The article “This Year’s Model” about the ‘Too Funky‘ video shoot was written by Chris Heath for the September 1992 issue of Details magazine.
George Michael does not do interviews. This is official. The great unnegotiable. Nevertheless, sometime around the 30th hour I have spent on the set of Too Funky, I take my courage in my hands and ask him why he no longer appears in his videos. I think maybe he’ll just answer. Maybe he won’t notice.
He looks at me. Amused. “Professional question!” He tuts.
“You know the rules,” signs Ronnie, his bodyguard. He turns to George: “Shall I beat him up?”
Then they laugh. George Michael may value his privacy like nothing else, but he hasn’t gone mad. He’s not the sort of person who would have a man beaten up but his bodyguard for asking the wrong thing. Or who would leave a sensible question unanswered.
When I arrive at the Studio de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is a problem. At first I assumed it is a problem with the cast. George Michael’s last studio-filmed video was “Freedom! 90” which featured five lip singing supermodels: Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and Tatjana Patitz. The original plan was to invite them all back, but only Evangelista could (or would) make it, and now the official line is that the video will showcase “this year’s up-and-coming supermodels.”
I watched Linda talk to a TV crew. This video is different from “Freedom! 90,” she explains, because “this time’s for free.” “Too Funky” is the first single from Red Hot + Dance benefit album for AIDS Charities, which George has contributed three exclusive new songs.
I find Thierry Mugler, fashion designer photographer and — here, for the first time — video director, shouting, running around slowly collecting shots. The concept for the video is a fashion show contrasting runway frolics with backstage nastiness. I had been told that George was codirecting but he is nowhere to be seen. I assume his role is merely honorary.
I say watch, I think about the stern silence George Michael has imposed upon himself in recent years. He didn’t used to be like this, I remember meeting him on a ram tour in 1984, George had thrown his back out and I drove back to London with him stopping off at his parents house where he still lived 40. They had wine posters on the walls why am I just had her first American number one Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go enjoy just worrying about Fame all I do is Hide Away in hotels. It’s driving me mad and I may well end up being in 22 year old hermit.
So, even then he knew. But it took him a few more years to sort it out: first making Wham! the world’s biggest pop group in 1985, then splitting them up in 1986, and writing a solo album, Faith, that conquered adult American market. It worked perfectly, and at that point, his ego perhaps sated, he disappeared. In 1990 he gave three interviews in Britain for the release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, all to explain why he would no longer give interviews. In America, he did nothing. In his official biography, Bare, he said, “I don’t intend to stare the world in the face anymore.”
Around midnight, George appears …. watches …. says nothing. He is with his manager, Rob Kahane, a man with almost exactly the same haircut and stubble as George. It makes me think about how dogs and their owners are supposed to look alike. And then I wonder who walks home? Kahane doesn’t look well. Ulcers. Slowly I get the story. As far as Thierry Mugler is concerned, Thierry Mugler is directing this video. George Michael expected to be cold directing, but has had to back off. Now George is most unhappy with the results; he likes Mugler’s styling, but the shots look static and unmusical.
Still, there is a light moment at the end of the night. A light moment with dark implications. It is nearly 2 a.m., and the six most famous models have been filmed on the backstage steps. George asked, “Can I get a photo?” and steps forward between them. Strangely, he seems in such a good mood. Suddenly Thierry Mugler, who has been otherwise occupied, sees what is happening. He is horrified. George Michael is posing for the one still photograph that will probably represent Thierry Mugler’s video to the world. There in front of him are six of the world’s top models all dressed, as he would always like to see them dressed, in Mugler’s finest. And in the center — the focus, the most famous of all — the pop star, George Michael. Wearing … a floral shirt by Jean Paul Gaultier.
The next morning, Sunday, a rumor circulates that last night George try to fire Thierry. But they are both present and speak to a public meeting of the hundred or so cast and crew members, declare a truce, and agree to co-direct. Reports in the world’s gossip columns later maintained that all communication between the two had broken down and that they were reduced to hollering at each other from opposite ends of the studio. This is nonsense; one could not imagine George Michael allowing such a gruesome confrontation into his life. Instead everything is handled with the utmost diplomacy. (Rather amusingly, when the video is released it will bear the George Michael-designed credit DIRECTED BY?)
I watched them work together. Even their body languages are different. Mugler’s is a busy conversation; Michael’s is the short, thoughtful comment. His movements aren’t so much stiff as guided by a determination not to disturb the air around him. As the day passes, George slowly takes over, there is not the slightest trace of self-doubt on his face.
