Now that rock reputations can be made—or broken—on MTV, the most important consideration to a new group is not how you sound but how you look. So it's no wonder that British singer Boy George makes an impression with his plucked eyebrows, layers of makeup and strawberry lipstick. Not to mention his knee-length, brightly colored smocks or his ballet slippers. Yet the most remarkable thing about George is that he has the effrontery—or is it calculation?—to bristle at the notion that he's the most sexually ambivalent poseur since Tiny Tim met David Bowie. "I'm a very masculine person," pouts George, however implausibly. "I don't dress up. This is the way I am."

Got that? OK. Now you need to know that George, 21, emerged from London working-class roots (his father, Jeremiah O'Dowd, ran a boxing club) to become founder and lead singer of the latest rock-theater phenomenon, Culture Club. Their debut album, Kissing to Be Clever, has gone platinum in England and gold in the U.S., and their reggae single, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?, sold 6.5 million copies worldwide. A second single, Time (Clock of the Heart), went Top Five and a third, I'll Tumble 4 Ya, is currently vaulting up the charts. Yet for all their gender-blending and onstage flash, Culture Club's neatest trick is producing its ambitious and undeniably ingratiating merging of American soul, Caribbean reggae and British New Wave.

That's not a bad landing for a lad who says he was booted out of school at age 15 for dyeing his hair orange. Even his father has come to terms with his outré son. "He began to dress outrageously at 15 and suffered considerably," says Dad. "But he refused to give in." Gloats George: "It's people's attitudes that have changed, not me."

Still, Boy George leaves even his staunchest fans wondering, "Does he or doesn't he?" He reportedly wrote Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? about a former roommate, Kirk Brandon of the English band Spear of Destiny. When queried by a U.K. pop weekly about his sexual preferences, George ambiguously replied, "I've never not done one or the other." To bolster his claims of masculinity he boasts that he once decked a bloke for stealing his hat. George shares his tiny attic apartment in London's St. John's Wood section with two roommates—one of each gender—and a collection of dolls, presents from teeny-bopper fans.

The third of six children—five of them boys—growing up in gritty Bexleyheath, south of London, George was the Irish-Catholic clan's odd duck. While his father was coaching neighbor kids at his boxing club—a brother, Gerald, 19, is a local light welterweight champion—young George was frequenting discos in stiletto heels and Carmen Miranda headgear. "I started wearing my hair like this just out of boredom," says George of the exotic plaits snaking down his chest. "I had long hair and couldn't think of what to do with it."

At first he paid his bills with jobs as a fruit picker and printer, then worked as a makeup artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company and landed a few modeling assignments playing punk rockers in bank and beer ads. His gift for outrage soon made him an underground celebrity, and in 1981 George began fronting for the New Wave group Bow Wow Wow. Later that year he teamed with bassist Michael Craig, drummer Jon Moss and guitarist Roy Hay to form Culture Club. George, who can't play a note of music himself, writes the group's songs by singing into a tape recorder and freely cribs from American R&B groups like the Four Tops and Gladys Knight and the Pips. "I am a plagiarist," he admits. "I try everything."

Still, George does have standards. For example, he disdains the Sex Pistols as "a bad version of the Rolling Stones" and sniffs, "I never liked punk because I like quality."