“Michael Unmasked” is an interview with George Michael, written by Jon Bowermaster and published by Chicago Tribune on September 4, 1988.
George Michael sits, staring at his own reflection in the silver tip on the toe of his boot. He is looking deeply into his own eyes, for what he will not say. Is he measuring the look of his affected, two-day stubble? Checking for bits of room service muffin that might be lodged in his all-too-perfect pearly whites? Or is he just gazing into his own azure eyes? No, I think he`s just taking in, like the rest of the pop-music-loving world these days, the new George Michael (nee Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou). What he sees is a respectable singer/songwriter, no longer just a silly Wham!ster.
Gone from his career is childhood buddy Andrew Ridgely. So are the hot-pants, golden mane and Tanfastic that made him into an international teen idol in the early `80s. They have been replaced by a solo album (”Faith”) that has sold 20 million copies worldwide and produced sold-out dates at stadiums around the world. But best of all, as far as Michael`s concerned, he`s getting favorable reviews from a press that dismissed him during the Wham! era as just another pretty face.
His just-launched North American tour has gotten off to a rousing start, including three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, where he proved that, while millions of baby boomers may have helped turn ”Faith” into a multi-platinum success, his most ardent fans are still gape-mouthed and mini-skirted teenage girls. They ”ooh!” and ”aah!” his every onstage thrust and pout, requiring even George to ask for a little temperance from his audience during his ballads. The shows are essentially a rundown of ”Faith”- including its four No. 1 singles-accompanied by a couple of ”Wham!” hits and covers (like the most appropriate ”Shake That Funky Music, White Boy” and LaBelle`s ”Lady Marmelade”).
All are delivered under precise, computer-driven lasers. His band takes a back seat, clothed in darkness most of the show, while Michael sprints from side to side across the stage. An invite to his post-Garden party at the Cafe Iguana was the hottest ticket in New York for a week and it brought together the likes of Cher, Michael J. Fox and another 500 of Michael`s closest celebrity friends.
It is early morning in Manhattan, prior to the Garden shows, and from his posh hotel suite he looks out on the Hudson River. In the room to his left lounge two bodyguards (”Only in America,” he claims), and in the room to the right two publicists work the phones. He has just begun a 30-city tour of North America. He has set up a base in a leased house in Greenwich, Conn. and the throat problems that forced him to cancel several weeks of his European tour are behind him. (Doctors removed a cyst that had developed in his throat, then prescribed several weeks of R & R-walking, jogging and no talking-which he took in luxury at St. Tropez.)
His U.S. shows are selling out as fast as the tickets go on sale and he already has expanded the tour to include several stadiums down South in October. (His Chicago appearances will be at the Rosemont Horizon on Tuesday and Wednesday and at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wis., on Friday.)
This morning, he`s all business — the business of convincing people, through words and music, that he is a consummate musician to be reckoned with. Toying with the zipper on his black shirt, he says, ”I`m waiting for the day when I`ll be forgiven for being half of Wham!,” the duo that made him a world-famous sex symbol.
”I’ve always resented that image of me, now I just want to say, `Hey, give me a break,` listen to this album. But it’s not an image I can change just by doing a bunch of promotion or saying `it’s an album I`ve worked a year on and am very proud of.` I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by and let people`s prejudices keep on running. So here I am.”
He claims he is not bitter about the bad-rap given him during the string of Wham! hits (the group sold over 38 million records, making him a very rich 25-year-old). In fact, in a perverse way, he is enjoying this rebirthing process, under way since ”Faith” was released last November.
The tour, which began in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6 (after Europe and Asia) is allowing him to spread his new image like melted butter around the globe. But it also has witnessed the demise of his yearlong relationship with Los Angeles deejay Kathy Jeng (her thigh can be seen to great advantage in his ”I Want Your Sex” video). Shortly after she departed, Brooke Shields, a former Michael paramour, was in London bragging about a ”torrid” two-week affair she’d had with the pop star. But, she admitted, George had told her his career came first, and she returned home.
Seen in the Wham! videos and concerts as a happy-go-lucky, naive young Brit, Michael managed to remain relatively private during those boom days. Still, the tabloids in his home country had a hey-day speculating about his love-life, his sexuality, even his brains. (”One month I`d be a fat, fascist, homosexual, with a huge Georgian house somewhere in Essex,” he laughs. ”The next I`d be a lean, virile, left-winger.”) He admits to fostering that undefined image, to a degree. ”I totally threw away my personal credibility for a year-and-a-half (during 1984 and 1985) to make sure my music got into people`s homes,” he admits. ”It was a calculated risk and I knew I would have to fight my way back from it. I did it out of choice.
”But I had no real perception of exactly how big it would become, and no real perception of how I would have to fight that image later. But at the same time, I would not do anything to change it because it`s put me in a very enviable position-and musically I don`t think it held me back one bit.”
Now he says he`s ready to let people get to know ”the real George Michael.” ”I didn’t let people know much about me when I was perceived as all teeth and earrings-we were selling loads of records and it didn`t really seem there was going to be any problem. Now I`m perfectly prepared to let people know what I’m all about.”
