Below is the interview “George Talks: His Frankest Interview Ever” by Richard Smith and Steve Pafford published by Gay Times in July 2007.
Although it’s probably not what George Michael would like to be remembered for, something happened a year ago that summed him up beautifully. George was taking a late-night stroll on Hampstead Heath when he was ambushed by a photographer from the News of the World. Did he turn and flee? Did he buggery? George just barked at the paparazzo: “Are you gay? No? Then fuck off! This is my culture!”
This is the new George Michael. After his arrest for cottaging in 1998 he came tumbling out of the closet, and straight onto CNN – although it’s debatable how closeted he’d been before. Now George is – officially – The World’s Gayest Man. Passionate and unapologetic, he is also candid. Which makes sense – what’s he got to hide these days? He says we can talk about anything. Except that recent bit of car trouble he’d had – the interview took place just before he was due in court on charges of being asleep at the wheel, and his solicitors had begged him to keep his mouth shut. We meet at his home in Highgate. Someone warned me that it can be hard to shut George Michael up. Thankfully, that turned out to be true.
Okay. Let’s start at the day you were born. That’s what the song on your last album, My Mother Had A Brother, is about. But what’s the actual story? Your uncle killed himself and he was definitely gay?
Not that he was definitely gay, but I think he must have been for my mum to have this fear of me being gay. She had a definite fear that I was going to be like her brother – she thought that would mean I couldn’t cope with life. She almost felt like she’d brought this gene… So there were very pointed areas where she let my dad be – supposedly protectively – homophobic.
What does that mean?
Well, there was a gay waiter who lived above the restaurant, and I wasn’t allowed to go to the top flat when he was down in the restaurant. You know, in case I saw something.
What – in case you caught “gay”?
Yeah (laughs). In case I caught “gay”. My mum became much more enlightened than that, but looking back on it now, I understand what her fear was. I didn’t know the story of Colin, I didn’t know he existed until a certain age. Now it makes sense that she was not herself about it.
She didn’t talk about it until when?
She didn’t talk about her brother until I was 16. And I don’t know if that was a decision or whether she plucked up the courage. It changed my opinion of her entirely, because it wasn’t just that; she’d also seen her father die the same way. They’d both put their heads in the gas oven. And, of course, lucky old mum, she found both of them. I think she only recovered when we were teenagers and were able to give her some perspective. She spent years being so remorseful that it’s impossible to hold that time against her. And the last 20 years of her life, I don’t think we had a cross word. It’s such a shame…
Did you feel that your father suspected you of being gay because of your uncle being suspected of being gay?
I don’t know if he particularly suspected it when I was young. It was my mum I felt the fear from. Knowing my father, he couldn’t even consider he could have a gay son. He’s of his generation, a Greek Cypriot man. But my mum was afraid of my father’s judgement of me. I now realise she was afraid that if the gene was in me, I’d turn out the same way – which was easy to believe in 1965. So it’s sad – and I’m sure it didn’t help in my whole sexual development – but there was nothing that even vaguely made me think my mum would have any problem with it. And she didn’t. it was a complete non-issue, ‘cause the reason I came out to my parents was that my partner (Anselmo) had died. So my pain and grief became the issue for her. I wrote them a four-page letter after he died, and it was the easiest thing I’ve ever written, considering my sexuality was the only unsolved issue. It was easy, in terms of my sexuality, to come out to my parents, you know? Not exactly a rare situation, but difficult when you’re George Michael. I really should ask my dad to it to me again, because my mum said it was the most beautiful letter she’s ever read; it explained completely how I felt and why she didn’t have to worry about me. It was the easiest thing – and it should have been the most difficult thing.
When you were growing up, you were going out with girls…
I’d had three girlfriends, and all through that time I’d cruised as well.
Where were you cruising?
Out in the suburbs where I grew up. Back in the days when they weren’t all shut – you know what I mean? And I still saw that as dysfunction of the highest degree. It only really used to happen when I was beating myself up about something else. I was so under-developed emotionally, there was nothing other than physical attraction to either sex. It was stronger towards men, but it didn’t have any emotional pull to it…I literally never had a crush on anyone at school. Never.
I always thought your relationship with Andrew Ridgeley seemed like a crush. You talk about meeting this kid at school who was everything you wanted to be. Good-looking, popular with girls and whatever.
But it’s not the same, wanting to be someone and wanting to fuck ‘em. It’s the difference between a girl’s relationship with Robbie Williams and a boy’s relationship with Robbie Williams. Andrew was this sort of idol for me because he was the first person I’d hung around with who was much stronger than me. It was a relief not being the strongest person in my group. This person was supremely confident, and very beautiful, but in a way that was never going to attract me. I’d never go for Andrew! He was too pretty, too feminine, too elegant. But I can understand everyone thinking we were sleeping together. I don’t think he’s horribly adverse to the idea, but I don’t think he’d ever do it. He loves being filthy with women…
And Andrew was the first people you told you were gay of maybe bisexual.
