George Michael: Talk without prejudice
With a film and marriage in the offing, George Michael is happy at last. The singer talks to Johann Hari about his life - and a curious friendship with a princess
Friday 09 December 2005
Club Tropicana is closed, and its shutters are rusting. In the 1980s, George Michael captured a hedonistic moment and a hedonistic decade when he sang about a club where "drinks are free,/ Fun and sunshine, there's enough for everyone." But today the Wham! poster boy - all silk shorts, olive skin and gleaming teeth - is dead, buried beneath his old hangout.
I am sitting with a melancholic fortysomething Michael to discuss the new, authorised film documentary about him - A Different Story - and it is hard to glimpse the boy in the man. He wipes something wet from his eye and says: "This is the first time in a long time I don't fear the future." He is telling me a strange story about standing at the top of the world - a story where he walks on stage before a billion people and privately panics: "I am becoming one of the biggest stars in the world - and I think I might be a poof. This cannot end well." So who killed Wham!'s wonderboy? Who dug his glittering grave?
This story begins in Edgware, one of the most middling chunks of Middle England, 42 years ago. Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was born to conservative Cypriots who rose from seven-children-to-a-room refugee camps to restaurant-owning in English suburbia. In their battle to drag themselves up from poverty, the family lived above a launderette and worked "constantly. Work was their religion," he says. In Michael's memory, his parents were "just constantly exhausted. They were both working so hard to get us where they wanted us to be but that made them authoritarian." It was a chilly home, where "I was never praised, never held. So it was not exactly the Little House on the Prairie. It really wasn't."
He leans forward on the virgin-white sofa in his Highgate office and teases open his childhood scars. "It's only when the kids are in their late twenties that families really face up to what they are. You've gone out into the world - you've probably got a family of your own - and you're finally in a position to look back and see if your own family was normal. I suppose enough of the damage your parents have done to you has left you by then too. It was at that age I realised how dysfunctional my childhood was."
His mother toiled 24/7 at two kids and three jobs, and Michael remembers her searing, bitter hatred at having to work in a chip shop, because "she was obsessively clean and she could never get the smell of fish out of her hair or off her skin, no matter how hard she scrubbed".
But it was Michael's father who became the focus of his adolescent angst. Jack Panos believed that his son's dream of being a singer-songwriter was a preposterous delusion, the effete indulgence of a British-born boy who hadn't tasted hard Cypriot work. Besides, he said, the boy can't sing. He's got no talent.
"But you know, a lot of people with a childhood like that turn it to their advantage," Michael says. "The fact I had my father as an adversary was such a powerful tool to work with. I subconsciously fought him to the degree that I drove me to be one of the most successful musicians in the world."
So he battled his father all the way to New York City, a platinum album and a duet with Aretha Franklin? "Exactly. It's a good coincidence, in a way, to have both musical ability and a lack of self-belief, a kind of damage, that drives you on like an insane person." Oedipus, schmoedipus - what's it matter so long as a boy loves his Grammy?
Michael is quick to qualify this ossified adolescent rage. He admires the "heroic hard work my dad put in, to raise us up from living seven in a room - which he was back in Cyprus - to having a good standard of living". And he insists, with a pallid smile: "I understand my dad was trying to protect me from what he saw as a false dream."
He pauses, picks anxiously at his trousers, and adds: "But he did too good a job of it." Even when Michael became one of the most famous people in the world, it was never enough: Jack Panos was always there in his mind, saying it was all rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.
Sure, the relationship with his flesh-and-blood father healed, treated with the medicines of Undeniable Success and Unimaginable Wealth. "My father's position with me is so mellow now, because ultimately he is pretty much overwhelmed by the power that I have managed to get for myself. He has been really respectful to me for a long time, and I think quite remorseful about the way he was with me when I was younger."
But with every self-lacerating comment he makes - and there are plenty in this interview - I wonder if I am hearing an angry, knackered father of 30 years ago. So did Jack Panos create George Michael, only to leave a time-bomb of neurosis that killed him in the end?
By the time he was 21, Michael had whammed his way to wealth beyond the crudest fantasies of a Cypriot restaurant-owner. With his childhood best friend Andrew Ridgeley, he entered a period that he remembers now as littered with screaming girls, fluorescent pink posing-pouches and unimaginably white teeth. But it was in the heat and pressure and fire of Wham! that a fictitious George Michael - the strutting persona we remember and mourn - was smelted. He once said: "I created a man - in the image of a great friend - that the world could love if they chose to, someone who could realise my dreams and make me a star. I called him George Michael, and for almost a decade, he worked his arse off for me, and did as he was told. He was very good at his job, perhaps a little too good."
