Article published in GQ Magazine UK when George Michael won the Lifetime Contribution Award during the 7th annual GQ Men Of The Year Awards at the Royal Opera House in London on 7 September 2004.
George Michael’s house is tucked away alongside a block of flats in the dead end of a rather unremarkable west London road. His Range Rover barely squeezes onto the off-street parking area, and there are no security gates, no imposing entrance pillars, and not so much as a CCTV camera or concrete lion in sight. Britney et al would pale at the thought. The man even answers his own front door, for God’s sake, greeting me with a cosmetically assisted Colgate smile that’s the only clue to his superstar status.
“I’m just not security-minded,” he shrugs, throwing coffee into two cups in his kitchen. “And I have a feeling that if you think that way, bad shit comes to you. If someone really wants to hurt you, they’ll find a way whatever. I don’t want to live my life worrying about it.”
That said, he has had a couple of unsettling experiences with fans, most notably an English girl who lived under his house for four days. Built on a slope, the low-slung frontage leads into a spacious, split-level living room, propped up by stilts at the rear, overlooking a fabulously lush garden that belies its city location. “I had no idea she was under there,” George says. “I was talking to one of my friends one night, and I thought I could hear my name being called out. Then she suddenly presented herself.” He called the police, but as there were no anti-stalking laws at the time, they told George there was nothing they could do. “The only reason they eventually took her to the police station was because she punched one of them,” he scoffs. “She came back a few times, and a few months later they found her masturbating in the corner of my garden!”
He’s also found other fans lurking around the property, and a few have broken in and left gifts. But he seems unfazed by this. “Listen, if I had children, I would be Mr Security. I’d have all the trappings because I would be neurotic on their behalf. But as it’s just me, no.”
Until recently, a journalist’s only hope of entering George’s private world would probably have meant joining the crazed fan under the floorboards. But here I am, welcomed into his home, a cup of coffee in my hand and surrounded by scented candles which add to the relaxed atmosphere. Dressed in black with his Labradors Meg and Abby playing at his feet, this is a trim, healthy George, finally at peace with who he is, a man who admits, since his arrest in 1998 for lewd behaviour in a Los Angeles public loo, he’s been “a better-off gay man.”
When 12-year-old Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou first met Andrew Ridgeley at Bushey Meads school in Hertfordshire in 1975, the seeds were sown for a musical career that was to gain him worldwide recognition and untold millions in the bank. As Wham! they burst onto the pop scene in 1982 with the heady combination of micro shorts and George’s major songwriting talent. By 1986 they called it a day and a new, more sombre George Michael emerged. His first solo album, 1987’s Faith, sold ten million copies and won a Grammy. In 1990 there was Listen Without Prejudice, Vol 1, followed by Older in 1996, full of powerful ballads. Then… nothing. Although there were vast sales for his greatest hits CD, Ladies And Gentlemen, in 1998 and the contractual-obligation album of covers, Songs From The Last Century in 1999, he suffered writer’s block for nearly four years and despaired whether he’d ever write a hit again.
While waiting for a house to be renovated, George moved back to the first house he ever bought – the one we’re sitting in now and the one he most associates with his mother, who would insist on cleaning it for him. “Something miraculous happened and I just started writing again,” he says, convinced it has something to do with the feel of his mother in the house.
If I wasn’t with my boyfriend, I would have sex with women, no question
The subsequent 2002 single “Shoot The Dog”, a satire on Bush and Blair in the run-up to the Iraq War, only got to No. 12 and George found himself criticised for meddling in politics. But he remains unrepentant and included it on his latest solo effort, Patience, which is Britain’s fastest-selling album this year, selling 275,000 copies in its first week and reaching No.1. Sales are currently approaching four million worldwide and the album also received favourable reviews, with one commenting that it’s a new George Michael “who no longer minds being thought of as a pop star”.
He frowns, “I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.”
Certainly, many of his solo lyrics have a dark side a world away from the lyrical bubble gum of Wham!’s “Club Tropicana” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”. But little wonder, for George has, in his words, “been into the abyss” in his private life.
