Tales of a Single Middle-Aged Gay Man looks at national treasure Boy George and asks whether it’s time he was knighted. Arise, Sir George!
When I am in America and people overhear my British accent, at some point someone will always comment, “I just love your Queen”. It is hard for me not to retort, “Boy George or the one in the palace?” Arguably George has done more to promote British fashion, music and style abroad than many that have been on the honours list. In fact, he has been a worldwide ambassador for the UK. More importantly, the Boy has made it possible for so many young LGBTQ people to see a light or a figurehead for them that says, “Do not be afraid to be you”, and he is unapologetic for who he is. In addition, his honesty regarding his battle with addiction has given so many a green light to go and get help.
George burst onto Top of the Pops in 1982 with the band “Culture Club”, performing their first hit, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” Nowadays, there is no-one in the world that does not know the name “Boy George”. Back then, I was a 19 year old living in Brighton. My sister, who was 16 at the time and still at school in Surbiton, rang me, as she was a huge fan of “Culture Club” even before their TV debut, having found out they were playing in Brighton. Please, could she come down? A couple of weeks later, I was surrounded by girls chanting “George” at what is now the Odeon Cinema, waiting for the Boy to step on stage. Even though Culture Club were not that well known, the excitement in the room was electrifying, and when Boy George stepped out the crowd went wild. In the end, I resorted to putting my sister on my shoulders to get a better view.
George reminded me of someone who had brought a light into my life and given me hope as a young gay boy at the age of just nine: the seminal moment when Marc Bolan flashed up on Top of the Pops singing “Ride a White Swan”. I had spent many a day feeling so different that I wanted to be anywhere else, or anyone but me, in part due to relentless bullying at school and – at times – at home. Marc was a beacon, and for so many gay men my age (I’ll be sixty this year), Marc Bolan and David Bowie essentially told us, “It’s going to be ok, keep going”.
It was about the time of the Brighton gig when I realised that I had previously met Boy George and his entourage Marilyn (Peter) and Philip Sallon. When Philip pinched my bottom at a club called the Regency in Great Newport Street, I was 16, and it was a club full of characters. For a teen like me, these fabulously flamboyant characters (Philip, with a top hat, had a black-and-white walking stick) left me speechless. Marilyn and George were more beautiful than most of the girls I knew. They were intimidating to say the least, as I admitted to my friend – a regular “Blitz Kid” – who was with me that night. Although I did not mutter two words and moved quickly away, they left an impact. I used to marvel, watching them mingle at the “Bangs” gay night at the Astoria Club on Mondays. Marilyn’s amazingly-styled Monroe hair made him stand out a mile.
Boy or girl?
Boy George’s first appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops made him tabloid news. Terms like “gender bender” were being used to describe him, and the question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” was plastered across the papers. The critics queueing up to have their say, as is always the case when something different appears that makes people question themselves. “One-hit wonder” and “He will corrupt our children” were shouted from the rafters by the Thatcherites.
My sister looked as happy after the concert as I had been after my first T-Rex concert in Newcastle City Hall. One thing you simply knew was that the George was a star who was here to stay, something that was acknowledged by those in the know. Freddie Mercury, in an interview, said that Boy George would be with us for a very long time and was no flash in the pan. Madonna, though they have had their differences, cites George as one of her inspirations, while Lady Gaga is and has always been mad about the boy.
Words like camp, trans and drag queen were quickly attached to the star, particularly on the gay scene, an arena that does not fight shy of labelling others. George himself, to his own cost, even declared at the 1984 Grammys, “Thank you America, you know a good drag queen when you see one.” This caused his and the band’s popularity in the US Bible Belt to plummet.
For me, you just knew that the boy did not prefer a cup a tea. I think George is far from camp – a word quickly given out in the gay scene to men who are seen as effeminate, John Inman, Larry Grayson or Kenneth Williams being good examples. It takes a real man to be who he wants to be, and a strong Irishman shines through Boy George’s often thick foundation and highlighted, beautiful blue eyes.
Both my sister and I moved to the US for a time, but when I came back to London, I received an invite to Boy George’s book launch. Take it Like a Man was written in collaboration with Spencer Bright. It was a themed party. Everyone, on the orders of the Boy, was to dress up as something to do with school or not bother coming. The Daily Mail’s legendary journalist Lester Middlehurst and I dressed up as school prefects, complete with school blazers and badges. Spencer Bright was dressed as a headmaster holding a cane. True to George’s word, there were many corporate bigwigs turned away at the door who had not made the effort to dress up, much to their dismay. George himself was in the event room in disguise whilst his mum was dressed as a dinner lady.
It was 1999 when I next came across George at an LWT audience with Diana Ross, where Diana unexpectedly (cough) pulled him out from the mostly celebrity audience to sing. I had taken my partner of 18 years, Martin Annand, and we agreed: George has a voice that competes even with Miss Ross. At the after party, George was next to us and he chatted to everyone.
Happy to make the tea.
Lucky me: my next brush with George was at the opening of “Taboo” in 2002 at the Leicester Square Theatre. It was an incredible evening, and everyone was there, including Alan Cummings and Philip Sallon. “Taboo” was not George’s life story. Rather, it was a tale of performers that had defined a generation: Steve Strange, Leigh Bowery, Philip Sallon, Marilyn and of course, Boy George. It was incredible and you did not want it to end. Absent from the opening night was Marilyn, but during the speeches it was asked if she was hiding somewhere in her rollers and head scarf. It closed in 2003 and transferred to New York. Judging by the army of youngsters in Boy George and Bowery attire around London, it should make a comeback
Like me, George is a Gemini, and we can go from one extreme to the other, sometimes overnight. One of Mr O’Dowd’s extremes has been his very public battle with addiction. But, under the guidance of DJ Fat Tony, he started to attend NA meetings. All reports indicate that he is happy to make the tea for those also attending. George has talked openly and honestly about his battles, helping others to face up to their issues. In all this is a star who is happy to help others rise to the top and fight their battles with them
Sure, George has been a naughty boy at times; who hasn’t? But what he has done for entertainment, the arts and LGBTQ has been incredible. Time to have him knighted.