George Michael, Seriously
Wham! was a joke, but the singer has made a brilliant solo debut — and no one is laughingArtists, Interviews, Music, News & Updates December 26, 2016
A lot of people hate him. He knows this. He is, it seems, too perfect, too prefab, too blatantly pop to take seriously. He made his name, and his fortune, writing insanely catchy songs; he was an English pretty boy with the commercial instincts to come up with radio-ready material, the good looks to attract squealing teenage girls, the marketing savvy to hit that target audience. He danced through his first videos in carefully tailored black leather; then in gleaming white suits, bottle-blond hair and glittering gold earrings that perfectly set off that Saint-Tropez tan; and finally in immaculately groomed stubble.
He even has a perfect pop name: George Michael, Naturally, it isn’t real. He is only 24–three years younger than Prince, five years younger than Michael Jackson, and outselling both of them. He is ridiculously famous; he has more money than he can spend. And for most of his brief career, he has had virtually no artistic credibility.
He knows this, he says that it doesn’t bother him, and by all appearances he is telling the truth. He is sitting at a quiet table in a small, elegant French restaurant in London, looking rather adult and low-key. His hair is its natural dark brown and carefully styled; his stubble is a few days the far side of Don Johnson’s. He is wearing a black sweater, a black blazer, black slacks, black loafers, white shocks and a thick gold ring that bears his family nickname: Yog. No earrings.
He is eating chicken and drinking red wine, and he is laughing a lot. He can afford to laugh. He is still beset by fans: he’s half an hour late for dinner because when he walked out his front door, he was set upon by a young woman who let her two huge dogs jump all over him, though she was too nervous to talk to him herself.
And he has an ace in the hole. His new solo album, Faith, is a startling state-of-the-art dance album, a collection of potential hit singles, an emotionally open look at his life an concerns. With Faith, the pop star grows up. And it is forcing many of those who scoffed at him during his Wham! days to take him seriously. “I think it says something for the power of the music,” he says, “that I’ve managed to change the perception of what I do to the degree that I have in this short a time. Because it’s something that a lot of people thought wasn’t possible.”
George Michael sets his jaw. “I really think that anyone who doesn’t like anything on my new album has no right to say they like pop music,” he says matter-of-factly. “If you can listen to this album and not like anything on it, then you do not like pop music.”
How do they get that sound?” He is driving down London’s Piccadilly, turning heads in nearby cars as he marvels at the thunderous basson the Janet Jackson remix album that’s playing on the CD player in his black Mercedes sedan. The record is a favorite, but his real passion of late is a 1964 album by Stan Getz and João Gilberto; when he climbed behind the wheel, he popped in “The Girl from Ipanema.”
He has spent the last few hours talking about his astonishing fame; about the gossipy British tabloids (“They write about me in the same way that they write about Joan Collins and the royal family”); about the sad fact that Brits are becoming more and more like Americans, always looking out for number one; about his commercial expectations for Faith (he hopes it will be Number One in the United States at Christmas, when he knows the Billboard charts don’t change for two weeks); and about pop music.
He is an open, engaging, frank conversationalist, a friendly dinner companion–though it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s being open and engaging and frank and friendly because it’s good for business. Call him self-assured if you like him; arrogant if you don’t.
“George is very, very single-minded in his approach,” says his former Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley, who now lives in Monaco. “And I think a lot of the things that he has said and done have been misconstrued as arrogant rather than the single-mindedness they really are. People get very put out when someone is as forceful in their views and in their methods as George is.”
He supervises his business affairs himself. He has, since the first days of Wham!, written (or on rare occasions co-written), produced, sung and played a variety of instruments on his records. And still, he says, “people have the perception that if all you write is pop music, as opposed to something that reveals a far deeper character, it’s because that’s all you can do. Not because it’s all you choose to do, and not because it’s the area you love.
“If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”
His Mercedes is stuck in the heavy midnight traffic alongside the giant Tower Records store on Piccadilly Circus. He peers at the stores large display windows: places of honor in a big pop supermarket. “I always like to see what records have the window displays here,” he says, then shakes his head. “I was supposed to have one of those window displays, but I don’t.”
Maybe his window is on the other side of the store? “No,” he says without missing a beat. “I drove by and looked the other night.”
George Michael laughs at himself. “No, I’m one of those artists who checks these things.”
