Before 2016 ended it claimed one of our most beloved souls. George Michael was snatched away on Christmas morning. A soulful singer, a thoughtful songwriter and a performer of great charisma, he was the gay icon of a generation.
His creativity, generosity and warmth were, sadly, matched by his self-destructive inclinations – talented but troubled. Importantly, he was loved – by friends, family, millions of fans and, eventually, even by arch-rival Boy George!
Like so many gay men of my generation, George Michael has meant a lot to me at different times in my life. As a gawky teenager in the early 1980s I remember taking posters of my idol from my Smash Hits magazines in to my mother’s hairdresser and demanding they cut my hair just like George Michael from Wham! A poster of this Greek Adonis, George glistening underneath an outdoor shower and wearing only the briefest pair of white speedos, was pinned up inside my bedroom closet, kickstarting my lifelong lust for tanned cuties in semi-transparent Lycra.
I loved his music, both as part of Wham! and his subsequent solo career, and I loved the quick-witted George that would appear in interviews. There was a sly queerness about him when he’d somewhat unconvincingly announce he had a girlfriend. I felt strangely drawn to him, both sexually and spiritually, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time but most certainly do now.
When I began writing about pop music in 1988 for Smash Hits George already rivaled Michael Jackson as the biggest male music star in the world. He’d already outlived his pop use-by-date in superduo Wham! with school buddy Andrew Ridgeley, who went on to race cars, marry Keren Woodward from Bananarama, take up surfing and not much else really.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in East Finchley, London on June 25 in 1963 to a Greek Cypriot father and a Jewish English mother, George founded Wham! with Ridgeley in 1981 and just two years later the band’s first album Fantastic reached nimber one in the UK. Their second album, Make It Big, reached the top of the charts in the US a year later and introduced the world to many songs that would become well loved George Michael signature tracks including Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom and Careless Whisper – which would become the very first George Michael solo single when it was released outside of the US.
George’s solo career began in earnest with a glowing mesh of big hair (it was the ’80s), sympathetic nods to safe sex (his I Want Your Sex single was banned for being too explicit) and a swaggering machismo at odds with the real George, afraid to come out in the midst of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
“Gay men were blamed for the deadly virus. Public attitudes become much more homophobic. Gay bashings and murders rocketed. It was a fearful period to be gay, let alone a gay public figure,” legendary British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell declared in the days after George’s death. “I wish George had come out then. He could have helped counter that tide of prejudice, but I understand why he didn’t.”
My next encounter with George was in 1990 when I was living in London and working for the UK’s Smash Hits magazine that only a few years earlier Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant had been editor of. On my way to interview Janet Jackson in Rotterdam (she was petite, sweet and gave me a black panther stuffed toy, in case you’re wondering) I ran into George at Heathrow Airport at the newsstand near the Concorde departure lounge. George was hovering around the pop magazines and when he saw me gave me a big wink and a Hollywood smile. I froze as I saw him grab a copy of Smash Hits to read and then run for his plane. Did he just cruise me? Did he know about me? Did he know if I knew about him? All these questions remain unanswered.
What I did know was that my magazine was having real problems dealing with George’s management at the time. This was around the era of his career-defining Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 album, which spawned the hits Praying For Time and Freedom! 90 that featured a video of supermodels mouthing the words to his song because by this stage George had decided he didn’t really want to be a pop star anymore.
“I have never and will never apologise for my sex life! Gay sex is natural, gay sex is good! Not everybody does it, but … ha ha!”
His publicist, whom we glibly assumed was in the process of transitioning, informed us that George would love to do something for the magazine but would not be interviewed. That didn’t leave us with many options, so we got rightly pissed off with George and decided that if he was going to be difficult then we were just going to make fun of him (as Smash Hits did so love to do in its own ironic way). A few years later I left the pop business, and so did George – at least for a bit.
In 1996 he returned with the album Older, a nifty goatee and enough telltale signs to let us in on his big secret – he was one of us and finally seemed ready to own it. If the video for Fastlove (with its knowing lyrics about “stupid Cupid’s always calling me but I see nothing in his eyes”) wasn’t enough to let us in on George’s private life then you either weren’t listening or watching closely enough.
