The interview entitled “George Michael” Tales from Gymnasium” written by Tony Parsons and published by The Face magazine in November 1987.
“Sometimes I stand in front of the mirror and think – Christ, I look like shit,” George Michael says. “I think – I feel like shit and I look like shit. It would be okay if I could just go out and have a drink with a few mates, not trying to pull or anything, but when I go out I know everyone is going to have their eyes on me. So the way I look worries me … but the funny thing is that because people see my face on TV and in the papers so often, when they see me in the flesh they don’t even notice if I look like shit. They don’t think woooh, George is looking a bit blotchy tonight…”
George is actually looking very well today. The love of a good woman and the use of his own personal gym have worked their wonders. He fizzes with fitness, radiates health, glows with money in the bank. Tasteful pieces of jewelry glint against that tandoori tan. The dark brown hair is shorn short, licked with flecks of gold. People imitate these looks, this concept of beauty; you will see their pale shadow on a thousand high streets. And, currently weighing in at eleven stone, for the first time in his life George Michael is positively skinny.
“I don’t go to the health club now that I have my home gym,” says George. “I’m building myself up for the seven months I’m spending on the road next year. But did you see what they said in the Sun? FAT GEORGE SPENDS 25 GRAND ON SLIM GYM.”
Slim Jim? Is this the George-is-gay exposé that the Sun was supposed to be cooking up? “Yeah,” he smirks. “Slim Jim cost me 25 grand. He’s a blow up. With all working parts. Four speed…”
George Michael has been around for what feels like forever, though last July he celebrated what was only his 24th birthday. For someone who has had a career untouched by any real, life-warping scandal, the air around his well-manicured head has always been rife with meaty rumour.
In the early days of Wham!, his leather and lad period, the rumours set out to show that George had an ego that was the far side of Napoleonic. The middle period rumours, from around “Careless Whisper” to Wham!’s finale at Wembley – George’s beard period – tended to imply that if the singer liked girls then the Pope’s an Italian.
In 1987, which for George Michael is the year that he releases “Faith”, his first solo album, the rumours have concerned themselves with his money and what he does with it. The deafening whispers now tell of a decadent, conspicuous consumption. That expensive slim gym apart, there are more vicious and flamboyantly false rumours such as the one that claims that his beautiful, Oriental girlfriend Kathy Jeung was purchased for him in Thailand by a slavish management team.
“There are two reasons for all the rumours,” he says, that small, fleshy mouth set in the grim bow shape that he usually reserves for photographs. “One reason is that the image I present is a little too ordinary, some people think that it is all a front and that there has to be something hidden behind it.”
And the other reason?
“Because I haven’t fallen by the wayside.”
George is feeling a bit like God’s small toe these days. He will tell you that he is in a limbo now, there is no one to compare himself to, he has no frame of reference but himself. All his peers, the Frankies and Duranies that – he can hardly believe it now – he once regarded as serious competition are either in the ditch or tottering on the brink, heading slowly but surely for the remainder bin of history. The more recent big pop noises are either too wrinkled (Pet Shop wrinklies) or too bloodless (the smirking Norwegians, the spotty Curiosity) to lose any sleep about.
The only one who ever truly came close to matching his impact, Jolly George O’Dowd, the cartoon character who preferred Brooke Bond to ‘bonking’, has the look of the concentration camp about him now.
George Michael watched his formal rival emerge from the personal Belsen of heroin addiction with real feeling. But he knows that nothing like that will ever happen to him. Like the big black Mercedes he drives these days – getting stuck in traffic on the Euston Road, getting clamped in Soho – George Michael is ritzy and flash but ultimately completely predictable. You can tell it worries him sometimes. For the next and final level he has to move on to is the Olympian peak occupied by a handful of Americans – Jackson and Madonna and Springsteen and Prince, all these platinum fruitcakes – and ironically, golden George, the crown prince of Eighties pop, thinks he might be a little too mousey to make it. This from the sun bed king!
“I will never be in step with Madonna or Prince because they are pretty much the people they portray themselves to be. I think I am capable of blanketing the planet because my music is good enough to do it. But unlike Madonna or Prince, I have to become someone else when I do it. I will never be like them,” he says, this character who has already had four number ones in America and whose latest single, “I Want Your Sex”, has US sales approaching one and a half million. “I just don’t think that I am vivid enough.”
We meet up in deepest South Ken at Blake’s, the restaurant below the hotel of the same name and for several years a favoured meeting place for important George Michael business.
He comes down the stairs into the sleek black and chrome cellar, removing his Tom Cruise shades as his eyes adjust to the polite spotlights. He tosses a big-cocked bunch of keys onto the table. “You got me pissed last time. It won’t work anymore.”
It is two years since I have seen George. For most of that time his career has operated without the aid of a management team. After dismissing Simon Napier-Bell’s outfit for its links with South African interests, George has somehow contrived to keep both his principles intact and his business booming. Alone among the platinum acts of the world, his is a career run without any visible means of support.
