Gazing back at Boy George and Culture Club’s enduring legacy of celebrating individuality 

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Photo by Bill Ellison

Dye your hair in an ombré. Pop your collar. Don active wear until the day you die. Shape your eyebrows like a tadpole, guppy. Stick to trending topics. Never spook your sensibilities.

Assimilating is safe. Not in a stuck-up way, like those frequently rehashed New Yorker cartoons where a shape repeats until it doesn't. In a bare-bones survival kind of way: Be seen and unseen, simultaneously. No one will challenge you. For these drones, the basic goal of the self is to endure, and a sedate slog is preferred to the strain of self-fulfillment (which, frankly, sounds like a fantasy).

Boy George lives the dream. Bolstered by talent (that voice alone has carried for generations, though it's deeper now), there's no disrespecting his legacy or influence, both musically and culturally. Even as an aging '80s icon, he's still on the cutting edge of that tendency to reject any identity crafted by anyone else's standards.

His early ambiguity – calling himself "boy" while dressing like a woman openly but initially insisting on mystery regarding his sexuality – made him non-threatening to even the most cautiously peering pop fans who found his music irresistible. Culture Club removed barriers with often meaningless lyrics the whole world memorized, and instead of challenging stereotypes with aggressive messaging, they simply proved the exception as a band with every pop hit and every interview.

In 2015, at a time when transgender issues dominate social discourse, Boy George naturally enters the conversation, not because he ever really wanted to be a woman – he says that was not the case – but because just as in the early days of Culture Club, he welcomes the brave and worthy outsider who took the trouble of exploring himself or herself before committing to a confused, meandering existence.

Yet. To today's survivalists with deep-rooted tradition, freaks like Boy George still set off an internal alarm: Being different is as good as being dead. These obstinate masses self-perpetuate for security reasons, passing their outdated beliefs like drab folklore, insisting on proliferating a pattern of existence so they can avoid the mental stresses of debating the more compelled individual's persistent and, by necessity, polarizing concern: Who am I? Boy George made an answer seem attainable to inspired youths, but for their mothers and those more inclined to just bob their heads, his glossy pop obscured the question.

This year, Culture Club reunites its original lineup, which helped assuage queer hatred and racial tensions through immense pop charisma in the '80s, and promises a new album, Tribes, in early 2016. The chart-topping success of their 1982 debut, Kissing to Be Clever, and subsequent releases propelled the band to worldwide fame and made an icon out of the continually thoughtful and historically fearless frontman Boy George (who, of course, went on to achieve huge success as a solo artist). His first experience in the U.S., though, saw him expectedly clashing with the conformists.

"In America, you can sell a record but you can't sell a look," Boy George said in a December 1983 interview in Smash Hits. "I'd love to break down that barrier and make people stick hats on their heads and dreadlocks on their hair and just ... indulge a bit."

From Boy George's earliest interviews, he's ceaselessly interrogated about his identity, only not, as you might suspect, to mock or out him as a fraud – his soulfulness as a vocalist and performer instantly convinced doubters of his authenticity as an artist – but more in a gawking awe: Beyond gender, beyond sexual orientation, beyond celebrity, beyond success – how can we learn to be more like you? His encouragements are as inclusive and considered today as they were then.

"The struggle isn't just about being straight or gay or transgender – it's a human struggle," Boy George told Huffington Post last year. "That's always really been my kind of starting point: If you're out there and you're odd, come over to my house."

Last month, Boy George surprised former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner by serenading her during her transgender religious naming ceremony by going beyond that – he came to her house. Then Jenner surprised audiences by showing up onstage and introducing Culture Club the next day at a concert in Los Angeles.

It was her first Culture Club show but, of course, she belonged. It was also a cheery couple of days for anyone committed to self-acceptance and social progress. Although Boy George's look has softened – he's frequently done up with a more subtle feminine touch as opposed to his days of drag (he tells Huffington Post in the same interview that he's too hairy for that now) – he predictably neglected Jenner's all-white dress code at her ceremony and came as he was, contradicting the crowd in all black.

For a pop star who's endured on the strength of originality for more than three decades, every day is like survival. Only Boy George teaches us: Survival – shock! – gets that much less intimidating once you get to know the person you're trying to save.

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