His former partner, Ridgely, recently told the British press that ”no one will ever know any more about George Michael than they probably do about the next man on the street. But nowadays, he’s letting his character come out a lot more in his music. Wham! was very much a created, artificial image and George`s image is a lot closer to what he actually is as a person.”
Despite almost patently disclaiming those Wham! years, he does allow that they gave him a good jumping off point for ”starting over.” ”It’s one thing to have to fight for your credibility from a position of success. It’s another to have to fight for both credibility and success from nowhere. So I don’t find this a difficult position at all.”
The new record, heralded by the controversial ”I Want Your Sex” single previewed on the ”Beverly Hills Cop II” soundtrack, is a mature mix of dance, rock, torch songs, even skiffle. Rolling Stone dubbed the album a ”sensational debut . . . Michael`s quantum leap from Wham!hood to manhood.” The New York Times called him ”the most-likely-to-succeed heir to a pop tradition exemplified by Paul McCartney, Elton John and Barry Gibb.”
Reading such press brings a broad smile to Michael`s stubbled face.
Most Wham! songs were silly little love songs, bloated with optimism, light-hearted dance hits that played on a kind of sexual virginity. (”I was writing about the first time you slept with someone from a very naive point of view,” winks the singer today.) ”Faith” is more confessional and boldly sexual, more Prince than Wham! Its songs range from rock `n` roll through a `40s jazz ballad to a Percy Sledge-style ballad.
”I knew this album would be a shock or a surprise to people in this country,” he says.
”The uptempo side of the new music is more overtly sexual, more black,” says Michael, who had a No. 1 song in his duet with Aretha Franklin, ”I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” And ”Faith” is the first album by a white solo artist to reach No. 1 on Billboard magazine`s black music charts. ”The other side is based on the fact that my strongest songs are ballads. The album is more adult, more representative of my feelings than most of the Wham! material.”
Michael is now getting the respect he’s hungered for all his life. As a child, he was certain he would be a ”pop star” and never considered another career, growing up the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur and an English mother in surburban London. To that end, he doesn`t read books. ”I have no real regard for history,” he confesses, and adds that he finds it ironic that he finds such an appreciation for English tradition abroad. ”There`s something about the English past which I find depressing, gloomy.”
He and Ridgely (who met when they were 11) demonstrated dance routines in discos, busked in the subways, made demo tapes with a four-track tape recorder and a microphone attached to a broom handle and debuted Wham! in 1982. Five years of best-selling records, sold-out tours and screaming teenagers followed. They performed together for the last time at Wembley Stadium June, 1986, and split up six months later. Ridgely lives in Monaco and races cars. Michael splits his time between a prefurnished house in exclusive Kensington and a beach house on the Riveria-and makes music. He says that ,if he were to move to the United States, it would be to Los Angeles, adding that the main reason he stays in Europe is because the only time he feels the need for bodyguards is in America.
Like many musicians, Michael enjoys the process of making the music more than promoting or touring. Ironically, it`s making the videos, the medium that turned him into a ”sex symbol to thousands of virgins,” that he dislikes most. ”I don`t know what came over me,” he says today of those bouncy, lovestruck Wham! videos. (Who can forget ”Wham! goes to China’‘?)
”It was being 19 years old and suddenly having loads of girls after you, having everybody say `you’re a star,` says the man one critic dubbed God`s gift to MTV. ”When you’re young and have wanted to do something for that long, it`s very hard not to be seduced by it. Now, I swear, if I never have to stand in front of a camera again I`d be happy.”
As for life on the road, it’s the ”living with that public persona 24 hours a day” that he doesn`t like. But he admits he loves being on stage.
”There is no better feeling in the world. I often think it would be hard to decide which I`d give up first-walking on stage in front of tens of thousands of people who have been waiting for me, or sex. Actually, I think I`d have to give up walking on stage, because you can do without it for a year, as I did until this tour. I can`t imagine. . . .”
The young star is taking the success of ”Faith” (he has now written, produced and performed more No. 1 hits-six-than any other performer in the`80s) with ease. ”You know, I`ve always thought it a stroke of luck that what I like to do musically relates to an awful lot of people. (`Faith` is) a fine collection of songs, and I knew it was going to be a very, very successful commercial album. I don`t think it depended on any sort of gimmickery or imagery. I think it`s a lot more genuine than a lot of music that`s selling now. I`ve never seen so much formulaic music around in my life! (Formulaic music has) always been around, but people have never seemed so ready to buy it in such huge numbers-and keep buying it.
”The one thing that frightened me when I was making this album was that people expected me to move into a middle-of-the-road bracket right away. They expected that two years ago (after Wham! broke up), and for a 22-year old, that was really frightening. So I wanted the album to be more representative of what I am.”
He folds his big, surprisingly rugged hands on one knee and goes back to staring at the toe of his boot. I ask him what he sees, and he responds evasively. ”At 25, I still need challenges, apart from the main challenge of just writing better music. Being successful has to be something you earn, and my challenge now is to have my music heard above people`s perceptions of me. So this is a new beginning, this is a new me.”
- Michael in the Mirror (Atlanta Constitution, 1988)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
- George Michael Interview in Blitz Magazine (June 1988)
- George Michael: The Reluctant Pop Star (Calendar Magazine, Sept 1990)