It's simple: George O'Dowd enjoys being a Boy.
He's traipsing barefoot through the halls of the stately Hay-Adams Hotel ("we're the first band that's ever stayed here," he chirps), finally dropping into and draping himself across a sofa chair. The night-lit White House across Lafayette Park offers a spectacular backdrop through the suite's window, but it pales next to Boy George's outfit:
* Orangy-red hair peeking under a glittering golden fez that owes more to Tallulah Bankhead than to Egypt;
* A loosely flowing black mac designed by Yohji Yamamoto, worn over black pants;
* A gauzy white scarf splattered with color dots;
* Gaudy shades with cartoon figures on the side.
Behind the glasses, George O'Dowd's eyes must be twinkling. Three years after being merely a notorious fashion plate and perpetual gossip column item in London, he's become one of the most recognizable pop figures in the world as the vox fopuli in Culture Club. Although a string of pop hits attests to the group's considerable musical credentials, it's the flamboyant Boy who has made them a bright speck in the public eye with his ever-changing fashions and hair styles.
And Boy George, who describes himself as "23 going on 30," knows it.
"Old ladies don't walk up to you in the street and say 'I loved the bass sound in 'Karma Chameleon.' There's nothing worse than a non-proud peacock. If you're going to be a peacock, shout it out."
It's an attitude that has helped Culture Club achieve some healthy sales figures, even though some critics are dismissing the band's new album and carping about an excess of fashion. Which doesn't seem to bother the Man-equin one bit. "There is a sort of mass preoccupation with the way I look and the way the band looks, but when people come to the shows, they're usually won over."
It all began in London, where George O'Dowd's lineage included stints as a window dresser on Orchard Street, occasional model and makeup artist for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mostly, though, he made himself up, insinuating himself into the inbred fashion and music scenes that meld in London as they do nowhere else in the world.
"In those days I used to dress up in such excess. It was like, kill to dress instead of dressed to kill," he says coyly, this being the sort of wit that has made him a favorite of talk-show hosts. "I would go out and I wouldn't speak to anyone. It was, 'Don't touch me, keep away!' It was the days of 'I am, therefore . . .' "
It was a tactic, he confirms, that allowed him to be somebody before he was somebody, like one of his early heroes, the late English rock singer Marc Bolan. "He was an ace face, one of those people that people talked about," says Boy. "He was the supreme mod, which is what I was to my scene, the one who was most over the top. I was the one who always managed to get my face in the paper."
Now, the problem is keeping his face out of the papers. When he returned from a Jamaican vacation with sun-bleached hair and a scraggly hint of beard, paparazzi ambushed him at the airport and newspapers plastered the "revealing" photos all over the world.
Boy George is part of that flock of peacocks that includes Michael Jackson and Prince, the androgynous triptych of pop that has dominated the media over the last 18 months. Although he is a fan of both singers, Boy George dismisses the Jackson image as sexless, Prince's as sexist. Humbly, he sees himself "sexy."
"I am sexy," he laughs. "I'm not a blob on the face of humanity."
Still, though he's been fairly open about his sexual antics on both sides of the fence, it's hard to take Boy George's sexuality seriously. Which may be why he has so many very young fans, the 6-to-15 demographic that also follows Michael Jackson but isn't quite ready for Prince.
"The younger the kids are, the easier it is for them to accept us," says Boy George. "It's harder when they get to about 15, when they become young cynical adults. When kids become aware of their bodies, they become a lot more uptight. What happens with a lot of boys, say 16 to 18, their friends say, 'Oh, you don't like that faggot Boy George.' Then, it's embarrassing to be a Culture Club fan. I'm sure there's certain towns in America where some boys just love the band but can't get into it because it wouldn't fit in with their social scene. There's a lot of politics involved: Are you man enough to be a Boy George fan, know what I mean?
"But for young kids, we're a cartoon, like Tom and Jerry. They don't have to take it seriously."
Clever and sharp, Boy George revels in the contradictions that he's helped bring to rock, not to mention role, and at the ambiguities he suggests with every layer of makeup he puts on.
"People say 'You look terrible without your makeup on,' " he complains. "My answer to them is 'Yeah, but when I've got it on, I look better than you ever do, so it doesn't bother me.'
"I actually think I look good without it. I feel great without makeup, but it's got to the stage now where I just do it. There are days when I can't be bothered. I get up every day and take a shower, but some days it's too cold and I don't feel like it. It's the same with dressing up and wearing makeup."
"Being a pop star gives you a license for eccentricity, which is sad," he adds. "It's frustrating for me on an artistic level, because there's people out there who think, 'That good old Boy George, he's so funny and sweet and harmless.' That annoys me. It would be quite nice to threaten a little bit."
Some have felt threatened by his pop tartness -- his cross-dressing, his penchant for camp, his sexual libertarianism. All were seen as planks in a homosexual platform that has been as invisible in rock 'n' roll as the ERA at a Republican convention. All that is beginning to change with the success, at least in England, of bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat.
"I don't represent homosexuality," Boy George points out, opting to be the medium rather than the message. "I don't represent anything. I've never made a stand for either homosexuality or heterosexuality . I've never really thought of it as a serious issue. I've had sex with both men and women and to me it's like eating a bag of corn chips. It's not something I've had to have a mental breakdown about.
"But it gets me into trouble with the gay community," he sighs. "I always get bad reviews in San Francisco because I'm not wearing a pink triangle on my forehead. When you think about it, I'm doing a lot more than any of those other bands. The lead singer in Bronski Beat told me his father wouldn't watch him on television because he was afraid he'd look like me.
"To a lot of people, I epitomize the word homosexuality, or odd sexuality. I don't see myself as odd, so by going on the Carson show, I give people a lot more understanding of what goes on."
But, he adds, "I probably won't always call myself Boy George. I couldn't possibly. It could get embarrassing."