In 40 years at the top of pop, BOY GEORGE has done it all, from heroin addiction to prison (where the lags loved his quiche) and some very surprising celebrity encounters, as his joyously indiscreet memoir reveals
By the time I was about six years old, I knew I was gay and so did everyone else. Even though I was bullied for being effeminate and pretty, I never really wished I was straight.
Of course, I knew I had to keep it quiet. The worst thing you could be at school was a poofter.
Even the teachers were homophobic. My gym teacher, Mr McIntyre, would shout: ‘Pick your legs up, lassie.’
This was the 1970s and there was a sense that I should get on with my gay business over there in the corner and not talk about it. That was never going to work for me. As a kid I went to Sunday School in one of Mum’s hats. One of her friends called and said: ‘Do you know what he’s wearing?’
‘I do,’ she said, defiantly.
BOY GEORGE: By the time I was about six years old, I knew I was gay and so did everyone else. Even though I was bullied for being effeminate and pretty, I never really wished I was straight
Boy George at the Limelight Nightclub in 1966
On the set of the Graham Norton Show at BBC Television Centre
I used to get myself wound up, in control of nothing. I tell myself now, ‘I’m going to be amazing,’ before I go on stage
When I left the house, Mum would say to Dad: ‘Look at him, Jerry, look what he’s wearing.’ Dad would lower his newspaper and say: ‘Up to him if he wants to get beat up.’
Being the queer middle child in a London Irish family was less of a big deal than you might think, though. My dad announced my ‘homosexuality’ to my brothers, David and Richard, in his Bedford van. Turning down the radio, he said: ‘You know your brother’s a bit funny.’
David chipped in: ‘Funny peculiar or funny ha-ha?’
Richard corrected Dad: ‘You mean he’s a poofter.’
I think Dad turned the radio back up at that point. He could be brutal but he was also charismatic. He treated my mum very badly, but in a weird way they loved each other.
Mum was definitely committed to the idea of marriage and family. A bit of a martyr to the cause, she tried so hard to make it work, to make the house beautiful, but my dad’s jealousy made it impossible.
If Mum put on a nice dress, she was having an affair. Every time Dad hit my mum, his mother would ask her: ‘Why do you make him angry? Why do you have to answer him back?’
Some days I would come home from school and almost feel the pain through the front door. Mum would be in her dressing gown and the milk would still be on the doorstep.
I would say to her: ‘Why do you let him treat you like that? Why don’t we leave?’
But the few times Mum did leave and went to her mother’s in Birmingham, she was sent back the following day, with Gran’s words ringing in her ears: ‘You can’t keep a father away from his children.’
Violence in marriage was accepted back then, it seemed, and was never discussed. I saw some terrible things. I came home from school one day and Mum was under the table screaming up at Dad, who was holding a knife.
I went so crazy it startled even him and he backed off.
He insisted he was making a sandwich; he wasn’t pointing the knife at Mum. But why was she under the table? It’s stayed with me all these years.
Mum took an overdose once and I kept her awake, which was the most terrifying thing I went through as a kid. Sadly, even that incident didn’t change my father.
I don’t want to paint a picture of him as a horrible, nasty human being, because he wasn’t. He was handsome and intelligent, and could sing a gorgeous version of Danny Boy. He wasn’t racist or bigoted and he wouldn’t allow stolen goods in the house.
One thing I got from my father is the ability to let things go. He would throw the table up in the air and then say, ‘Put the kettle on’, and give you a hug. When he was over it, you had to be over it.
I have been guilty of that myself. Because I’m resilient and forgiving, I expect other people to be the same. And I also know no one has to accept your apology. What you do with your own pain is your business. It doesn’t have to remain as pain, though.
I used to get myself wound up, in control of nothing. I tell myself now, ‘I’m going to be amazing,’ before I go on stage.
Not that I am amazing . . . although I am. And so are you.
Prison taught me the biggest life lessons I’ve ever had to learn. You have to be ultra-alert at all times without showing fear. They try to put you with people who are compatible, but who is compatible with me?
