Boy George was born George Alan O’Dowd on 14th June 1961. George always compares his family history to a “sad Irish song”. It starts with his great uncle Thomas Bryan who was executed by the British in 1921 in the Irish War of Independence. Then his grandmother, who was permanently taken from her family at 6 years old because she was found wandering outside the family home on her own. So they put her into an Industrial School. (Industrial schools were established in Ireland under the Industrial School Act 1868 and they were places were abandoned, neglected or orphaned children would go.)
Boy George’s Upbringing
Being born into a working-class family of five children, life for George’s family struggled. His mother said that his father Gerry O’Dowd was physically and mentally abusive and would beat her, even when she was pregnant with George. George later shared his thoughts of his father saying “He was a terrible father and a terrible husband”. The sadness and pain don’t end there though for George’s family. His youngest brother Gerald suffered from schizophrenia and was convicted of killing his wife in an episode of paranoia.
George claims that he had a very lonely childhood, referring to himself as being the “pink sheep” of the family (which, probably isn’t a bad thing in the case of this family). He stood out like a sore thumb in the kind of dark and miserable world of Eltham, London. He created his own image from an early age, later stating “It didn’t bother me to walk down the street and to be stared at. I loved it”.
When it came to school life, he didn’t exactly conform to the “typical student” image and leaned heavily into the arts rather than maths or science. He found it hard to fit in with “traditional” masculine stereotypes. His school work suffered and he didn’t get on with teachers, so it didn’t take the school long to give up on him and just expelled him on the grounds of his “outlandish behaviour” and his “outrageous clothes and makeup”.
So Boy George ended up out of school and had no work. He tried to take on any jobs he could at the time from fruit picking to even a gig as a makeup artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he actually was able to perfect his own look and makeup.
By the 1980s, the New Romantic Movement had come to the UK. Influenced heavily by people like David Bowie for example. Often dressing in grand caricatures of the 19th century English Romantic period. This included the upscaled hairdos and bold fashion statements. Men typically wore androgynous clothing and makeup.
This became a beacon call for Boy George who found his style fitted in with this lifestyle. So, he began to live in various squats around Warren Street in Central London with his friend Marylin or Peter Robinson. The attention of the New Romantics grew and with that came loads of interviews with the press for George and others just based on their appearance solely.
“They represented a kind of bohemian existence that I – at that point – could only imagine living. I loved the music. The first time I ever saw Marc Bolan really, properly was singing ‘Metal Guru’ and just loved him. I don’t think you can separate an artist from what they wear or what they sing – it’s kind of the complete package. It’s something which is very organic and individual”.
George’s androgynous style caught the attention of music entrepreneur Malcolm Mclaren (who was previously a manager for the Sex Pistols). He arranged for George to perform with a group called Bow Wow Wow. He worked alongside 16-year-old Annabella Lwin, Mclaren thought Lwin could use a bit more stage and vocal presence, so he got George to help with that.
George made a few appearances but friction started to appear between the two big personalities, but that was okay because George was inspired to start his own group. They were called The Sex Gang Children (questionable…) with bassist, Mikey Craig and drummer Jon Moss joining the group, Roy Hay not being far behind. Thankfully they decided to ditch the first band name and settled on the name Culture Club. The name was a joke in reference to the group members’ various backgrounds: George being Irish, Craig was Jamaican, Moss being British, Jew and Hay being an Englishman.
The band recorded demos that were paid for by EMI Records, but the label declined to sign them. Virgin Records expressed interest in signing the group in the UK for European releases, while Epic Records handled the US and North American distribution. They recorded their debut album Kissing to Be Clever and it was released in 1982. The single “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?“, became an international hit, reaching No. 1 in multiple countries around the world, plus top ten in several more countries.
When it came to Boy George’s sexuality, at the beginning for example, in a 1983 interview they asked if he preferred men or women and he just said “Oh both” but then on the other hand he would famously say that he would prefer “a nice cup of tea to sex”. But then in 1995, in his autobiography, he said he was gay, and not bisexual, and that he had a secret relationship with his drummer, Jon Moss and stated that many of their songs were actually based on their relationship.
