Boy George lounges on a comfy love seat in the bar of New York's posh Soho Grand Hotel, chatting in the Saturday afternoon winter sunlight, as the DJ spins Lorde's "Royals." All the chic people in this room have undoubtedly heard of Boy George – but nobody notices the Boy himself is right here. With his new beard and a discreet wool hat, the Culture Club star could pass for an ordinary guy – one thing he's never been accused of being. "I've learned to slip by unnoticed," he says proudly. "On the street, on the train – I pull my hat down and nobody knows it's me. I always wanted the kind of fame that came with an off button."
The fact that Boy George is sitting anywhere at all is an achievement in itself, after all his gaudy highs and lows in the public eye: growing up in London as the self-proclaimed pink sheep of his working-class Irish-Catholic family; global fame as the 1980s' prettiest pop star, prancing in makeup on MTV to sing hits like "Karma Chameleon"; long-running success as a club DJ. Then his drug meltdowns in the 2000s, complete with prison time. And now his unlikely rebirth at 52, complete with his first album of new songs in 18 years.
"A lot of people wrote me off over the past 10 years," George says, laughing merrily. "I can't blame them – I would have written me off too, after all those car crashes I put myself through. 'Oooh, there's no way back from that little disaster.' But I've always had an insanely optimistic streak, the part of me that says, 'Things can't stay as bad as they are now.' It might be an Irish thing, I don't know."
Yet through all his nightmares, music kept him going: "I was always good at music. The one thing in my life I was spectacularly bad at was being a drug addict."
These days George is a very different Boy than he used to be. He got sober for good in 2008. He looks 10 years younger than he did a decade ago – working out, keeping to a mostly raw vegan diet, practicing Nichiren Buddhism. He's a more imposing physical presence than you might expect, tall and buff – he's new to this whole fitness thing, but it agrees with him. In his toxic downward-spiral days, George's larger-than-life stature made him a legendarily intimidating figure with a nasty stare – if you saw him in a New York club, you knew better than to smile or say hi. But now he's all warmth, punctuating his words with hearty laughter. "When I was in the midst of all my chaos, I became quite maudlin and negative," he says. "A friend told me, 'Now you have your Irish charm back.'"
Growing up as a David Bowie freak in the 1970s, he started dressing up at a young age. "I was never a wallflower – I put my head on the style chopping block," he says. "At 16, I walked around knowing I'd get chased and attacked for dressing a certain way – I felt I had an undeniable right to be who I wanted to be. My father said to hit them back, but I was never much good at that. So I developed a big mouth instead of a quick right hook."
That big mouth served Boy George well in the Eighties, when his bitchy banter and outrageous frocks made him a tabloid scandal. "I think the rest of Culture Club would have rather been in a rock band," he says. "Certainly, some of the things I made them wear – they'd much rather have been in Bon Jovi or something."
Culture Club rose from the madcap London music scene of the 1980s – a sign of the times was that they shared a rehearsal space with Motörhead. "They were very nice – Lemmy's awesome," George says. "One day I ran into the wrong rehearsal room, bursting with some piece of juicy gossip – and it was Motörhead. I don't know how long I was talking before I noticed. They all looked at me and said, 'Wrong band.' I said, 'Yeah, I think so.'"
George was a flamboyantly gay star back in a time when that just wasn't done – those were the days when even Freddie Mercury was in the closet and Elton John got married to a woman. "In America, they sent out the first single, 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,' without any pictures, because they thought our look would scare people. The first time we played here, on Long Island, as soon as we took the stage, we could hear everybody gasp."
The Boy conquered America, topped by his bizarre appearance on the cheesy action show The A-Team, with Mr. T. "I guess that's an example of how I got it all so wrong I kind of accidentally got it right," George says. "The rest of the band would have rather been on Miami Vice. They were so pissed off. They all said, 'How come Duran Duran were on Miami Vice and we got stuck on The A-Team?'"
It turned out to be the hip-hop scene that fully embraced the Boy. By 1988, he was singing on an album by electro-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, and Roxanne Shante gave him a shout in her old-school rap classic "Go on Girl": "While you were over here perpetrating a fraud/I was overseas on the charts with Boy George." All I have to do is mention Roxanne Shante and George starts rapping those lines. "Oh, believe me, that didn't go over my head," he says with a laugh. "I suppose it means I permeated everywhere."
George kept making headlines in the 2000s, but for the wrong reasons, as drugs destroyed his life. In 2005, he called the NYPD one night at 3 a.m. to report a burglary in his downtown apartment. But when the cops showed up, they found no evidence of a break-in – just 13 bags of cocaine. Drug charges were dropped, but he did community service for falsely reporting an incident. In 2007, back in London, he was arrested again – he handcuffed a Norwegian male escort to a wall fixture after accusing him of stealing photos from his laptop. George served four months for false imprisonment.
"What Justin Bieber's going through now, I can relate," he says. "But I imagine if I tried giving him advice, he'd laugh in my face. As I would have done. Anyone who warned me, 'Son, you know where this is going to end up,' I would have said, 'Oh, fuck off – what do you know?'"
But even if he's gotten serious about his spiritual side, he retains his cheeky London wit: "My mum tells me I'm still Catholic, but that's OK. I'm Catholic in my complications and Buddhist in my aspirations."
His excellent new album, This Is What I Do, is his first since the lost 1995 gem, Cheapness and Beauty. In soulful confessional ballads, George laments the days when he thought "self-destruction was so cool." There's also a fantastic torch-ballad cover of Lana Del Rey's "Video Games." "I love Lana," he says. "I saw her on TV and instantly thought, 'She's so beautiful, she must be terrible.' Which I suppose is why she reminds me of me."
Lately, he's been writing new songs with Culture Club. "We tried to do this a couple of years ago, but my mojo wasn't quite in rhythm." When Culture Club broke up in the late 1980s, the Boy embraced dance culture, where he's worked as a DJ for the past 25 years. "If you ask me about new music I love, I'll rave about Disclosure and Breach and Thomas Schumacher," he says. "But if you ask me who's in the Top 10, I couldn't tell you."
Boy George is glad to leave his self-destructive years behind. Yet he's well-aware he'll always be stuck with his own gigantic personality: "When I met Keith Richards, I asked what Mick Jagger was like, and he said, 'Mick's a nice bunch of guys.' I suppose that applies to me as well – I've been lots of different people in my life. But after all the chaos I went through, I realized Boy George is a nice thing to be. I need to give him a bit of love. And the last six years, that's what I've been doing."
This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.