A day later, he is miles above the Atlantic Ocean, going at twice the speed of sound and signing autographs for a stream of crew members and passengers on the Concorde. He is heading from London to New York, appropriately utilizing the fastest, flashiest and most expensive way to cover the ground. He is once again clad in black, save for his socks. He is drinking a succession of Diet Cokes.
When he boarded the plane, one stewardess looked at his boarding card and said slyly, “Here you are, Mr. Michael,” as if to say that she knew that George Panos, the name on his ticket, was a phony. It isn’t: it’s a shortened version of Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, his real name.
“I had the best dream last night,” he is saying. “It was set in New York, and it was all in black and white, and it was so funny. I was, like, a gigolo, a cross between a gigolo and a chauffeur…And I can’t tell you who I was a gigolo for, ’cause it was an actress, and I might meet her one day, and it’d be really embarrassing.
“I was a gigolo, but I wasn’t having sex or anything. I was walking behind her in New York with this trolley that was full of cardboard boxes with my album in them. And the thing was, I didn’t want her to know who I was, ’cause I liked the idea of being anonymous with her, so I was terrified that she was going to look in one of the boxes. And she kept threatening to look in the boxes. And then I sat down talking to this hobo, and I lost her. I was just panicking, running about New York with this trolley, looking for this woman, when I got woken up by a phone call.”
He shrugs. “My dreams aren’t usually like that. I couldn’t find anything vaguely Freudian in it, you know. Though there’s probably something perverse in the fact that I probably now think I should be paid for sex.”
Certainly, George Michael has been selling sex for years. He was a full-fledged teen sex god in Wham!, though the way he and Andrew Ridgeley preened and pouted in scanty shorts made a good many people assume that his liaisons with women were–and are–a bit of public-relations fiction.
And now he can be seen flaunting his girlfriend, writing Explore Monogamy on her thigh in the controversial video for “I Want Your Sex” (in America, the fuss over the song helped; in England it killed the record), and he’s filled his new LP with sweaty, Prince-style dance songs replete with lyrics about romantic uncertainty and adult appetites.
“In terms of lyrics, I guess the theme of this record is my life over the past couple of years,” he says, then laughs. “And I suppose sex has been a major theme.”
But Faith is also about caution, mistrust and broken hearts. And although George Michael says he never wanted to be a cliché, “even a superstar cliché,” it is an album inspired by the oldest superstar cliché: It’s lonely at the top.
It started during the final days of Wham!, when his fame careened out of control and a woman he thought he really loved–he doesn’t say who–rejected him. “It’s the worst feeling in the world,” he says of the subsequent depression. “Waking up and just wishing that somehow you could just go back to sleep and the day would disappear and you wouldn’t wake up. I felt like that for ages.”
The failed relationship, he says, was typical: “I have a very strong tendency to go for people that I know I can’t ever fully have. And that tendency became a fullblown fact once I could have anyone, basically, that I wanted. It became totally unattractive to me to have anyone and everyone I wanted–because for a while I did. I mucked around a lot for about eight months to a year, really. And then you realize that you are a bigger mug that they are, because you’re the one that gets talked about in their office the next day.”
So he says he pursued distant women, and eventually he was sent into such a depression that Wham! itself was a casualty. “The actual Wham! split was definitely provoked by my emotional distress around that period,” he says. “It’s hard to tell whether or not it would have happened at that time had it not been for that relationship failing. Maybe if I’d felt more secure, I would have felt no need to shake things up. But at the time I just wanted to make a clear start. Basically, I didn’t want to be a star anymore, because I was feeling so sorry for myself.”
“I think George had come close to doing almost everything he wanted to do,” says Andrew Ridgeley, “but it really hadn’t worked out quite as planned. And then there was that emotional involvement that turned sour. He had a fairly rough ride for a while, I think. He leans to introspection, and he’s very analytical, and he screws himself up on that a lot. I don’t think his attitude to life is very carefree.”
For most of a year, Michael drank his way from Los Angeles to Australia to Saint-Tropez, avoiding London because he didn’t want his family and friends to see him.
One night in L.A., though, he went drinking with Ridgeley–“his exorcism,” Ridgeley laughingly calls it. Michael says his former partner “just got the whole lot, every awful feeling that I was having. And then the next day it was just gone. Vanished, to the degree that I couldn’t believe it. I kept expecting it to creep back on me, but it never did.”
“I won’t say it could have been anyone,” says Ridgeley, “but George just needed a shoulder to cry on, in its simplest sense. That night in L.A. it came to a head, he got it out, and I think he grew up a bit and realized that you have to get on with things.”