You mentioned once in passing about a strange trip to Cyprus, where “some things happened”. Like it was a sexual awakening.
Yeah. It was a bit, I’m not going to go into any detail, but it was realising that it was a proper 50/50 split, at the very least. But I still hadn’t been drawn to anyone. I played around with the idea that I was bisexual – mostly by getting drunk (Laughs). And it probably would have gone on a bit longer, but the HIV thing happened, and I thought that I couldn’t sleep with a woman without telling her I slept with men – which made the exercise not worth it. My attraction to women wasn’t strong enough to make that a conversation worth having. So I started not sleeping with them at all, and I had an absolute rubbish level of sex through that whole terror between 1985 and 1993-1994. With the exception of the sex I had when I was faithful to my first real partner – the whole period when you think you’re going to be forever. Which was so late when you think about it – 27.
It’s strange that you managed to go so long without having a crush on anyone, or feeling unrequited love…
Not even having a crush on a film star or pop star. I must have been so emotionally damaged at some point. There was something that made me separate the idea of… I used to masturbate about the strangest women when I was young.
I was trying to work up the confidence to ask you that question. You were masturbating over women?
Yeah! I had no inkling that there was anything going on until the first time a man made a pass at me. This waiter in this underground club under our hotel in Cyprus. I was 13 and I looked older. I was sitting with my sister at the bar and this Greek waiter, really kind of cute, asked me to dance with him. I was terrified. I leant over to my sister and I said, “That bloke just asked me to dance with him. Does he think I’m a girl?” Maybe he did think I was a girl, I don’t know. It was the most bizarre experience. That was the first time, so you can understand how it was all unraveling. And I really didn’t self-identify as gay, for whatever reasons; it was a real slow development. People assume that I struggled for a lot longer than I did. And, to be honest, the more I know about the gay male community – the more I see of it – I think that some of the things I don’t share with it are probably about not self-identifying early.
Moving onto Wham, there was the very homoerotic leather-boys look. Lines like “I choose to cruise…”
Yeah, yeah. It was still possible to play about with it then. We had such a kind of gay image anyway, we just didn’t mind. I think it was knowing on both our parts. Because it was still harmless to do it then, wasn’t it? The whole New Romantic thing had been so gay-inspired, and Andrew loved camp clothes, anyway. He would go to school wearing cherry-silk trousers, and he’d have three little Adam Ant braids in his hair, each one a different colour. Everyone spent their time going: “is he gay?” And I’d go; “He’s really not”.
But it does suggest you can’t have been worried about people thinking you were gay.
No. And what people don’t understand is, I was very naive and almost excited when I worked out I couldn’t push it under the carpet. You’re at that age where you’re prepared to make big changes or whatever, and I really did, I really wanted to come out – ‘cause I didn’t realise how successful we were going to be. We said we did, but we didn’t really. And as we became really, really successful, I lost my nerve – that’s perfectly understandable. I was 19, nearly 20, and within a year of that conversation we were like the biggest band in Europe, and within two years we were the biggest Pop band in America and, it’s like, what the fuck are you going to do? You have the option of hiding, and you have some attraction to women at least – what else are you going to do at that age? When you’re more successful than you ever dreamed you were going to be?
But around that time, 1984, there were the first big Pop stars who were out from the outset. Did that make things uncomfortable for you?
Not really. I just didn’t come from that place. Musically. I was pastiching various kinds of Pop music, and concentrating on my songwriting, and I had a goal of writing number one songs. I didn’t believe my personality was going to get me anywhere particularly. The only sense I thought I had to become a gay songwriter was when I knew I had to start writing songs about myself.
It’s interesting that’s what people associate with you in the solo years – you’re very much writing songs that are personal, about love affairs or your relationship with the music industry.
One thing had to be an honest process and the other didn’t, as far as I was concerned.
One Wham song that always sounded interesting – the mood is so different from all the others – is Nothing Looks The Same In The Light. it seems like you’d had a brief encounter, but had been abandoned soon after.
That was about six months before the conversation with Andrew. Two things brought me to the conclusion that I had to come out to Andrew and Shirley. I’d had something go on in Cyprus that had made the level of my attraction to men fairly clear. And about six months before, I’d stayed over at this guy’s house. He’d tried to have sex with me and I’d been too scared. I wanted to stay in the bed for the night. I wanted to be close to this guy, which had never happened before, and it hit me in a very profound way that something else was going on. And that’s what that song was about. Basically, I had a little crush on him for, like, a week. And then I called him – I was extremely naive about how these things worked – and I said: “Can I come over?” And he went; “Erm, well, I’ve got someone here tonight, but you can come over tomorrow”. I just didn’t get it. I was so offended. I thought that was outrageous. That was the only time I ever went to a gay club and got picked up. So that was formative for me. Just after that album came out we went to do the video for Club Tropicana. That’s when I spoke to Andrew.
