News & Opinion

George Michael 1963-2016

Frank, uncompromising, and tons of fun: what makes George Michael an LGBT hero

The Daily Beast

December 26, 2016

George Michael told the story more than once: the moment when he was 8, tripping over at school, sliding along the floor and banging his head against a radiator. He bled badly, and took quite a knock. But from that moment on, his love was music.

For the next few days it will be the songs that will be played and lovingly remembered—rightly so, because Michael’s and Wham!’s songs not only gave pleasure to so many, they stood for something: sexual pleasure, letting go, getting down, getting political, and also having ridiculous amounts of fun. The songs were ‘pop’ as pop should be—they made your heart full to bursting, and they knew how to revel in the drama of heartbreak and loss.

They could sound ridiculous, yet you know every word and drink in every rich, overblown melody.

As part of Wham!, and later by himself, these songs were lush or loud, stomping or caressing. You could fast-dance to them, or place your head on a loved one’s shoulder—and they were classics, and remain so and transcend time, as we know because George Michael died today on Christmas Day, the day when one of Wham!’s most famous songs—“Last Christmas”—plays seemingly everywhere on a loop.

A group of ex-pat Brits, this reporter included, were listening to the song as part of a familiar medley in a New York apartment just as the news broke that Michael had died.

And none of us complain about its omnipresence, especially today, because “Last Christmas” in all its warmly bathetic agony is as reassuring as a shawl with twinkling fairy lights. It’s long transcended its own cheesiness. Now it is just loved, and as much a Christmas pop culture totem as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

And so it will be that Michael’s death date, December 25th, will become also marked by this song of lost love, of regret, of something ending far too soon as his life has done at 53.

Death’s ruthless scythe through pop culture this year appears not to be done yet. At the time of writing it is not known what caused Michael’s death. The time of his death was given as 1:42 p.m. The police say Michael’s death is “unexplained but not suspicious.”

Enfolded in that wonderful music—and the stories of drugs and drinking, and the scandals of later years—consider another George Michael. The one who told it as directly as possible; who, as time went on, didn’t hide when scandal or downfall or public shame came knocking, but faced all those things not just stoically, but with a mischievous smile and brave to-hell-with-it dismissal of all those who would do him down.

Part of his personal story is about making us—his fans, the media, and the general public—consider the true gamut of love, sexuality, and intimacy through his music and his life. The challenge of living openly and honestly is something George Michael met head-on, and that honesty was a challenge to many prejudices.

The most public and brilliantly outrageous apotheosis of this was the single “Outside,” which he released after being arrested and charged for attempting to solicit a policeman in an L.A. men’s room in 1998, for which he was fined $810 and had to serve 80 hours community service. It was after that that Michael came out, after many years of speculation about his sexuality.

But not for him the heartfelt confession, and tears, and venerable words about being true to oneself, and stoic self-regard. Instead, Michael stayed true to pop star form, and served up a deliciously, shockingly brash and unapologetic song and video making a polysexual, multi-gender, raunchy joke of the whole incident, and skewering the historic use of “pretty policeman” to entrap men who have sex with men in public bathrooms.

Not for him the slinking away from the press after crises befell him. No tail between legs for George Michael. He not only came out, he wrote and talked about sex and having sex, and shamed all those that would try to shame him.

As he tweeted in 2011:

And Michael’s Twitter avatar is a group of people bathed in the LGBT liberation color of the rainbow. That’s how and what George Michael imagined his voice projecting to the world.

In 2010, having just been released from jail having served a four-week sentence after crashing his Range Rover into the Hampstead, North London branch of Snappy Snaps photographic shop, he faced the press and said he couldn’t be “fookin’ bothered” to play cat-and-mouse with them, so they could take their pictures now.

He thanked everyone who had supported him. He was going to start again. He was going to stop running away from the press—they would get sick of seeing him, he said. “By the way,” Michael said as a parting shot, “I just thought of a really good idea for a song. It has nothing to do with prison.”

George Michael was an absolute pop star, but absolutely atypical in so many ways about his negotiation of the fame game. He was heartfelt and honest in both his music and his words, and this is what his fans responded to. He never stopped thanking them, and those thanks became ever more genuine as time went on, and scandals and illness were woven into his later life. The press never stopped hounding him, and his modus operandi was to speak as bluntly as possible to them—not often, but enough. You might call his a very British polite, unapologetic defiance. He never sought absolution, but he attempted honest explanation. His relationship with his strengths, frailties and demons was complex. He sought help for what was damaging him. He picked himself up, and carried on. Refreshingly for a celebrity in this pat-confessional age, Michael never wheedled or whined.

