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Mr. Clean: Boy George Straightens Up His Act

The pop star opens up about addiction, loss, heartache and the end of Culture Club

Boy George

Boy George in 1987.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

As Boy George sits on the couch in his neo-Gothic mansion, in London’s exclusive Hampstead section, baring his soul about his recent drug problems, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s trying to pull of some kind of con. Sipping tea, and smoking cigarette after cigarette, George spends hours detailing his sins — not the least of which was a year and-a-half-long addiction to heroin — in a kind of media confessional.

”Most people think I’m obsessed with headlines, and they’re probably right,” he says. ”People think of you as a sort of publicity monger. I do like publicity, and I like the way you can create illusions about yourself through publicity. But also it can be brutally true as well. I know all sides of it now.”

This much must be said for the Boy; he’s always been good copy: his arrest and conviction for possession of heroin; a three-gram-a-day habit; a subsequent prescription-drug habit that found him abusing metha-done and gobbling legally prescribed narcotics and sedatives by the handfuls; the ”traumatic” court appearances and the incessant hounding by England’s ravenous tabloid press; a $44 million lawsuit by the parents of a friend, musician Michael Rudetsky, charging that George contributed to their son’s death.

It was on the floor of this very sitting room that Rudetsky, 27, died of a heroin overdose in August 1986. Another flamboyant friend, Trojan, who is the subject of the song ”Little Ghost” on George’s solo LP, Sold, also died of a drug overdose. And methadone took the life of George’s good friend Mark Golding, 20, this past December. As George recounts how Golding downed nearly a whole liter bottle of methadone and nodded off for the last time, he becomes silent, stares down at the carpet and strains to hold back the tears.

”I went hysterical,” he says, pulling himself together after a long minute has passed, reaching for another cigarette. ”That was the last straw. When Mark died, I thought, ‘It’s gonna be me if I don’t stop.’ ”

How frank he’s being now is anyone’s guess. Earlier this year the London Sunday Times magazine reported that between late August 1986 and the end of that year — a time when George claimed to be drug free — he took not only Valium but also heroin. Yet in this interview, George insists that he was only abusing prescription drugs during that time. In June, during a Good Morning America interview, he denied that he was still receiving treatment for his drug problem. But, in fact, during that period he was under the care of his personal physician, Dr. Victor Bloom, and seeing a psychoanalyst several times a week.

But when he talks about Rudetsky’s death, George seems sincere, even if part of what upsets him about the incident is that his friend didn’t have the good grace to die somewhere else.

”I was almost suicidal when I found out,” George says of Rudetsky’s overdose. ”As far as I was concerned, that was the end of my complete existence. It wouldn’t have been bad if it had happened in a hotel, but it was in my house. I really just wanted to jump out of the window.”

This public confession and verbal repentance is being made for at least one obvious reason: Boy George is trying to breathe some life into his career. In Europe, he’s still a bankable star. His first solo single, a reggae version of Bread’s romantic 1972 hit ”Everything I Own, ” released this past March, went Number One in England and was in the Top Ten throughout Europe. Subsequent singles and the album haven’t fared so well.

But America is more problematic, and George wants desperately to change his image here. Sold, though critically well received, only rose to Number 145 on Billboard‘s album chart before plummeting to Number 193 three weeks later; the single didn’t even make the Hot 100. ”His image is such — because of the drug thing and the fact that he’s gay — that radio didn’t even want to hear the record, let alone play it,” says a source at George’s label, Virgin Records. ”It’s been like hitting into a stone wall.”

On top of that, George can’t enter the U.S. — his visa has been revoked due to the heroin conviction — to promote the record with a tour (he’s in the process of putting a band together and plans to tour Europe beginning this November), inperson interviews or TV appearances. As Boy George is learning, it’s a hell of a lot easier to blow your career to pieces than to make a comeback. ”There’s a lot that’s against me in America at the moment,” he says. ”Even now, people are more interested in drugs than they are in my album. It’s a struggle, more than anything. It’s like starting over.”

With America out of the question for the moment, George is busy flogging his album and career throughout Europe. On a Tuesday morning in July, he begins a two-day promotional junket that will take him to Italy and Belgium by private jet to meet with reporters and lip-sync his new songs on TV shows.

