I wasn’t very popular when I was thirteen years old. I was plump and I had a mousy-brown afro precisely in the era when afros weren’t fashionable. I was also unmistakably, overtly, Queer, a fact which was blindingly obvious to the tougher boys and nastier girls, but which I was only beginning to realise. Until then I thought it was perfectly okay to turn up to a fancy dress party in your mum’s old bridesmaid dress and to read romance comics during little lunch. In this transition to a greater self-knowing, as part of the instinctive dance of teenage tribalism, I drifted towards the other outcasts, the fat girls, the red-headed and the variously sexually aberrant who all spent their leisure time avoiding random acts of violence in the schoolyard. In 1983 students were only moderately worse bullies than teachers and there was little respite for those who stood out.
And then one afternoon, sweltering in my North Queensland lounge room watching Countdown, I saw him. It was Boy George, sitting in the back of a Cadillac singing ‘Church of the Poison Mind’, the first time I had ever noticed him, and my whole world began to spin. On Monday morning I went to school clutching the VHS tape I had hastily set to record the final moments of that video clip and, in an emergency gathering of the school freaks and misfits at the safest possible meeting point, I made my solemn, but excited, announcement.‘There was someone on TV,’ I whispered, ‘who is just like us.’
That was his import, the true measure of just how much Boy George changed everything. Suddenly it was fabulous to be a freak. Perhaps for time immemorial the strange people, the outcasts, had been forced to remain that way. If you looked odd, if you favoured the wrong kinds of clothing or if, like me, you lisped a little when you got excited, you were confidently filed into the hopeless category where you would remain for life, an eternal oddbod eccentric that people giggled about. Boy George changed all that.
Soon my bedroom was papered with Boy George posters, massive prints that I bought from record shops in Townsville. My parents seemed oblivious to the strangeness of my obsession, and my mother was always an unconscious fag-hag anyway, filling my childhood with the sounds of Queen and the Village People. My grandma, too, thought that Boy George was cute and colourful. But she also had form in this, being an ardent watcher of 1970s television trannies Danny La Rue and Dick Emery. ‘Oh, it’s all done for show, love,’ she would assure me as we watched glittery drag acts on night-time variety shows. She had a kind of unconscious gaydar and an instinctive affection for gay men, which was always expressed in her single greatest compliment: ‘He’s real well-spoken, isn’t he?’
My grandad, a rather rough and ready mechanic, was less sure, or perhaps, having once been a soldier, knew too much. As my gran and I issued gasps of admiration watching Boy George prancing across a pantomime stage in the new video clip for ‘I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’, grandad grumbled: ‘It might be show business, but I’m pretty sure the bastard has tendencies.’
It was these very ‘tendencies’ of course that tantalised me and left me wanting more. The incredible glamour of Boy George’s being and the impossibly titillating suggestions of something more behind the façade, these represented the true alchemy behind his fame and popularity. He was everybody’s little dolly, but those of us who were slipping into a homoerotic puberty knew there was something he just wasn’t telling us. One Christmas holidays my grandparents, with their impossibly kind nature, agreed to drive me down to Brisbane so that I could see an opera. I spent the days dragging them around music shops, bookshops and newsagents, buying anything about Boy George that I could get my hands on.
Proudly leafing through a copy of When Cameras Go Crazy, the first ever book about Boy George and Culture Club ever published, my weary old grandad approached and asked me about the nature of my fascination. ‘I’m just worried,’ he said gently, ‘that you might have fantasies about the mongrel.’
It’s hard to convey just how outrageous, how transgressive he was at the time. Tall, beautiful but satisfyingly flawed, Boy George was a great big working class drag queen who suddenly became a heart throb for little girls and grannies all over the world. He was the true people’s prince/ss, a sweet-natured sissy boy playing dress-ups in his mum’s wardrobe and telling the world he preferred a good cup of tea over sex.