And the glitter and the Grammys went to this fictitious George Michael, a fabulous creature he imagined had nothing to do with the meek, weak boy from Edgware. This alter ego did all the things an über-pop star should: he had sex with four groupies a night, he adopted a hard-slang accent and spoke an octave lower than the "hideous adolescent" whose body he occupied, and he partied like it was a profession.
But the fleshy, messy links between Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and George Michael would not go away. Georgios was slowly realising that behind the virile heterosexual hologram, there was a gay man pickled in confusion. "My depression at the end of Wham! was because I was beginning to realise I was gay, not bi," he says, rubbing his facial hair with his palm. He speaks out his inner life in a fast, therapised blur, checking to make sure I've understood his point. "I felt cornered by my own ambition. I didn't have the self-control to restrain my ego, but I knew it was leading me further and further towards an explosive end. I was becoming absolutely massively popular as a heterosexual male. And in here..." - he touches his chest with a clenched fist - "in here, I was gay."
So Wham! split, Ridgeley retreated to Cornwall for a life of eternal surfing, and George Michael took his Icarus-flight too close to the sun. In 1990, Forbes magazine named the top three entertainment industry earners of the year. Michael was at the top, alongside Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson. The casualty rate in the stratosphere is stratospheric - and Michael could feel his engine stuttering and his wings burning away. "It takes so much strength to say to your ego, 'You know what? You're going to keep me lonely, so I have to ignore you.' I realised those things my ego needed - fame and success - were going to make me terribly unhappy. So I had to walk away from America, and say goodbye to the biggest part of my career, because I knew otherwise my demons would get the better of me."
He says in the documentary that this was "a very American form of blasphemy". "They were like, 'You are making a hundred million dollars, people love you - how can you quit?'" he explains now. Ol' Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra himself, even wrote a letter to Michael telling him he was breaking the rules of the Trade Union of Easy-Listening Megastars, and that he should "cheer up" and "quit whining". "But I knew," he continues, "that to develop as a gay adult - which I had never really been - I had to do it."
Letting the air seep out of his American dream led Michael to his first flaming moment of happiness. During a concert in Brazil one night, he spotted "a really cute guy" in the crowd, and "he was so distracting I actually avoided that end of the stage". But afterwards Anselmo Feleppa, the Brazilian dress-designer face-in-the-crowd, came to Michael's dressing room - and changed his life.
"It's very hard to be proud of your sexuality when it hasn't given you any joy," he says, "but once you have found somebody you really love... it's not so tough." Anselmo "broke down my Victorian restraint, and really showed me how to live, how to relax, how to enjoy life." It was his first tender sexual relationship with a man: "I was shagging around but I had so little experience with men that my sex life was so ridiculously inadequate for me, right until I met Anselmo really." But it was more than that: "He was the first person I had ever loved, and I discovered he loved me too." Even now, there is a hint of incredulity in his voice.
But then - six months into their relationship - Anselmo discovered his blood was infected with HIV. The sour grief that gripped Michael gave him - he winces at the irony - one of the best performances of his career, when he played the Freddie Mercury tribute concert as Anselmo began to die. "Can you try to imagine being any lonelier than that?" he asks. "Try to imagine that you fought with * * your own sexuality to the point that you've lost half your twenties. And you've finally found a real love, and six months in, it's devastated. In 1991, it was terrifying news. I thought I could have the disease too. I couldn't go through it with my family because I didn't know how to share it with them; they didn't know I was gay. I couldn't tell my closest friends, because Anselmo didn't want me to. So I'm standing on stage, paying tribute to one of my childhood idols who died of that disease... the isolation was just crazy."
The day after Anselmo's brain haemorrhaged away, a stricken Michael finally told his parents he was gay. "They didn't even know he existed. The thing that really killed my mum was the idea that I had gone through that without anybody," he says. While Michael's life had always been shot through with depression - "it runs in my family, I'm sure it's genetic" - it was only now, in the early 1990s, that he descended into "a deep black hole". He made the classic depressive's mistake of trying to warm himself with cannabis and ecstasy. His mother's sudden death from cancer floored him, and "it got to a point where I was smoking 25 joints a day". The grief permeated his music, creating the downbeat sounds of Older.
