The article “George Michael puts ‘Faith’ in future” was written by Edna Gundersen and appeared in the December 1998 issue of USA Today
LOS ANGELES – Long leery of the media, increasingly phobic about photographers and almost relieved by his fading popularity in the USA, George Michael enjoyed his low profile here. That all changed on April 7, when the British pop star was arrested for lewd conduct at a public restroom in a Beverly Hills park. After a brief appearance on CNN, in which he acknowledged his homosexuality, Michael ducked the press.
Now he wants to talk.
“If I’m going to be remembered in America as the guy that got caught playing with himself in the toilet, then I want people to know my take on it,” he explains.
Though Michael, 35, says overzealous police entrapped him, he’s quick to emphasize, “I don’t deny the behavior.” He pleaded no contest, paid an $810 fine and agreed to serve 80 hours of community service.
The exclusive interview takes place in the dimly lit living room of the home he shares with his significant other, Kenny. Huggy, a dog-pound adoptee, hovers nearby as Michael, shoeless and clad in black, sips a can of Slim-Fast and occasionally smokes.
He has lived here in the hills above Sunset Strip since 1991, the year after Listen Without Prejudice arrived to mixed reviews. Listen peaked at No. 2 in Billboard but failed to match the acclaim or sales of 1987’s Faith, the year’s best-album Grammy winner. The slide steepened with 1996’s Older, a brooding song cycle that sold 8 million copies worldwide but only 700,000 stateside. It dealt with Michael’s grief over the death of his lover Anselmo in 1993 and his ailing mother, who died in 1997.
Michael was also emerging from a long legal battle with Sony. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, released Nov. 10, marks his final obligation to the label. In its first week, Best sold a respectable 50,000 copies to land at No. 24. But Michael isn’t using this opportunity to plug his music. He’s here to clear the air and then close the door.
“If I speak my piece on this, I can’t be accused of avoiding the subject,” he says. “But I don’t like talking to the press in the best of times. After this, I have the right to say, ‘Leave it alone.’ And I will say that.”
Q: Did you enter that park bathroom seeking sex?
George: To be honest, I was in my car. I saw this guy cruising, an undercover cop who was basically pretending to cruise. He was very cute; he wasn’t Karl Malden. I didn’t get out of my car until everyone left the park. Then I followed him in. I don’t want to go into details.
Q: How did the actual arrest go down?
George: There was like a SWAT team! Once they got their man, eight of them jumped out of nowhere. I heard one officer say, “Did you get one?” I’m not a fish. With the s – – – that goes on in this town, it’s unbelievable that tax money pays for this. I was so angry when the police report, which is supposed to be confidential according to Beverly Hills police rules, was sold to The Sun [a London tabloid].
Q: How did you react as the police nabbed you?
George: There were reports in the papers about me being led away crying. Not true. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m ruined.’ I was absolutely furious. It was clearly entrapment, not an accident.
Q: Do you feel authorities made an example of you?
George: Absolutely. I was a convenient celebrity to slap on the wrist because I’m not making money in America so it’s not damaging to the industry. I suspect there was some feeling in the district attorney’s office that Robert Downey Jr. was mishandled and that they needed to be tougher on celebrities. Eight weeks later, along wanders me, the perfect opportunity. I got double the normal probation. If you pay the fine, you normally don’t do community service. I got both.
Q: Your video underscores the thrill of risking sex in public. Would you repeat that?
George: I would never do that again. Apart from everything else, the risk of exposure is gone, obviously. I don’t think that’s why I was doing it anyway. It’s very unusual for me to be in a situation as tupid as that. I’m not that reckless.
Q: Why follow an embarrassing arrest with a funny video and upbeat dance tune?
George: It’s what I needed to do. I think it’s very important that figures Who come out in public are not seen as suffering for it. I knew I had to make an incredibly commercial record. I haven’t done that in years.
Q: Do you see a backlash in the marketplace? MTV has embraced the Outside video but radio is ignoring it.
George: I’m puzzled. Even taking homophobia into account doesn’t explain it. This is the easiest radio record I’ve made since Wham! It’s huge outside America.
Q: How do you explain your declining U.S. sales?
George: I don’t think I will ever be a big star in America again. The music industry here is a hard sell. The only way to be a star again is to spend my life promoting myself in a way that I find cheapening.
Q: Is there an upside to your eroding popularity here?
