George Michael interview by Mark Allen published in the 2004 Marie Claire magazine
George Michael is back with his first album of new songs since 1996. Mark Allen finds the outspoken singer in an astonishingly frank mood, willing to discuss every aspect of his life in candid details. Brace yourselves … Photographs by James Dimmock
We’re sitting in George Michael’s luxurious office in Highgate, North London, playing John Lennon’s piano. It’s the one he wrote Imagine on and you can see where his fag ends burned the woodwork. George paid £1.67 million for it, another reminder of the level at which he operates. As is the crucifix he wears around his neck, a constellation of diamonds given to him by his partner Kenny, who’s downstairs making the tea. And his Bvlgari watch, so vast and complex it can probably manage share portfolios and do all your laundry.
Now and again, he lets drop that he phoned the BBC’s director of entertainment, Alan Yentob, to complain about the programme George Michaels Millions, or that Prince rang to talk about the respective rows with record companies but he wouldn’t take the call, and he TALKS VERY LOUDLY like someone used to the idea that entire rooms tend to hang on his every word. I tell him how I sat near Lady Di at a charity concert in Wembley Arena and how she behaved like a teenager when he pirouetted before her — full-scale blushing, head-in-hands hysteria — and he tells stories about his meetings with her and how agonisingly shy she was. They could have been very good friends, he reflects.
He settles back on a plump white sofa about the size of Sussex, the glass table before him awash with tea, biscuits, Marlboro Lights, and kingsize packets of Rizlas, the air heavy with the scent of an exotic tobacco he keeps in a small tupperware container. it’s been eight long years since his last studio album, Older, eight years in which — for personal and political reasons — the stubblesome, 40-year-old pop Idol has been plastered all over the newspapers. It’s not been dull, believe me, and there’s virtually nothing he won’t tell you about it.
MC: This new album, Patience, was meant to come out in late 2002, and then early 2003. What’s held it up?
GM: There are tracks recorded as much as five years ago. I kept thinking I’d recovered from this depression I went through after my mum died, and every time I’d surface and feel really creative I’d work myself into the
When you fell out with Sony Music in 1993, you said you never work with them again. Why have you gone back?
Three reasons: Tommy Mottola has gone [Sony chairman, ex-Mr. Mariah Carey]; two, there is no difference across the four or five major labels; and three, they did gave me the most amazing deal. I’ve never seen a deal like it.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen promotional pictures of George Michael, but one thing hasn’t changed. Why don’t you ever look at the camera?
I could tell you, but I’m not going to. It’s to do with preferring the left side of my face to the right. Though I’ve got this mangy ear [points] on the good side. Never understood why people didn’t pick up on that.
What’s wrong with the right side? Let me guess — the earlobe?
The shape of your jaw?
If I can’t tell and I’m sitting right beside you, why be so self-conscious about it?
Because what matters to me is not having to look at what I don’t like about my face.
Are you frightened of cameras?
I loved cameras for the first three or four years, but people have assumed that I love them for a lot longer than that because I can switch on the old ‘I think I’m gorgeous thing,’ the old ‘If you don’t want to sleep with me, you really are a fool’ thing. But that’s acting.
Do it for me now. You sort of lower your eyelids, right?
No, let me think … it’s … it’s probably raising that [left] eyebrow — you know. Roger Moore! Probably a bit of cheek-sucking [pouts]. Oh, I don’t know. Whatever it is, I hate it! That’s my mask. The odd thing is, I’m much more comfortable in my own skin these days. but a camera turns me into a quivering wreck. I really should have had therapy about that.
Didn’t people once think your skin was dyed?
Wasn’t that Michael Jackson? Oh, the orange thing? Yes, I was orange at the high point of Wham! but it calmed down a bit after that. I was always on a sunbed at this place down in Albemarle Street. Hence the old joke: why hasn’t George Michael got girlfriend? Because you can only fit one on a sunbed.
