Boy George is one of the most enduring figures of the 1980s. His flamboyant, gender nonconforming image, complete with makeup, bowler hat, and dreds made him into a pop icon. Unfortunately, his talent as a solid songwriter and soulful singer has often been overshadowed by his rapier wit and larger-than-life public persona. At his height, when a member of the New Wave band Culture Club, Boy George’s cheery drag look coupled with his bouncy, friendly pop music made him a favorite among a large swath of the record buying public: teenagers, punks, goths, and their grandmothers all listened to Boy George’s plaintive croon. Like RuPaul, Boy George was a family-friendly version of drag, one that challenged gender norms superficially. But was simmered underneath the cartoon-like image was a struggling, angst-ridden artist who was plagued with a doomed and violent love affair as well as feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing. In his 1995 memoir Take It Like a Man (released to coincide with the release of his 1995 album Cheapness and Beauty, Boy George tells a bracing and thrilling tale of pop stardom, celebrity, gay culture, drug addiction, and he shares his first hand account of the rise and fall of the New Romantic scene as well as the UK punk subculture. He does all this with a witty, arch sense of humor that will remind some of Andy Warhol (who makes an appearance in the book).
Boy George (born George O’Dowd) was born in Kent to Irish parents and was part of a large family. He writes of growing up, feeling different, and out of sorts with the largely working class environment of his childhood. David Bowie and Marc Bolan are two figures who loom large in his early development as an artist. It’s during the chapters that cover his childhood and adolescence that the book paints a poignant picture of a young man struggling with his sexuality in a hostile environment. Being gay was rough and he had few people to turn to. He also writes of early experiences of his sexuality. These stories are written with a clear-eye, without undue sentiment or mawkishness, nor does the author mire in self-pity.
The most infamous chapters will deal with the singer’s brushes with fame and celebrity as well as his descent into drug addiction. He doesn’t hold back and names names quite freely, telling the whole, unvarnished story. At his peak fame, Boy George found himself sparring with other pop giants like Madonna, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He also found himself at odds with George Michael, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder, all of whom are painted with rather unflattering colors. It’s when he unloads his prickly wit at other celebrities that Take It Like a Man is at its most fun. Divas like Janet Jackson and Tina Turner are exposed as snobby and rude, while Vandross and Wonder proved to be ungenerous duet partners.
Along with these tales of the rich and famous, Boy George also shows how Culture Club’s poppy, friendly image was merely a farce, hiding a band that quickly splintered because of professional jealousy and a doomed love affair between George and drummer Jon Moss (who couldn’t remain faithful to George, often sleeping around with women). Quickly, Boy George with his outrageous fashion and quick tongue, became the face of Culture Club, much to the consternation of the rest of the band. As the group’s main songwriter and lead singer, he was also its voice. This disparity in attention sowed seeds of resentment and envy, and George’s ego also grew exponentially, creating a nasty environment that quickly caused the band to implode.
After the collapse of Culture Club, Boy George embarked on a spotty solo career, and during this time, he writes frankly and openly of his drug addiction. These passages provide some of the most harrowing reading, as he recounts with disarming candor, of instances of hiding drugs on his person in airports, tripping on heroin, or suffering the physical pains and discomforts of withdrawal. He’s unsparing in his self-examination – he blames no one but himself, and doesn’t sermonize. Instead, he acknowledges his role in his downfall. The depths of George’s pain are sometimes hard to read, as are the reactions of his friends and family. But George uses the same knack for soulful songwriting in writing the book. There is some bitterness – but that’s okay – and there’s a lot of rueful humor.
By the end of the book, we meet Boy George circa 1995. Clean and on a career high because of a top 20 pop hit with “The Crying Game” George was enjoying a renaissance during the book’s release. The ensuing twenty years weren’t quiet – there were arrests – but his career has stabilized, and Culture Club has even reunited a few times (scoring a top 5 hit with “I Just Wanna Be Loved”). For more complete picture of Boy George’s life up to now, readers should seek out his sequel Straight. But Take It Like a Man is a fascinating and engrossing tale of a talented individual who found himself overwhelmed by fame and fortune, but was lucky (and strong enough) to survive.