So he threw himself into Faith and entered a stable, long-lasting relationship with Kathy Jeung, an Asian American club DJ, makeup artist and, he says, “total American party animal” (she’s the woman in his steamy “I Want Your Sex” video). Jeung lives in L.A., satisfying one of his critieria for an ideal partner: distance. “I can see settling down one day,” he says, “but I really am incredibly demanding in the sense that I only want people around me a certain amount of time. It doesn’t matter how much I love someone: if they’re under my feet more than a couple of days, I’m climbing up the walls.”
If that attitude makes him seem ambivalent toward even his strongest relationship, many of his songs do the same thing. So why does so much of his material revolve around the theme of women taking things from him? “I suppose,” he says haltingly, “that’s probably because a lot of women want to take things from me. I don’t know.”
And yes, he’s heard the rumors that he’s gay. “I’ve always thought that people speculated so much because I was so quiet about my private life,” he says, “and secondly because I’ve always had a very ambiguous sounding voice–I’m not exactly Bruce Springsteen to listen to, you know. What bugs me is that rumor is always accepted as fact. I’ll be sitting with a bunch of friends when I hear rumors about other people in the music business, and I’ll say, ‘Why the fuck do you believe that? You know what happens to me all the time, you’re constantly defending me, but a rumor comes from someone else, and you believe it, you eat it up, and you spread it.’ “I’ve never been concerned with who was doing what with who in bed, you know? I’ve always thought that people ought to get on with what they’re doing in their own beds.”
The seat-belt sign comes on, and the Concorde begins its descent. “Jesus, that went really quick,” he says. “I’m terrible on long flights. I can’t sit, I can’t sleep. So I used to get absolutely wrecked on whatever wine they had. And, of course, the stewardesses would love it. To see me pissed was like a dream come true to them, a good old story.”
When the plane lands, he walks off quietly humming “The Girl from Ipanema.” At the end of the ramp there’s an obviously nervous airline employee waiting for him. “I’m with special services,” she says, “and I’m here to help you through customs.”
“Special services?” he says, shaking his head and smiling. “I guess my album must be doing pretty well in America.”
He is sitting in the back seat of a limo, heading for a New York City rehearsal hall, when he finds a radio station playing “I Want Your Sex.” But George Michael doesn’t stop for his own song; he keeps hitting the dial, staying on each station just long enough to identify the record, unless it’s from a personal favorite like Anita Baker.
He keeps up a running commentary: “This didn’t even make the Top Forty–I don’t understand it…This got to Number One in England.” He seems to know the chart positions of every recent hit, American and British.
Then he lands on a station playing Greek bouzouki music, stops and shouts, “The music of my people!” He sighs. “This reminds me of Greek weddings as a kid. I was really proud of my father at weddings, because he could dance with drinks on his head better than anybody else.”
But young Georgios Panayiotou also butted heads with his father for much of his youth; mostly, the arguments concerned music. Dismayed that he could never be a pilot because he’s nearsighted and partially colorblind, seven-year-old Georgios set his sights on music, especially after his parents bought him a tape recorder: “I literally never entertained any other trought in my entire childhood and adolescence after that,” he says.
Obsessed with Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, he’d save for months to buy the records, or he’d tape a friend’s LP and then shoplift the cassette cover. But his father, a Greek Cypriot immigrant and restaurateur who’d worked his way into the middle-class London suburb of Bushey, didn’t want a son dreaming of pop stardom.
“He was typical of the hard-working immigrant generation,” says Michael. “He wanted me to be better than him, and to him only certain professions were respectable.”
His parents also frowned on a friend he met when he was 11 years old. Unlike the shy, bespectacled and pudgy Georgios, Andrew Ridgeley was a cocky pubescent fashion plate. “There was always a bit of a tense air when I went round there,” says Ridgeley. “His parents didn’t like me for quite a while.”
“In retrospect,” says Michael, “I’ve never seen two people that were so influential on each other’s lives and characters. Andrew and I, in a sense, totally changed each other. I suppose we spent all that time aspiring to be different parts of each other.” He laughs. “I mean, we would go out and get absolutely wrecked at that age–14, 15, 16–when you go to parties and all you want to do is get off with someone. And in the course of that pursuit you get absolutely legless. The majority of the time Andrew got more legless than I, so I’d have to carry him home. I remember evenings when he’d be fallin’ over and throwin’ up, and I’d sit him in his front room, and his clothes would be immaculate. And I’d be absolutely covered in shit, you know?