George arrives at the airport toting an immense wooden makeup box, looking nothing like the infamous sweet transvestite pictured on the cover of Culture Club’s two international hit albums, Kissing to Be Clever and Colour by Numbers. He is practically unrecognizable. His hair is stuffed underneath a white baseball cap with BOY written above the brim. His face, hidden behind oversize rectangular shades, is unshaven and free of makeup. Standing at six feet one, he’s a little on the pudgy side. But when he removes the shades, his blue-green eyes are clear and bright . He’s alert and his tongue quick, delivering scandalous one-liners, off-color jokes and the occasional sarcastic jab, many aimed at himself, with ease. At one point he imitates Joan Rivers. ”She does a lot of Boy George jokes,” he says. ”I love Joan. I saw her in Las Vegas. She goes, ‘Of course Michael Jackson is gay. He lost his other white glove down Boy George’s pants.’ ” As George cracks up, his manager, Tony Gordon, a short, plump character who’s been around England’s music scene since the Sixties, says, apropos of nothing, ”You know, George is huge in Italy.”

”I’m huge everywhere,” says George, obviously self-conscious about his weight. ”We’ll put you at the rear of the plane for ballast, Tony.”

The manager grins. ”Little wit. Isn’t he a little wit?”

It was almost like being Elvis Presley,” says George. ”I locked myself away in my house. I wouldn’t answer phone calls. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that. I couldn’t get up without being high. I couldn’t face the world without being high.”

George is seated on a couch in his suite at La Bulesca, a fancy hotel in Rubano, a small Italian town an hour inland from Venice. He’s trying to talk about ”the drug thing” — which he will do, off and on, for four days — but says, ”It’s difficult to explain to anyone. I’ll do my best.”

George began using drugs in 1984 — after the recording of Waking Up with the House on Fire, Culture Club’s third album — when he became fed up with the responsibilities of pop stardom. ”It felt like we were doing it for money,” he says. ”It seemed like having a job, like clocking in. I got bored. When I get bored, I get very destructive.”

Though he had smoked grass and dropped speed as a teenager, he was outspokenly opposed to drugs when he started Culture Club. But by late 1984, he was running with a fast crowd that, according to his former producer Steve Levine, was ”known for taking drugs.”

Cocaine, ecstasy and grass were the initial drugs of choice. Then, while in Paris, he tried some heroin given to him as a gift by a photographer friend. He snorted it, but instead of getting high, he fell asleep.

The breakup with his longtime lover, Culture Club drummer Jon Moss (who began seeing women behind George’s back), precipitated a more serious interest in drugs. It was one way of avoiding the emotional trauma of the split. George flew to New York and joined noted cross-dresser and pop-star wanna-be Marilyn and a group of George’s friends, who had already taken up residence in New York at George’s luxurious two-bedroom co-op on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He dived headlong into a hazy, hedonistic life of clubbing and drugging. ”I was freebasing and snorting coke with Marilyn,” says George. ”Michael Rudetsky was also taking coke with us. We took it all the time together. I remember going to this club, Paradise Garage, and there was a friend of ours there who always used to give us coke, and I remember him saying, ‘I don’t take that anymore. I take smack now.’ And he gave me some. I remember vomiting when I left the club. Then it started.’

George confirms that the tales of his excessive, junked-out life told by his friends and associates last year — the $750-a-day spending sprees on drugs and his friends — were true. But he blames others — at least partially — for those excesses. ”Marilyn really took advantage of me,” he says. ”Clothing, shoes. Going somewhere on an airplane. He really, really milked me. And I was a fool for letting him do it.”

In New York, away from his family, his manager and his band, George had no one to bring him back down to earth. And George claims that when he saw the other guys in Culture Club, during recording sessions in Montreux for From Luxury to Heartache that October, they did little to help him face the problem. He says that Jon Moss confronted him about it, but George just brushed his former lover’s concerns aside. ”Jon used to go on at me, but I just told him to fuck off.”

He returned to London in December. That’s when his family and his manager discovered the state George was in, but they didn’t know what to do. George was impossible to deal with, holed up at his home in St. John’s Wood with a circle of what he now calls ”real scumbags, the lowest of the low,” addicts and drug dealers leeching money, drugs and possessions off the pop star, who was at times so incapacitated that he hardly stirred from his bed. ”I remember going to the house occasionally when George was really ill,” says Tony Gordon, who was only willing to speak on the record in George’s presence, ”and the whole pace of life was slowed down. It was almost like watching a movie that was at the wrong speed. It was awful to see. It was like a dance of death.”

George’s brother Kevin acted as a spy for the rest of the family, ”working internally,” hanging out with George, occasionally even helping him obtain drugs so that George would let him remain in the house while feeding information about the situation to their parents. For the most part, George refused to see his father and mother.

