Boy George's Nightmare

A special report on the fallen pop idol's bout with his drug addiction

Pop singer Boy George of the group Culture Club outside his home in St John's Wood, London on June 10, 1986. Credit: Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty

BOY GEORGE, THE FLAMBOYANT pop star who'd seduced the world with his sweet soul music, looked a mess. Standing in a backstage trailer at an Artists Against Apartheid rock concert held on Clapham Common in London on June 29th, the twenty-five-year-old singer was desperately trying to do something about his makeup.

Since his last public performance, in the summer of 1985, Boy George's appearance had changed dramatically – so dramatically that the bouncers backstage at the antiapartheid concert hadn't recognized him at first and had refused him entrance. Once slightly plump, George was now thin and emaciated. His long hair had been cut short and dyed blond and was concealed by a broad-brimmed knit hat. His blue-green eyes, once so full of life, were concealed by round, dark granny glasses. His clothes, which he'd always arranged with great care, appeared thrown on at random, and some rather strange expressions were printed on his coat: one read, FUCK ME STUPID, another said simply, SUCK MY NOB. Across the back of his shoulders was a third slogan: HEROIN FREE ZONE. And now, to make matters worse, the scorching ninety-degree heat was causing George's makeup to run.

Boy George's performance at Clapham Common was to be a solo outing; the other members of Culture Club apparently realized that this might not be the best moment to join their leader onstage. They already knew that over the last six months, George had been using heroin. According to one of the singer's brothers, twenty-one-year-old David O'Dowd, and one of his best friends, twenty-year-old "Fat Tony" Marnoch, George was now doing as much as two grams of heroin a day.

When George finally took the stage, he looked even worse than he had in the trailer. A makeup artist had told him that because of the heat, there was nothing she could do, so he had wiped his face with a towel and then applied a facial. To the crowd, though, it looked as if George had splashed water on his face and then dipped it in a bowl of flour. "It was unbelievable what people were saying as he went onstage," one of George's business associates said later. "People were going, 'Look at him, he's stoned. He looks ridiculous. What an imbecile.' "

The audience responded to George's brief set – which included a gripping version of "Black Money" and two other songs – by hurling nearly two dozen bottles and cans at him. Before leaving the stage, George bid the crowd a sarcastic goodbye from "your favorite drug addict."

Unfortunately, there was more to it than his sarcasm would suggest. Boy George, the world-renowned pop star, was about to become a world-famous junkie.

***

SHOCK. HOW ELSE COULD ONE RESPOND TO THE REVELATION that Boy George was now addicted to heroin? This was not some openly decadent hedonist like Keith Richards, who had based his public image on being a bad boy of rock. Quite the opposite. Boy George was the harmless, lovable windup doll of pop, a cartoonlike fantasy figure who could sing like a white Smokey Robinson and trade glib one-liners with Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson. He always had time to sign autographs for his fans and to answer their letters. He once said he preferred a cup of tea to sex. And he was outspoken in his disgust with drug use of any kind. He considered drugs to be stupid and a sign of weakness. He was the pop star whom everyone from your grandmother to your little sister could like.

In the early days of Culture Club, Boy George – whose real name is George O'Dowd – didn't smoke or use drugs; for him to drink more than one beer was unusual. He laid down the law about drugs and Culture Club: the two were simply not compatible. During a 1984 tour of Japan, bassist Mikey Craig was worried as he smoked some hash with a journalist, afraid that George might hear them giggling and realize they were breaking the band's rules.

In many ways, George's story is sadly familiar. A young boy from a working-class English family becomes, at the age of twenty-two, an international superstar. Overnight, he's rich and famous. The next three years are an accelerating whirlwind of activity, as more than 10 million records are sold around the world.

Then things begin to go wrong. In George's case, the trouble began in late 1984, after the release of Culture Club's third album, the mediocre Waking Up with the House on Fire. The public, seduced by new stars like Madonna and Wham!, gave the LP a cool reception. Culture Club's first two albums had yielded seven Top Ten hits in the U.S., but just one song from me third LP made it into the Top Twenty. And despite an elaborate million-dollar stage production, the group's world tour was also a disappointment.