He was arrested for possession of class C drugs in 2006, receiving a caution, and the following year admitted to driving while unfit through drugs. Rather fabulously, when asked what his luxury would be on the desert island in BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, it would be an Aston Martin DB9. No one would know on the solitary desert island that he was banned from driving, Michael joked.

In 2008 he was arrested for drug possession again—this time in a toilet on Hampstead Heath in London—and was again cautioned. In 2010 there was his time “inside,” and in 2013 he was injured in a car crash on a British motorway.

In some ways, Michael is a very familiar British pop star, and success story. He came from the suburbs: not a rich kid, not a poor one either. His father was a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur and his mother a dancer. He met his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley at school, and in the North London suburbs they plotted their pop-world ascent, eventually forming their pretty-boy power duo.

He was cocky-suburban-sexy to Bowie’s born-in-suburbia-alien, and in their own very different ways they would go on to become sexual radicals. To a certain generation, to a certain kind of music lover, Michael’s death will be momentous. It was Wham!’s songs that powered fortysomethings through long-ago school discos—“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Club Tropicana,” “I’m Your Man,” “Bad Boys,” and “Freedom”—and then the dramatic and lush more adult songs for when the lights got lower, like that mournful, warning sax in “Careless Whisper” (Michael’s first solo record, made while he was still with Wham!) and, of course, the winningly camp heartbreak of “Last Christmas.”

In Britain in the 1980s, their peppy, bright pop music came with videos of the signifiers of that decade: fast cars, boats, and big hair. Wham! was the essence of eighties pop. They were anthems best sung as a shout, and best danced to as a stomp, your arms as crazy windmills. Wham! was pop joy. They were famously anti-Margaret Thatcher, but their songs were as brashly eighties as the Iron Lady herself.

Michael and Ridgeley parted ways in 1986, and it was Michael’s whose career continued and who remained in the public eye. In the beginning of that new solo life, the focus was still on his music, and his global fame grew and grew. There was “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex,” in which he writhed with then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung, the overtly political “Praying For Time,” and “Freedom 90!” featuring a brace of cavorting supermodels.

The question of Michael’s sexuality remained blurry for years. The tabloids did what the tabloids did (a lot then, and less so now), which was to insinuate and bait.

Much later, the satirical show Star Stories imagined Boy George confronting Michael in his most eighties, blow-dried, tinted-hair, tennis-gear-wearing-sexiness incarnation. Boy George tells the other George he knows he is gay—and the joke is that, back then in the 80s, he exhibited all the stereotyped characteristics of being just so, although he never said so. (After he came out Michael said he wished he had done so sooner.)

At 27, and still publicly not out, Michael fell in love with Anselmo Feleppa, his first love (in 2007, Michael said there had been three to date in his life). Feleppa died of what Michael described as an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993.

Michael spoke of that relationship movingly in a 2004 GQ interview, and his frustration at Feleppa’s Catholicism. “One of the most heartbreaking things I ever saw was when I went into Anselmo’s room one afternoon and he was sitting there in bed with his prayer cards. I just thought to myself, ‘Please don’t tell me you think you’re going to hell.’ It makes me so angry and I sincerely hope he didn’t fear that.”

After Feleppa’s death, Michael wrote a long letter to his parents coming out, and—as he told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 2007—he had been “terrified…it was such a dark period of my life and I thought it would continue that way.” Not long after, his mother died. He took these two bereavements particularly badly, and had nobody to nudge him into activity again.

As for the 1998 incident in the men’s room, he had once mused whether cruising in a public restroom was his own way of somehow coming out. He told GQ, “I honestly think it was a desperate attempt to make the trauma in my life about me, because then, maybe, I could control the outcome.

“Up to then, the traumas had been out of my control and the outcome always bad. From the point when Anselmo got sick, I felt out of control. There were also family problems too hurtful to talk about, but I was snowed under with things I couldn’t do anything about.

“So I gave myself this six-month distraction from every day being about missing my mother. For six months, I had to work hard to fight for my career, but once that was done there was nothing to stop what came after it, which was just total depression. But as subconscious plans go, it was pretty successful.”

In 2007, he told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, that the 1998 restroom incident was his subconscious way of coming out. One had to “understand how much I love my family and that AIDS was the predominant feature of being gay in the 1980s and early ‘90s as far as any parent was concerned… My mother was still alive and every single day would have been a nightmare for her thinking what I might have been subjected to.

