, actually I’ve always thought, it’s much easier for a straight person to play a gay role. When I put out “Same Thing In Reverse,” I was told categorically that this will never get played in America. You will never get this song played. But, you know what, I’m glad that he’s doing it. I’m glad that he’s making a pop record with that sentiment. I’m not grateful, I’m just glad.
That’s a really interesting distinction. I’ve never heard someone put it quite that way.
I’m not grateful, I’m just glad because it’s completely the right thing to do. So “Live Your Life” is about racial hatred, queer hatred, it’s about all of it. It’s about whatever I am, I am going to be it. I’m going own it. You can only be who you are, whatever you are. In a way Culture Club was all about outsiders -- not gay or straight, it was everything. It was like anyone who was fat, ugly, big nose, glasses, ginger -- all of you are all welcome. And that’s the same as it is now. Because even in the gay community when I was younger I quickly saw how there were kind of camps within the camps within the camps and if you looked a certain way you weren’t going to get accepted. It was kind of ironic. I was 13 years old thinking I’m going to join the gay community! They didn’t want me! [laughs]. The struggle isn’t just about being straight or gay or transgender -- it’s a human struggle. That’s always really been my kind of starting point: If you’re out there and you’re odd, come over to my house.
I grew up in a small industrial town in Wisconsin in the ‘80s and my earliest memories are of being queer. The first five or six years of my life I actually wanted to be a girl. Back then there was no one for me to look to -- except for you. You were on MTV and I saw you and I didn’t know exactly what you were but I knew you were a boy that was not like other boys and that maybe I didn’t have to be like other boys. That was hugely radical for me. Something I’ve been thinking about, though, is because I wanted to be a girl for so long -- I’m very happy as a gay man now --
Yeah, me too. I had moments where I wanted to be a female.
Did you ever think I am a woman or I want to transition or --
I wanted to kind of look like a woman. And I did for a while –- and then I got hairy! [Laughs] For years I had no hair on my chest and I was like, “Wow, I’m really pulling this off!” and then suddenly I’m a man. It was like, OK, surrender! I’ve always said that drag is a kind of a butch thing to do because it’s putting your head on the chopping block. It’s a very, very tough thing to do, I think. If you think about like the Stonewall Riots, that was started, or at least enflamed, by guys in high heels. I used to joke that you’re not a man unless you’ve walked in heels. But I never really, really, seriously wanted to be a woman -- I wanted to kind of look like a woman.
What was it like for you to be one of the only people so publicly experimenting with gender and sexuality at that time? Did you get a lot of shit for it?
No, because I had friends that were doing it.
But they weren’t doing it on MTV.
No, that was later. By that point I’d been doing it since I was 13. And when you’re 19 years old you feel like you have this undeniable right to be what you want to be. I mean, I think about it now and I think about how I used to go out of the house and I’m kind of a bit of a coward now. Do I really want the hassle of being stared at and shouted at? But back then I’d get on the bus like that. I’d get on the tube on my own because I had to get from A to B. I had to get from the suburbs to the city and there was only one or two ways of doing it. And you kind of ran the gauntlet of whatever came with that. I was fearless -– I don’t know why. I came from a big, butch Irish family and my dad was always like, “Hit them back if they hit you.” I had brothers that were quite tough -- there was a kind of toughness in me.
Did your family immediately accept you?
Not straightaway, no. To begin with there was a certain amount of ridicule. I mean there was a lot of “Oh my God! Look at what he’s wearing!” There were times when I’d see my brothers on the street and they would cross over to the other side. I mean, I was in white makeup, hair up here -- it was extreme. And I hated them for doing that -- cunts. But that didn’t last. Some weird things happened, like when I was about 17, my older brother got married and he said, “Oh, you can’t come to my wedding unless you dye your hair,” and I was like “Well then, I’m not coming.” And I didn’t go. They wanted me to be an usher and I was like, “I’m not cutting my hair off and I’m not dying it black.” I was like, "Fuck you." But I turned up at the reception with like 50 punks and they were fine. Once we got to the reception everyone was drunk.
I heard your cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” for the first time last week. It reminds me a bit of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” in that when you do it, it has a kind of world-weary vibe to it.
When I did that a couple of years ago randomly I went to my friend who I write with and record with and said I want to do a cover of “Video Games.” He looked at me like I was fucking insane. He was like “Really?”
Why did you want to do it?
I was like, “I just love the song and I really want to sing about a sundress -- I just want to sing it!” Part of Lana’s magic is that there is this quite androgynous sound to her voice. The first time I saw her on TV before I saw her sing I was like, “This is going to be awful. There’s no way anyone can be that beautiful and talented -- it’s just not going to happen!” I was in bed and she was singing “Video Games” and I sort of clicked the sound on and there was that -- Oh my God! The voice!
It’s interesting to hear you discussing a relatively new artist and thinking about how much you’ve been through since you were in her position. It seems like when you’ve been in the industry as long as you have, you have two options: You either keep creating new material and try to stay relevant or you turn into a nostalgia act.
