Read the George Michael Interview by Liz Nickson that was published in Life Magazine in September 1988.
Prepare yourselves, moms and dads, for another hot flash of teen frenzy. For the next few months the siren songs of George Michael, the British pop star, will be heard across the U.S. as he concludes his 1988 world tour. Born as Yorgos Panayiotou 25 years ago, G.M. joined Andrew Ridgeley in the pop duo Wham! in 1982 and went solo in ’86. Michael was named songwriter of the year in England in 1985 and began to be compared to Lennon and McCartney. G.M.’s appeal has spread beyond teenagers. Indeed, a New York Times critic praised him recently not only for his “extraordinary skills as a songwriter, arranger and producer” but also for his rare “white soul voice.” His new album, Faith, will likely be the top seller of ’88. Already there have been four No. 1 singles from the LP, including “I Want Your Sex,” which was released last year. G.M. has chucked the flowing clothes and long mane of his Wham! days and adopted a hard-bitten if blow-dried swagger. Lounging in Saint-Tropez before leaving for America, G.M. had words with London bureau chief Liz Nickson.
You look so hard, so tough. You look like a guy that breaks everybody’s heart, but most of your lyrics show vulnerability, quite the opposite.
It’s a defense, isn’t it? The way you look isn’t necessarily the way you are. I’m easily hurt in some ways, and I suppose my appearance wards it off.
Why do you have your beard this way? Is it a two-day or three-day growth?
This is the length that the machine that cuts my beard cuts it to. It’s a proper salon thing, you know. I do it every day. It grows very quickly.
Your look seems very considered, not like anyone else’s. I’m not making fun of you.
It’s all right, you can. I’m used to it.
You’re known for your rigid control over your photo sessions and the pictures that come out of them. Why is that so important?
A few reasons. I’m really tired of other people making money out of my face. People have made fortunes out of it. One thing I don’t like is having my picture taken, and another is seeing bad pictures of myself. I’m perfectly prepared to admit that I don’t like my face. I don’t look fine all the time. I don’t look fine if someone just takes a Polaroid. I know how I look best, it’s as simple as that. This is an insecurity most people have, but they don’t have control over it.
At the Nelson Mandela birthday concert outside London last June you were one of the few performers not to sing your own music. How come?
Well, to be honest, there was something I didn’t like about that day. It didn’t have the naivete of Live Aid, which I remember as being an incredibly special day, especially the English side of it. There was a new awareness of the third world. Unfortunately, charity is a fashion that has now passed. This time around you had Dire Straits, Queen, Phil Collins. These people are great live artists and knew what the concert would do for their careers. I heard there were huge arguments about who would go on at what time. I couldn’t bear for that kind of thing to be thought about my involvement, so I chose to do other people’s work. I thought that the only real statement I could make was for a white artist to perform three of his favorite black songs (“Village Ghetto Land” by Stevie Wonder, “If I Were Your (Wo)man” by Gladys Knight and “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye).
Do you think English singers are more into black music than white musicians in the U.S.?
Yeah, for as long as I can remember English singers have championed American black music. See, I grew up with American black music, and I’ve become a musician who does a form of soul music that is accepted by American black people and by musicians. I was No. 1 on the American black charts for six weeks.
Yet you’re being criticized in England now for singing soul. Why is that?
Well, first, because English people think you have to be black to do this music, which to me is inverted racism. And secondly and more importantly, you have to be something other than George Michael. The English have a very strange attitude toward George Michael.
What does the English press have against you?
They wish I didn’t know I was capable of certain things. They want me to be a lot more humble. I won’t be humble about songwriting and things I know I’m good at. It’s a very jealous country. I love my country, but my father is Greek, so I don’t think I have a totally English outlook. One thing about the people that drives me to distraction is the desire to keep everyone in their place.
Do you feel a connection with Elvis?
I’ve never even dared to think of any comparison. Elvis – before they got their teeth into him – was such an incredible accident of influences. His music in ’56 and ’57 was absolutely incredible. I mean, where did it come from? People tend to forget that he was so outrageous. He wore makeup, had long hair. I’m sure the initial perception of Elvis was that he was a big fag. Other than to girls, who could see that he wasn’t. I think he was so brave and beautiful. The other thing about Elvis is that with him the youth culture was created. You didn’t want to be a kid and you didn’t want to be an adult — you wanted to be that bit in the middle that didn’t have any responsibilities. It lasted 30 years. I think it’s gone now. The trouble now is that kids want to be adults so young, they don’t want that period in between.
Didn’t Wham! go back to that time of being young and having a blast?
Well, it was such fun to be 19 and having those girls throwing themselves at you. I’d always seen myself as the songwriter and singer, and I thought that Andrew (Ridgeley), who had all the looks and the girls in high school, would be the one who got screamed at. I had to pull girls with personality, not looks. So of course I totally took advantage of it. Somehow through all of that I managed to progress as a songwriter.