“I’d been out to a lot of people since 19. I wish to God it had happened then. I don’t think I would have the same career—my ego might not have been satisfied in some areas—but I think I would have been a happier man.”

In the GQ interview, Michael talked about meeting Kenny Goss, his partner for a number of years, in a “respectable spa,” and the depression that was so corrosive and which Goss helped him healthily try to confront. “If he hadn’t been around, I think my life would have been in danger, in terms of me. After Mum’s death in 1997, when I couldn’t write and I felt really worthless, I don’t think I could have taken it really. I think I might have been one of those cowards who choose a nasty way out.”

Michael spoke candidly about his and Goss’s open relationship. “Some gay men manage monogamy forever, and I envy them because it’s a great thing. But when you first meet someone, that chemical flows through your body and says ‘fuck, fuck, fuck!’ it’s wondrous. If you can keep hold of that, great. But for me to experience that again in a relationship, I’d have to split with Kenny.”

George Michael wasn’t one of those out-celebrities trying to play ‘normal.’ He was himself. He spoke about love and horniness and commitment as he struggled to negotiate all of it. He spoke honestly of how differently framed gay sex lives can be to hetero norms. He spoke about the closet, and why he was in it, and why he came out of it. None of it was chocolate-box, and tied up with a bow.

Michael spoke about cruising for gay sex in public, and he spoke about being attracted to women still. “If I wasn’t with Kenny, I would have sex with women, no question. But I would never be able to have a relationship with a woman because I’d feel like a fake. I regard sexuality as being about who you pair off with, and I wouldn’t pair off with a woman and stay with her. Emotionally, I’m definitely a gay man.”

In the same interview, he talked about his early sexual fantasies being about women, that he put his sexuality down to nurture rather than nature.

Later, Michael had a relationship with hairdresser Fadi Fawaz, although there were reports he had become close to Goss again.

These relationships not only were written about in the press (and expect more of that in the coming days), Michael spoke about them himself—that openness again, those challenges to the prejudiced and those with narrow ideas of sexuality and how relationships and love worked.

Sometimes when Michael spoke would be to decry the press for getting things wrong, and sometimes it was just to talk. Michael was a wonderful storyteller, as his Desert Island Discs appearance shows. Every anecdote he relays has so many wonderful, tantalizing strands unpeeling from it. The George Michael story is far from fully told.

When he was released from hospital in 2011, after treatment for life-threatening pneumonia, Michael gave another impromptu press conference. He said he had “plenty to love for. I have an amazing, amazing life. If I wasn’t spiritual enough before the last four or five weeks I certainly am now.”

It had been touch-and-go for a couple of weeks, he said, and—voice cracking and with warmth—he thanked the medical staff for all they did to save his life. “I’m a new man.”

In 2014 came what would be Michael’s sixth and final album, Symphonica, deriving from one of the tours he undertook in the last years of his life. As I type this, I am listening to “Last Christmas.” Again. Of course you listened to it today and maybe tonight—probably more than once. You hear those slinky bells, and you know it, you hear George Michael’s yearning voice about lost love—“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart/And the very next day you gave it away”—and you know it. How many Christmas discos have it as their last song? Or office parties? The song long transcended any sense of cheesiness, and just became loved.

It even featured on the BBC’s flagship soap EastEnders this Christmas—not just as background music in the Queen Vic pub, but on a tape made for legendary character Dot Branning by a deceased character, Heather Trott, whose love for George Michael knew no bounds. It even led her to once scale the walls of his London home.

And now “Last Christmas” becomes the anthem for Michael’s last Christmas. But also as I type this, I am playing the joyous whoops of “Bad Boys,” and thinking of all those mirrored doors and walls opening chaotically as the sexual riot of “Outside” unfolds.

Those were George Michael’s closet doors, finally being thrown open en masse to reveal sex, joy, dancing, and sexuality itself. No shame. No going back in. His lesson to younger gay pop stars, and in fact radically to his fans, to all of us whatever our sexuality and political beliefs was uncompromising: not only can you be out, you can boldly claim and revel in your sexuality. You can be out, but you don’t have to be the good-gay they want you to be. You can be yourself.

After Feleppa’s death, Michael not only wrote “Jesus To a Child” in his memory, but also—in Michael’s opinion—his best album, Older. “I never want to feel that loss, that depth of emotion again,” he told Desert Island Discs. “I hope he’s very, very proud of it somewhere.” Maybe, hopefully, somewhere Feleppa is telling George Michael precisely that.