The start of the downward spiral can be pinpointed to New Year 1991 when his Brazilian boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa flew to London to tell George he had tested positive for AIDS. It was just three months after they met. “He’d had the result earlier but he told me it was negative because he didn’t want to spoil my Christmas,” says George, who dedicated Older to Anselmo.
Anselmo eventually died of a brain haemorrhage in 1993, shortly after returning to Brazil for a blood transfusion.
Because the death was unexpected, George wasn’t with him, “It was untimely, but that way he never lost his dignity, and I suppose I was spared the worst of what some people go through. But I’m still convinced that had he been in the USA or London, he would have survived, because just six months later everyone was on combination therapy.”
Studies now show a three-drug combination of anti-HIV treatments is much more effective than a single drug or two-drug combinations in preventing disease progression. “I think he went to Brazil because he feared what my fame would do to him and his family if he got treatment elsewhere,” says George. “I was devastated by that. The idea that he had the opportunity to go somewhere better but wouldn’t take it because of my fame makes me feel very guilty.”
Anselmo had a strict Catholic upbringing and to this day, the effect it had on his life is something that leaves a bitter taste in George’s mouth. “I can’t bear 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.”
The day after Anselmo’s death, George decided to finally admit to his parents he was gay, and he did so in a long letter. His mother Lesley’s only reaction was devastation that she hadn’t been able to help her son through such a traumatic experience. But what of Jack, the traditionally Greek father who had always had a more remote relationship with his young son, owing to prolonged absences running the family restaurant? “He never displayed any disappointment or homophobia,” says George. “I’m sure he felt it, and it was hard for him, but he didn’t lay any of it onto me which I have to thank him for. This is sad, but I do feel success can negate a parent’s disappointment. I genuinely feel that although his son is gay and not going to give him any grandkids, my dad’s consolation is that I have done well in life.”
George went into therapy as soon as Anselmo was diagnosed, and it was three years after his death before he felt able to consider another relationship. Then, in 1996, he met Kenny Goss the chisel-jawed Texan who shares his life to this day. They have always said they met in the LA department store Fred Segal, but the truth is they got talking in a respectable LA spa. “We thought if we told the truth, certain people would think we met cruising each other!” he laughs. “But that wasn’t what happened at all. We just got chatting and I asked him out for dinner. I wasn’t even sure if he was gay.”
Thrilled that his life seemed to be on the up again, he rang his mother to share the good news. In the same call, she told him she had been diagnosed with cancer. “So I didn’t even get one day to feel happy about having met Kenny. I was back into the black hole,” he says quietly. “I haven’t had any dark days for a long time now, but there was a point when that was all I had. I just used to sleep and sleep. Some days I could barely put one foot in front of the other; it was real depression. I was on Prozac. It made a slight difference, but for it to have really worked I would have had to be pumped so full of drugs I think the side effects would have been dreadful.”
I’m happier now. I seem to have progressed mentally, regardless of being a pothead
He would frequently snap out of the depression and think it was over, telling anyone who’d listen how his life was back on track and how he’d write a successful album any day now. But then the smallest thing would trigger it again. “I was so close to the edge all the time that I kept getting knocked back into the abyss, constantly looking over my shoulder wondering where the next blow would come from. But touch wood, things are good now. No one’s died on me or betrayed me for a while,” he laughs.
Being depressed is one thing, living with it quite another, and one wonders how Kenny coped with so much dark reality when the relationship was still in its fledgling stages.
A lesser person might have run a mile, and George is in no doubt quite how important his partner’s support was. “If he hadn’t been around, I think my life would have been in danger, in terms of me,” George says matter-of-factly. “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.”
Does he mean suicide? He purses his lips and ponders the thought for a moment or two. “I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine it would have been a very strong possibility if I hadn’t had someone as strong as Kenny to rely on. He was there to put his arms around me and remind me there was something positive going on. I was never without stress from the moment I found out about Mum’s cancer, but Kenny waited and he finally got to see me healthy and happy last year.