He was lying, of course. At the height of his fame, when Culture Club was the most well-known band in the world and Boy George’s one of the most recognisable faces in the universe, he was involved in a torrid love affair with Jon Moss, the band’s straight drummer. He smoked menthol cigarettes and used heroin and went on tantalising holidays with fellow gender-bender Marilyn, an altogether more dangerous and disturbingly sexy figure. While Mattel made dolls of Boy George, Marilyn posed nude for a sex magazine and went cruising for young men in Egypt and Jamaica, the holiday destinations the press reported on breathlessly. Marilyn came to Australia and was punched in a gay bar. Boy George came and was mobbed by schoolgirls and had infants sitting in his lap. This double life was slowly destroying George and, as feel-good hit replaced feel-good hit, nobody seemed to notice the bitterness of the lyrics describing his raw emotional pain and the uncertainties of Queer love.
Boy George lived his fame so completely and so trustingly that fans were aware of his every vulnerability, and we loved him even more for it. He had too much nose and too little chin. His forearms were stocky and hairy, so he always kept them covered. His feet were too big, so he was forced to wear colourful trainers. As his career progressed he became fatter and fatter, relieved only by periods of fad dieting. TV Week reported on his diet success, detailing the unlikely efficacy of only eating Chinese takeaway. I was soon demanding my mother supply me with foil trays of globulous sweet and sour pork and nuclear-yellow lemon chicken, confident that this was the road to trimness. That Boy George’s imperfections were almost all my own made him seem perfectly suited for adoration. It was as though my demigod had been designed precisely for me.
George’s primary obsessions – hopeless love, loneliness, makeup and gender-play – were deepened somewhat by his interest in religion. The very name of his band, Culture Club, reflected his respect for exotic difference, and the earliest looks for which he is most famous were influenced by his aesthetic readings of Judaism and Rastafarianism. After his fall from public grace due to drug addiction, George embraced (or was embraced by) the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. And so I followed in his footsteps. In the late 1980s Hare Krishna temples all over the world were invaded by teenaged trannies wearing too much makeup, dancing for Lord Krishna and wondering what the hell they were doing there. I can’t say I ever experienced a transcendent moment at the Kings Cross temple, but I spent years eating a lot of curried lentils and dodging a religious hierarchy that officially condemned the very Queerness that brought us there.
These days Boy George is a Nichiren Buddhist, and you can see him wearing the distinctive prayer beads of that sect in his recent video clip for ‘King of Everything’. The career has, mostly, faded, though he occasionally reinvents himself as a DJ and writer of Broadway musicals. A dedicated food faddist, he managed to become enormously fat over decades while following a strict vegan diet, though he has recently undergone a remarkable physical transformation and, in his early fifties, is once more looking svelte and even sexy. The voice has changed, deeper and huskier, testament to a life of cigarette smoking and chronic asthma. But it is still as soulful and seductive as ever and some say he is sounding the best he ever has with this world-weary, gravelly overlay. He is still grouchy, irascible, indulging in occasional feuds with fellow 80s celebrities, but he periodically declares that all the bitchery is behind him.
To his fans he remains a constant, a wonderfully fragile figure perfectly embodying the contradictions of everybody else’s normal life, only in a grand way. We have to apologise to our sisters for all of the wicked things we said, but he gets to apologise to Madonna.We spend a fortune in a place we once shoplifted from to assuage our conscience, he gets to return a priceless icon to the Cypriot Orthodox church that he once bought from a dodgy antique dealer during a coke-hazed shopping spree. Boy George got fat the way we did, had a difficult sexual history and even a few run-ins with the law.
Perhaps I loved him most when, in 2006, he was sentenced to community service sweeping up litter in New York’s Chinatown after some confusion with the police involving drugs and male escorts. There he was, humiliated before the world’s press, tubby and bald, swigging on a Coca-Cola and puffing away at fags. When asked how he felt being forced to don a reflective vest and Capri pants and pick up other people’s filth, George smiled at the reporters and simply said, ‘I’ve always been a scrubber.’
In spite of the fame, the glamour, the money and the incredible lifestyle, he has always been one of us. He has always been the pimply girl, the awkward little gay kid, the poor boy who wore strange clothes and who nobody liked. He has always been an incredible source of comfort because he is a projection of our own anxieties about appearance, sexuality, belonging and gender expectations – the ultimate beautiful outsider.