George O'Dowd still enjoys being a Boy -- Boy George, that is -- but things have changed dramatically in the years since he was pop's favorite tart, an androgynous peacock strutting through Culture Club videos with Kabuki makeup and clownish plumage on full display. His soulful tenor won him fans worldwide. And when Newsweek put Boy George and Eurythmic Annie Lennox on a cover heralding a second British Invasion, pop's gender benders seemed to have the upper hand.

But for Culture Club's genially charismatic singer, things were not what they appeared to be in bright pop anthems like "Karma Chameleon," "Time (Clock of the Heart)" and "I'll Tumble 4 Ya." The group's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" went to No. 1 in 23 countries in 1982, but it appeared that the one who really wanted to hurt himself was O'Dowd, who eventually acquired a debilitating heroin habit. For a number of years following a 1985 drug conviction, O'Dowd was banned from the United States, and while his recording career continued, it never regained the level of success that made Boy George one of the most recognizable faces in pop.

Since one of pop music's axioms is that a fall is to rise from, it's hardly surprising that Boy George is back, not only with a new, gay-themed album, "Cheapness and Beauty," but with an autobiography, "Take It Like a Man," that reads like Joan Collins meets Burroughs, and his first American tour in five years (including a stop at Lisner Auditorium tomorrow night).

In "Take It Like a Man," O'Dowd, now 34, tries to make sense of the swirl of a decade and a half that witnessed his evolution from "pink sheep" of a working-class London family to white elephant in the rock-and-roll parade.

"Just my presence and the way I looked was quite a political thing at that time," says O'Dowd, and "to a lot of people, those songs still are important. Maybe not to Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi fans, but certainly to millions of queens and young girls around the world, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me' is a really important song. Over the years, I've received many letters saying You made me feel comfortable about myself,' and it hasn't always been about sexuality. It wasn't just the music, or just the way I looked. There is something very awkward about me, and people tapped into that."

It's the same connection O'Dowd himself had made as a young fan of David Bowie, one of the first British rock stars to deconstruct sexual identity in his lyrics and performance. "It's almost like he was this guru figure and he was using words which I hadn't heard in pop songs, like from Ziggy Stardust': A cop knelt down and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that.' They were sexual, homoerotic lyrics, very bizarre, and I totally became immersed in them."

O'Dowd was such a dedicated fan that he used to camp out at Bowie's London home in the mid-'70s, only to out-camp him a decade later.

It was just last month that Boy George and Bowie finally met -- as wax figures standing side by side in Madame Tussaud's museum. Bowie may still be there but, suggests O'Dowd, "they've probably boiled me down and made me into Take That."

Stopping in Washington recently for a book signing, the witty and articulate O'Dowd was dressed in a loose, conservative black outfit, and with his short jet-black hair and milky white features, he looked not unlike a bulky Liza Minnelli. He's not a small man -- just a bit under six feet, which on the whole is better than being six feet under, which is exactly where some fans and critics put him after the fall.

George O'Dowd looked like a celebrity long before he was one. He grew up in Woolwich, a working-class neighborhood in London, and after a fairly typical adolescence, including being a Boy Scout, he began the gradual transformation to Boy George, inspired in part by such glitter-rockers as Bowie and T. Rex's Marc Bolan. After dropping out of high school at 16, O'Dowd started working odd jobs in hip boutiques. At first, he kept makeup to a minimum -- a smudge of mascara and a smidge of lipstick -- but eventually he was appearing in full drag, with brightly dyed hair spiked eight inches high. People . . . noticed.

"Characters in all walks of life always stand out," O'Dowd points out, "and I realized when I was 16, 17, that through dressing up I could become somebody. England's a very small place, London's even smaller, and you can become a kind of disco celebrity without really having any achievement but by simply knowing how to do your hair right or having the right costume on."

Pictures of O'Dowd soon started appearing in the British tabloids, one of which named him "Weirdest Person in the North." Sensing he "couldn't be a professional poseur forever," O'Dowd soon found himself in a band called Culture Club, where sexual identity was an issue from Day One -- especially considering his relationship with drummer Jon Moss.