“No one has ever made any creative decisions for me,” he says. “When I start letting other people make those decisions it will be because I am panicking. I have Connie to do my PR (Connie Filippelo, the pocket battleship who choreographed Wham!’s publicity), a personal assistant, a lawyer, an accountant and a publisher. I have just brought in a North American management team and I will use them in North America as a testing ground.
But my management have always been organizers of what I want. Every decision has always been referred back to me because I would be so pissed off if anything went wrong.”
How detailed is the career flight plan? Do you know what happens next?
“I have always had a clear idea of what I should do next because if you don’t have that it does not matter how much talent you have, you put yourself at the mercy of other people. This is why so many people fail or weaken or get to a certain point and can’t take it any further…”
“My goal, totally pointless though it may be, is to establish myself everywhere – including America – the way I have established myself here and in certain other territories. I don’t need to get any richer.”
Note the tendency to sometimes slip into music business parlance – this talk of “North America” and “territories”. I ask him if he has regular meetings with his team of accountants.
“I have irregular meetings with my accountants.”
And what do they tell you?
“For about three or four years they have been urging me to take off and spend a year out of the country. Next year will be my first ‘year out’. There will be one month’s preparation and then a seven month world tour. They allow you to spend 60 days in the country so I only have to spend an extra five or six weeks out and then I qualify, I have spent my tax year out. The one dilemma of living here,” says George, once again making his social conscience in harmony with his bank balance, “is that I fucking hate giving so much money to a Government I disapprove of. Every year there is another Cruise missile with my initials on it. I find that tough. So next year is tax exile by default. I’ll be on the road and I will be George Michael for seven or eight months and then I’ll come home…”
Who will you be then?
A frown passes across his tikka-coloured features. “I don’t know,” he says. “Not Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. I have always felt more like George Michael than that. Though in my head it is still a title. George Michael – it’s just a little, self-made title, isn’t it?”
In his head he is sometimes the consummate pop star, singing songs of romantic misery and lobotomized bliss. But in his heart he is always the Bushey soul boy, and he has an almost religious reference for music that comes out of real emotion. He despises his role of pop craftsman – the vocation that has made him rich beyond belief – and compares faking feeling on record to faking orgasm.
“If people believe you have come then fine,” he says. “But you still lie there feeling like a bit of a shit. From just before the end of Wham! and for about a year after was a real dead period for me, a real low point. Out of all the records I made during this time – ‘Edge Of Heaven’, ‘Different Corner’, the thing with Aretha Franklin – only ‘Different Corner’ is anything to be proud of. The rest is just formularizing. But, though I hate faking it, I can do it if I have to.”
Like the sit-com stooge who wants to play Lear, like the Grub Street hack who is convinced he has a novel inside him, George Michael wants to cross the great divide.
An even greater source of pride than the US sales figures of “I Want Your Sex” is the way that record has been perceived across the Atlantic as honorary black music.
“People that buy Janet Jackson and Prince bought ‘Sex’,” he says. “I fit a lot better into the R&B thing now than I did before. With Aretha, I wish we could have made something that was closer to a soul record than a pop record. Though I was incredibly flattered to be asked to do it, I know it was as much her record company’s idea as Aretha’s.” He smiles wistfully at his tanned, hairy hands resting on the pristine white tablecloth. “I was the acceptable honkey,” he says. “White George.”
No so long ago white George came out of what had been the blackest period of his life. It was a long, booze-sodden trough that had been triggered just before the Wham! split by – and this was a first – someone rejecting him. Ironically this was only weeks before he would have a capacity crowd at Wembley eating out of his black-gloved hand.
“The one person I really wanted, who I thought my life should revolve around, didn’t want me. It hit me hard. There is a real pathos having to be part of a group such as Wham! when you are at your lowest ebb. The relationship fucked me up because I am usually the one who does the leaving. It was messy and I am used to being loved. I was spoilt in so many ways – going straight from school into the band, having no money problems, being able to sleep with whoever I wanted to whenever I wanted to, my career going exactly as I wanted – and then someone pulled the carpet away.”
What form did the mourning take?
“I drunk myself stupid for eight or ten months,” he says. “I was in a very bad way.”
Finding a chink in his golden armour, George Michael came apart. The rejection he suffered early in the summer of last year was a catalyst for a depression that grew blacker as the months dragged by. Instead of shrugging off this failed love affair and getting on with his career, which would now be as a solo act, he used its collapse as a good enough reason to question everything in his life. The music business, his career, his talent – they were all examined and, as his mental and physical health deteriorated, they were all found wanting.
“I thought – I have finally woken up. I have sussed it out and it is all a pile of shit.”
His life seemed forever settled, though, at 23, he felt he had just begun. His work, his health and his looks all suffered as, like a potential suicide in a country and western song, he crawled deeper into the bottle.
The members of the press who are forever shining a policeman’s torch into his private life all missed their GOOD TIME GEORGE CRACKS UP!! scoops because the singer offered them only a moving target. He did only two photo sessions during the missing year and spent most of his time in foreign parts – stumbling bleary-eyed through passport control in St Tropez, arriving hungover again at LA International Airport, moving on to more rented white rooms in Portugal.