The song Freeek! on your new album is about the dangers of children being exposed to ‘adult’ material on the internet and TV. Why do you feel so strongly about that?
I don’t agree with censorship, but in the rush to deregulate television, any question of its responsibility is just gone. And television has a massive responsibility to society. Adults needed to loosen up towards sex in this country, but in a way that wouldn’t expose all of their children to it. I saw a programme the other night in which a 14 year old boy talked about his girlfriend chucking him because he wanted her to take it up the arse. That just confirms everything I’ve said. And how many homes now have a TV in all the bedrooms that kids can watch after 10 pm? If I was twelve now, I’d fall asleep in all my lessons and my right wrist would be overdeveloped.
But what are you concerned about?
It’s totally inappropriate. We either have the Mills & Boon version of sex or we have this sleazy version and never the twain shall meet. It’s not healthy that we allow our children to be educated entirely by the television
People know so much about sex these days and it’s so divorced from feeling. Even one night stands must be more selfish affairs today. And look at the rise in STDs, because people don’t associate sex with any kind of consequences. I’m probably more cautious than anyone, because the moment AIDS was on the horizon, I never had unprotected sex again. And to this day, other than periods of absolute monogamy, I never have unprotected sex. But you cannot instill fear into young people because they feel immortal.
You don’t have children why does it matter so much to you?
I’m constantly shocked by people’s attitudes towards their children. And I feel incredibly strongly about attitudes towards gay children. The strongest motivation I ever had [for protecting gay children] was an article in Attitude magazine about centres in America to which young people are taken to cure them of homosexuality. These places torture people — they attach electrodes to their genitals and try to give them aversion therapy.
Children are shown photos of two men together and they get an electric shock?
Exactly that. These places are inhumane, but they’re not illegal. In fact, when the kids run away, the police take them back.
Don’t you think TV is helping create a better understanding of gay attitudes?
I do, but if you look at the sudden gayness of television, with the exception of things like Queer as Folk, which was almost too brave, we are living In gay Love Thy Neighbor land — as in that fucking awful show in the 1970s. TV’s dealing in acceptable camp — you know, the queen who doesn’t threaten anybody. I watch Little Britain and I’m in hysterics. I laugh at Will and Grace, but look at its portrayal of gay men — Jack has no redeeming qualities and he’s the slag, but you can relate to Will because he doesn’t have sex. But they’re entitled to that in America — they’re so far behind Europe’s attitude to gay people that they still need the humour, just as gay people needed the humour of drag last century.
And at least there are a lot more gay role models than when you were young.
The only people I knew were gay at the time were John Inman and Danny La Rue — who wasn’t gay, but a transvestite. I gravitated towards Elton [John] because I could feel he was gay. Kenneth Williams? But even then it wasn’t clear what he was. Which is why this generation of gay children should have the same rights as black children — which is that they can’t be stereotyped in an offensive way. Why the fuck does one in twenty children in this country not have that right? Why should this generation of gay children have to accept that their sexuality is laughable?
Don’t you wish you’d come out earlier and given yourself more time to talk about issues like these?
Well, I couldn’t talk about things I didn’t understand. Having had only a very limited gay life, and a heterosexual life before that — although five years after being outed, I’m as gay as they come! — I didn’t have the overview I have now. I’ve had two great relationships in my life, one of which was curtailed by HIV, but before that my sexual experience with men was quite laughable.
How do you mean, laughable?
I mean it wasn’t even good sex! If it wasn’t cruising sex, then the people I was involved with were almost as confused about their sexuality as me. So I couldn’t have talked about this issues because I couldn’t investigate them properly until I had a real sex life.
It’s not often you get to talk to people who have had a lot of sexual experience with men and women. Can you compare the two?
Well, it’s not really about the comparisons in sexual terms. In bed or in a relationship, they’re two totally different worlds. The honest truth is, there’s not a woman I’ve met who would appreciate 100 percent truth.
Meaning what? That they’d rather have constant flattery?
