By George Boy George: Our Exclusive Q&ADate: 13 May 2002
Boy George makes his stage debut this month in his musical Taboo. We mark the occasion with publication of this revealing chat with the man himself including his thoughts on songwriting, drugs, Culture Club, Leigh Bowery, Madonna & the media.
This Question & Answer session, part of Whatsonstage.coms exclusive Group Outing to Taboo, took place on 25 April 2002. At the time, Boy George was preparing to join the cast, making his stage acting debut playing his real-life friend, the late performance artist Leigh Bowery, in the show set in the 1980s London club scene from which Boy George and Culture Club rose to their original fame. Questions (in bold) were fielded from the audience of nearly 250 Whatsonstage.com theatregoers. The following is an edited transcript.
How did the idea for Taboo come about?
BG: I was approached a year and a bit ago by a man called Chris Renshaw (the director) who has worked with Elaine Page and opera. He came to me on a barge on a freezing cold night on the Thames and said, "Do you want to do a musical about your life?" and I said "No!" And then he said "Would you like to do a musical that involves yourself and other characters from the 1980s period?" That excited me much more because - you know, enough about me.
I'm Australian. Any chance Taboo could go to Sydney? I think it'd go down well there.
BG: I'll come anywhere. (Laughs at innuendo) One of the interesting things about Leigh Bowery is that he was Australian and was more famous here than in Australia. I think it's very important that people in Australia recognise the genius and wizardry of Leigh because he was a spectacular character and I'm very proud of what he did. Tonight (in the show) we couldn't really encapsulate every costume that Leigh ever wore. There is a book coming out soon by Fergus Greer (the photographer) that does. Please go and buy it, it's fantastic.
Have any of the people that Taboo is based on, aside from yourself, come to watch it and, if so, what did they think?
BG: Actually, when we started the show I was more worried about the real life people than the critics because I knew that we'd get slagged off by the critics. Characters like Big Sue and Rachel Walker came and were very moved by the show, which is really important to me.
Have you read Steve Strange's autobiography?
BG: No, I've been far too busy, but I look forward to reading it with relish.
When Taboo originally opened, you said that you admired the actors for what they did but you couldn't do it. What changed your mind to take on the role of Leigh?
BG: Oh, I bore easily. I don't know, I was asked and I mulled over it for a while, and I thought fuck it - you know. I thought I was never going to be a DJ and that happened too. I'm not really someone who plans my career; I just kind of wing it, throw the shit at the fan and see what happens. This is my third day of rehearsals and it's been very scary. Learning your lines is one thing, learning your timing and placing is another. It's given me a renewed respect of actors - but one thing I am sure of is that they are all mad. Because once you start learning the role of the character you become consumed and every time you answer the phone you're going "Go away Big Sue..." It really does take over your life, it's quite puzzling to me.
Are there any plans to take Taboo to Broadway?
BG: One can only dream. I think Madonna would be great as Kim. Let's face it, she needs a good show.
Do you have singing lessons?
BG: No, not at all. I sing every day in the bath. I'm releasing a new album in about three months called The Violence of Silence so you'll be able hear my singing voice, and it's very queer and very personal.
Is that new album with Culture Club?
BG: No. We have been working over the last three weeks together, and we are possibly going to do some new recording if we can stand being in the studio with one another. We're kind of a living soap opera - we did three years of touring the world and we got sick of each other, so we've had a break. We've decided that, if what we're doing musically is worth hearing, then we'll make a new record. But the next album I release will be a kind of composite of songs of cheapness and beauty without the frills, very stripped to the bone. And about six or seven new songs.
Coming back to your acting. A lot of us who grew up during the 1980s remember when you starred in an episode of The A Team. Who was your favourite member of The A Team?
BG: I like Mr T and I loved George Peppard, who was very polite. Mr T liked the sound of his own voice, rather like myself, and I liked his jewellery very much. Of all the people that I worked with, though, I think George Peppard was a real gentleman and I'm sad that he is no longer with us, he was a very nice man. They all hated each other - it was like in Culture Club.