When the tour was over, the members of Culture Club realized it was time for a long vacation. Manager Tony Gordon moved to Spain, spending a year there as a tax exile. Guitarist Roy Hay spent time in well, while Mikey Craig sojourned in France. Only drummer Jon Moss – George's longtime friend and lover – remained in London.

But George and Jon were drifting apart, a situation only exacerbated when George took up residence in New York with Marilyn, a transvestite and would-be pop star who had changed his name from Peter Robinson. And Boy George was also becoming bored with Boy George. For three years, he had lived and breathed Culture Club. His every waking hour had been spent working. He designed his clothes, his record covers, his image. He co-wrote the songs and hung out in the studio through-out the recording of the first two albums. He did hundreds of interviews, as well as numerous photo sessions and TV appearances. He starred in Culture Club videos and toured the world. It had all taken its toll.

"He became his own worst enemy", said Steve Levine, 28, the producer of Culture Club's first three albums. "At that time George's mouth was extremely big. I remember watching him on Johnny Carson, the second time he was on, and I just thought, 'The vibe's gone.' He wasn't interesting anymore."

"Basically, he was Boy George for three years," said Fat Tony. "Now he just wanted to have a good time and do what everyone else was doing. It was like 'Forget the bloke [Jon Moss], forget everything.' "

Separated from both his family, who were all living in England, and his band, Boy George became, as one acquaintance put it, a "party boy." "Although it's well known that George is homosexual, he wasn't camp," said Levine. "He wasn't a queen. But he began to hang around with a very camp set of people, who are also known for taking drugs. People who live life to excess. George is very much a sponge; he absorbs people's personalities. So when he gets in with wrong crowds – i.e., people who take drugs – then he just would do that. That was the beginning of the end in terms of the downward slide."

***

THE FIRST TIME GEORGE'S FRIENDS HEARD ABOUT THE pop star's drug use was in late June of 1985, when Philip Sallon – a flashy, staunchly antidrug friend of George's who runs London's trendy Mud Club – returned from a week in New York. Sallon had gone there to help George celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday. A party was held at Area, a popular New York nightspot, and George and his entourage greeted people from a bed set up in the club.

"George is really getting into drugs in New York," a disturbed Sallon told his friends upon his return to London. In fact, George was snorting cocaine, doing ecstasy and drinking. He was also smoking cigarettes and marijuana.

According to David O'Dowd, Marilyn had helped introduce George to drugs during a visit to Jamaica in 1982, but the singer didn't go beyond a bit of curious experimentation at that point. George's friends claim that Marilyn – who could not be contacted for this story – had used drugs for many years. "Marilyn is, well, he's just not very human," said Jane, a sixteen-year-old friend of George's who lived with the singer in his New York co-op at the end of last year. (She asked that her surname not be revealed.) "If he wants something from you, he'll just charm it out of you. He goes, 'Oh, come on, we're best friends, and it's such fun. Come on, let's go buy some drugs.' He's so charming you think that you just want to be loved by him, because he acts like he's got so much to give, and that's why I believe that he did that to George."

Living in Manhattan – far from the more stabilizing influence of his band mates, family, manager and record company – didn't help George either. Throughout the summer, he could be found hanging out at clubs like Area and the Palladium and at an after-hours place called Paradise Garage.

For a time, George busied himself with trying to get Marilyn a record deal, producing a version of the old Norman Greenbaum hit "Spirit in the Sky" for him. He flew to London to attend Live Aid, though he didn't perform. As preparations for Culture Club's fourth album got under way, George was bouncing back and forth between London and New York. In September, Fat Tony saw George taking "the odd toke" of pot at a London photo session. Later that month, back in Manhattan, a journalist was in one of the stalls in the bathroom at Area when George and Marilyn entered an adjoining stall; according to the writer, they "were certainly snorting something or other."

In October, Culture Club was in Montreux, Switzerland, recording most of its fourth album, the appropriately tided From Luxury to Heartache. David O'Dowd claims his brother was using cocaine during the recording sessions, but Arif Mardin, the album's producer, said he was unaware of any drug use. Mardin, however, did admit that George flew back to London a couple of times and was not always around when it was time for him to record his vocals. "We all assumed it was a lot of partying," said Mardin. "Because when he was back [from London], it was business as usual. We are used to working with a lot of prima donnas, so if a man is late, we say, 'Fine, we'll do the guitar first' This is not a military operation."