For the next shot, Linda Evangelista has to appear from backstage and then flash an artificial smile.
“It’d be great,” George tells her, “if you can look as if it’s forced happiness.”
“You should walk,” chips in Thierry, “like Evita Peron.”
“How did she walk?” George asks.
“I don’t know who she is,” Evangelista says.
Thierry explains, no one pays much notice.
“Lots of condescension,” George instructs her. “You know … the truth.”
For a while I act as an extra in this scenes, one of the clamoring photographers beside the catwalk, it’s hard, hot work, so I sleep out for some fresh air. I meet Rob Kahane again, cradling his home video camera. It’s for his personal collection — he reckons he has about 150 hours of George larking about. His favorite moment is of George showing off on a snowmobile then crashing into a submerged tree stump and catapulting high up in the air.
Inside, time presses on. Linda Evangelista has a job tomorrow in New York, but she throws herself into the project with gusto. She tells me George and his entourage have visited her Paris home. She put on, and danced to, some of his old records while he read a photography book. She likes his records a lot. “When I go to the dentist that’s what he puts on the headphones. But I can have my teeth cleaned to ‘Freedom’ because I always start lip-synching.”
Later, as George dashes to and fro, Ronnie stops him. Rory is attentive in every way — earlier when George had some dust on his trousers, Ronnie simply walked up and brushed it off. Now he points to Michael’s sleek black shoes. There is a huge piece of white debris stuck to the soul, sticking out. He can’t be allowed to walk around like this. George looks down, nonplussed. “It’s an accessory,” he says.
George sends for his CD Walkman (just a basic Sony). He wants to play me his three new Red Hot + Dance songs. “Here, he says proudly, “you’ve got a world exclusive here.”
At which point I face a major etiquette problem. He seems so excited it would be churlish of me to mention that Red Hot + Dance publicists had set me a cassette last weekend. So I said nothing and put on the headphones. But soon I faced a further etiquette problem. The CD sticks at the beginning of the second track “Do You Really Want to Know”. I think, well, I don’t need to make a fuss, I know what the song sounds like. So I simply sit there, trying to gauge how long it would take if I could hear the CD. Finally, I slip the headphones off.
One of the male models asks George if he can listen. George nods. I wince. A few minutes later the model takes off the headphones, a little puzzled. “It keeps sticking,” he says.
Lauren is a model with the tiniest waist anyone has ever seen. George is fascinated by her. “I was just wondering which half her stomach is in.” The filming moves onto a scene where Shana fondles one of Linda’s metal breast. “A little lesbian bit,” says George, rushing off to demonstrate exactly how he wants the shot to be choreographed. “We saw you,” teases Ronnie on his return.
“I know,” says George feigning shame. “I touched her boobs”
At 5 a.m. George prepares to leave. Maybe the video has worked, maybe not. But it is over. Only then am I told what just a few other people seem to know. George has decided to make the video work he must have appear in it himself. Another director, Andy Morahan, is flying over on Tuesday. It is not over at all.
Tuesday morning, the first thing I hear when I walk into the studio is George discussing his dreams with Andy Morahan. I can’t be sure — they’re too far away — but it seems the George is saying that last night he dreamed he was Salman Rushdie. If true, I think, what an edifice of paranoia one could construct from that. But my thoughts are interrupted by their subject. He pretends he’s been waiting for me.
“When are you going to be kitted it up, Chris? There’s a lovely negligee …”
I don’t think so.
George has decided that he will be in the video as a cameraman, but mostly in silhouette. He gets on the camera crane and is flown over the stage. He watches me watching him. “If you have enough money,” he smiles, confident that he’s tossing down a bit of good quote, “you can do anything you want. Now I’m a cameraman.”
He asks me if I have a place in America, and tells me about his homes in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. I say I find it easier to come home to London to write. He agrees. “I never write anywhere but here.” Meaning London.
He asks me about music. He wants to know if the rest of Arrested Development’s LP is as good as “Tennessee.” He talks about the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. He asks me whether I’ve seen Prince’s new tour yet. “I always like to see him,” he says. “The second half of the Lovesexy show was the best I’ve ever seen.” We talked about how even that was hated in America, along with most things Prince did in the late 80s. “America’s easy to work out,” he opines. “They liked Purple Rain because it was that camp macho thing — he was she wearing frilly shirts but he was still on a motorbike.”