Just two years later in 1998, George got himself arrested in LA for engaging in a lewd act in a public restroom with a hot Latino… who just happened to be an undercover cop. George came clean, finally coming out officially, and then joyously released a video making fun of his arrest for his Outside single – written mischievously about the joys of outdoor sex.
From this point on it’s fair to say George came into his own and started to really enjoy his life. He announced he was in a long-term relationship with Texan Kenny Goss and that it was something of an open monogam-ish relationship and, as we would discover from his numerous subsequent arrests, he had a low tolerance for drugs.
Musically, his output waned in the Noughties as his inspiration went soft and the hits stalled. And, as tales of gay debauchery and drug-addled rebellion filled column inches, George’s stature in the mainstream press and audience sank from pop hero to tabloid punching bag.
Yet his devout gay audience stuck by him and he stuck by them, making a no-excuses sexed-up appearance at the Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras Party in 2010 to perform – what else? – Outside.
Soon after, I got to rub shoulders with George for the last time. It was on the dance floor of a now defunct men’s only club in Sydney and, yes, he does dance just like he does in his videos. He also chatted up my flatmate at the time. George definitely had good taste – my flatmate went on to be a DNA cover model!
By this stage George had also moved on from dating Kenny to a handsome-but-haughty Australian-Lebanese celebrity hairdresser called Fadi Fawaz. His use of recreational drugs also appeared to be getting out of hand. A near-death experience in 2011 while on tour in Austria, sadly, was still not enough to convince him to put the drugs down.
In 2015 he reportedly visited the world’s most expensive rehab in Switzerland for a year to help overcome his addiction, but the last photos taken of him in public from late summer 2016 shows him unhealthily bloated, if not quite obese. Only months later, on Christmas Day (his very own Last Christmas), in a year that had already seen Bowie, Prince, Pete Burns and more taken from us, 2016 claimed another beloved star victim.
Aged just 53, it was reported that George died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure. His body was found by Fadi who, a day later, managed to tweet how it had been a Christmas he would “never forget”.
So now we are left without the man and with just his music. While much of that cannon of work is undeniably soulful, moving and timeless, George Michael also leaves behind a somewhat tattered and battered legacy.
It’s too easy to pick apart George’s life in hindsight and suggest that if he had been open about his sexuality earlier on he may have found a way to constructively counteract his self-destructive and self-sabotaging ways. Then again, he may never have become the true artist he evolved into without being informed and directed by his own personal angst over his homosexuality, his fondness for chemsex, and attempting to reconcile those things with his strict Greek and English upbringing.
“I wish George had come out then. He could have helped counter that tide of prejudice, but I understand why he didn’t.”
Like all of us, George had his debilitating flaws and fearsome blindspots. If he had been able to beat his addiction to drugs, like longtime rival and nemesis Boy George, he might still be around and still making incredible music.
“Drug addiction has affected many of our most famous names including Elton John, Boy George, Stephen Fry, Rufus Wainwright, Marc Almond, Jimmy Somerville, Andy Bell and Olympian pin-up Matthew Mitcham, who wrote of his crystal meth addiction in his autobiography,” Matthew Todd noted in his recent book Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy. “Superstar George Michael’s problems have been well documented. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of drugs after he was found slumped at the wheel of his Range Rover and, three years later, served four weeks in prison after driving under the influence of cannabis, into a North London shop front. In 2013 he fell out of a vehicle travelling at 70mph on the M1.”
Sadly, George Michael became yet another who is gone too soon without living out a truly full and purposeful life. On the positive side, he not only gave the world the gift of so much unforgettable music, but also paved the way for the next wave of openly gay artists like Adam Lambert, Troye Sivan and Sam Smith.
Lest we forget that George Michael was a true legend and a real gay icon who was actually gay. He will be sorely missed by his army of fans, by lovers of great music and by gay men like me everywhere who idolized him, despite the careless whispers.
George Michael: Freedom a documentary directed by George himself, includes interviews with Mark Ronson, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Mary J Blige, Ricky Gervais, James Corden, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista. George Michael: Freedom airs on October 16 in the UK.
The double album Listen Without Prejudice / MTV Unplugged is available now on iTunes and will also be released on vinyl.
George Michael: Freedom’ will air in Australia on Channel 9 on Wednesday October 25th.