Has anyone ever offered you your own make-up range?
BG: No, and I'm disgusted. I've done more for make-up than anyone.
Over your career, what's been your worst and your best press ever?
BG: I guess my worst was "Boy George Has Eight Weeks to Live". My best was being one above Madonna last week in the NME poll. (huge audience applause) Even better was that George Michael wasn't even in the poll. Sorry for being bitchy.
What's given you your biggest rush - playing live in a band, DJ-ing, Taboo or a night of Class A's and hedonism?
BG: I think actually watching Matt Lucas getting made up as Leigh tonight has been my biggest rush this year. He's pretty spectacular.
How do you juggle the many facets of your career?
BG: When I'm doing the show, I'm doing nothing else. After that I'll continue to DJ, sing, cook, play Scrabble, whatever. Sleep around if possible.
I grew up in the 1980s with bands like Culture Club and Duran Duran. To me, those were real pop stars. The groups these days are so manufactured, and big companies seem to have taken over everything. Do you think we'll ever see a return to those kind of 1980s pop stars again?
BG: I think that young people have become really conservative which frightens me. When I was 13, I wanted to take on the world. I always felt like it was me against the whole universe. The record industry has been given a wonderful job of taking care of an art form that was once very precious. Rather than attacking young artists who want to be stars, I think that we should be pointing our venom at the industry because it's not really respecting the thing that it's been given the privileged job of taking care of. So let's kill all record companies!
Given that Culture Club has been such a living soap opera, why do you carry on performing as a group at all?
BG: Why do I carry on? I don't know. To see how bad John Moss looks? No, I'm only joking.
I had the pleasure of seeing you perform at Shepherds Bush Empire a few years ago when you were wearing a newspaper suit. Was there a story behind that suit?
BG: I got a really rude letter saying how disgusting I looked in that. No, there wasn't really a message. It was just me attacking the press attacking me. We have a love-hate relationship, I hate them - they hate me.
You said that the headline about you having eight weeks to live was the worst press you had, but isn't the implication in Taboo that that article kind of saved your life? Is that the way you see it?
BG: No, not at all, because if I had a £800 heroin habit I wouldn't have survived a day never mind eight weeks. It's virtually impossible to take that many drugs in one day I assure you. I'm sure there's plenty of people in the audience who have tried.
Were you involved in casting the actors in Taboo?
BG: I have to take full responsibility for electing Matt Lucas as Leigh Bowery and (director) Chris Renshaw who is English and is mostly in Los Angeles. When we first talked about doing the show, I thought about Matt who I saw in Heaven one night and I thought he was the only person who would do Leigh well. I think I'm very brave stepping into his shoes.
BG: I have to give full credit to my oldest and dearest friend Philip Sallon for casting Euan. Euan was in the workshop (of Taboo) playing Trojan who was originally in the story. And Philip came along with a notepad and a pen - upsetting the director, the writer, all the actors and everyone working on the project - but one of the great things that came out of Philip's appearance there was him saying (about Euan), 'that boy there is you at 19 and should play you'. I started getting fixated on the idea and bob's your uncle. I think he was right.
I have two questions on behalf of Laura Jay Grindy, aged 7. What's your favourite colour and your favourite dinner?
BG: Seven, how gorgeous! My favourite colour is black - very thinning. Being Irish, my favourite food is bread.
I read in The Stage today that Julian Clary might be coming into the show.
BG: I read that too - I was just as surprised! But having said that, I think Julian's a fine comedian. One time I was in Bournemouth and this woman was obsessed that I was him. There was nothing I could do to convince her otherwise, so after half an hour of saying I'm not a comedian, I signed my name Julian Clary and she went away happy.
Is there any truth in it?
BG: That I'm Julian Clary? I'd be more worried if you thought I was Michael Jackson.
Going back to Euan Morton. Is it weird for you to watch him playing you onstage?
BG: No, because I feel very detached from that part of my life and also I think that Euan is his own person in his own right and he has a beautiful voice. I feel as a singer he puts me to shame. But he's a little bit less lived in than I am. I have great respect for him; I watch every night like a proud mother.