Meaning there are levels of conversation that you cannot reach across. You can’t cross that divide, because a woman’s interpretation is never going to be the same as a man’s. And you will never reach a point in your relationship where you can both have sexual freedom without one partner being hurt.
Aren’t you assuming that all relationships want sexual freedom?
Well, no, they don’t, not all of them, but I was never allowed to say to a woman, “You know what, darling? Our eighteen months of bliss is kind of up and if I don’t start being honest with you, I’ll turn into a liar and a cheat.” But if you try to explain that to a man, you can get all the way, because you mirror each other.
Why would a man be more understanding of you wanting sex with someone else?
Because they understand how meaningless it could be. They wouldn’t feel the sense of failure that women feel. When men and women don’t understand one another, there comes a point of truth where you start to hurt a woman. And there are things between a woman and a man that should never be said.
[Long pause] Well, it’s not always sexual, it can be your view on life. I desperately wanted to be honest with women, but I know them well enough — because I have two sisters — to know when to stop being honest. Kenny and I have worked incredibly hard at being honest. We’ve had to drag it out of each other.
Do you believe in monogamy?
The happiest times of my life have been in monogamous situations.
Do you practice monogamy?
[Smiles] We, Kenny and I, we … neither of us practices monogamy. Well, of one of you does, it’s really sad, isn’t it? And yes, it works.
But if you were a straight couple, each occasionally sleeping with someone else and telling the other all about it, it’s unlikely you’d still be together after 8 years.
Absolutely. Because I think that is not the stuff of a modern straight relationship at all. But there is no question that the world is full of men cheating on women they adore. Unfortunately, it’s the way God made us.
So you and Kenny, what do you tell each other about the other lovers you have?
We won’t go into it in any … There’s no getting to know someone that you’re sleeping with. There’s no dining, there’s no going out about social graces, whatever. You have people on the side when you need sex. Simple as that.
And there’s no jealousy?
No jealousy. After eight years, I can walk out the door and tell him I’m off to get my end away. And there’s not a piece of him that worries. And vice versa.
And there isn’t a ghost of a thought that’s wondering, “Why don’t you want to get your end away from me tonight?”
The ghost of a thought says, “We had our couple of years of that bliss and we have to mix that up with the desire for newness, with the desire for the unknown.” Which is what drives men’s sexuality. For any man, the most exciting moment is going to be when the girl takes her clothes off. And you only ever get that moment once.
Marie Claire readers are going to love this! You’re saying that for all men it’s downhill from that moment on?
No, no, no! I’m just saying that’s why you go for strangers. You go for the newness of the body, because that’s what you’re driven by.
Is that why male gay sex often sound so decadent? You know the idea of an ever more extreme experience?
I don’t think that’s decadence. I think that’s dysfunction. There’s plenty of evidence that gay men’s sexuality fights to overcome its early dysfunction, which comes from your parents not wanting you to be gay, saying It’s wrong, saying it’s ‘the devil’s work’. Every time I see someone fight over a gay clergy member, I want to stand up and say, “There’s all these kids out there not thinking about this argument as adults, but thinking that what they are is somehow shameful!”
I’ve been very successful in a way that only the most dysfunctional people can be. I have seen where I’m gay sexuality can go — and it can be extreme, because of gay men’s lack of self-esteem. The equation of power gets totally out of whack, and suddenly you’re not taking role-play; you’re talking physical harm. To be honest, I have what gay people call ‘vanilla’ taste.
You prefer white people?
[Laughs.] No, no, that means … basically, it means … [holds head in hands because he’s laughing so much]. You really don’t know anything, do you? Pick up the occasional copy of Attitude — that won’t be too scary for you! No, ‘vanilla’ basically means you’re not into anything heavy, right? You’re not into dominating people or being subjected to pain. Bondage, all that. When it goes that far, it seems as if someone is punishing someone for being gay. Which is possible because — and a lot of gay people would attack me for this view — the internalized homophobia says, ‘Hit me, hit me!”