“His clothes were always perfect, he was really stylish, all the girls liked him. And that was something that I always wanted to be, because I was such a mess to look at. The whole idea of being a physically attractive personality never really occurred to me until I met him.”
Ridgeley remembers it in much the same way. “He didn’t have much of a clue about making the most of himself then,” he says with a laugh. “George probably wanted to be rich and famous–most of us do, I think–but I don’t think he ever wanted to be a star. But George was incredibly consumed by music, and I think it was my desire to entertain and his desire to write songs that really brought the whole thing together.”
In his midteens he took part-time jobs to support himself–working on construction sites, in a movie theater, as a club DJ–but most of his energy went to his “soul boy” style: dancing to the latest black dance songs, getting into disco early on, shunning punk.
“It was a matter of sexuality as opposed to individuality,” he says. “I had nothing to rebel against, you know, and I was far more interested in going out and strutting my funky stuff, learning the latest steps and having the latest records and seeing how many girls you could pull. That was far more attractive to me than the idea of punk–because at 15, I was only just coming around to me fact that it was a possibility for me to pull girls, and I was quite thrilled.”
And, he points out, “there were very few pretty punk girls. They were usually, like, dead ugly.”
In 1979, George, Andrew and a few friends formed the Executive and played what he calls “crappy ska music.” Some time after the Executive broke up, George and Andrew made a demo tape that included a rap parody called “Wham! Rap”–from which they chose their name–and a ballad, “Careless Whisper,” mostly written by 17-year-old George.
The tape won them a deal–albeit a miserly, unprofitable deal–with Innervision Records, an independent label distributed by CBS. They signed in the spring of 1982, just before Georgios Panayiotou became, professionally, George Michael.
That summer, they released “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” a pseudo-rap song sarcastically endorsing unemployment. Wham! appeared to offer hedonism as a response to the dead ends in Eighties Britain; though they’d meant it as a joke, the song was a hit, and the record sold well.
The two teenagers embraced the idea that they could become pop stars and concocted similar follow-ups in “Young Guns (Go for It)” and “Bad Boys.” The latter song was “a pile of shit,” Michael says. “I’d been given this kind of young-social-commentator halo, and I just wasn’t comfortable with it. The way I saw it, I was gonna get found out one day anyway, so why not be honest and start making pop records?”
So they did. They used the money they had made from the four British hits on their LP Fantastic to get out of their deal with Innervision, and they signed a better contract with CBS. They embraced Britain’s New Pop movement with a vengeance, releasing the frothy hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and prancing around stages in deep tans and skimpy short pants.
Sometimes they shoved badminton shuttlecocks down their shorts, then tossed them into the audience. “It was the whole New Pop idea, wasn’t it?” Michael says. “We were riding the crest of that wave. I wasn’t going to let that one pass by, no way.”
They were glitzy, shallow, hummable, good-looking–all gleaming surfaces and teen appeal–marketing hedonism not as a political response but as an end in itself. They attracted the services of the flamboyant rock manager Simon Napier-Bell, famed for his party-time exploits, his self-promotion and his work with the Yardbirds and T-Rex.
They played in Red China. They toured stadiums in the United States. And they became what they’d consciously set out to become: the biggest pop group in the world (with the possible exception of America). “Because there were two of us,” Michael says, “I suppose there was always this kind of ‘us against the world’ attitude. So we threw in the occasional thing to really wind people up, like the shorts–which looked terrible, because we both have such hairy legs–or calling the second album Make It Big.”
Michael was clearly the brains behind the music–Ridgeley having somewhat reluctantly surrendered his input when they realized Michael’s talents could make them huge stars–but to many people, being the brains behind Wham! was tantamount to having no brains at all.
“Every time I walked into a room,” he says, “I felt I had to go around proving I wasn’t brain dead. It definitely got out of hand–I mean, I don’t know where I lost the plot and became that person with long blond hair, and the teeth, and the earrings. I don’t know if I woke up one morning and suddenly was that person.”
So he made changes. Cosmetic ones came first: he grew stubble, figuring facial hair was “a very simplistic, very obvious way to prove that I didn’t have to be that guy in the white suits and the blond hair.”
But it wasn’t enough. In early 1985, Michael says, Wham! stopped being fun, and in the winter of that year, sinking into depression and becoming more formulaic in his writing, he told Ridgeley he was ending the band the following year.