A showdown of sorts occurred when George’s father, Gerry O’Dowd, showed up at the house one day. He rang the doorbell; there was no answer. Worried, he let himself in with the key he had. Even in the darkness he could see the place was ”a mess.” Upstairs, George’s bedroom was empty, but one of the two bathrooms was locked; George was inside, sick. Through the bathroom door, he shouted to his dad, ”If I want to kill myself, it’s none of your business.”

Gerry O’Dowd decided ”to cause a scene.” Stuffing paper into a small trash can, he placed it outside the bathroom door and set it ablaze. ”I said, ‘If you really want to die, I’ll help you. I’ve set fire to the place, and now I’m going.’ Naturally it brought a reaction; George immediately came out. I was waiting for him and said, ‘See, you don’t want to die!”

Still, it wasn’t until George’s brother David finally confessed to The Sun about George’s habit (JUNKIE GEORGE HAS 8 WEEKS TO LIVE), hoping the publicity would bring George to his senses and cause him to seek help, that George finally took steps to help himself. George had previously ignored an offer of help from Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Records (he now says he never got Branson’s letter), but at the beginning of July, he realized it was time to reach out. Branson drove George, George’s boyfriend Michael Donalan and Dr. Meg Patterson — whose 3000-pound ($5100), ten-day ”black box” treatment had helped addicts like Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton clean up — out to Branson’s estate in Oxfordshire. It was there that George went through NeuroElectric Therapy, a technique that involves the use of a black box that stimulates the body with small doses of electricity.

But the treatment created new problems. ”Physically I was a wreck,” George says. ”I was in a worse state through July and August than when I was on heroin. There was no after-care [following the black-box treatment]. That’s how it works. You’re on your own. And what I realize to this day, having come off all the pills and everything — the methadone — you need after-care. [Without it] there’s no way you can survive. You just become like a mad person.”

George now says he simply exchanged heroin for a grab bag of narcotics — including methadone, Temazepam, rohipnol, Valium and sleeping pills — prescribed by a doctor of clearly questionable ethics. ”The first time he saw me, he was quite pleased,” says George. ”He obviously knew I’d be a good customer.”

But to the world, he was once again drug free. He told England’s Blitz magazine, during an August 3rd, 1986, interview, that he was ”out of” his ”heroin habit.” A day later he told another interviewer that drugs are ”not tempting to me at all.”

Meanwhile, with the dismal failure of From Luxury to Heartache, George’s estrangement from Jon Moss and his addiction, it was inevitable that Culture Club would disband. George decided to start work on a solo record with music-industry veteran Stewart Levine, who had recently produced Simply Red’s smash debut album. To assist George with the songwriting, Virgin arranged for keyboardist Michael Rudetsky, who had collaborated with Culture Club in writing ”Sexuality” (a song on From Luxury to Heartache), to be flown to London. Rudetsky was an unfortunate choice, since George now claims that the two of them had frequently used cocaine together the previous year.

On October 6th, 1986, at the coroner’s inquest into Rudetsky’s death, George claimed, under oath, that he was unaware that Rudetsky used drugs while in England. He has since changed his story.

George now says that when Rudetsky arrived in London on Monday, August 4th, he immediately began hitting up George and his friends for cocaine. ”I told Michael that I couldn’t help him,” George says. ”That there was no way I could get him cocaine. As far as I was concerned, if he wanted it, he’d have to get it himself.”

George was high on prescription drugs during Rudetsky’s stay. He now admits that he knew his friend was using heroin at the Hampstead house, a situation that was so upsetting to Michael Donalan that after arguing loudly with George about drugs that afternoon, he stomped out of the house. According to George, Rudetsky used heroin that night, and the next morning was discovered ”vomiting all over the kitchen floor” by Bonnie Lippel, George’s personal assistant.

That night (August 5th) they went to Gaslight Rehearsal Studios in London to work on songs. Rudetsky took a lot of time setting up his equipment; at one point George and Lippel left to get fish and chips. After they returned, Rudetsky nodded out as he sat before his Fairlight synthesizer. (Heroin was later found on a makeup table in the studio; George says heroin was also found on the keyboard.) ”I got very, very scared,” George says during another interview, this one in the sitting room of his Hampstead house. ”I threw orange juice on him, and he woke up, and he was all right. I got very unhappy. I just felt like I didn’t deserve it. Things just got worse. I kept going out of the room and talking to Bonnie. I said, ‘He’s obviously taken something.’ “

At about 11:00 p.m., George and Lippel loaded Rudetsky into the car and drove to the Hampstead house. ”We got back here, and I sat him on that chair there.” He points across the room. ”I remember saying to Michael, ‘I think you should go to the hospital,’ and he just didn’t want to go. And Kevin was here, and Kevin was saying to me, ‘If he doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t have to go.’ “

In fact, George admits that he wasn’t too concerned about Rudetsky’s condition. Rudetsky was worried about what might happen if they went to the hospital and it was determined that he was on drugs.