You could have announced your sexuality in your biography, Bare, but didn’t. Why not?
Well, at that time, I was pretty sure I’d made my mind up. But Tony [Parsons, co-author] recorded loads and loads of stuff, much of which was gender-free, but he gave it a gender because he genuinely thought I was straight.
But you must have thought, “I’m going to come out at some stage”?
Oh, I knew I would, but I’d obviously decided, subconsciously, to do it no way that I did. [He was arrested for ‘lewd behavior’ in a Beverly Hills public toilet in 1998.]
You’re absolutely sure that was deliberate?
Oh yes. I’ve been to the park several times. The photos of me that were taken ‘that weekend’ were from months before; the guy had been hawking them around. No one would [buy] the pictures without an arrest. And I was setting myself up subconsciously. There were things I’d made myself forget. I’d actually seen a black BMW following me that week — blacked-out windows, the press — and somehow on that day, I forgot that entirely.
You suspected the hostile reception you got for the Shoot the Dog video was partly from a press who were disappointed that you’d bounced back after your arrest.
Well, not only did I not go down screaming, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” but, because I was so honest, I ended up profiting from it. People couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it all deliberately.
You said on Breakfast with Frost that war could ‘light the blue touchpaper of Islamic fundamentalism.’ I think people were surprised to see you as a political activist.
Why? Why was it a surprise? What was Praying for Time about if it wasn’t political? And if you saw the Shoot the Dog video, with Muslim kids burning an English flag. it’s obvious what that’s about.
But was that the right way to get your message across? A video in which you pitch up in the Blair’s bedroom astride a missile?
Abso-fucking-lutely! That’s just trying to be funny, but the metaphors are real.
Wasn’t it just a bit adolescent? Cherie Blair being unimpressed by your fake-fur thong?
Well, I bet she had a laugh at that.
But even so, do you think that was the right way to get your message across?
Yes, because what I was saying was so bloody scary that just to get any of it in the arena was important. I wanted people to laugh and then think [about what I was saying], but actually they didn’t see the video. They saw a bit of it on the news, but nobody played it.
What was it Rupert Murdoch called you — ‘a washed-up pervert’?
I had Murdoch shit being printed all that week, all of which was totally beside the point, but luckily the record got the attention it would have had if it had been played. I was against Murdoch’s pro-America agenda, and that’s why he went for me. And nobody printed the statement I put out that week I wanted to be part of the movement saying, “Look, we ought to talk about this before Blair follows George Bush into war.’ Ninety percent of the country were saying, “We are very unhappy about doing this without the UN,” but Blair went ahead anyway. And I do feel proud of being partly responsible for that skepticism that people now feel towards the war.
The press just saw it as a publicity stunt.
But why? Just because everyone’s covering their arse, why do I have to take a pasting? The reason I got attacked is because the [music] business is full of people learning to compromise to carry on being part of the industry. You know, fucking Lou Reed walking out of an interview because they asked him about it. Madonna almost tried and backed down [by withdrawing an anti-war video], which is worse than not doing it at all. She’s so much smarter than that normally. I stand up and say, “I really think we need to do something about this,” and everyone goes, “It’s a career move.”
With all the stick you got from the New York Post, what sort of a welcome will you get when you go back to your house in LA?
The New York Post doesn’t really bleed over into America, so I don’t have to worry about that. And everybody hates Murdoch anyway.
Doesn’t it make life difficult, having highly positioned enemies like that?
I’m not afraid of anything, Ask my manager. Ask anyone. I just couldn’t give a fuck. They can take away your career, but sorry, I’m going to be homeless.
George Michael album Patience is out now
- George Michael’s Interview with the Gay Magazine ‘The Advocate’ (1999)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- George Michael: Sex, Drugs and Sony (1996)
- George Michael Interview with Jim Moret (CNN, 1998)
- George Michael on Beating Drugs, Depression and His Outing in LA (GQ Magazine, 2004)