Culture Club already had the distinction of being the first group since The Beatles to have three songs from a debut album become top ten hits on the billboard hot 100. Then their second album Colour by Numbers was released in 1983 was also a success and that one had the very famous song “Karma Chameleon” on it, which rose to number one spot in numerous countries including the USA where it actually stayed for four weeks.
Boy George soon became a household name, making him a natural choice of the lead vocals on the Band-Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984. However, the pressure of fame began to take its toll on him, and this is sadly where his addiction to heroin got out of hand. Culture Club began to lose their way musically, with their fourth album From Luxury to Heartache in 1986 was apparently a pain in the arse to record and sessions would drag for hours.
Difficulties with Drugs
In July of that same year, George was arrested in the UK for possession of Cannabis, then a few days later the band’s keyboardist, Michael Rudeski was found dead in George’s home; it was discovered that he died from a heroin overdose.
Clearly, the hype had slowly started to die down and in late 1986, after cancelling their US Tour, Culture Club disbanded. Within his ongoing addiction to drugs, George began to record his first solo album. In 1987 ‘Sold’ was released as a major success, but he didn’t get the same exposure in the US, unfortunately.
Over the years, George continued to make various solo albums and even started his own record label in the early 90s. After a fallout with Virgin Records in the mid-90s, George’s work was poorly promoted and didn’t get the same recognition as his previous work. Culture Club did get back together very briefly in 1998 at the Big Rewind Tour in America alongside Human League.
Boy George’s drug addiction started to get media attention after his drug problems came to the light in the 80s. In 2005, nearly 10 years after his first drug exposure, Boy George was arrested in Manhattan on suspicion of possessing cocaine after some was found in his apartment. He failed to show up to court the following year for the same drug charges, so the judge issued a warrant for his arrest. George’s no-show for his initial court date resulted in a $1,000 fine and a spell of community service.
In August 2006, George reported for clearing rubbish duty on the streets of New York, making the media have a field day on the paparazzi with snaps of the usually very flamboyant singer in dull combats and trainers with a broom in hand, picking up rubbish.
It wasn’t until 2006 the band decided to reunite again, but George actually declined to join them and so he was replaced but after only one showcase and one live show, that project was shelved.
Unfortunately for George though, his trouble with the law continued. In November 2007, he was sent to trial on the charges of falsely imprisoning a male escort by chaining him to a wall. The alleged incident had taken place at his Hackney flat earlier in the year. On 16th January 2009, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for the offence. Initially, he was sent to HMP Pentonville in London and then was later transferred to HMP Edmunds Hill in Newmarket, Suffolk to serve the rest of his time.
After all this turmoil though, in 2013 Boy George, resurfaced with a brand new image and embraced his sobriety. “I am in a really good place and really enjoying being busy.” He explained that he’d rather focus on work “than going out clubbing.” He released his first album for 20 years called This is What I Do and he also surprised fans with news in 2014 of a reunion of Culture Club. The band announced plans for several concerts and worked together on recording some material in the studio as well.
In 2016, he announced he was replacing Tom Jones on the fifth series of The Voice as a mentor. He left that series after just recording one series but went on doing The Voice Australia as a coach for the sixth season.
In October 2016, Boy George performed David Bowie’s “Starman” with the National Health Service Choir, nine months after his idol’s death from liver cancer, on Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer UK programme.
In August 2017, Boy George signed a recording deal with BMG, reuniting him with his songwriting catalogue, as BMG had acquired the Virgin Records songwriters in 2012.
On 2nd and 26th March 2020, through his YouTube channel, George respectively released 2 new solo songs entitled “Clouds” and “Isolation” taken from his forthcoming album Geminis Don’t Read The Manual which was due to be released later in the year, but was postponed.
On 6th April 2020 on his own record label BGP (Boy George Presents), he released the Isolation Limited Edition 2-track CD Single including the title track and a new “Spatial Awareness Meets The Boy Uptown Dub” mix of the track “Clouds”.
That is the story of Boy George. He is thriving now, after a very rocky start and career. He seems to be happy and sober now which is amazing!
My sources were :
- The One. The Only: Trixie Mattel - 13th February 2023
- What is Bi-Erasure? - 3rd July 2022
- What Are Neopronouns & How Do You Use Them? - 5th February 2022