Madonna’s sexuality is hers. It’s not for men. She’s very strong. I had a feeling that sex with her would be like being with a man. Maybe I should have tried it
It’s well-documented that George also likes to smoke joints, once puffing his way through up to 18 a day. His intake is much fewer now, but at its height, does he think it contributed to his depression? “If you’ve smoked it for a long time – which I have – it can be linked to depression, but I don’t think that`s the case with me. I’m sure it’s bad for me in some ways, but I love smoking. I wish to God I didn’t, especially as a singer. It was the most stupid thing I ever did, but I`m definitely a more together and happier man.
In other words, I seem to have progressed mentally, regardless of being a pothead!” He pauses and puts on a mock serious tone. “But I wouldn’t recommend it to the young.”
His laid-back attitude to his own wellbeing is in contrast to his concern for those close to him particularly Kenny, whose company sells sportswear to US schools and colleges. “My biggest problem in life is fear of more loss. I fear Kenny’s death far more than my own. I don’t want to outlive him. I’d rather have a short life and not have to go through being torn apart again. Kenny has to travel a lot with his job and we have fights before he flies because I try and get him to avoid British Airways or American Airlines in case he falls victim to a terrorist attack. When he leaves me, I panic. I can’t relax until he’s called to say he’s arrived safely. But when I fly, I don’t care and get straight on BA.”
So much of their eight-year liaison is conventional. But recently, the relationship hit the headlines when George revealed they both have no-strings-attached sex with other men, “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.”
His argument is that although they have sex with other men, they are emotionally monogamous. But here comes another George Michael revelation… sexually, he swings both ways, “When I walk into a restaurant I check out the women before the men, because they’re more glamorous. If I wasn’t with Kenny, I would have sex with women, no question,” he enthuses. “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’rn definitely a gay man.”
Most gay men will tell you they knew from as young as three or four that their sexuality was a predisposition they could do nothing about where does he stand on the nature versus nurture argument? “In my case it was a nurture thing, via the absence of my father who was always busy working. It meant I was exceptionally close to my mother. All of my early sexual fantasies were straight and totally readable. My first fantasy involved me being surrounded by a group of nuns who all had their tits out. I mean, how obvious can you get. I was lying helpless on some kind of medical table. I have no idea what that all means. And there was a female maths teacher I used to masturbate about as well, so all that led me to believe I was on the path to heterosexuality. It wasn’t until puberty that I started fantasising about men, and I do think it had something to do with my environment. But there are definitely those who have a predisposition to being gay in which the environment is irrelevant.”
He has said in the past that, as a child, he sometimes felt his mother didn’t regard him as man enough, “She was so liberal as a parent that it didn’t make sense that she might feel like that,” he says now. “But I think it was because her brother Colin had killed himself the day after I was born, and she thought it was because he was gay. So I’m sure she was terrified of seeing anything gay about me because, to her, being gay meant misery. I totally understand that, even though she was misguided in worrying about it.” Thankfully, times have now changed to such an extent that Colin’s famous nephew is open and happily gay and appearing on the cover of GQ. “Every little bit helps,” smiles George on this notable event.
At the age of 19, during the making of Wham!’s second album, George had worked out he was bisexual. He told Andrew Ridgeley and close friends immediately, and was ready to tell the world. “I had very little fear about it, but basically my straight friends talked me out of it. I think they thought as I was bisexual, there was no need to.
But it’s amazing how much more complicated it became because I didn’t come out in the early days. I often wonder if my career would have taken a different path if I had.”
One of the complications was not being able to be completely honest with people. “I used to sleep with women quite a lot in the Wham! days but never felt it could develop into a relationship because I knew that, emotionally, I was a gay man. I didn’t want to commit to them but I was attracted to them. Then I became ashamed that I might be using them. I decided I had to stop, which I did when I began to worry about AIDS, which was becoming prevalent in Britain. Although I had always had safe sex, I didn’t want to sleep with a woman without telling her I was bisexual. I felt that would be irresponsible. Basically, I didn’t want to have that uncomfortable conversation that might ruin the moment, so I stopped sleeping with them,”
His only bona fide girlfriend was Kathy Yueng who appeared in the video for “I Want Your Sex”; George says she knew he was bisexual. He also confesses to having had a secret crush on Madonna “during her chubby years” and recalls their first meeting alone. “I felt she was really trying to suss out whether I would go for it or not.” He bends double with an expression of mock excruciation. “God, I’ve never told anyone this before! “But I was only 23 and was really intimidated because I felt like she was coming onto me and although I thought that she was sexy, she was just too powerful for me at that stage.