I arrived at Pentonville in January 2009, having been convicted of falsely imprisoning a man who I won’t name here.
Going from the court cells to the van was like being in a 1970s movie. I had watched it hundreds of times and now it was happening to me.
Within 30 minutes of arriving at Pentonville, I was offered every drug on the planet. Thank God I turned them all down.
On my second day, a prison guard took my photo illegally and sold it to a newspaper. I was set up by an inmate who asked for my autograph while the officer snapped a picture. It was disgusting but the upside was they moved me from my shared cell.
Mum was definitely committed to the idea of marriage and family. A bit of a martyr to the cause, she tried so hard to make it work, to make the house beautiful, but my dad’s jealousy made it impossible
Being the queer middle child in a London Irish family was less of a big deal than you might think, though. My dad announced my ‘homosexuality’ to my brothers, David and Richard, in his Bedford van
I was happy to be on my own. I like my own company and there was no one to distrust. The prison officers, on the whole, were nice to me. But the food stank of feet. I got to go out in the prison yard once a day.
After six days that felt like a year, I was taken in a prison van to Edmunds Hill Prison in Suffolk. We were in the middle of the countryside, but I had to put up with other inmates singing Karma Chameleon at me incessantly and calling me a ‘batty boy’.
At this point I felt like I was in someone else’s life. My cell door was rattling constantly with inmates wondering if I had any drugs, but also wanting to meet Boy George.
Across the hall there was a big muscly black guy who was finishing a very long sentence. He was friendly and told me right out: ‘Anyone bothers you, come to me.’
Occasionally, the cells are turned over by the guards to see if anything untoward is going on. I had an early-morning raid. It was embarrassing when I had to lower my pants to prove I had nothing on my person, but nothing was found and life went on.
You weren’t supposed to swap food or have extra pillows or blankets, but if you keep your mouth shut and behave, nothing is said.
One of the prisoners was sh***ing a female prison officer. They were at it in the giant fridge, and outside where we went to smoke. Getting away with that must have been thrilling.
My first day in the prison kitchen was steamy and tense. I was in the pot room using a big jet cleaner to wash pots and pans.
It was good doing physical work, and I like being busy.
After about a week I was promoted to vegetarian cook. One of my quiches scored high praise. A guy in the kitchen said: ‘Who made this quiche?’
I told him it was me. ‘Batty man make a nice quiche, you know,’ he said. It’s hard to be offended when someone is being so poetic.
Writing about prison is weirdly exciting in hindsight. I was sentenced to 15 months, but was released after four. I don’t remember it being particularly exciting at the time; it was more numbing.
When the football or boxing was on all the inmates would scream and bang the doors. There was no gay sex, whatever people think. No one was particularly homophobic but there was an undercurrent. I’ve been gay long enough to be able to read the room.
When people were aggressive to me, I was aggressive back. You have to send out the message to ‘leave me alone’ while still being friendly.
But I remember the funny moments, and the music. A prison favourite was The Killers’ Are We Human? — I can still see my mate Terry singing, ‘Are we human or are we gangsters?’ and jumping around my cell like Bez from the Happy Mondays.
It’s sweet but naive to assume that being gay and being in the same business is a reason to be friends.
Sam Smith and I lived next door to each other in Hampstead for a few years, but never really spoke.
Sam had parties in his garden that I was never invited to, but we are at different ends of the life and fame experiences.
When I went to see Adele in Vegas, on the other hand, she sent me a beautifully signed tour programme saying, ‘I can’t believe you are here,’ but she did not come out to meet me. I thought it very odd. How other artists treat you at their concerts is super important.
I am the biggest Mick Jagger fan on the planet. I’ve only met him once, at Mandy Smith’s wedding to Bill Wyman in 1989. Jagger walked up, shook my hand and said: ‘I like your shoes.’ Apparently, he’s a keen shoe freak.