Did he take it well?
A Different Corner also seemed to be about a specific situation, you splitting up with someone…
Oh yeah! It was actually my first true infatuation – it involved no proper sex, nothing. Think about how self-obsessed first love is. It was me going, “I’m ready to feel this now”. The other person is almost incidental – they’re the victim, really. I obsessed about this person for ages, and soon after I met him he said; “I don’t want to be your boyfriend”. Which was a very clever thing to say at the time.
‘Cause I was such a fuck-up. For a while I really felt sorry for myself, and in that period I wrote Different Corner. It wasn’t even first love. It was; “I’m impatient to feel something, and I’ll do it with this person”.
It’s striking how gender-specific songs like Fastlove and Jesus To A Child were.
Of course. If you really look at it, no-one who’s not ready to come out releases Older. Excuse me, but I think the word “Jesus” is a male reference. Fastlove, at the end, is so clearly about cruising even if you didn’t know what the first half was about. Spinning the Wheel is about HIV. It’s a simple metaphor, but very obvious.
Isn’t that song also you complaining about someone else going cruising?
Yeah. But I was talking to myself. It’s also about the idea that there’s someone you know and you get the idea that they’re not practising safer sex.
That’s also the theme of infidelity that runs through the album Faith, when you wrote “Explore monogamy” in the video for I Want Your Sex.
Yeah. Confused boy, wasn’t I, at the time?
Explore monogamy. Discuss.
I didn’t have the courage of my convictions, did I? I needed to put something in to pacify the Aids hysteria. They needed me to put it in the context of a relationship. It was so obvious that people were going to start trying to censor all this shit. And I knew, in a way, that would get me attention at the time, and I genuinely had written the song about a man I couldn’t get to fuck and sleep with me. Even though I knew he was fucking crazy about me. He was the guy I was in love with when I was with Cathy (Jeung), who was definitely in love with me at that time. So it was very autobiographical. Cowboys and Angels was about those two people. I Want Your Sex was directly about being tired of waiting for this French guy – so I was writing about all that confusion.
Was there any record-company pressure not to come out?
No. If your goal is to become the biggest-selling artist in America – which was still my bizarre goal – you’re not going to make life difficult for yourself, are you? I’m not going to say that I would have been writing gay lyrics by then, but I certainly wasn’t going to when I was still kidding myself, and still trying to crack America. After I got arrested I said I didn’t think my audience in America would desert me because I was gay. I had no idea how rough it was going to be once I came out! I was naive enough to think it was going to be better than that, ‘cause otherwise I would have been too proud to take their money. Whereas, thank God, I took the money. That time set me up for years. But again I was naive. I thought: “I’ll still get some airplay”. But it was no different to when it happened to Elton – they just went Phwish! I wasn’t getting much airplay.
People talk about me losing my career in America because I cruised. No. I lost my career in America ‘cause I took on Sony. Simple. It was already kamikazed there, so it didn’t really make much difference. If I’d been successful in America then, I probably wouldn’t have cruised there.
So you went cruising because you could?
It was easier. I looked different, and Older hadn’t been successful in the US. They hadn’t seen the videos, so I could kid myself, you know? But there was no question that was a completely self-destructive act. I spent years making sure I’d never go anywhere neat anything like that in L.A. – I knew how awful the police were.
So why did I do that? To come out in the most self-destructive way possible!
Do you really believe that?
Absolutely! I was still hugely angry about my mum’s death and I couldn’t aim it at anyone but myself. There’s no other explanation for it, really.
But the incident at the toilet in the park – you’d been doing that quite regularly?
I’d been doing it for quite a bit before and someone had been trying to sell pictures for seven or eight months, but they needed an arrest to go with it. I didn’t go into the toilet in the pictures. Me sunbathing with my big fat belly; that was the worst part of it. Fancy having that happening to you when you’re 13 and a half stone! But that’s how relaxed I was about it – and that’s how in denial I was about it. I had fun for quite a while – before it all collapsed.
You must have enjoyed that relative anonymity?
Of course. Sexual freedom is such a major element of being a gay man today. Ultimately, it’s just hard for me to accept that I’d lose out on anything. It really is.
Surely people must have recognised you sometimes?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And if they did, I’d ask them if they wanted to come home. If they were nice. LA’s a good place for cruising. They’re not dogs in Beverly Hills. But, there’s something about American gay men that doesn’t really connect with me.
