Face slathered in milky makeup, eyebrows plucked and then accented with a bold stroke of eyeshadow, locks of plaited hair curling around the neck. Centle lips and softer eyes shadowed by a black stovepipe hat, a loose strand of hair tumbling across the unfurrowed brow. A kimono wrapped around a coquette's body, feet unbound and legs shaved: Is it George or Georgia? Now George O'Dowd, standard-bearer of the rock group The Culture Club has added a qualifier: He's become Boy George, the latest in a short line of English pop eccentrics to storm onto the American record charts. Still, the questions linger... and, of course, so does the interest.
Culture Club's mesmerizing single, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," broke the group in America (they played at a sold-out Wax Museum last week, part of a sold-out tour). But in England, it was the group's look -- flamboyant Boy George in particular -- that initially prodded it into the limelight. George's ambiguous androgyny, framed in flowing white vestments covered with Judeo-Christian graffiti and symbols, was an entry into the charts, but it's Culture Club's skillful and convincing pop synergy that has kept it there.
"In England, it's a lot more street level, this sort of eccentricity," Boy George explains. "In America, it's expense, it's money. It's not sticking rags in your hair... It's cars, houses, rhinestones, designer jeans. In a way [the motivation] is exactly the same, so 'they' will look at you. It's also true in music. You can't sell ideas here. You can sell songs and product, but you can't sell ideas.In England, you can."
England has a long tradition of style-dominated pop, going back to rockabilly coiffures (revived recently by the Stray Cats) and running through the mop-topped Beatles, the self-defined Gary Glitters, the graffiti-doused, torn T-shirts of punk and the elegantly nouveau-stylish New Romantics. Like schools of paintings, there have been dozens of distinctive layers in between.
But in the last few years, a certain jollity has crept in. Whatever the look, it begs imitation and inspires variations. Boy George, with his urban beachcomber look and gender-blender confusions, manages to fit in and stand out. Skeptics wondered if he were a man or a mannequin; Boy George chooses not to tell. "I don't think people have to associate with any particular sexuality."
He recalls nights of nightclubbing and days of stopping in at cafes "and there's all these women who are rejects of the '60s and they always look exactly like me -- the same makeup, the same eyebrows. If somebody wants to wear makeup and I entice them to do it, good bloody job! If I'm the meal ticket, great! People shouldn't take it that seriously. It's not a big step. People really enjoy themselves when they're dressed up and I think it's real hypocritical to use textbook imagination rather than what you yourself can create."
English youth tend to focus on a style or an artist much more than American youth. The focus surfaces as slavish imitation (Adam Ant's pirate army probably was larger than its historical inspiration) or one-upmanship. It's a community solidified even more in harsh economic times. "In England people can really connect to 'Oh, I'll be a warrior or a pirate.' It's very tribal, and they love it," Boy George says. "In America, people don't want that. It's all so very uprighteous here, people want what sells. Americans are a lot more aggressive, whereas in England we're a lot more giggly and silly. People just dress up a lot more."
Part of the reason is that whole musical movements sprang out of unlikely sources -- art schools and unemployment lines -- and inspired fashions that mixed outrageousness with practicality. O'Dowd's circuit to fame was typically roundabout: He went from oversized street urchin living in squatters' quarters to window dresser on Orchard Street to makeup artist for the Royal Shakespeare Company (where he made up actresses to look like actors) to modeling to gossip column item to band member. "I just got around and made myself apparent, " he says happily, "and people just got used to seeing me."
Not everybody got used to seeing him. His father runs a boxing club and when Boy George started "experimenting" with clothes, his mother experimented with keeping him indoors. "But they never ever objected. We're a happy, close family -- when I used to come home dressed up, my dad used to roll his eyes in the air and make jokes, but he never really took much notice. They're the people I care about most, we belong to each other. And through me, they discovered a whole thing they never knew existed."
The journey to Boy George, kicked off with expulsion from school at 15 for showing up with an oddly shaped orange hairdo and refugee clothes (the pants had a shine to them"), has taken five years -- O'Dowd just turned 21. With the innocence of the newly famous, he's straight-faced when he says, "I want to grow old gracefully. I enjoy myself at the moment."
His advice to aspiring stars is equally naive. "Just stick a balloon on your head and enjoy yourself."
All this would have little weight if O'Dowd and Culture Club didn't show considerable pop instincts. Their music is uptempo, not only metrically but emotionally. It accessibly synthesizes rock, Philadelphia soul, reggae and salsa, blending elements of black and white music as effortlessly as Boy George himself blends male and female inclinations. It's an affectionate borrowing -- Culture Club wears its influences openly.
Oddly enough, the visual confusion is negated when George sings -- he has a clear, blue-eyed soul tenor that calls to mind the styles of Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald. O'Dowd is effeminate in look more than in deed, and off-stage he's warm and witty and not one to back away from confrontation. In Boston recently, he ran into a blue-collar type who wasn't taken with his looks. "I said, 'I get lots of money for looking like this and I bet you don't get any for being ugly!'" This is said cheekily rather than maliciously, but then again Boy George, who is decidedly larger than his image, hints that he wouldn't have minded backing up his words with a little fisticuffs. Even if it ruined him makeup.
"Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think, 'By God, you're being trapped.' But that's a lie because I feel better with makeup on, confident. It's not like I'm hiding; I'm expanding, I'm blooming. I enjoy dressing up. I don't believe in the star system where you sort of become what you're not. I am what I am. I'm a very ordinary person."
An image, no matter how distinct, will only get you so far, particularly in America where radio rules the roost. In England, one can achieve a certain fame through exposure in the half-dozen national rock weeklies and the television show "Top of the Pops" (or "Top of the Fops," as one critic rechristened it when Culture Club appeared).
Still, "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" broke on England's most middle-of-the-road radio channel, what O'Dowd refers to as "the housewives' station." Here, the single received exposure in discos and on black radio before becoming an across-the-board hit.
Of course, any sexual confusion is reinstated by O'Dowd's barefoot contessa stage demeanor: Draped in flowing cloth, he resembles one's maiden uncle at the social club's attempt at Kabuki. "One person described me as good old Auntie Mavis up on stage with her knees up," O'Dowd says cheerily, as if that were the greatest compliment imaginable. "I'm... warm." So warm that he figures in gossip columns in straight and gay papers alike.
He's also loquacious and surprisingly shrewd and level-headed, a quality often missing from his contemporaries. O'Dowd doesn't yet have a lot to say, but what is there is delivered engagingly. "When I went on the telly, people, actually liked me because I'm not stupid, I'm not a thickhead. People ask why you're doing it and you just tell them or make a funny joke. They can detect a sense of humor with Culture Club; this band is jokey. The image is important, but only as much as you want to make it. People have eaten up the whole look thing and now it's time to eat up the music... and I think people do enjoy the sound."
"The trick is to not just to make a buzz," Boy George adds knowingly. "The trick is to make it remain."