George: The irony about losing success in America is that it was really the thing I needed to lose. If I wanted my ego stroked, I could turn the radio on anywhere in Europe. I felt left alone here, and lucky. It was like being on holiday from me, a perfect setup until I blew it. I’m still not on the radio, but now everybody recognizes me for a different reason.
Q: How did you feel when [MCA Records president] Jay Boberg refused to allow your duet with Mary J. Blige on the U.S. version of your album?
George: That was the worst consequence about this. It’s a fantastic duet, a highlight of my career. He told Sony’s lawyer, “What’s in it for her? He’s coming off the back of a sex scandal.” Maybe he feared the R&B community’s reaction.
Q: How have fans reacted?
George: The public in London has been so nice. It’s almost like they didn’t think I was human before. You can’t get much more human than getting caught with your trousers down.
Q: There is a perception that your arrest forced you to come out of the closet.
George: Over here, it looks like I was dragged out, but I outed myself with the last album. I did interviews that said everything except the three words they wanted to hear. I was trying to retain my privacy and dignity without lying.
Q: How did the incident compare with past crises like your mother’s death?
George: Everything that went on this year was a complete breeze compared to losing my mother, so it gave me a fantastic perspective. It made me realize that it’s only a scandal: embarrassing for a couple of days, but nobody got hurt, nobody died.
Q: Other stars caught in sex scandals – Pee-Wee Herman, Hugh Grant – were contrite. Why weren’t you?
George: Contrite for what? Everyone expected me to be devastated because I’ve been such a private person. I wasn’t. The minute it happened, I knew it would be massive news and hugely embarrassing. But within a day, after the anger died down, I started to see how funny it was. I had helicopters flying around my house because I got my willy out. It pushed something of monumental importance off the front pages. You really start to understand how crazy the media are.
Q: Was your former image as a sex symbol a charade?
George: My sexuality was very fluid when I was younger. At one point I stopped making videos and tried to shed the image I had created. The image worked too well. It was obviously ambiguous, but the end result was an entire generation of teenage girls. As I was trying to decide my sexuality, it was a pretty odd place to be.
Q: Was disclosing your homosexuality difficult?
George: It wasn’t. When I was younger, I was so totally focused on my music that I hadn’t developed in any way as an adult. Deciding that I was gay wasn’t difficult at all because that was decided for me when I fell in love. It’s easier with someone on your arm. Before that, I wasn’t having relationships. It was just sex, so it wasn’t anything I could shout about.
Q: Did stardom slow down the process of coming out?
George: The process was incredibly slow simply because I became a pop star. Within seven months of leaving school, I had a record contract. I went into fantasyland before I had any glimpse of the real world. When I was 20… I was ready to tell people I was bisexual, but my straight friends talked me out of it, kind of scared me out of it. I have no idea how different my life would have been had I actually been open from the start.
Q: Have you always been, to use your term, “oversexed”?
George: I have no hang-ups about sex. It’s always been a very important part of my life. I am oversexed. I wouldn’t put it in the past tense. I’m sure some day I will.
Q: Is there pressure on you now to be an active voice in the gay community?
George: I’ve probably done more with the Outside video than I could have done with 10 years of speaking at Stonewall events. I have a problem with activists because I believe in assimilation totally. Almost every Western culture is being attacked by this plague of separatism. I would be ineffective as an activist because I’m too moderate. My arrest brought me into the political arena, and I’ve said my piece about what the police should and shouldn’t be doing. I made a video on the subject. This issue is part of my life right now, but it won’t be part of my life next year.
Q: You contractually owe DreamWorks one more album. Have you given any thought to its contents?
George: I think it’s going to be pretty upbeat. Older was almost entirely about loss. The thing about bereavement is that you suddenly understand the value of uplifting music. I went through a period where I didn’t listen to a ballad for 18 months because I was so frightened about where it might take me emotionally. I’m sure I will write the occasional weepy song, but I hope I don’t find inspiration for them. I hope life will be a little happier.
Q: Does grief fuel creativity?
George: It does, no question. You find hidden depths when you’re faced with such pain. But I’m definitely one of those people who would rather be happy and less creative than miserable. I’ve been the tortured artist completely involuntarily for five or six years and I have no intention of doing it any more.
- George Michael’s Interview with the Gay Magazine ‘The Advocate’ (1999)
- George Michael’s Oprah Winfrey Show Interview (2004)
- Q Magazine: George Michael The Only Interview (December 1998)
- George Michael Interview on Parkinson Show (1998)
- MTV Presents George Michael: Interview with John Norris (1998)