Boy George Comes Clean—and Tries to Come Back—After Heroin Addiction and His Pals' Drug Deaths

updated 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Their first hit in 1982 was a plaintive pop-reggae tune titled "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" Britain's Boy George and his band, Culture Club, sashayed into the Top 10 five more times over the next two years, and the lead singer, with his flair for hair, crazed couture and free-form gender-bending, seemed the rock star most likely to exceed. And so he did. Now, a scant five years after his band's first success, Boy George is a recovering heroin addict who admits that he, and no one else, must bear the blame for hurting the Boy.

Open rumors of George's drug use first spread last summer when London police arrested his older brother, Kevin O'Dowd, for supplying heroin. He faces trial later this year. George, whose good humor had always helped make him palatable even to middle American tastes, laughed off the fact that cops had also raided his homes in London's tony Hampstead and St. John's Wood districts. "I'm a drag addict," he joked, "not a drug addict."

Shortly after, however, George's younger brother, David, stoked the tabloid story mills by claiming that George was now hopelessly hooked on heroin. He had lost 56 lbs., his teeth were rotting, and, said David, "We've been waiting for a phone call from a reporter to tell us George has been found dead from a drug overdose."

Following a Fleet Street headline barrage that George now characterizes as a "witch-hunt," the singer was arrested while undergoing treatment by famed drug therapist Dr. Meg Patterson. After admitting his addiction, he was fined $370, an amount one newspaper denounced as a "wrist-slap" punishment.

Then, on Aug. 6, 27-year-old Long Island musician Michael Rudetsky, who had flown to London to help George record a solo album, was found dead of a heroin overdose in the singer's home. Although a coroner's court cleared George of any wrongdoing, the dead musician's parents filed a $44 million lawsuit in November, accusing George of "actively participat[ing]" in their son's "being injected with heroin."

Within a month George's slide turned into a free-fall. On Dec. 20, as he walked home from an all-night party with two companions, one a pal named Mark Golding, he and his cohorts were stopped by the police, arrested for marijuana possession and held in jail for 12 hours. One day later Golding was found dead in a friend's apartment from an overdose of methadone, a heroin substitute. It was the shock of Golding's death, George says now, that finally convinced him that he had to quit drugs for good.

Now, after what seemed like a permanent departure from Britain's Top 10 charts, George has rebounded. His reggae-flavored version of "Everything I Own" hit No. 1 in Britain in March, and his new solo album, Sold, has generated good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Though he is currently barred from entering the U.S. because of his heroin conviction, George will begin a tour of Europe this fall. He says he is weaned from all drugs except "mild, nonaddictive tranquilizers" prescribed by a psychiatrist whom he visits weekly.

The singer also says he has found solace in Buddhist chanting, a practice he began last January, and indeed, he appeared rejuvenated when he arrived for an interview with PEOPLE correspondent Laura Sanderson Healy at the London Marriott's Diplomat Bar. Wearing no makeup except for nail polish, George, 26, sipped cappuccino rather than his old standby, champagne, and poured out his heart in a three-hour conversation. As clever and witty as the Boy of old, he was, nonetheless, occasionally moved to tears when discussing the toll that drugs have exacted from himself, his family and his friends.

I'm still trying to find out why I got on drugs in the first place. That's all part of getting better, finding out why. When I have the answer, I will then be able to say to other people, "Look, don't do it."

There's no one that I can blame apart from myself. It was just the people I started mixing with. I had always said in early interviews that I would never take drugs. I really felt there would never be a point where I would need them. It wasn't even that I needed them. I was going to parties with really rich people like Adnan Khashoggi and people like that. [Socialite] Cornelia Guest, whom I was going around with, wasn't taking drugs and used to tell me not to do it, to look after myself. But I did cocaine, Ecstasy, pot, acid and all those things, and then I got involved with taking heroin. I was experimenting, and I went too far.

The first time, it felt like oblivion—just numbness, no feeling. I started about a year and a half ago, and I realized after about six months that I was addicted. I was very cruel to my family, very cruel to a lot of people. I was heartless, just wafting around on my own delusions. People who take drugs have a fake sense of superiority, this sort of "We know something you don't know." And I suppose I was a bit like that myself.

I was spending about £400 ($600) a day and up. It got expensive, but when you're taking heroin, you don't care. In America the price was higher, like $1,000 a day, maybe more. With everyone around me doing it, it was like being in a Noah's drug ark. Some people were much more extreme than I was and were using needles, which always frightened me. I never used needles in my life, and I can prove that to you. Here are my fat little arms, and they're pretty much in shape. I can barely take an injection, let alone do it to myself. And just the thought of dying like that. I was always scared of dying. I think that was the thing that saved me.

People are so ignorant. In clubs, these sort of "wise men" come up and say, "You should have stuck to coke." I know so many people that were really badly addicted to cocaine. My brother Kevin had to go to a clinic to get himself off it. It depresses you. You brood and sit there like a mad hen. People still say to me I should have used cocaine. Well, thanks for the advice; I'll call you when I need help.

I did have people around me who were watching. Bonnie Lippel, my personal assistant, was really considerate. There were times when I took heroin when she just sat on the end of my bed all night just holding on to the sheets, hoping nothing would happen, making sure that if I did start vomiting, she would be there to save me. I forgot all those things, and it's only now that it's all come back to me. I'm very grateful for that.