The first time I met any of the Stones I was in Paris, on my way to a party with my friend Marilyn (you remember, he had a hit with Calling Your Name). Spotting Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood, I said to Marilyn: ‘We are having a drink. I need to meet them.’
Marilyn rolled his eyes. ‘Hurry up then.’
Writing about prison is weirdly exciting in hindsight. I was sentenced to 15 months, but was released after four. I don’t remember it being particularly exciting at the time; it was more numbing
I shook hands with Princess Margaret at the Sony Music Radio Awards at the London Hilton. Afterwards she was heard to say: ‘Who’s that Boy George? He looks like an over-made-up tart’
Later, Marilyn and I spent a day with Keith and a lot of cocaine in Jamaica. But I didn’t see Charlie again until I bumped into him many years later at WH Smith at Heathrow. I swear the first thing he said was: ‘How’s that miserable git, Marilyn?’
I laughed: ‘Still a miserable git, but he’ll love that you remembered him.’
I was 11-and-a-half when I saw David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at Lewisham Odeon on May 24, 1973, and I went to that gig on my own. Even having no one to go with didn’t put me off. I borrowed my older brother Richard’s clothes: split-knee loons and a scoop-necked T-shirt covered in psychedelic mushrooms topped off with an embroidered Indian jacket. I thought I looked the bee’s knees.
I used to sit outside Bowie’s house in Beckenham, South-East London, when I was ten, and one beautiful Sunday morning [his then wife] Angie opened the window and said: ‘Would you all just f*** off.’ We were delighted. Back then fans knew their place.
When I had dinner with Bowie and Iman in New York some decades later, he said: ‘Tell the story about when Angie told you to f*** off.’
I probably padded it out quite a bit, and when I finished David said: ‘That’s probably the most interesting thing Angie ever said.’ Bitchy.
I shook hands with Princess Margaret at the Sony Music Radio Awards at the London Hilton. Afterwards she was heard to say: ‘Who’s that Boy George? He looks like an over-made-up tart.’
I snapped back in the Press and had T-shirts made of Princess Margaret’s face wearing my hat and ribbons, with the words: ‘I’m not a tart.’
Long afterwards, I ran into her son, Lord Linley [now Earl Snowdon], in a restaurant.
‘Can I have a word?’ he said. ‘I just wanted to say my mother never called you a tart. She had loads of gay friends, and knew exactly who you were.’ ‘It must have been Carol Decker from T’Pau,’ I told him. ‘Although I don’t think she wears as much make-up as me.’
I actually loved Princess Margaret. She was my type of royal — very glamorous. She did all the things the Queen could never do.
I met Princess Diana twice. The first was at the Hippodrome at a charity event. I had just gotten over a very public heroin addiction and my reputation was ragged.
I wasn’t in the official line-up of guests, but nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow whispered in my ear: ‘Princess Diana wants to meet you.’
Karma: My Autobiography by Boy George is out on November 9. To order a copy for £19.80 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937
I was with Mum and she said: ‘Go on, meet her.’ I went upstairs and stood in line with the other guests, but a palace official shooed me away: ‘You’re not on the list. Stand aside.’
So I went over to the bar and ordered a drink. After shaking hands with everyone, the princess broke protocol and approached me. She was very sweet and complimented my outfit, which was a Judy Blame coat and hat covered in silver safety pins.
‘Wow, that must have taken for ever,’ she said.
‘I didn’t do it myself, love,’ I told her.
I asked her if she would meet Mum and she said: ‘Where is she?’ They spent ten minutes chatting.
I met Diana again at a Capital Radio charity lunch and she sat facing me and had the vegetarian option because I was vegetarian. Wayne Sleep was animated and kept falling on to her shoulder. She looked at me, smiled and shrugged her shoulders. I think Wayne was later led away.
- Adapted from Karma: My Autobiography by Boy George (Bonnier Books Ltd, £22) to be published November 9. © Boy George 2023. To order a copy for £19.80 (Offer valid to 19/11/2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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