“I have friends who are good enough friends to say to me – if you carry on like this then you are a complete asshole.” A wry smile. “But I just didn’t take notice of them.”
One person had plunged him into this crisis and another individual finally pulled him out. But, though Kathy Jeung met him halfway through the missing year and accompanied him on many of those wine-sodden flights between two continents (“She’s game for a laugh,” he says) the individual who saved him from a shriveled liver and a withered career was an older friend. One drunken night in LA Andrew Ridgeley invited his former partner to pour it all out.
“Andrew was so great. I used him as a sounding board for everything that I thought was wrong. It was like an exorcism. He was very worried about me and he had to leave LA the next day. But when I woke up the next morning the cloud had lifted and, though I should have felt incredibly hungover, I felt brilliant. That black time ended after I had it out with Andrew. Now I am back in control.”
On one level it was perfectly natural for George to get Andrew Ridgeley to perform this “exorcism”, to take out all his emotional refuse – his experience in the music business had been shadowed for years by Ridgeley and they have known each other since they were both wearing the green blazers of Bushey Meads High School. But it could be possible that when it comes to the finer grades of emotion, for the more delicate things like caring rather than conquering, being supportive rather than heartbroken – for all these more subtle shades of feeling it could be that George Michael requires a male friend. Certainly it seems unlikely that anyone will ever be more important to him than Andrew Ridgeley. And sometimes I see with a mad clarity that everyone has had it wrong all along and George needed that partnership more than Ridgeley ever did.
“Andrew is vain in the purest sense,” George says. “He doesn’t give a damn about the way he looks because he knows he looks great. He has always had a clique of people around him, girls after him – and he never cared. I envy that hugely. There was no doubt about it – I wanted Andrew’s style. I don’t think I stopped feeling like that until a couple of years ago.
“When we were younger people used to ask me if he was gay – it was only when we grew up that people started asking him if I was gay. When the soul boy thing came in he wore cherry-coloured satin trousers and he has these three little plaits in his hair, almost red Indian style. And I said – I’m not walking down the street with you like that! This is Bushey!”
Do you ever worry about him, George? Do you ever think – maybe we should have kept it together and I could have gone off to make my solo records now and again…?
“No, because Wham! had just become a falsehood. Though it obviously took more on his part to say go ahead, when he knows that I have a future that is pretty much assured and he doesn’t. But although he must have had his reservations, Andrew was always very supportive. He never clung.”
George Michael, the man, is open, accessible, charming. George Michael, the industry, is nothing like that at all. No other career in the music business has such meticulous care and attention to detail lavished on its physical manifestation. Expensive photo sessions are scrapped, a tiny handful of approved images are given to editors for official release, and contracts promising an interview in return for the cover of a magazine are haggled over for months (in fairness, this interview was agreed with a handshake). In one memorable case, a contract had to be signed by the NME promising that George would not be put on the cover of that publication. Even the despised tabloids are quietly fed stories to keep them sweet and George’s profile high.
George, I don’t know why you bother.
“Because the paparazzi photos of me coming out of restaurants and nightclubs with a girl are revolting. And they are the photographs that most people see in this country. The rest of the world,” he says, “sees me as I want to be seen.”
What about keeping the tabloids happy? It seems to be wanting it both ways – denigrating their content while wanting access to their huge readership. There was a really crass, sexist story in one of them about Brigitte Nielsen wanting a line-up with you and Boogie Box High. GEORGE FLEES MRS. ROCKY, it said. Your cousin Andros Georgiou was quoted as saying, “She seemed to be keen on seeing us all at once, if you know what I mean.” Nudge, nudge, George?
“They are capable of making anything up. Look at that Beastie Boys story about the dying kids – most of those children didn’t even know they were dying until it appeared in the paper. As for my cousin, I thought that quote was totally out of character. My cousin said he thinks his plugger said something to them and they blew it up.” George’s sun-kissed face creases in a dirty smirk. “But it was true, though…”
We say goodbye outside Blake’s on a sunny, South Ken boulevard. The last time I stood in a London street with George Michael two years ago there were about 50 teenage girls hanging around for a small piece of his action. Today the street is empty.
“It has calmed down a lot for me over the last couple of years,” he says. “Yesterday I walked into the studio and there was a choir of 60 or 70 kids and they all started screaming and playing the little game. But only because I’m a famous person.”
“The kids that used to scream at me because of my music have all left school, got jobs and grown up. Kids still get excited when they see me but only because I’m in the papers all the time. They don’t feel any affinity for George Michael,” he says, and I realize how often he refers to himself in the person. “He’s far too old for most of them.”
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- Andrew Ridgeley on Life With and After Wham! (Hello!, 1997)
- ‘George Michael, Seriously’ from Rolling Stone Magazine (1988)
- Last Wham! Interview: No. 1 Magazine (1986)
- Wham! You’re On Your Own, George (Sunday Times, 1986)