DJ-ing has saved me from that. DJ-ing has saved me from nostalgia. I’ve been involved in this great, progressive scene and it’s so under the radar. If you don’t know about clubs, you don’t know what I’m doing. And even if you know about clubs, you may not know what I’m doing because my end of the DJ-ing is not EDM. It’s very underground. I love dance music. When people ask me what I’m listening to, usually it’s dance stuff because it’s constant.
But your new album isn’t dance.
I have another project called “Retrophobia” which is totally dance, but that’s not me singing. So it’s kind of like a Disclosure-type project.
Do you feel like the new album marks a comeback? Or is that the wrong term to use?
In a sense, it’s more like a full circle for me. I’ve come back to a similar kind of passion to what I had when I was beginning my career. That kind of hunger. Back then I didn’t know what was going to happen -- my career was like a beautiful accident. Now it’s like what I’ve learned in the last few years, half of it is just turning up and being professional. That’s half of the work -- even more than half. Because of my reputation, a lot of people now when they meet me again they’re like, “Wow! Fucking hell!” I was in Bulgaria recently and I was there about four years ago and I was in a pretty good place. You know, I’m sober six years -- I was still clean but you know my energy has kind of changed a lot over the last four years. And the guy that was the promoter, he just said to me, “Your energy is incredible.” He said, “It’s incredible to be around you,” and I said “Oh, thank you very much.” And there was a point in my life where I would have kind of cringed at that. I would have hated that. Compliments -- hate it. It was almost like ugh. And I just don’t do that anymore. It’s not that I’m full of myself, I just don’t think -- it’s not respectful. If somebody says, “I love what you do,” you just say, “Thank you.” Even if it makes you want to curl up in a ball. Someone came up to me earlier downstairs and said, “Thank you for helping me be who I am,” and I was like, “Thank you, that’s a very sweet thing for you to say.” I used to really get uncomfortable with that. But now I say “Thank you” because [those kind of comments are part] of my legacy.
They are. And that’s the thing, it’s probably hard for you to comprehend --
It’s not, actually. It used to be really hard but now I kind of get it, especially when you look at what’s going on in Russia. You know I read this article yesterday where this guy was kind of saying the truth is that it isn’t happening in Russia and I was like, “Are you fucking stupid? It is happening. It’s really real.” And I just feel like, if it happened [in America] I’d feel the same way. But, you know, if it happened in America you’d feel like there was some hope of changing it, you know? Like the death of Matthew Shephard -- it created change. I feel like in Russia you kind of feel powerless. You think, What would I do? I mean I’ve been there a lot in my career. In the ‘80s I couldn’t go there, I was banned from Russia just for being me.
Would you go there now?
I’ve been there since then a lot but not recently. I haven’t been invited. And from what I’ve been told, I’m not known in Russia as a homosexual -- that’s not how I’m seen. I mean, I am obviously [laughs.] But I’ve been there many times -– I’ve walked across Red Square dressed as Leigh Bowery and no one bothered me! I think the bottom line in places like Russia is very simple: they cannot deal with the politicization of gay culture. They know that there are gay people in Russia –- there’s always been gay people in Russia. And there have been gay clubs in Russia for many, many years. But it seemed to kick off around the time that they wanted to have a Gay Pride in Moscow, that seems to be when it really turned. And they’re not ready for it! They’re not mature enough or developed enough to embrace the idea that gay people can be more than what they do in bed. It’s as simple as that but remember –- it wasn’t that long ago that here in America or in the UK that you could be sent to prison for being gay. It wasn’t that long ago.
And we still have a lot of work to do here!
It’s a funny old situation. Conservative people should really love the idea of gay marriage -– you’d think they would jump at that. Like, “We’re right! We were right! Everybody just wants to be normal!” And then there’s another part of me that’s just the obnoxious gay part that thinks, Why does anyone want to get married? A friend of mine said to me recently at a party, “Why would you want to put yourself through all of that?” But you know we have to also have to accept that there are many gay people who are very conservative and romantic and religious and I support them 100 percent. Whether or not it was something I would want to do is another story but I totally support them. I just don’t understand why people care so much. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
People dedicate their whole lives to fighting us and what we do -- or supposedly do.
As I said recently in a French magazine, my sexuality takes up about two hours a month or a week, depending on what’s going on. These people that imagine all we do is copulate, they’re kind of hung up on the sexual aspect of gay culture. And you think, we have mothers to visit, taxes and bills to pay, jobs to do, articles to write, careers to look at -- it’s like, come on! Somebody wrote a letter in a magazine I was reading the other day, a black person, saying, “I’m sick of being seen as a statistic. I’m treated like I'm not a human being.” Like, you know “12 Years A Slave” -- whenever you see a black person in a magazine or a film it’s always still as a criminal or a victim. And he said, “I am much more than that!” And that’s kind of how I feel about being gay. I’ve been saying this for years -- gay people have cats! Dogs! Godchildren! It’s endless! [Laughs] It’s not that different from what you straight people do -- it’s mad.