Recounting what happened that night, George is visibly upset; his voice is shaky; his breathing short. ”He was nodding off, on and off,” he says. ”But I’d been in worse situations. I just didn’t think anything was going to happen. I thought he was fine…. I remember saying to Bonnie, ‘This is going to be my fault. Everything is going to be blamed on me.’ “

At about 12:15 a.m. George, Lippel and Kevin left the house, leaving Rudetsky unattended. Kevin dropped them off at George’s house in St. John’s Wood and headed for Limelight, a London nightclub, where he proceeded to get drunk. He returned to the Hampstead house at about 5:00 a.m. According to his testimony at the coroner’s inquest, ”Michael Rudetsky was laying roughly four feet inside the door [of the sitting room], face down, his legs crossed…. I leant over and I grabbed his arm, his left arm and pulled him. As I pulled him up he turned over and I realized he was cold and I just let go…. I knew he was dead.”

At the British coroner’s inquest last October, George was found not guilty of contributing in any way to Rudetsky’s death. ”Death by misadventure” was the coroner’s verdict. Still, on November 5th, the parents of Michael Rudetsky filed a $44 million lawsuit charging that George ”participated in decedent being injected with a lethal quantity of heroin” and accusing George of ”wanton criminal conduct, negligence, recklessness and carelessness.” A trial date has not yet been set.

A month and a half later — in late December — Mark Golding, another of George’s close friends from the club scene, died of a methadone overdose. George insists that Golding’s deaui was the turning point for him. ”Someone called and said, ‘Mark’s dead,’ ”said George. ”I started crying and shouting, ‘It can’t be true, it can’t be true,’ I cried for hours and hours and hours. My family was saying, ‘You can’t waste his life. You have to be strong.’ I said, ‘Okay, I will stop.’ “

Under the supervision of his London physician, Dr. Victor Bloom, George apparently went cold turkey a few days before last Christmas. ”He was in minute-by-minute pain when he was coming off,” says Gordon. ”He had palpitations, chest pains, every kind of pain, I understand from the doctors that heroin acts as an effective painkiller. I remember one day George telling me that he felt like he was being electrocuted by all these different pinpricks all over his body. These were his nerve endings; the real daily pains coming back.”

George still needs pills to get to sleep at night and takes Orap, a ”mood regulator,” during the day, both carefully monitored by Dr. Bloom. And to help him relax and stay clean, just after Christmas (at his doctor’s suggestion), George began Buddhist chanting, each day spending an hour or so repeating ”Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” the mantra of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. ”I learned from Buddhism that if you do bad things, you have bad karma,” says George. ”I was miserable, and I was attracting misery and pain.”

The gate to George’s Hampstead house is buzzed open. The house lies at the end of a path that borders an immaculate Japanese garden, complete with running stream. Bonnie Lippel opens the door. She is wearing a T-shirt that reads, LEAVE THE BOY ALONE.

Inside the house — decorated in a kind of pop-art-meets-old-money style — Lippel leads the way past a huge glass case filled with Japanese Kabuki dolls and a wall full of photo-realist paintings, gold and platinum records, religious icons and the occasional photo of a male body. There is a framed front page from the Daily Mirror with the headline ”WHAT A RAT! I WILL DESTROY BOY GEORGE FOR $10,000″ SAYS ‘PAL’ MARILYN. George is waiting in the sitting room, which also serves as his music room. On a bookshelf rests an immense coffee-table volume entitled The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour.

As he lights yet another cigarette, the late-morning light coming through huge bay windows that look out on his rear garden, he is asked how, in light of his previous lies to the media, he can now be trusted. For a moment his face reflects discomfort. Then, in his most sincere, slightly exasperated, just-short-of-cracking voice, George says, ”I think I’ve been as honest as I can be with you. You’ve been around, you’ve seen what I’m like. I’m not playacting. My life is not a floor show for you.”

In This Article: Boy George, Coverwall, Culture Club, Drugs

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