The article “I Want to Be Alone: George Michael’s Quest for the Quiet” was written by Ian Parker and published in The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia on February 10, 1991. It is a revised version of Parker’s article George Michael: The Long Goodbye published in US Weekly.
The ugly son of a Greek Cypriot migrant, he became a pop idol worth $130 million. But somewhere along the way, George Michael got lost. Ian Parker speaks to him about fame, fortune and anonymous sex.
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.
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.
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.”
George Michael says he wants to disappear. So he has published an authorized biography, sold the British serial rights, filmed an hour-long TV documentary for British television, been photographed at the Paris collections, released an album, singles, a TV commercial and videos, announced a 1991 tour with dates in Japan. Brazil, Britain and the U.S., distributed new, precious photographs to the world’s press (left-hand profiles, mostly) and now, in his silken track-suit trousers and ribbed white cotton socks, he’s making tea and giving out digestive biscuits. It’s a curious way to disappear. But he says he means it. “After this.” he promises, “I’m going to shut up.”
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 pop.
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.”
1988 was the year of Faith, a record that has now sold over 16 million copies worldwide. Smooth, breathy, seductive post-coital dance music, Faith won 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. 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 know, because I still live the life I want to live. I do what I like. I still travel about. I’m quite sure Madonna can’t remember the last time she travelled from country to country on her own – or Jackson, or Prince. Obviously, this isn’t an ordinary life. But I do normal things, and I know, with time, I’ll be able to do more and more ordinary things. If I don’t do that much promotion, if I don’t push it, it’ll get easier.”
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, expert in the sex, lies and videotape that sell a record, then you might mistake his judgment for naivete.
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 canceled. 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 and CDs. Like the charity tour, Michael might have seen that coming, but he didn’t.
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.”
In his blitz of antipublicity – the announcements of his intended withdrawal, his photo-free album, his anonymous videos and his charity tour – Michael has not escaped unscathed. Sales on ‘Prejudice’ are good, but not spectacular. It has failed to hit the commercial spot with the astonishing accuracy of Faith. This may or may not be due to Michael’s studied self-effacement. Certainly, without George on the cover, the album is a less obvious gift.
George Michael is 27. Around the world, he has had over 100 Number One singles. 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 an 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 love me. 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 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 … It takes a long time to learn the difference because everyone bloody 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.”
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.”
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 a denial. But everybody knows it means nothing – there are plenty of gay men in the world with two children. No, I’ve never denied it. I very firmly believe that sexuality, apart from the fact that it’s not cut-and-dried, it’s such a personal thing. And I don’t think there’s anybody that’s been in my position – a pop star with a large following – that there hasn’t been that question asked.
“And I’d be mad to say yes. I would be absolutely mad. Especially now. People were probably asked in the early ’70s 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 70s – 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 and teen idol. 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 a 10-year adolescence. But after much confusion, Michael thinks, at the very least, he has sorted out a relationship with his face: “I’ve grown up in the last two or three years. One of the things that’s been most pleasant about growing up is the ability to face things, to accept all kinds of things about yourself. For years I used to fight with my physical self-image. Having gone from being unattractive, or being made to feel very unattractive as a child, I then went to a situation where I got this sudden confidence. I [realized I] wasn’t Quasimodo. Then suddenly l was a pop star. I had all these girls screaming at me and wanting to sleep with me. So I slept with a lot of them. Then I found myself in a much more uncomfortable position because I felt l was more aware of the way I looked. I was a huge star, but why? In the physical sense, why? I didn’t look good enough to be a star. It was all right to say, Yes, I wasn’t unattractive. But I knew the difference between me and a male model. I was really uncomfortable with cameras. And now I’ve got to the stage where I realize it’s okay. So I’m not Robert Redford, but I’m fine. I look fine.”
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 Long Goodbye (US Weekly, 1991)
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)
- George Michael: The Reluctant Pop Star (Calendar Magazine, Sept 1990)
- ‘George Michael, Seriously’ from Rolling Stone Magazine (1988)
- George Michael Interview in Blitz Magazine (June 1988)