Through the haze of cannabis smoke, he saw an unlikely light: Diana Spencer, the future-and-never Queen of England. "I think we clicked in a way that was a little bit intangible, and it probably had more to do with our upbringing than anything else," he says, discussing their relationship publicly for the first time. "She was very like a lot of women who've been attracted to me because they see something non-threatening. Maybe it's because I take care of my sisters; women seem to smell that. So women who had a hard time growing up... you know..."
This was not just a platonic friendship. "There were certain things that happened that made it clear she was very attracted to me. There was no question," he says quickly, almost absently. I sit up and stare at him. Did Diana try to have an affair with him? He smiles. Did he ever consider sleeping with her? He smiles again. "I knew it would have been a disastrous thing to do." He delicately shifts the subject: "I feel guilty because she did really like me as a person, and I tended to shy away from calling her because I thought she must have so many people calling her for all the wrong reasons. I knew she was so suspicious of people by then, so I would almost treat her the way I know some people treat me. I would presume it was an intrusion to call, when actually you know they're lonely and would love to hear a friendly voice."
When there was no sex, Diana retreated from him, hurrying along her bleak path to the Alma tunnel and canonisation. "I hadn't seen her for a couple of years by the time she died. We nearly got together on that St-Tropez trip. I was supposed to go on to the boat, and I'm quite glad I didn't because it would have been so fresh when she died, it would have been..." Michael stops speaking, and breathes hard, from his gut. "I mean, I was so upset by it anyway, but had I seen her just before..."
He started a course of antidepressants - a final attempt to stop the never-ending blues soundtrack in his mind - and began to take some dagger-sharp risks. He took on his own record company, Sony, in a kamikaze court case. He still believes it was "an attempt to put artists in charge of their material and avert the Pop Idol crap that has killed pop music", but beneath those rationalisations there was a more raw, real reason: "I thought, what else are you going to do for the next few years, except sit around at home and be terrified?"
Then, in 1998, he took an even bigger risk: he walked into a toilet in Los Angeles and hit on an undercover member of the LAPD - an event charmingly captured by the Sun headline "Zip Me Up Before You Go-Go." "I don't think there's anything inherently dysfunctional about cottaging - but cottaging as George Michael?" he says, laughing. "Right up until my arrest, I was still totally naive about the level of homophobia. There's no question when I look back that it really would have hurt me [if I had come out sooner]. I didn't realise how much I was protecting my career. I probably wouldn't have got to sing with Aretha Franklin, or to rise that high."
His career in America has never recovered. So was it Marcello Rodriguez, the undercover cop, and the LAPD who whacked George Michael so hard he finally died? Or did George Michael kill himself, a protracted showbiz suicide?
Sitting before me now, Michael's brown eyes and blue mood seem perfectly matched. After all the depression and all the scandals... what? Many people believe he has become the Norma Desmond of pop, retreating into his mansions, tentatively offering a new single every few years, and refusing to be ready for his close-up. But Michael believes he is finally emerging, blinking into the light, from his decade of depression. He is even accepting for the first time that George Michael - the strutting pop icon - is a part of him after all. "I used to believe that George Michael was a total actor. It was self-defeating, because it made me also feel fraudulent. Now, I'm a bit more integrated, I have more confidence in general - but fear is much more scary these days." So perhaps the twist at the end of this thriller is that the "corpse" is twitching. George Michael didn't die after all.
As we turn to talking about today, his posture changes; he leans back, his shoulders lose their hunch. He is marrying his partner, the Texan sportswear salesman Kenny Goss, in the new year, but Michael has always seemed neurotically sexual - seeking reassurance in the soggiest crevices - and admits he still seeks out "a huge amount" of sexual partners, some prostitutes. "You don't pay an escort for sex," he says. "What you really pay an escort for is to leave after the sex." So he wants his casual sex to be part of a clearly defined market relationship, not a messy emotional one? "Absolutely. But I would make an important distinction. I never paid for a female prostitute in my life, and when I was sleeping with women I never would have. I think it's different. Male sexuality makes this possible in a way female sexuality doesn't."
But even as I see him relax - he even chuckles a little - the savage symptoms of depression never seem far away. When he hears his name on TV, he says, "I feel terrified. I have to change the channel." Nobody is allowed to bring a newspaper into his house, "because you end up flicking through and it can be awful."
As Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou hugs me goodbye and I stumble out of his offices into a wintry north London, Club Tropicana still seems very, very far away.
'George Michael: A Different Story' is showing at the Prince Charles Cinema, London WC2 on Monday 12 December (0870 811 2559; www.princecharlescinema.com)
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