When his work on the album was done, George returned to New York and began to party with a vengeance. From mid-November through late December, George and a group of his friends – including Marilyn, Fat Tony and Jane – were living in his two-bedroom co-op, just down the hall from the co-op owned by Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Marilyn had taken over one of the bedrooms, covering it, as Jane put it, "from floor to ceiling in gay porno magazines." George occupied the other bedroom, sharing it with a string of gay lovers. The rest crashed on couches in the living room. "George has a double bed, and one night we had five of us in the double bed," said Jane. "It was really silly. We were pretending to be animals and things."

At the time, the apartment was painted in pastels – pale peach and pink – and photo-realist paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and James Dean, as well as an immense collage of Madonna, decorated the walls. There was a Jacuzzi in George's marble bathroom and, of course, video equipment and a stereo in the enormous living room. A box of marijuana sat on the coffee table. "There were people coming around and selling grass all the time," said Jane. "I saw a lot of drugs."

"You know, George never wants to be left out, really," said Fat Tony. "If everyone else was taking drugs, he'd sort of have to take them. When you come down to it, everyone had their finger in the pie – they got into drugs. Everyone's been a very bad influence, I think. No one is to actually blame. The only person to blame is George, but everyone lent a helping hand."

By November, George had graduated from cocaine to heroin, which he was using on a fairly regular basis. On one occasion, he acquired some "really synthetic smack," according to Jane, and became violently ill. For several days he was so sick he couldn't leave his bed. Once he recovered, though, he started smoking and snorting the drug. He apparently never used a needle. "He's never injected, ever," said Fat Tony. "When someone thinks of a junkie, they always think straight away of a syringe. That's got nothing to do with it. Snort it, burn it, whatever, it's all the same thing. I don't think he understood whatsoever how heavy a sort of a hold it would get on him. At that point he thought he could stop it at any time."

In reality, things were zooming out of control. George and his friends would sleep all day, often rising at four or five in the afternoon for a night of parrying. One night, a soused John Taylor wandered into George's living room and proceeded to have a battle of the bands with the Culture Club singer. George played a new Culture Club song, then Taylor played something of his own; George popped a video into the VCR, then Taylor retaliated with a clip of his own. "They were having this real ego fight," recalled Fat Tony. "It was like 'Yeah, listen to this track.' 'No, listen to mine.' This was going on all night . . ."

The two pop stars' fun and games came to a sudden halt when Marilyn sneaked behind the TV and slipped an explicit gay porn video into the VCR. "George went bright red and started screaming at Marilyn," said Jane. "And when John Taylor left, George just really got mad at Marilyn, saying, 'You've embarrassed me in front of John Taylor.' "

One night George went to dine at Trader Vic's, the posh restaurant located in the Plaza Hotel. "He nodded off," said Fat Tony. "I went to the toilet, and when I came out, this woman said, 'Oh, I just saw Boy George falling asleep in his snowball' – they do this coconut-ice-cream thing that they call a snowball. When I got back to the table, he was sort of slouched. There were different people nodding off. I just kept kicking everyone: 'Wake up, wake up.' I'd wake him up and he'd scream, 'I'm not asleep, shut up.' It was funny."

George and his friends would often go out on shopping binges: once he and Fat Tony bought sixty-eight pairs of Calvin Klein underpants and about forty undershirts; another time, George spent around $1000 on a Yohji Yamomato designer suit for a casual acquaintance. In the early morning hours, after the nightly forays into club land, George and the gang would stop at a twenty-four-hour supermarket and load up on sweets, spending $300 without blinking an eye. Tubs of Haagen-Dazs ice cream filled the co-op's freezer.

