The interview George Michael: The Long Goodbye was written by Ian Parker for US Magazine on 24. January 1991
Despite all his efforts, George Michael just can’t go away. An exclusive interview by Ian Parker.
The house is in Hampstead, a prosperous hill-suburb of North London. This is where millionaire liberals spend their money discreetly. This is a district for the grand old men and women of English acting, for media executives who like a little cocaine and for radical novelists grown fat and rich on royalties. The Range Rovers move slowly and apologetically.
Not far from the underground station – the deepest in London – a private road winds grandly through tall trees and taller apartment blocks. As the hill steepens, the foliage gets lusher. And as the foliage gets lusher, the fierce KEEP OUT signs grow fiercer and the tarmac bumps designed to slow traffic seem to get higher and more combative.
And then you’re at George Michael’s house. There’s a big black Mercedes convertible, then a little gate, and then a modern, angular, split-level building clad in wood. It’s not very beautiful and not very large: Sylvester Stallone might have it as a guest sauna.
George Michael opens the door, smiles efficiently, says hello, shakes hands and then – the perfect host – pretends not to notice as you scan the interior: There’s a large but neat baseball-cap collection, a “real” gas fire, two white leather sofas, a Fifties jukebox, deep cream carpets and, on the walls, a few newspaper cartoons of George Michael. It’s like the waiting room of a dentist thought by his colleagues to be a little flamboyant.
Later there’ll be a glimpse through an open door into George Michael’s bedroom – ruffled, peach-colored sheets on a huge bed – and a view of a tiny bathroom where, in a position to force the attention of any male visitor, there is a little pile of toiletries in a wicker basket. The things are personal and worth investigation, but there’s nothing to interest the Enquirer. On top of the pile, as if casually dropped, is a pair of sunglasses – those sunglasses, the Faith sunglasses.
It all seems pretty shipshape.
“My mother,” explains Michael, “came to clean the house yesterday.”
That was sweet of her.
“It’s not sweet,” he argues. “She does it every, every week.” Michael checks himself and says softly: “Well, it is sweet. But it’s not something I’m not used to.”
It’s around noon, and George Michael, who lives alone, has just gotten up. He is handsome and rich, and slighter than you thought. He is less macho and rather more graceful. Expecting a Tom Selleck, you get a top-of-the-range Tom Hanks. But the stubble is reassuringly lush and even – its limits marked by neat straight lines – like a Hanna-Barbera tough guy. “Tea?” he asks.
George Michael says he wants to disappear. So he has published
George Michael is planning a tactical withdrawal of his public image. The alternative, as he sees it, is madness. So the music will continue and the marketing will stop. Madonna can jog and strut her way toward immortality, and Michael Jackson can continue to alter his visage with alarming regularity, but George Michael will remain sane – a regular guy. A little publicity now can fix his public persona forever, leaving the real George Michael free to pursue “the things that make me happy.” If the choice is between pop and star, he wants
George Michael is serious about all this. And just as there are approved press photos, this is the approved press angle; this is the story that goes with his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, which has already sold five million copies. This is the angle pursued throughout his anodyne biography, Bare (quickly renamed Bore by the British satirical magazine Private Eye), this is what he said to the London Sunday Times and to the South Bank Show, a recent British TV arts documentary. Asked now to summarize the biography, Michael also summarizes the press angle: “You could say it is about me working towards being as famous as I could possibly be… and then realizing that I didn’t want to be. That’s about it really.”
We take our tea upstairs. “At the end of Wham!, I needed a new challenge.” Michael curls up on one of the two white leather sofas. His voice is gently North – Norf– London and is dampened by the thick carpets. “So I set myself the challenge of getting up there on the American level with Madonna and Michael Jackson – that circle of people. That was my goal. And then having got into that position I realized that it wasn’t my… it wasn’t really going to do anything for me. I can honestly say 1988 was a complete nightmare for me.”
Nineteen-eighty-eight was the year of Faith, a record that has now sold over 16 million copies worldwide. Smooth, breathy, seductive postcoital dance music, Faithwon a Grammy for Album of the Year and fathered five U.S. Number One singles – a startling achievement. In the year of Faith, Michael’s U.S. earnings were estimated at $38 million. He was this country’s fifth-largest entertainment earner, which put him up with the mad, bad and dangerous: behind only Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Spielberg. Two years after the demise of the glorious and lopsided Wham!, Faith marked the end of Michael’s transformation from plump British teen pinup into a CD stud.