Do you know about the Westboro Baptist Church?
Oh, of course. They’ve visited a few of my gigs over the years.
Of course they have. Their tag line is “fags doom nations” and I just think I wish we had the power to doom a nation.
But if it wasn’t for us, the curtains would be appalling! There would be nobody on the red carpet dressed, everybody would be naked! I mean, I know that’s a silly way of looking at it but it’s just so sad. And it’s amazing that we’re having this conversation in 2014. It just feels like bonkers.
At the same time, the Russian anti-gay law passed just last summer. India just recriminalized gay sex. People are freaking out as we get more and more acceptance. There’s this big desperate push back against us to try and say, “No, this is not OK.”
But what those countries are really saying is that they’re not ready to be a part of the rest of the world. It’s as simple as that. I made a comment recently saying that anyone coming into England should be made to force allegiance to queens and country. You know, we should make it clear to people when they come to England that we don’t tolerate racism, homophobia, sexism or any other kind of [negative] –ism. We need to make that clear in the same way Russia makes it clear how it feels. I think civilized countries need to do more to make it clear to anyone visiting or coming to live there that this is how we are. You can’t come here and have those feelings, or have them but have them in private.
We’re not going to put up with it anymore.
I got a lot of flack for saying that [laughs].
I love it when I get to talk to a pop star who has something to say and isn’t afraid to say it.
Are there many?
A few. There are others that I love but who are just really smart about how they interact with the media. Kylie Minogue is one of my all-time favorites but she’s been in the industry for so long that she’s just so professional and she isn’t going to slip up and tell you anything she doesn’t want you to know. Which part of me respects and the other part of me wants to scream “Give me something juicy!” Do you know her?
Yeah, we know each other. And I think it’s good to know who you are. Listen: it doesn’t look good if you kind of bitch and berate people. There’s a point in your life where it isn’t classy. And one thing you can say about Kylie is that she doesn’t do that and bless her for that.
You have a reputation for doing that.
In the past! I’m very conscious about what I say. Recently I was kind of quoted as saying something about Kylie and Madonna, which I didn’t actually say and I think sometimes the idea of me as a kind of an uber-bitch is more interesting for some people. I mean, I’m critical, but when I say things it’s usually really in jest. I’m not really a mean person. If I saw someone bleeding in the gutter I wouldn’t just step over them, whoever it was. My point of view isn’t mean, but I’ve said stupid things about people.
When I told my deputy editor, who adores Madonna, that I was interviewing you he said, “Don’t ask him about Madonna -- he hates Madonna!”
I don’t hate Madonna! That’s such rubbish. I mean I’ve said awful things about Madonna and I’m not proud of that at all -- I’m really not proud of that because I didn’t know her. And like everyone, I’ve always secretly kind of been into her. I have a lot of her records and I think that really is the measure of what you think of someone. If I have like 5 or 6 singles of Madonna that I love, that makes me a little bit of a fan. I have a massive painting of her in my spare room that I got in the ‘80s from some shop on Broadway.
People do love to pit celebrities against each other.
There was a point where Madonna was just everywhere you looked and you couldn’t not comment! In the same way that it’s the same way not to have a comment about One Direction! They’re everywhere you look. And there was a point where Madonna was just everywhere, running around the park -- she was just everywhere. And you can’t be that famous and not have people make comments, especially other people that are in your business. People are always asking me, “What do you think of this” and “What do you think of that,” but I don’t know her. I can’t see us ever being friends now but she’s going to be at this event that I’m going to tonight. I said to my friend, “If you can get a picture of me and Madonna, you’ll get a medal.” Can you imagine? I’d be really happy! It would be great to just have a photo with her and to fucking put this shit to bed. I don’t hate her at all!
When you mentioned One Direction I was reminded of something you said about one of them being gay or bisexual.
No! I did not say that! No! Of course I saw what it said on the Huffington Post, but I said everyone is bisexual! And suddenly that was translated into “Somebody said you think one of them is gay!” And I said everyone is a bit bisexual which was translated into… I really don’t care.
Are there a lot of pop artists who are in the closet?
I think a lot more people in the world are in the closet. I think sexuality is so much more varied and complicated than we can even possibly imagine. There are people out there who are sniffing shoes! It’s endless what perversions and quirks people have. So, I think the spectrum of sexuality is hugely varied and I do believe, in fact know, that there are people out there who are into things that they never talk about and would be terrified if anyone found out.
Do you think the music industry is homophobic? Is it hard to come out?
I think what people do is they say, “Oh, you should come out, you should come out, you should come out!” and then when you come out they say, “All you ever do is talk about being gay! Shut up!”
You can’t win.
No. My opinion now is come out if it makes you happy. If it makes you miserable don’t come out. It makes no difference to me. I’d like to live in a world where everybody is comfortable with what they are. But if being out makes you miserable and ruins your life and ruins your career, don’t come out!
So, you don’t think that if you’re in the spotlight you have an obligation to come out?
No! I don’t think you do. I think you have an obligation not to attack gay people -- that’s another story.