"The first song I ever wrote for Culture Club was The Eyes of Medusa' -- He loves me, he hates me, he knows me too well' -- and there was this big debate in the studio: Should I be more . . . general? I was out of the closet when I was 16, but the {other band members} felt it wasn't fair to them as straights." "He" was changed to "she" and the Boy made himself officially sexless.

O'Dowd was hardly the first British rock star of ambiguous sexuality, but he was bright and charming and so unthreatening that people did not attach a strong sexual connotation to him, even at the height of the band's popularity. One British tabloid asked "Is It a Her? A Him? Or Neither!" and reported that Boy George drank beer through a straw to protect his lipstick. New Musical Express readers voted him both "Best Dressed Man" and "Best Dressed Woman."

Under his kimonos, O'Dowd was a bulky, ungainly lad and it was easier to dismiss him as a sexually and politically neutral exotic than a cross-dressing revolutionary. As Culture Club grew in worldwide popularity, O'Dowd did little to clarify matters, preferring evasive, open-ended statements that people could interpret according to their needs. He insisted that "this is not about sex, this is about acceptance," and claimed to prefer "a nice cup of tea" to sex.

Yet when Culture Club won the Best New Artist Award at the 1983 Grammys, O'Dowd commended the voters, saying, "You sure know a good drag queen when you see one!" Still, he was concurrently criticized for not coming out more clearly and cleanly.

"A lot of gay people felt I should have been waving the flag more vigorously," says O'Dowd. "And, I admit, I was protecting myself. Coming to terms with your sexuality, regardless of whether you're gay or straight, is always a difficult thing. To ask someone who has just become an international superstar to put that on the line . . ."

In fact, O'Dowd doesn't have to guess at the consequences. "Certainly, since I have become more outspoken and militant about my sexuality, my record sales have dropped. People could argue it's because the music has changed, but I don't believe that."

O'Dowd is worried about the prospects for his new "Cheapness and Beauty" album, which is more of a rock-rooted affair than his previous solo work, as well as the first by a pop star to feature lyrics addressing same-sex characters directly rather than in genderless "you" terms.

The album's first single, "Same Thing in Reverse," which has gotten no air play, is a defiant rejection of stereotypes: "Do you kiss him, hold his hand/ Who's the woman, who's the man?/ Is it twisted, is it sick?/ Mother nature's little trick . . . Do I love him?/ Yes I love him/ So don't question my affection/ This is not some damn affliction."

Gay themes are also at the heart of "Evil Is So Civilized," "Genocide Peroxide," "God Don't Hold a Grudge," "Unfinished Business" (about a failed relationship with a man who refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality) and "Il Adore," in which a mother cradles her son in a hospital room as he's dying of AIDS, yet continues to deny his homosexuality ("no one mentions the unmentionable").

The reclamation of Boy George has been a two-pronged project, and the personal side has been a bit faster developing than the professional. For the past nine years, O'Dowd has been in a relationship with British video director Michael Dunne.

The final Culture Club albums, 1984's "Waking Up With the House on Fire" and 1986's "From Luxury to Heartache," were not successful -- a reflection, according to O'Dowd, of his troubled relationship with Moss. "At the end of the day, I think the reason Culture Club was so successful was that I was so in love with Jon and vice versa, and the reason the band fell apart is because when that love dissipated, it was over, and I didn't care about the band anymore."

Professionally, things first began to look up again in 1987, when O'Dowd scored a No. 1 hit in England with a reggae-tinged cover of Bread's "Everything I Own" (it did not chart here at all) and in 1992 when he wrote and produced "Everything Starts With an E," an early acid-house hit. The upward swing peaked two years ago when Boy George sang the theme from the left-field hit film "The Crying Game."

"One of the great things about my upbringing is that I've been able to deal with whatever happens," says the man O'Dowd. "I roll up my sleeves and get on with my life." CAPTION: Boy George, a k a George O'Dowd: More open about his sexuality and the problems of stardom after a fall from pop grace in the '80s. CAPTION: Boy George signs copies of "Take It Like a Man" at a bookstore on Dupont Circle.