Are you still in contact with Marilyn?
BG: Marilyn and I speak probably on a daily basis by text. He came one evening to the show, stayed ten minutes, saw himself, saw me and said 'Who's that?' If he ever comes back again, I'll be very surprised. I may have to go personally and pick him up in a stretch limo, but we'll see.
With the greatest respect to your personal journey, don't you think that the portrayal of drugs in Taboo is a little bit tabloid (ie scaremongering)?
BG: We're a chemically obsessed nation. There are drugs in everything we eat and drink. So I think to embrace chemicals as a culture you can't then turn round and say 'Oh that's bad and that's good.' So what's your point?
I thought the portrayal of drug use was very negative. A lot of young people who are involved in clubbing, enjoy drugs as a positive and harmless thing.
BG: I'm not saying you're not allowed to enjoy them. What I'm saying is what they did to me not what they do to other people. We are all individuals and we all - well, some of us - are informed adults in terms of what we put into our bodies. But you know, there's a saying, 'the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom'. You just have to be careful not to take the wrong turning.
Is your life more orderly now or are you expecting a mid-life crisis at some stage?
BG: I'm trying to think of a perfect response to that. I'll always be a child emotionally. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I say what I feel. If that makes me a child, than that's a good thing.
I'm about to become a dad in October and I was wondering if you'd ever want children?
BG: Erm, no. I have brothers who have children, I love children but giving them back is the best thing in the world.
Would you ever do a follow-on to your 1995 autobiography?
BG: It took me 12 years to write the last one!
The song lyrics in Taboo are very powerful and very very honest. Was it cathartic for you writing them?
BG: One of my favourite songwriters ever is a lady called Joni Mitchell, and I've strived for many years to reach the poetic power that she has. For me, one of the great things about doing Taboo was giving a voice to people that I've grown up with, people that I admire and love - people like Philip Sallon, Leigh Bowery and Marilyn. It was an interesting process thinking, what would they say about themselves? You can't ask them what they'd say because it wouldn't be fair. That's been very exciting, giving people that shared my kind of mad existence a voice. It's been fantastic.
Two questions. One, would you ever pose nude? Two, Will or Gareth (from TV's PopStars)?
BG: I'll answer the second question first - David Beckham. As for the first question. One of the things I admired about Leigh Bowery and I think one of the most important things about him, however bizarre it is, is that during the 1980s when you'd go to gay clubs, all the people would be Muscle Marys that had spent hours in the gym, and then there would be this huge 6'2" fleshy character with his arse out and his tits out and his guts out, bouncing around the middle. Whilst the rest of us were using make-up to disguise our defects, this guy was actually making them the focal point of his art. I loved that about him. I wish I had his bravery. It was interesting tonight sitting backstage watching everybody. Being in a band, you get your own dressing room with a star, so it's like 'that's my room, fuck off'. When you're part of a show like Taboo, there are no inhibitions, everyone has their arses out and their stomachs out backstage. I've got six weeks of that (when I join the cast) so I'll let you know more after that. But currently (would I pose nude?) - no.
If you were going to do another musical, is there anything or anyone you'd like to base it on?
BG: I would love to do "Big Sue - The Musical". She's one of the most interesting characters I've ever met in my entire life. When we first considered doing the show, I really wanted to talk to her. She'd written about Leigh and was a very close friend of his. We took her out for dinner and talked - her stories are well beyond anything you could possibly imagine. She's a great character; that's what I'd like to do.
Have you had any offers to do another musical?
BG: Andrew Lloyd Webber offered me dinner, but he hasn't called yet. I think he's got a lot of appointments.
On your TV show, who's been your favourite interviewee?
BG: Tracy Emin.
Who would you most like to interview still?
BG: Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Or Yoko Ono just to see the apartment.
Have other Culture Club members been to the show and, if so, what was their reaction?
BG: John Moss came to the show and sent me a very lovely text saying "You clever boy". The girl that stole him from me came last night and seemed to enjoy it too.