She’s very strong. Her sexuality is hers, it’s not for men, and I had a feeling it would be sex of an intensity that would feel like I was with a man. I don’t know why. Maybe I should have tried it!”
In his autobiography, former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell described George and Andrew as having a “beguiling homoerotic intimacy”. Did he ever fancy Andrew?
He screws up his face at the thought. “I can’t think of anything more vile than sleeping with Andrew. I’ve known him since he was 11 and he’s one of my best friends.
“There probably was something homoerotic there, simply because we were so close. But luckily, I never fancied him. Also, he’s just not my type, to be honest. Beautiful though.”
The pair remain close friends, with George spending last New Year at Ridgeley’s home in Cornwall, and Ridgeley recently staying at George’s home in Goring, Oxfordshire, for the latter’s 41st birthday party. Settled with a family, Ridgeley leads the quiet life, spending time with his children and indulging his passion for surfing.
It’s an anonymity George craves but is philosophical he’ll never achieve. “In the very early days of Wham! the attention felt great, but I do wonder how much freedom I gave away by trying to become something I wasn’t. Much as I’m privileged and thankful to be in the position I am, there’s no question I would have enjoyed my journey more if when I was 18, I hadn’t chased the whole physical, sexual part of things.”
But after 22 years of being in the public eye, the reality is that people’s response to him gets stronger and stronger.
Although they tend to give him space, they feel they know him and he often encounters dropped-jaw expressions of shock that are quite discomforting. “I once tried a disguise. It was when I had longer hair and I tucked it up in a baseball hat and wore my prescription glasses. I looked nothing like me, or so I thought. But within a few minutes of leaving the house, someone said, ‘Hello George, I didn’t know you wore specs.’ So I gave up on that.”
The upside of fame, he says, is that, generally, everyone is nice to him. And, of course, he receives accolades like GQ’s Lifetime Achievement award. “Yes, that’s what you get when you don’t dye your grey hairs!” he laughs. “But seriously, I’m really flattered. Thank you.”I don’t know if I’d have committed suicide, but it’d have been a possibility if I hadn’t had my boyfriend
His hunger for privacy was blown completely out of the water when he was arrested trying to pick up an undercover LA cop in 1998. He came out fighting on the talk show circuit, saying it was entrapment by the police and media. Previously, his explanation has been that it was a cry for help, his way of telling the world he was gay rather than giving the story to one journalist. But now he’s thought about it more deeply and has a likelier explanation. “Now, 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,” he says. “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 successfull”
He says cruising was something he used to do occasionally when he was feeling bad about himself but that he no longer has that compulsion. “I don’t need that thrill any more and my sex life has become more conventional in a way. In general, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I have been through so much loss there’s little for me to fear any more. The only worse experience in life, I think, is to lose a child.”
He reveals that he and Kenny have discussed having a child, but “I have dismissed it out of hand because I know that’s not the way I want to go. I think I would be a good dad, but terribly neurotic. And I wouldrf t be a very happy man if I had to make all those sacrifices.” What, I ask, if Kenny’s desire to have a child outweighs Georges wish not to? “I’d have to let him go and find someone who wanted that too,” he replies swiftly. “You can’t have a child just to keep a relationship together, can you? I sometimes think it’s a shame for Kenny because he could quite easily adopt with someone else. Hes fantastic with kids, and I have a feeling he’d do it much better than me. But he’s not obsessed with having children.”
So it’s just George and Kenny, and the occasional lover or two who drifts in and out of their beds but is never allowed to encroach on their life together. It works for them and George genuinely seems like a man who has fought more than his fair share of demons but emerged stronger for it. “Is my body a temple, or is my life a temple?” he muses. “I’m definitely in the latter category and I think my life has been better since thinking that way.”
- George Michael’s Interview with the Gay Magazine ‘The Advocate’ (1999)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- George Michael’s Interview with Gay Times (2007)
- In His Own Words: George Michael and His Mother
- George Michael Interview on Q Magazine (December 1998)