The drugs were now openly affecting George's personality. Out on the street, the once-gracious pop star had turned ugly. "He used to be so sweet," said Jane. "Now he would just be so rude. These poor girls would go, 'Hey, are you Boy George?' and he'd just go, 'Oh, piss off, piss off.' "

In late December, George returned to London, where he still maintained two houses. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, he held a party at his Hampstead home. For a while, he was in good spirits. Then one of his friends arrived with a present: some smack. The drug caused George's mood to turn foul. "Me and Tony and Marilyn just left and went out," said Jane. Later that evening, they ran into George at a London club, where, according to Jane, things erupted into a screaming match. "Tony stood up to him and told him he was stupid. George said, 'I'm never talking to any of you again. You just left me and didn't say goodbye.' "

The following month, George and the rest of Culture Club went to Los Angeles for three weeks to film an episode of The A-Team. With the support of the band, George stopped using heroin for the duration of the project; David O'Dowd says a doctor prescribed Valium to help George deal with his problems. But as soon as the filming was completed, George joined Marilyn in New York, and by the time he had returned to London, twelve days later, he was using smack again. Shortly thereafter, George and Marilyn – whose relationship was always stormy – had a falling out, and George stopped seeing him. "George was going in and out of the stage where he hated the fact of what he was doing," said David O'Dowd. "He was saying how degraded he felt. But every time he cried for help – and he did – someone gave him some more before the family or anyone who cared about him got there."

In April, George traveled to Jamaica for a two-week vacation. "He was very sick, he was looking ill and asking for help," said David. "He knew he didn't want to be on it [heroin], but he was on it."

Upon his return to London, George continued to sink deeper and deeper into drug addiction. At times, he was spending an estimated 500 pounds ($750) a day on drugs, food and gifts for himself and those who were keeping him company. "I remember he used to get really frightening," said Jane. "He used to have this laugh, this really evil cackle that would really frighten the hell out of me He used to think he was being really nice to someone, and then you'd suddenly notice this really evil cackle. He was just becoming totally twisted."

***

FOR MONTHS, JOHN BLAKE, THE POP-MUSIC GOSSIP columnist for the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, had been hearing rumors about Boy George's drug problems. Sometime after the first of the year, Blake, in an effort to get the story, apparently put out a contract of sorts on Boy George. Fat Tony said he was approached by one of Blake's assistants, who offered him 60,000 pounds ($90,000) for an airtight story confirming George's habit. Blake denied he was willing to pay that price, but he did admit that such an explosive story is worth a great deal on Fleet Street. Soon, all of England's sensationalist tabloids – any one of which makes the New York Post seem intelligent, the National Enquirer appear levelheaded and reasonable – reportedly had their checkbooks open, offering similar rewards to any of George's friends who would talk.

Finally David Levine – the brother of producer Steve Levine – took the bait. "I'm the one person in the world who can be blamed for all this," said the twenty-six-year-old photographer, " 'cause I went first." Levine's reasons for speaking out remain unclear. In one interview with ROLLING STONE, Levine – who had done numerous photo sessions with George and the band over the years – seemed extremely bitter about what he considered lack of proper compensation for his work. He later said, however, that his sole motivation was concern for Boy George.

According to a source at the Daily Mirror, the newspaper paid Levine about 14,000 pounds ($21,000) for his story. Working with Daily Mirror reporters, Levine set about gathering the evidence needed to buttress his first-person observations about George's drug use. At one point, he called his brother and pumped him for information concerning George. "It was in June," Steve Levine said, "just after my birthday, and my brother phoned me up and said, 'Oh, I'm really sorry I missed your birthday,' " Steve Levine recalled. "He said, 'I booked this photo session with George the other day, and it was really bad because he was untogether. He was a day late for the session, and there were drugs there. What do you know?' I said, 'I don't really know anything,' 'cause I hadn't seen George for ages. It was like a very casual conversation. . . . That was it."

The next morning, two reporters from the Daily Mirror showed up at Steve Levine's London recording studio and started asking about Boy George. Levine said he didn't know anything. "We have reason to believe that you do know," Levine recalled one of the reporters saying. "You spoke to your brother yesterday, and we tape-recorded the conversation." David Levine denies tape-recording his brother.

As it was originally written, David Levine's expose revealed Boy George's heroin problem. Blake claims he spoke with George shortly before the story was to run. "George came on the phone screaming," Blake said. "He was screaming, 'Anyway I don't care. I'm fab, I'm happy, and I get fucked every night' He was funny."

But the story that appeared on June 10th, with a three-inch headline proclaiming, DRUGS AND BOY GEORGE, didn't mention heroin. Instead, the Daily Mirror reported that George turned up late for a photo session with Levine and then borrowed money to buy cocaine. The Mirror's attorneys had gotten cold feet at the eleventh hour.

George breathed a sigh of relief; he thought that the worst was over and that his habit wouldn't be revealed. And he continued to use drugs.

