Culture Club’s Boy George: the original gender-fluid pop icon versus the modern world

As frontman of Culture Club, Boy George became one of the most famous faces of the '80s. Now reunited with his bandmates following a wide-ranging career that's included solo projects, club DJing and talent show panel-ing, he's still on his fieriest form, finds Dan Stubbs, as they ramble through people on phones at gigs, politics, the offended generation and the queer pop revolution

A midweek afternoon in a central London PR agency office. When Boy George hears I’m here from NME, he seems to prickle a little. It’s the day after Richard Ashcroft ceremonially burned a copy of NME on his Instagram in response to a two-star review, and – as ever when meeting those with a storied career – it’s worth checking to see how and when NME predecessors have annoyed them. But not Boy George, apparently.

“I’ve had more bad reviews in NME than I’ve had hot dinners, but I don’t bear a grudge,” he says. In fact, there was a time when he used to pop into the office on the reg. “I was promoting this band called Theatre Of Hate and I used to go in, ‘You should write about Theatre Of Hate’. I was a right little busy body.”

But we’re not here to talk about Theatre Of Hate. Today we’re talking about Culture Club, the chart-busting band Boy George fronted in the ‘80s, and again today, who last week released their soulful new album ‘Life’ and are touring arenas around the UK from tomorrow (November 9).

So, you’re back with a new Culture Club album. Don’t you guys hate each other?

“This is the myth! We’ve worked together so many times since we didn’t split up.”

So there’s no acrimony?

“I would say about Culture Club that we’re in this together but there’s always room for one less, you know? Culture Club, we’re not married, we’re not a religious cult, and for me right now the most important thing with this band is I have to enjoy it.”

And you do enjoy playing the hits?

“Yeah, because I’ve sort of taken a step back in the last 10 years and gone, ‘OK, what I created is important and I have to value it.’ It would be kind of stupid not to play your big songs, but there are some that you have to drag kicking and screaming with you.”

Such as?

“I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’, ‘It’s A Miracle’… but other songs like ‘Time (Clock Of The Heart)’, ‘Victims’, ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’, they’re actually they’re better now. There’s a lot that we can play and we have new music – I didn’t want to go out [on tour] again without a new record”.

But I read that you genuinely love playing ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’, your most ubiquitous song. That’s quite unusual, isn’t it?

“I’m a different singer now and I approach it in a different way. It’s like taking a house and gutting it and redecorating it that’s the best example I can give you. It’s not the same song now – it’s not about the same thing. Whatever I wrote it about it’s not about that anymore. I would never put myself in the role of victim now. I’m not a victim, but I can kind of inject a sort of wry pathos into it.”

How do you find playing live now? Have the crowds changed much?

“I do find myself laughing a lot when I’m on stage with Culture Club because of the things that people do at a concert… I mean, people really don’t know how to behave. They’re on their fucking phones, I go, ‘Is everything OK on the internet? Instagram? Snapchat? Everything fine?’ I am very school teacher on stage. I say to people: ‘Why have you come?!’”

A lot of returning artists are finding a new, younger audience thanks to the exposure of Spotify playlists and the like. Have you found that?

“It’s been really fascinating because, particularly in America, for a lot of fans, time has stood still. I’ve been there DJing, I’ve been there with [side project] Jesus Loves You, but that kind of ‘80s audience are not necessarily the people who would come and see me DJ. It’s kind of like a parallel universe.”

You achieved huge success in the ‘80s. I read a quote from you in which you described Culture Club as the “one stop shop” for the “disenfranchised or left-of-centre”. With that in mind, how did you manage to reach such a mainstream audience?

“I don’t know. I came out of punk, you know. What led me into the whole concept of doing a band was watching Steve Strange jumping on stage at The Vortex with Generation X and watching The Slits and all these kind of bands. It was that sort of exciting punk DIY culture that spawned what became new romanticism.”

That’s not really answered the question…

“If we knew the answer to that we would be able to create endless pop stars!”

But did it not happen at a time when people were less tolerant of gay people and gender fluidity?

“I think… I don’t know, even now in America, I know for a fact that our audience is very Republican.”

Does that give you an urge to preach politics at them?

“I think I am politics. I feel like my life is a political rant! But no, I don’t add to the noise. I’m not going to go out there and talk about Trump and this and that. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion but I think people really resent it. First of all, unless you’re going to say something really profound, don’t bother. And second, we’re making him into the cartoon pantomime villain and I would ask the bigger question: why have we created him? I mean, what came first: the chicken or the Faberge Egg?”

I think I am politics. I feel like my life is a political rant!
– Boy George

“As a gay man who’s never really been able to hide what I am from the age of six – I was called puff, queer, girl, all of that – I was made aware of what I was from a very early age. I’ve lived my life being a sort of mirror for other people’s opinions, projections, insecurities, whatever it may be. And I have been for years saying the world hasn’t changed. Now, at this point, I would say there are amazing things that have happened, there are people out there who are more open minded and they’ve always been there, but the people that now feel free to shout faggot across the street at us were always there – they’ve just been re-awoken by the mood.”

We recently had Eminem using – albeit blurred out – the word “faggot” on a track. Elton John gave him a pardon after he apologised. Were you moved to say anything?

“I’d have said something about it in the past but now I can’t be bothered. I feel like, you know, I don’t really want to talk about Eminem, but a lot of comedians are getting condemned now for being comedians. It’s a very restrictive time at the moment: you can’t say this and you can’t do that, and amongst all of that, Eminem is kind of a breath of fresh air. I kind of like people that shake up the status quo so I won’t condemn Eminem because I kind of feel like that’s his brand.”