“To actually pursue our ambition to its zenith, we should have made another album,” says Ridgeley, “because in the States we’d only had one successful album. In a sense, Wham! failed in its ultimate goal, even though it got 75 or 95 percent of the way there.”
Michael disagrees, saying another Wham! album “would have been absolute shit.” (The final American album, Music from the Edge of Heaven, was a spotty collection of odds and ends.) But he does think Wham! could have achieved more–more money, for instance.
“We could have totally cleaned up,” he says, “but for the size group that we were, we made a very average amount of money. We didn’t have a great deal; we had a good deal. And we never cleaned up with merchandising or film or selling anything…I got rich, but I didn’t get as rich as people think I did.
“This time,” says George Michael with a straight face, “I’m gonna get rich. And not because I particularly need any more money, but because I should, you know?”
The only thing that distresses me is the idea that people think I’m a starstar.”
Michael is more agitated than usual, talking about people who misunderstand him. “What disturbs me,” he says, “is this image that all I really give a shit about is the clothes I buy and how successful I am. There are stars out there, maybe the majority of American stars, who think success is more important than anything else. I do like being a celebrity–it’s good to get into clubs for free and stuff. But genuinely, I am only really passionate about my music.”
He is sitting in a cavernous Manhattan rehearsal room; down the hall, two of his musicians are auditioning drummers and guitarists for the band for his upcoming world tour. He is talking about the tour, which begins in Japan in February and hits the United States this summer.
He is talking about acting, which he figures is inevitable but can’t see happening until the 1990s. He is talking about money, about how he recently discovered that his accountants had invested in an American arms company. (He sold the stock the next day, just as he had canceled his management contract in 1986 when the company was about to be sold to a firm with South African interests.)
He has added a calf-length leather jacket to his standard black-clothes-and-white-socks outfit; he looks and sounds like a healthy, immaculately groomed, expensively dressed pop star. It’s similar to the look he shows the public: the thoughtful, bearded, darkhaired, serious George Michael we now see is, he swears, the real George Michael, not the latest commercial calculation. But should we believe him?
“I always said, ‘Look, it’s show business,”‘ he says. “The simple fact is, maybe I’m a little tired of it being show business to the degree that I don’t recognize myself. I can’t do anything about that other than sit here and say, you know, ‘Come to my house, come see me, this is actually how I am.’ I don’t run around in shorts at home.”
Still, will listening to Faith show you the Georgios Panayiatou who lives alone in an open, glassed-in London house that he bought furnished and hasn’t changed? The man who stays at home for a month, congratulating himself on being grown-up–and then drinks and club-hops every night for weeks? The awkward kid whose passion for music made him rich and famous, the combative son who bought his father a Rolls-Royce last Christmas, the sex symbol in whose fleshy, rounded features you can still see a pudgy, insecure teen?
“No one will ever know any more about George Michael than they probably do about the next man in the street,” says Andrew Ridgeley. “But nowadays he’s letting his real character come out a lot more in his music. Wham! was very much a created, artificial image, and Georges image is a lot closer to what he actually is as a person.”
When he hits the road, the new George Michael plans to play the songs from his solo album, ignore all but a couple of his Wham! hits and, he hopes, reach fans who have come to listen, not screech. If he wins the credibility he knowingly sacrificed in Wham!, the tour will join the list of things that have changed people’s minds about George Michael: “Careless Whisper,” say, or the Motown TV special where he sang with Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder (“It proved to me that I was capable of standing onstage with a great singer and holding my own, which was something I’d never really considered before”), or his duet with Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” or Faith.
“In a sense, I think what I’m really aiming for is to become a star of a different proportion,” he says. “People like Madonna and Springsteen and Prince–I’ve got to get into that league to satisfy me that my music is getting as far as it should. And I think that’s just about to happen.”
He even knows what he’ll do once he reaches that level: nobody’s going to believe it, but he plans to turn his back and walk away, putting his career into a lower gear.
First, though, he wants to make his mark. “I think, to tell you the truth,” he says, “that I’m already regarded as one of the main pop writers for the Eighties. But I want to be regarded as that through the Nineties and do something to carry on, something that’s really memorable, so the music becomes something historical. I think that my music deserves it.
“I have to keep working hard, and I have to keep believing in what I do to actually achieve that,” says George Michael, age twenty-four, cocky and rich and determined to show up anybody who might still hate him. “I don’t think there’s any reason it shouldn’t happen.”
This feature originally appeared in the January 28, 1988 issue of ROLLING STONE.