Boy George – 80s pop legend, off the mainstream radar (busy as he may well have been) for 20-plus years, bad lad for a while – is now fully rehabilitated as a newly installed judge on The Voice UK. In which context, we meet. In his trailer, no less. Very glamorous! Admittedly, the glitz is slightly marred by the vehicle being parked on wasteland in east London, convenient for access to the recording studio next door.
Even so, the lad is most certainly back. Redemption beckons alluringly – if redemption is required. I think it probably is, given his 2008 conviction and subsequent 15-month prison sentence (of which he served four months) for assault and false imprisonment. He’s definitely ready for it.
The trailer is well stocked with the trappings of celebrity, a surfeit of fresh fruit platters vying with a similar surfeit of publicists, pals, personal assistants. I settle opposite George across a table. He looks happy and healthy. It’s good to see. We start by talking about his new role.
“It’s a great gig. It’s what I do. I love singers. It’s fun.” He’s nothing if not canny, however. “I’ve got to think about people that love me that are watching the show. My audience. My age group. I’ve got to think what songs are going to resonate with them.” To that end, he’s persuaded two of the acts under his wing to cover, respectively, a Pink Floyd and a Rod Stewart number. “I also suggested Elvis but that’s been rejected,” he chuckles.
How would he define this audience he’s seeking to satisfy? “It’s been a real mixture over the years. Lots of girls, a few gay men, lots of mums. It’s very accidental. You get kids who’ve heard about you from their parents. And then there are kids who are into make-up and dressing up who’ve seen me on Instagram and like the way I do my face. I see a lot of kids doing my old look. It’s a Halloween favourite in America.”
We stick with make-up for a while. Not my area of expertise, but illuminating in terms of how George is perceived. He is, he says, something of an icon in this regard. “Many people will say, ‘You inspired me.’ Normal people, whatever that word means, and also misfits and freaks and exhibitionists, which I love.”
At 54, he isn’t, he confesses, very experimental these days. “There isn’t anything I haven’t done to my face. I’m more into the Joan Collins realm now. I know what looks good on me and stick to it.” He takes pride and much amusement in his niche in cosmetic history. “Those eyebrows I had in 1984, you see them everywhere now, normal girls on buses! They think Kim Kardashian invented it but in fact it was Liz Taylor and Carmen Miranda. That’s where I got it from.”
Back in the day, he says, as a young working-class kid from a large Irish (his real name is George O’Dowd) family in Woolwich, south-east London, he would do his face conscientiously every day. “As soon as I discovered eyebrow pencils, it was, ‘Oh my God, look what I can do!’ I lost jobs because of it. Becoming a performer was the only way really. I was unemployable.” Nowadays, the full rig is strictly for “telly and Sunday best”.
The great advantage of having a distinctive look, he says, is you can take it off and be anonymous on the Tube, the more so because he’s naturally quite butch. “I was pretty smooth and hairless until I was 21 then suddenly I turned into a rugby-type guy. I remember one of my backing singers freaking out once because I had a hairy chest. People have this idea of me as a little quaint frilly thing in the corner.”
Boy George with fellow judges will.i.am, Ricky Wilson and Paloma Faith
Far from it, which his forthcoming stint on The Voice will no doubt demonstrate. “I’ve been told I’ve been too critical. But on a lot of these shows, some 17-year-old kid is told, ‘You’re amazing,’ and no, what you are is potentially amazing. But you’re pitchy. You hit some bum notes. You impersonated this person. That’s what they need to hear. And you can say that without being nasty. A lot of young people don’t want criticism. But if you can’t take criticism, I don’t really want you on my team.”
He is not, he says, “looking for perfection. I’m looking for honesty and emotion. Some of my favourite performers – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – are not great singers.” He is himself, he says, an emotional singer rather than one who “can hit a million notes”. But you’re better than Bob Dylan, I say. “I’d never say that,” he laughs. “He’s one of my heroes. I can see the headline: ‘Boy George says he’s better than Bob Dylan.’ I don’t think like that. You can’t separate the person from what they sing, how they sing, what they wear, how they walk. It’s a totality.”
It hasn’t been entirely easy, he admits, being the new judge on the show. He’s had to assert himself to attract the acts he rated. “One kid, I had to fight Paloma to get her on my team. Paloma was going, ‘I’m a misfit,’ I was like, ‘Babe, no no no. You can’t sit next to Boy George and talk about being a f*****g misfit.’”
Not that he’s a misfit any more. He’s pop royalty, in fact, with famous friends and homes in north London and Ibiza. And sober, what’s more, enjoying his yoga, Buddhism and vegetarianism. On good terms with his family, too: mum, four brothers and sister. “Typical Irish, all in each other’s business,” he giggles. His philosophy these days is, he says, “Be nice to your mum. Juice. Chant”.
Still, content as he was, he knew he needed a new burst of media exposure. He’s about to get it, and is intent on making it work for him. He isn’t sniffy about talent shows in the way some of his peers tend to be. “It’s just the way things are now. We had MTV in a way bands before didn’t. Things change. I admire people that don’t sit on their arses. If someone is hardworking and clever and gets out there, that’s great. OK, if I wanna have a row with someone, I’ll say, ‘Didn’t they teach you manners at stage school?’ But really, I’d love to have gone to stage school. Somewhere you can sing and dance and show off? Brilliant.”
He hasn’t done much TV previously, not since his Culture Club heyday 30 years ago (see below). “I’ve been immersed in the dance world, DJ-ing for the past 20 years. I hadn’t put a record out in a long time. Then I did radio and a tour of America and I realised that old-school way of doing things was over. I’d had an incredible career. I can’t be what I was and I don’t want to be what I was. The world is different now and I want to confront it.”
But he’s done the whole reunion tour thing, hasn’t he? “Oh yeah. That’s feeding a beast that is sometimes hungry. And nostalgia has never felt like purgatory for me. I don’t hate it. I don’t ever go on stage and go, ‘Oh God, I’ve gotta sing Karma Chameleon.’”
There is, he says, an initiation process as the new kid on the panel. “There’s a bit of ‘Oh, Boy George hasn’t been on the telly much’ and ‘When did he last have a hit record?’ The point I make is, ‘Love, look, I’ve had lots of ups and downs. If you think that if you don’t get this then it’s all over, trust me, it ain’t. Even the great Tom Jones has had dips. But look at that career!”
Ah yes, the great Tom Jones, the judge whom George has replaced, the judge who didn’t want to be replaced, by George or anybody.“People have tried to drag me into a row. I love Tom Jones! I’ve loved him since I was a kid. I was in Wales the other night – I did a Steve Strange tribute – and it was the perfect opportunity for me to talk about Tom. He’s a genius. I’ve nothing but respect for him. But I’m grateful to have the job. I’m going to do the best job I can.
“This industry tends to eat its old. You get that thing of ‘Ooh you’re not relevant any more.’ Well, I’m very relevant. Especially in my house.”