Culture Club

Do you think, musically at least, the landscape is improving? We have artists like Years & Years and Troye Sivan having hits with songs about same-sex relationships, and artists like Christine & The Queens embracing gender fluidity. In a way, do you feel you paved the way for that?

“It’s always been there, you know. I mean, yes, to someone who’s a teenager, Christine & The Queens might seem profound – and I actually like what she does – but I don’t buy into the idea that this is a new thing. There are gay artists, people are writing about being gay, but look at what Jimmy Somerville [of Bronski Beat] did with ‘Smalltown Boy’. I remember when I first saw that video my heart sank. I knew how genius it was and I didn’t do it – he did it!”

So it’s the idea that artists like Troye Sivan are breaking ground that you disagree with?

“No, he is in this environment, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m criticising because I’m not – I think that it’s great. I always wanted to live in a world where these things didn’t matter, and it’s kind of annoying to me that people still go on about it like it does. Surely the question is are you any good as an artist, not whether you write about if you sleep with men or women or a bit of both. Life is fluid, sexuality is fluid [but] we live in a time where everybody wants to put everyone in a box. What if you’re all of those things? I like I think of myself as being a nice bunch of guys.”

You talked about the link between the new romantic movement and punk; Culture Club was borne of The Blitz Club in London…

“Yes! It’s weird you mention it because I’m currently obsessed with ‘80s electro music. It just sounds so modern to me, like early Gary Numan early and Fad Gadget all that kind of stuff.”

I was going to say that you don’t really get subcultures as much. Is that kind of sad for the youth of today?

“I think you do get them if you go out! It’s just that I’m not in them. And the internet is a club. Instagram is a club. I mean, I think it’s a bit restrictive and the door policy is a bit strict.”

What would your Instagram have looked like in the ‘80s?

“Much the same as it does now, but probably with more pictures of me.”

You’re quite active on Twitter, too – seems like you reply to most people.

“I feel like if I’ve got something funny to say back then I’ll respond. I do sometimes upset people. I called someone an idiot yesterday and they got very upset, but they were been quite idiotic. They weren’t happy you know but again we live in a time where everybody wants to get upset about everything and nobody wants to commit to anything.”

So you’re not part of the offended generation?

“I think what we’ve got to be careful of is being neutered by the net for fear of having an opinion. I don’t ever go out of my way to hurt somebody but I’ve grown up being chased down the fucking street dressed as a nun. You know, don’t talk to me about somebody writing something nasty about me on the internet. I know it’s awful if you’re being targeted but you can block people. Mute, block, go away. You don’t have to engage with them. So you have a choice there, whereas I didn’t – I had to get on that bus to get to the train station to get to the disco, so I didn’t have a choice.”

“People hate it when you pop up again. It’s like when you stand on a rake and it hits you in the head.
People hate that, but I do it a lot.”

Boy George

Any particular reason you were dressed as a nun?!

“I just fancied it on the day.”

You’ve had a long career that’s touched on many things: singing, DJ-ing, TV work… you even acted in an episode of The A-Team.

“Oh, I was terrible in that. I was shit.”

How did the DJing come about? You became hugely successful as a house DJ in the ’90s.

“I actually started DJing in ‘79. Have you never seen the famous picture of me in full drag DJing? It’s the most genius thing: full woman, no mixer, pile of records. But I got so much judgement when I started DJing again, because people hate it when you pop up again. It’s like when you stand on a rake and it hits you in the head. People hate that, but I do it a lot.”

How did you end up DJing?

“It happened as a consequence of clubbing, strolling into the clubs and just going, ‘Oh this is amazing, no one’s bothering me, I’m not the centre of attention, I can actually just go and have a night out,’ and that was refreshing because I’d come from this suffocating fame.”

Is that how you found fame? Suffocating?

“At first it was amazing but then it’s like eating too much cake – that’s what fame is.”

But the new Culture Club album does just have you on the cover, no bandmates…

“I tell Culture Club all the time: I’m the face on the box of cornflakes, that’s me, my job is to go out and do stuff for you. I’m the CEO so just deal with it!”

And how does that go down?!

“Bands are like families, and it’s fine so long as you have those moments where you go, ‘OK, I know why I’m working with you’. When you have those jolts, it’s quite a nice thing. You go, ‘I don’t hate you really. I’ll hate you tomorrow, but today I love you.’ And we’re still learning to communicate with each other. I work a lot on myself. I talk to myself a lot about my behaviour. But sometimes it’s necessary to kickoff to say no. Like, for example, I’ve just done a duet with Gladys Knight and I’ve wanted to do it for years and let’s just say now that it’s happened everyone thinks that I’m a genius but prior to that it was like, ‘Oh, why do you want to do that?’”

I tell Culture Club all the time: I’m the face on the box of cornflakes… I’m the CEO so just deal with it!
– Boy George

So that’s happened then?

“Yeah, I was in Australia and I had this mental dream where Mary J Blige said to someone, ‘Have you heard this track that Gladys Knight has done with Culture Club?’, and I thought: ‘It’s got to happen’. So we made it happen. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. I met Gladys in ‘84 and said, ‘You’re my finger favourite singer. I talk a lot about her on stage as well because a lot of our songs have that kind of ’70s soul influence and especially his new album.”

And with that, Boy George is thumbing through his phone to find the file, and blasts out a track in which, yes, he duets with Gladys Knight. He’s in full CEO mode at the moment, promoting the album, heading out on tour. Just like a rake, Boy George will keep popping up for the foreseeable.

‘Life’, by Culture Club, is out now. The band are touring the UK.