You’ve said that one of the miseries about being a sex symbol was that you’d go home with a girl and you’d have to spend all night with your eyes open because you couldn’t take out your contact lenses.
Yes, you’d say, “Oh God, now I’m stuck here all night.” It’s so true though. The worst is that moment when you realize that you’ve done it again.
How did that hedonistic period end?
What brought me out of it? Love. Fell in love. Then was quickly brought down to earth.
You were rejected?
Yes. I’m different now because of it. I had a reasonably promiscuous period for a while, but promiscuity is a lonely business, a confused kind of loneliness. Then when you know what you want, and it’s taken away from you – that’s a different kind of reality. I don’t think I’ve been quite as hedonistic since. Well, I have, but it has made me much more serious.
Good for you, in retrospect?
I don’t know, I could have done with another year of harmless fun.
How did you heal yourself? I read you went on an 11-month alcoholic binge.
It’s the truth, really. I drank myself into a stupor for most of that year before the end of Wham!. It reached its natural conclusion. You can only feel sorry for yourself for so long. About two years ago I just kicked myself in the ass and said, “Right, get on with it.”
What’s it like to grow up so publicly?
It would be much easier if people would allow for the fact that I was growing up. From day two they’ve been treating me like a 35-year-old. As a musician I’ve only made three albums – I’ve got nowhere yet. Just because I started so young, people expect me to be a veteran.
Attention does seem to magnify one’s errors.
Definitely. You have to be analytical about things that you shouldn’t even worry about. You have to take all those thousands of opinions, most of them uncomplimentary in my case, and weigh them. Sometimes after you’ve been attacked so much you think, well, 50,000 people can’t be wrong. But they can. And they are, often.
What do you think they have been most wrong about?
People think I’m cold. People think I’m calculated. Over the past six years I’ve got used to this allegation. But I’ve met only a handful of people who are as committed to this business as I am, who believe in what they do. Especially at a time when music is so processed, when there is very little soul at the center of it, to be singled out for being calculated – apart from being wrong – is incredibly hurtful.
You must do some calculating.
Not any more than most people. They say, all right, he writes, he produces, he directs all his own videos, he performs. All it is is hard work, but they see that as calculated. Maybe it seems so because the calculations are a little more accurate.
Who can you think of who has endured stardom most successfully?
Paul McCartney. But he should have stopped making records a few years ago.
Do you have any brothers and sisters?
Two sisters, 27 and 29. It’s a close-knit immigrant family. My sisters live at home because they don’t believe there is any point in moving out till they get married. My father came from Greece; he landed with 20 shillings in his pocket. My mother loves music and used to be a singer when she was a girl. It never came to anything though, so I don’t know how talented she was. My father isn’t musical at all.
Where do you get your confidence from?
My father. I had to fight so hard with him to be a musician. At 16 I had left school and was working two jobs. I’d work in a film theater from noon until eight, then I’d go be a disc jockey in a club. So I was working nonstop, but still he’d yell at me because it wasn’t serious work. That hardened my resolve.
Are you religious at all?
No, religion has its structure, its rules and explanations for everything. I’m not really keen on explanations. I’m developing my own theory on the way to live life. It would be very easy to take the position, as I did when I was younger, that things are getting worse and worse in terms of people’s ethics, or the world situation, or ecology or whatever. I’d like to think that there have been times in history when things were bad or worse and times when things were better, and that it’s a constant struggle and there is a possibility for things to get better.
Why the religious iconography on your last album jacket, the cross earring you wear?
The imagery of Christianity is very powerful. Anything which gives people that much hope is a good thing. When I was a child I was an atheist; when I was a teenager I was an agnostic; now I know there’s got to be a force far greater than we can imagine to believe in. As for the cross, it’s an attractive symbol. My mum hated me wearing it originally. It was too strong for someone whose beliefs were as vague as mine were.
How does she feel about it now?
She just got used to it, like everything else.
Who made your earring?
I don’t know, it’s cheap. My sister found six or seven around the corner from home. We thought that on tour I was bound to lose them. I think people have grabbed them off me onstage.
That must hurt.
I don’t have them securely fastened.
How do you go about writing your songs?
I do it all in my head. I have almost a photographic memory for my own ideas. I don’t have to put them down, because if they’re good, they do stay. I have songs in my head that are three years old, and I have the complete arrangements, the string arrangements, everything. My publisher goes white when I tell him that. He says, “You only have to bump your head and you lose millions of dollars.”
Have I missed anything?
Not unless you want to know what I had for breakfast: nothing.
Because there was nothing in the fridge, so I haven’t eaten all day. I’ll have a frozen pizza tonight, though.
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