It seemed you’d as good as come out before the arrest. In your interviews with Tony Parsons in The Mirror…
I hadn’t been denying it, but I hadn’t said it, had I? Maybe they needed it said?
But you’d written a song about how you were in love with this man and he died. How much more out could you be?
Exactly. And I think I even had a handlebar moustache for about a day and a half. That’s really trying hard, isn’t it? Part of me was saying: “Look; it’s not a matter of shame. It’s a matter of privacy; it’s up to me when I talk about this”. I was really angry that the world was turning into this place where people thought they deserved to know.
And a celebrity has to come out twice.
Yeah. And, I came out at 27. It’s not that late. I came out to all of my friends, and all my family, outside of my mum and dad. I came out to my sister when I was 19 – one of them. The one who lived with my parents didn’t know, for obvious reasons. I didn’t want to put her in that position. So it was like, “For fuck’s sake. This is so ridiculous!” I was just trying to do my job, and trying to be honest in what I wrote, and they wanted me to spell it out and weren’t allowing me any sense of Jodie Foster-ism, as it were. I resented that. Apart from, by then, I kind of blamed them for Anselmo’s death, because if he hadn’t been terrified of them he would have received treatment in LA or London. He received treatment in Brazil, ‘cause he didn’t want to bring that on his family. I’ll never forgive them for that.
Can we talk about Anselmo? You said you met him at a concert in Rio?
I didn’t meet him at the concert. I realised about a day after we’d met that he was in the crowd. He’d told me he was there. And I realised that I’d seen him and had to avoid him ‘cause he was staring so intently at me – and he was really cute. I put that together later. It’s quite a sweet thing really, but when I saw him the next day in the lobby of the hotel I made the association. The bizarre thing was, I saw him with this girl and presumed he was straight. I thought, “Lucky cow!” And he looked at me as we were leaving the hotel to drive to this island 200 miles away. I’d fallen in love by then twice – with the wrong people, really – but I already knew that feeling where you kind of click, before I even said a word to them. And it happened in the lobby when I looked at him. And I remember getting on the bus and thinking, “That’s really odd, I got that little click – I’ll never see him again. Why would that happen?” Three days after we arrived, he’d made his way onto the island, through one of the promoter’s children or something.
So he’d been at the concert and the hotel as a fan?
Exactly. I hadn’t realised that. And he’d followed me for 200 miles – that would send me running for the hills normally. I remember freaking out when he got to the hotel ‘cause I thought, “Fuck, that’s why I was going to see him again”. We had about two or three days on the island… and we got it together. And within days I outed myself to just about everybody in that circle of friends, work colleagues and stuff. It was very immediate.
Did you still have to keep the relationship clandestine?
No. I never did that. I always presumed that, by then, the press knew I was gay. There was so much rumour out there. But I never checked into separate rooms. I’d hold hands with him at restaurants and stuff. I was already: “If it happens, it happens” – ‘cause I was in love. And then, within six months, he became ill and it became a totally different kettle of fish. I had to protect him from my life. Which was tough. And it was one of the best reasons for staying in LA. They left me alone out there. They knew I was gay. That was the odd thing. It was “Don’t ask, don’t tell” with the press for a long time.
But there were British paparazzi out there…
No, they didn’t follow me around. I managed to stay out of the public eye pretty much for six or seven years. I didn’t do one interview. I didn’t want any more to do with that. Before Older I didn’t think I was going to make videos again. I was determined that it was bad for me.
Do you regret you didn’t make more records then?
I think it’s amazing there was anything, let alone that it was good. I was so devastated by Anselmo dying. I was in a world of my own. I didn’t attempt any relationship in that time. And then, of course, I met Kenny three years after Anselmo passed away. And I called my mum to tell her, ‘cause I knew she’d worried since Anselmo died. Actually, I called everyone to tell them this fantastic news. And my mum had obviously been plucking up the courage, but she told me that she had cancer and she’d already had some of it taken out. She managed to convince me that they’d got it all really early – which was bullshit, as it turned out. So it was a really bizarre thing, that I’d found Kenny to continue this great experience with. Even though it was a horrendous experience to lose Anselmo, it had been a terrific experience to have my first relationship. Then, at the point I felt ready to start that journey again, the poor man had to hold me up. I was on my knees again, just horrible timing. After my mum died, I went pppphhhh…
Kenny Goss has clearly been very good for you. The big question everyone wants to know is, are there wedding bells in the air?
They’re not imminent, ‘cause I’ve still got people outside my house – three or four days a week. Someone followed me into my doctor’s this morning. And it’s going to be our wedding. It’s not going to be “Sonny and Cher”. So… as long as it takes for it all to die down. I think it’ll die down after the tour. As long as I don’t get myself into any more trouble, which believe me I’m not going to. I’ve had to be do fucking good recently. But it’s only temporary (laughs).
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