His family, of course, knew about George's problem. One brother, Kevin, had even bought drugs for George. "If Kevin was near to George, then at least we [the family] had one foot in the door," said David O'Dowd. "He was there. If none of us was around, no one could help him. He was more or less an ally. He was there for a reason."

George's mother had another approach to helping George get straight. She would come out to George's St John's Wood house and go through her son's drawers, throwing away any drugs she could find.

Concerned that George was doing nothing to end his drug addiction, David O'Dowd gave an interview to The Sun, another British tabloid. The story, headlined JUNKIE GEORGE HAS 8 WEEKS TO LIVE, appeared on July 3rd and revealed for the first time that George was addicted to heroin. David hoped the publicity would force George to seek a cure. "I saw my parents on several occasions actually crying their hearts out," David said. "They couldn't understand why their son, who used to be a really fun-loving, happy guy, had just dropped to the depths. He had become dependent on it; it wasn't a giggle anymore. Within a couple of hours of getting out of bed, he would be going mad to get some of this stuff. Seeing the parents like that, I thought, 'Well, I'll end it now. He can do one of two things: carry on until he's dead and everyone starts calling him a rock legend, or for a very short while get hounded and hounded and hounded by the press until he absolutely admits it to himself.

"George called me the day the story came out," David added. "He said, 'You sold me.' He said some really nasty things like 'That's it, I'll never speak to you again.' But the thing was, though it was upsetting at the time, I still knew I was talking to a drug addict."

From there the pace of events picked up considerably. George, sitting for a News at Ten television interview the night the Sun story ran, denied he had a drug problem. The next day, all of the tabloids began running daily front-page stories on the singer's DRUG AGONY.

On Tuesday, July 8th, the London police staged raids at five locations around the city, including George's St John's Wood house, where they reportedly gained entrance by smashing the front door with a sledgehammer. George was not there – according to David O'Dowd, he was hiding at the apartment of Helen Terry, Culture Club's former backup singer. The police were able to round up several of George's associates. Marilyn was released on bail after being charged with possession of heroin; Kevin O'Dowd and three others were ordered held on charges of conspiring to supply George with heroin. Jon Moss, Philip Sallon and Helen Terry were also brought in for questioning, then released.

On Friday, Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Records, revealed that George had phoned him the previous Sunday and "broke down about the drugs he had been taking." Branson said that he had taken the singer to see Dr. Meg Patterson, the Scottish surgeon who had previously helped Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards kick drugs through the use of NeuroElectic Therapy, a technique that involves the use of a black box that stimulates the body with small doses of electricity. "Sadly, he experimented with heroin," Branson told the British music magazine Melody Maker, "and the problem is you've only got to experiment once with that and there is a danger that you can't stop. It had a negative effect on him, not just physically but mentally, and he realised that he was becoming a fairly negative individual as a result, and completely out of control, which is the effect of that drug."

On July 12th, George was arrested at the private nursing home where he was receiving treatment. After more than eight hours of questioning by the police, he was charged with being in possession of an unspecified amount of heroin in the Greater London area on or before July 7th, 1986. He was then released on bail.

Because of the charges, George's lawyers advised him not to talk to ROLLING STONE about his addiction at this time.

***

CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT ON SATURDAY, JULY 19TH, ALMOST two weeks after George had begun receiving treatments to kick his habit, he walked into the Wag Club, another trendy London hangout Fat Tony was the night's DJ, and he sensed that this was a very different George from the man who, on Boxing Day, had screamed, "Fuck, I'm not speaking to you again."

Word was already out among George's friends that the old Boy George was back. He had rung up Steve Levine and arranged to come into the studio to do some recording. "Listening to him on Tuesday, I would say that it's more than passed and he's looking forward to working," said Levine. "That's the sort of thing that's better than any doctor's prescription. I would say the future looks extremely rosy."

At the Wag Club, George was all dressed up. His face was perfectly made up, he had a white baseball cap atop his head, and every article of his clothing – his shirt, pants and leg warmers – had BOY inscribed on it. He looked every inch the healthy pop star as he danced to Gwen Guthrie's "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On but the Rent." At one point, George wandered over to the DJ booth. "So how are you?" asked Tony.

"I'm fine," said Boy George. "I'm doing really, really good."