As he talks he has this strange occasional affectation of tracing his fingers along his eyebrows, I still he’s checking to see if they’re still there. It makes me think of those self-deprecating stories he always told about his life as a young teenager. The ugly, fat, bespectacled Greek kid named Georgios Kyriakos Panayiotou with hair everywhere. The ones who, he says in Bare, “created a man … that the world could love if they chose to, someone who could realize my dreams, and make me a star.”
Since then he has reinvented himself whenever it has suited him, and has always pulled it off. He insists this new George Michael — shuns too much publicity, wants to concentrate on the craft of songwriting — is the real one, and he may even believe it. It may make him happier, but he misses the point. All of them a real, and all of them are fake.
I try to work out what I had learned about George Michael after three days in his proximity. He’s not a paranoid recluse. He drinks a lot of red wine. He knows what he wants. He has impeccable manners. He likes the occasional anatomical joke. He wears a gold band with a single clear jewel on the fourth finger of his right hand. He takes his cappuccino with one sugar. And he doesn’t give a lot away. That is the heart of his present dilemma: How can you not give a lot away without giving the impression that you don’t have a lot to give?
And so I asked him, and George hoot, “Professional question!” as though he has won a card trick. But he answers anyway. He doesn’t appear in videos anymore because “it makes my life easier, especially in the States.” In America,” he says, it is by your videos that you are known, and mobbed. When he stopped appearing in them the level of hassle he faced dropped hugely. “I’d like to do the occasional video every couple of years,” he acknowledges with a small smile, “just to remind people I exist.”
Someone mentions Thierry. We laugh about the Gaultier-shirt affair. “I think I’m going to burn everything by Mugler,” he says. Then careful, ever careful, he corrects himself: “Actually I’ll give it away.”
George retires to the dressing room for a 5-minute shiatsu massage, which he judges as excellent but an hour and 55 minutes too short. While he is away, his advisers confer with Andy Morahan. George has been pushing hard for all film of himself to remain vague; they are worried that it might be too indistinct. When George returns, Morahan says that they don’t have any shots where his lip-synching is clear.
“We have that silhouette,” George demurs. “The lips are clear there.”
“That might be a bit obscure,” says Andy.
“Obscure is good,” George answers.
They work on the closing scene where a Swedish model, Emma S, climbs up the crane toward the camera George is operating. It is the last few seconds of the song, him interjecting between her suggestion: “Would you like me to seduce you?” George recaps his lines. “You’re such a / You’re such a / Yeah, yeah”
Rob Kahane sniggers: “What kind of lyrics are those?” he teases. “You’re such a / You’re such a / Yeah, yeah”
“‘You’re such a fucking pain in the arse’ is what I edited out,” retorts George.
“You weren’t referring to me, where you,” says Kahane mock-hurt.
“Never state,” smiles George. “what you can’t imply ….”
I am now sneaking in about one question every hour. Something’s been puzzling me. One part of George’s 1990 announcements was that he wanted to concentrate on songwriting. Volume two of Listen Without Prejudice was promised within months. Yet today Kahane told me there probably won’t be a new LP until 1993. Which means that since 1990 he will have released only four new compositions. So what happened? Does he have a big stockpile of songs?
“In the word,” George replies evenly, “no. They have to come to me. I started this one,” he turns to his music publisher Dick Leahy and asks, “how long ago?”
“Three years ago, says Leahy. “It’s been six different things.”
It’s 2 a.m. and people are getting restless. Rob sneaks off to George who is standing in front of me pinches his bottom and then hides, so that George turns around to confront the perpetrator and sees me. He has finally been persuaded to do a close-up — just in case — though this acquiescence seems to torment him, as though he is being unwillingly led back into a house whose door he thought he’d finally shut behind him. He keeps saying “I’ve changed my mind. I won’t do it. It doesn’t make sense,” but he does. At 5 a.m. it’s over. A handshake, a smile, he’s off.
Time to chance one final “professional question. It’s something that has been troubling me for the last threee days. Just what, I ask, has this video got to do with the song?
George Michael looks at me incredulously. And he laughs. “Fuck all to do with the song!” he roars. “Are you joking? The song isn’t about anything. It’s the biggest pile of bollocks I’ve written in ages.” This time we both laugh; and then he smiles. “But I like it.”
- ‘Too Funky:’ Story of A George Michael Charity Record
- George Michael’s First Online Chat with Fans (1998)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- George Michael: One Night in New York (Q Magazine, 1992)
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)