Basically the British press had me arrested. I was away for a few days, and they started printing stories saying, "Get him! Find him!" I was never caught and charged with possession of heroin, but they made a new law that said, "Because you have admitted taking heroin, we are charging you with possession," and they fined me. I thought there wasn't anything else I could do, so I pleaded guilty. At the time I wished that I had pleaded not guilty because I would have won, but then again, it probably would have meant more publicity, more pain for my family. I just really felt like my family didn't deserve any more.

At the time Mark Golding died last Christmas, I was on a mixture of pills and methadone and stuff, and I wasn't any better than being on heroin. My mother came up and said, "Sit down, I've got to tell you something, so just get ahold of yourself." She said, "Mark's dead." I just burst into tears. I was in such a state I felt, "This is it."

When Mark died, that's when I decided to come off everything—methadone, Valium, tranquilizers and a whole list of things. I was almost like an Elvis Presley-type figure. It was just unbelievable. I had a whole cupboard full of pills. Whenever I had a moment of doubt, I would just swallow a load of pills.

Somebody said withdrawal was like being dead but being around to read the obituaries. That's the perfect way of describing it because when you die, you're not around to hear what people are saying about you. But when you are lying there, feeling really ill, it's a bit like drowning and having your life come in front of you.

I am no longer addicted to drugs. I can do things. I can work, which is great. My work is a kind of salvation. Going to Meg Patterson helped me get off, but my nerves were completely shattered. So I went to my doctor, who put me on a medication treatment, and he's been helping me ever since. I still take the occasional tranquilizer to go to sleep. Nighttime is the worst time, because you just sort of sit there, and if you can't sleep, you start feeling really sorry for yourself, and you just start crying. I can't cry in public. Believe me, there have been times when I've wanted to. When I'm on my own I cry, I cry all the time. But if I'm feeling really unhappy, I go and see my psychiatrist.

Recently the conversations with him have been totally about the Rudetsky thing, how I feel about what [his parents] have said about me. Michael and I were friends. I'd known him for four years, and we took a lot of drugs together in New York—cocaine, Ecstasy, dope, things like that. I was doing heroin, but he wasn't as far as I knew. I had worked with him in New York. He was a brilliant musician, clever, talented, with everything going for him.

After Michael, then Mark died. That was the worst Christmas of my life. I was in such a state I just felt ill. I'd meet friends—we were a little gang—and we would just cry. There is no way of conveying grief to other people. It really has destroyed me.

I will probably grieve for the rest of my life. It's just so horrible. I nearly lost my father when he had his heart attacks. Now the thought of losing anyone in my family just brings the greatest sense of fear.

My family has been tremendously supportive through all this. Especially my father, who stays with me. It's really nice having him there. I never thought that I could ever live with my father, so it's kind of amazing. He moved in at Christmas when I was ill, and my mum came and stayed for six months. She's gone back to work now, but she comes up every weekend.

My father's much better with his heart now. He can really relate to me because being addicted to heroin is like having a major illness. He's been through all the things I have, the misery and the feeling of depression and the feeling that life will never be the same again. So he comes and he cooks—he's a wonderful cook—and we talk. We never talked when I was a child. It's made us all much closer.

My show business friends have been nice to me. Simon and Yasmin Le Bon sent me a really nice letter. Elton John kept calling. The most amazing thing of all was Joan Rivers. The whole time I was ill she called all the time. She was one of the few people that I thought would, and I really love her for doing that.

I visit Mark's grave quite a lot down in the countryside near where his parents live. I couldn't go to the funeral because of the media, which was sad, so I go there all the time. I made some things, like this big huge flower arrangement with "I love you Mark" on it, and I had the grave covered with flowers when it was just a bare grave. I go there, and I talk to him. Does that sound crazy?

Basically, I work most of the time. I watch a lot of videos, a lot of good movies. Sometimes I go out, to the Limelight, to Delirium. It's not like, "I must be seen." Often I have friends like girls and boys who split up and you're put in the middle, so I become the Agony Aunt. I'm like, "What did he say? What did she say?" I think we're all good at giving other people advice, except when it happens to us and it's our turn for tragedy. The thing I like to do most is collect '20s jazz—Bessie Smith, things like that. I love Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald. The stuff I listen to at home is real old jazz mainly, sassy-type stuff. I'm very into musicals. I'd love to write a jazz musical.

There is so much fun in being healthy. That's the main thing. I think things are just going to gradually get better and better. There is no point in being ashamed. Believe me, I have been ashamed the last six months. But there comes a time when you have to say, "Look, this is never going to go away if I'm ashamed." I'm sorry I let people down that care about me. I'm sorry that I hurt my family. I'm sorry for all the people that have been hurt. But I also have to have a bit of self-preservation, a bit of self-respect.

I think the American public has got to give me a chance. I don't want people to forgive me, but I want people to try and understand. Look at Betty Ford. How can anyone in America point the finger at me when somebody who was once in the White House was falling over tables? You can only do so much to convince people that you are trying, and I've just got to soldier on.

My belief is that Christianity is about caring about other people, caring about and having respect for yourself. Buddhism teaches that too. The Buddhist thing was not something that my doctor harangued me into doing. He just said I needed discipline in my life, something I could use to my advantage. I started on New Year's Day this year at a meeting in Chelsea, London. You have to chant loads of things in a sort of Japanese Sanskrit, and it's really hard, but there was such a positive-ness surrounding it that I just carried on doing it.

What will I be doing when I'm 60? I just don't know. I suppose I will be in a wheelchair with a tartan blanket and a gray beard—perhaps I will dye the beard. I hope I am here. I'm just 26, but I feel much older.

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