By last year, as intended, Michael had reached a barely comprehensible level of wealth and fame. He was huge almost everywhere in the world. And the next level rather scared him: “There’s always another level,” he says. “Madonna is trapped. Madonna is trapped in the way Jackson’s become trapped. And that was my next option. There’s a point of no return, and I think I’ve stopped just short of it. I’m lucky, I
George Michael’s position in the music industry gives him enormous power. What he says, goes. So his current career decisions have to be humored. And if he doesn’t want to conduct hundreds of interviews, that’s fine. Look at Prince. But Michael is making some odd decisions. Were it not for the fact that he is a famously efficient operator in the music business,
There was talk, for instance, of a charity tour of the United States; money from each (small scale) concert would go to a charity appropriate to the host town. Michael considered this, then cancelled. It became difficult, say his people, “technically.”
Instead, 1991 will now see a regular coast-to-coast U.S. tour, and Michael looks a little foolish and ill prepared.
His new album, Listen Without Prejudice, is in a jacket that, by Michael’s instructions, has neither a picture of him nor his name on its front cover. Instead, there is just a famous photograph taken by Weegee in 1940 of a beach crowd at Coney Island. Unfortunately, the record was unidentifiable. So throughout the world, a sticker had to be applied to millions of records, tapes
Defying conventional wisdom, Michael has refused to appear in videos to support the new album. “Praying for Time,” its first single and video. merely had the song‘s lyrics scrolled against a nondescript background. The video for the current single, “Freedom 90,” was rather less severe, however. Michael decided to hire five of the world’s most successful models – Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista – to pout, posture and lip-sync the song.
They didn’t come cheap. As Evangelista explained, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000.” Filming took place in the U.K. last October. Michael was around, but even in such magnificent company he could not be persuaded to step in front of the camera
In his blitz of antipublicity – the announcements of his intended withdrawal, his photo-free album, his anonymous videos
The withdrawal has surely made George Michael personally vulnerable. In some quarters, his self-consciousness is thought ridiculous. Frank Sinatra, in his curious new role as guardian of showbiz properties, has publicly reprimanded Michael for grumbling about the pressures of success. He invited Michael to “loosen up.” And the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant
Lowe: “George Michael’s killed off the monster he’s created.”
Tennant: “Killed off the monster. It’s hilarious!”
Lowe: “You know he’s ‘not doing a tour.’”
Tennant: “Apart from…”
Lowe: “Apart from these dates he’s doing.”
Tennant: “We’re thinking of killing off the Pet Shop Boys now, aren’t we?”
Lowe: “Oh yes. We’ve created a monster.”
The Pet Shop Boys collapse laughing.
* * * * *
George Michael is 27. Around the world, he has had over 100 Number One singles. At any moment on any day, his records can be heard in the back of a Bangkok taxi, in a Nairobi nightclub, on a Walkman in Buenos Aires. His personal wealth is said to be about $130 million, a sum that increases at the rate of $130,000 a day. Michael lives in Hampstead, but also has a dream house in Santa Barbara. “It’s very big,” he says, “and very… showbiz. It cost me a f—ing arm and a leg.” Michael earns an arm before breakfast; legs take a phone call. “I was stunned at the amount of money I made with Faith. All I did was to have all these people loveme. That’s the reason I sold myself.”
All these people love him. Some even like him. George Michael does have friends. The impression has sometimes been that of a pitiable figure whose very public social life disguised a gilded cage lifestyle of predictable pathos. An actual gilded cage, used as a cumbersome prop on the Faith tour, supported a highly marketable Lone Biker myth. The echo heard on his records – one great hallmark of a George Michael production – conjured up a world of cavernous designer solitude. Still, Michael insists: “Of all the people I know. I’m probably the least lonely person. I’m very lucky. I’ve got close friends, wonderful family. Yes, the relationship I wanted has broken down. It was one of those relationships that tail off – messily. I tried recently to rekindle it. It didn’t work. But I’m very optimistic. I’m not the type of person who thinks I’m going to sit here the rest of my life on my own.”But all relationships struck between George Michael and representatives of the rest of the world are necessarily odd. People are bound to behave differently. Sometimes, in airports, they mob him. Other times they laugh at jokes that aren’t funny; and in nightclubs, they stare. “It’s f—ing difficult.” he says, “to work out when people . . . I mean, how do you normally work out that someone is attracted to you if you go to a club or to a party? You tell because they stare at you. l remember what that was like as a kid. I remember the kick I got out of someone being attracted to me. It takes a long time to learn the difference because everyone’sbloody staring at you. They don’t all fancy you. They may want to go to bed with you, but it doesn’t mean they’re all attracted to you.”
In a life where financial extravagance is impossible – nothing costs enough – friendship itself turns out to be an act of some lavishness. After all, the papers pay good money for good George Michael stories. So Michael has to find people who not only meet normal
Just curious: Do your lovers try harder in bed?
“I think they do, very probably. I couldn’t actually point at any of them and say, “I know you’re trying harder because it’s me.’ But I think the same could be said for me, surely. There are higher expectations on both sides. I don’t know. I’ve only ever slept with people who knew who I was.” He laughs. “Maybe if I slept with them in disguise on a separate occasion I would find out the truth.”
