Gay Times February 09 - Issue 365
About a Boy
As Boy George is sentenced for the false imprisonment of an escort, former devoted fan Patrick Strudwick asks, where did it all go wrong for our Boy?
It’s December 17th, 2008, and I’m standing on the balcony at London’s Pigalle Club watching my childhood hero perform his swansong. In just under a month after this performance (and as GT goes to press), Boy George could be sent to prison for falsely imprisoning an escort. So, in what would appear to be a characteristic act of defiance, he’s gone ahead with this final gig – perhaps to show the world he’s still got it, or perhaps to try and appear innocent, who knows? Either way, it’s a pretty embarrassing spectacle.
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Fifty of his super-fans stand at the front near the tiny stage, holding up their phones to record the proceedings. Much of the rest of the audience consists of people sitting eating dinner. A quick scan of their faces reveals either boredom or that they could do without such disturbance while trying to send text messages.
“I can’t sing and I’ve never released a record, but I could summon a bigger crowd than this,” says the friend I dragged along, as George rattles through his back catalogue. The lyrical resonance of many of the songs, particularly Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and Victims seem lost on both our singer and his small gaggle of devotees. But not on me.
They may not understand what George’s victim, Audun Carlsen, went through that night in April 2007, when, it is alleged, George handcuffed him and beat him with a chain. They may not know what it is to be on the receiving end of this kind of violence. But I do. So to learn that the man who once so inspired me could be capable of such a crime is both sickening and utterly disillusioning.
Twenty-five years ago Boy George was a major new star, and to my seven-year-old self a major godsend. I didn’t know if he was a boy or a girl, but given that I barely knew back then which I was, he proved, in his gender-free homemade outfits, that it didn’t matter. Karma Chameleon was the first record I ever bought. I adored Boy George – his music, his wit, his defiance, and later his autobiography, Take It Like A Man. Over the years our paths crossed a few times: backstage at Gay Pride in 1996; nine years later when I interviewed him for the second instalment of his autobiography, Straight; a few weeks after that at his party to launch the book.
And then, a couple of weeks before the gig at the Pigalle, the news came in that George had been found guilty. My years of admiration were over. I learned of the verdict when I logged onto Facebook to find that a friend had mentioned it in his ‘status update’. A drag queen posted under it, “Horrified! F*cking Scandinavian prozza. What good has it done him? Filthy bastard. George should have given evidence! This is awful.”
Sadly, such comments aren’t just the maniacal rants of someone whose moral compass has spun off its axis. They’re increasingly typical of a community and culture whose values – once egalitarian, inclusive, compassionate – have warped unrecognisably since the fearless liberation movement of the 70s and the stoicism of the Aids-ravaged 80s. But has it really come to this? That our rejection of heterosexual morality has gone so far that we see nothing wrong with hiring a sex worker, imprisoning him with handcuffs and beating him with a chain? Or is it just OK for Boy George to do this because he has a good line in quips, hats and pathos-drenched lyrics?
And why does George see fit to perform at this gig, anyway? He’s not a member of the Guildford Four – horribly framed, worthy of such defiance. He’s a highly privileged Pop star who chained up a prostitute. How does George think his victim felt, seeing the man who terrified him belt out a bevy of old hits for the sake of a bit of PR and the amusement of a few die-hard fans?
It was insufficient to say earlier that the gig was embarrassing. Offensive is more like it. Not just to Carlsen, but to anyone who’s been subjected to physical abuse. Having written about the beatings he received from his father growing up and the violent relationship he had with Jon Moss, George should have known better. Those last five words should be the title for his third autobiography, as he has apparently learned little since the first one.
This is the man who successfully beat his heroin addiction in the ’80s, only to be found with cocaine in his apartment by New York police 20 years later. This is the man who endlessly, pitifully pursued straight men in his 20s and who told me in that interview in 2005 – rather prophetically when you read it back – that his plans for the future were “more disturbing encounters with straight guys”.
But it’s the ironies of this case that are truly astounding. The star who once shamefully avoided the sexuality question (when others like Holly Johnson and Jimmy Somerville were already out) by saying he prefers a cup of tea to sex has now been found guilty, and oh-so publicly, of crimes against a male prostitute. The star who spent years being a voice for gay culture has single-handedly exposed its most vicious underbelly. And the star who espoused, above all, the dubious virtues of glamour, fashion and being fabulous has allowed himself to become massively overweight, has already been seen sweeping New York’s streets on community service for wasting police time, and may very likely be held at Her Majesty’s Pleasure donning a hot new look comprised solely of fetching prison attire. How fabulous! If you believe that the punishment should fit the crime, then his being banged up would be the perfect, poetic penalty for his actions.
It’s telling that George has wasted no opportunity over the years to bad-mouth Madonna. She possesses all the qualities he appears to lack: self-discipline, hard work, and the unerring determination to ring every last drop out of her talent. George, by contrast, has that incredible voice and once had an almost peerless knack for songwriting, but rather than staying focused on these, chose instead to spend the last two decades pursuing endless, artless vanity projects: the fly-on-the-wall documentaries, the poorly-received fashion label, and the erotic photography, to pick out but a few.
In the end, his insistence on clinging on to his puerile values, where looks and sex are worshipped above all, was his downfall. As such, the story of Boy George is a warning to us all: being a scene queen and believing in everything it advocates is fine in your 20s. In your 40s, it’s tragic. To a Shakespearian extent.
There is one thing, however, that George O’Dowd appears to have learnt. In choosing to remain silent and not give evidence in court, it would seem that he’s beginning to realise – as we, his fans and his community, have – that he has become nothing more than a liability.
Words: Patrick Strudwick