Do you have fantasies about not being you?
“Being anonymous? It would be nice to have anonymous sex, maybe. But maybe it would be terribly dull. Maybe if people weren’t trying – ha! – it would be terribly dull.”
“Exactly. Like any other aspect of fame. It creeps up on you. It comes up on you so slowly that you can’t remember when it was different. I can’t vaguely remember sex when it was anonymous.”
Sex, says George Michael, is “very important.” He says he thinks about it often. Once every 15 minutes? “I’m sure it’s more often than that. It’s easy to get sex in my position. There’s no problem”
Michael has been linked in the press with many women, some famous and some less-than-famous: Kathy Jeung, who starred with Michael in the steamy video for “I Want Your Sex,” was a frequent companion. But so too have been tabloid journalists in search of a much-heralded “George Michael Is Gay” angle. He says it no longer annoys him, but the question is always asked.
“And people know what they’re going to get from me. I’ve never had any problem. I don’t have a problem with people asking me anymore. If people have got this image of me romping around in bed with Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’m not going to spoil their fun. Though I don’t suppose he’d be too happy about it.”
People like the idea.
“I think they do. I think to some degree it‘s been in question for so long, and been unanswered for so long…”
But you’ve denied it.
“No, I haven’t. You’ll have to find the place where I’ve denied it. No. I think that people presumed that because my relationship with Kathy [Jeung], which was pretty public, with the video… that was their version of
“And I’d be mad to say yes. I would be absolutely mad. Especially now.
People were probably asked in the early Seventies whether they’d ever slept with a man, and probably people who never had would’ve said yes. It was that type of environment. It’s the complete opposite of that today, isn’t it? These days it just doesn’t mean anything when people deny something like that. So what’s the point in saying anything?”
* * * * *
Downstairs, in the kitchen, George Michael makes more tea. The TV is on, with the volume turned down. It’s showing the long opening title sequence to The Six Million Dollar Man (“We have the technology . . .”). “Oh my God,” moans Michael. “Those flares.”
Born in 1963. Michael grew up in the Seventies – wearing flared trousers and watching The Six Million Dollar Man. His name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (Yog survives as a nickname). Georgios’ father was a Greek Cypriot immigrant who rose from waiter to successful restaurateur by dint of very long hours and very hard work. Flanked by two sisters – Melanie and Yioda – and an attentive (English) mother, Georgios was spoiled, even to the extent of being given that most self-sacrificial of all gifts to children, the drum kit.
By the time of his early adolescence. the family was prospering. Georgios was not. With easy access to a well-stocked restaurant, his diet consisted largely of steak, chips and ice cream. Overweight and hairy, he was considered to be a uniquely unattractive child. Refusing to be sent to private school for fear of being considered a sissy, he joined the state secondary school in 1975, carrying many surplus pounds and sporting just one eyebrow – across both eyes. At school, he met Andrew Ridgeley. They lived through the late Seventies together: It was, in Ridgeley’s words. “A cider adolescence.” They got drunk, played Genesis and Elton John records, went to parties, noticed punk, and then, around 1978, hard and saw Saturday Night Fever.
Then they were pop stars. At the age of 19, ugly Georgios became George Michael the teen idol – a rich man acknowledged by many millions to be a worthwhile sex object. Wham! was fun, but there were dark days as the band’s split approached: “I wasn’t happy. And I was in the happiest group in the world.” Michael says. But Wham! mostly represented a joyous turn of fortune for George – from undesirable to greatly desired.
This unexpected change seems to be at the root of many of his current preoccupations. He is fascinated, to the point of obsession, with the ambiguities of his self-image: his publicity material dwells on the teenage significance of contact lenses and hair straightening; he talks at length on the meaning of his former video images and the message of his face and clothes; he analyzes the connections between the way he looks in public and the way he feels in private; he defends his reluctance to be photographed; he expresses genuine ill-ease at the phenomenon of Britain’s 20 or so full-time George Michael look-alikes, and fears becoming one himself. Asked if Wham! causes retrospective embarrassment, he just says, “The way I looked! There are moments that I can’t bear to watch.”
It’s as if he has had
Outside the window, squirrels run up and down the garden fence. Hippy. Michael’s
That’s it. George Michael says he‘s ready to disappear. “From now on,” he says firmly, as addressing a meeting of Self-Publicists Anonymous, “I’m going to shut up. That’s it. I’m shutting up.”
- George Michael: The Reluctant Pop Star (Calendar Magazine, Sept 1990)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- George Michael Interview on Q Magazine (June 1988)
- ‘George Michael, Seriously’ from Rolling Stone Magazine (1988)
- BBC Hardtalk Interview with George Michael (2003)