George Michael and Kenny Goss: A pop romance
What's life like for one of the most famous couples in showbiz? Tracey Emin hooks up with George Michael and Kenny Goss - and discovers that beyond the world of private planes and screaming fans, there's an everyday love story
Wednesday 14 February 2007
It was 1986. I had just left art school. Everything was a struggle but life was exciting; it was as if anything could happen. I had some friends in the media world who lived in a very nice flat in Notting Hill Gate. They were fond of me and fond of my work and they came up with this genius idea of me doing a very large painting in their apartment. It was a commission of sorts, but I could do whatever I wanted.
Every day I travelled from Rochester in Kent to west London. Notting Hill was hip and trendy but, unlike now, it definitely had an itch. There was a whiff of West Indian skunk and a hangover of Donald Cammell and his film Performance. I found it all quite exciting.
I had my own keys to let myself in to the apartment. It took a good couple of weeks to do the painting. Every day my friends would leave me coffee in a saucepan (because I didn't know how to use a percolator), and I'd have some delicacy to eat, like dim sum, or alfalfa sandwiches in grainy rye bread, all of which seemed very exotic. I was very happy making the painting and I was very careful not to make a mess.
They trusted me implicitly, but there was one golden rule. They lived on the ground floor, but under no circumstances was I to allow anybody into the rest of the building. It didn't matter how many times they rang the bell or even if they banged on the window, I was to ignore it. There were a couple of photographers in the building with quite expensive equipment and my patrons, being good neighbours, were simply being responsible.
So there I was, listening to Talking Heads as loud as I could, painting away at my Turkish boat going underneath the bridge at Rochester, when I heard the doorbell ring. In fact, it didn't stop ringing. I stopped prancing around in my dungarees to see a guy leaning across the steps waving at me through the window. He was smiling but looked slightly agitated. The window was double-glazed, so I couldn't hear exactly what he was saying. I went out of the flat into the hall and knelt down at the letterbox to be eye level with the guy's crotch. He bent down to the letterbox and said: "Please, please let me in. You gotta let me in."
I told him I was really sorry. I explained the situation. The more I said I really couldn't let him in, the more desperate he became. He was so nice, I felt really sorry for him, but there was nothing I could do. He even told me his name, but it made no difference to me. All I could do was say sorry.
The next day there was a note for me by the stove. All it said was: "I hear that you left George Michael on the doorstep yesterday."
The next time I came across George (or George came across me) was in very different circumstances. It was more than 10 years later. I was sitting in The Ivy with the gallery director Carl Freedman (and, I have got to admit, very, very drunk) when from the table next to us a very smiley, handsome man wriggled his way across the chairs so he was facing me. He spoke with the most amazing, jaw-dropping, sexy Texas twang. "Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but you're Tracey, and my boyfriend is a big fan of your work and he'd love to say hello."
I was already enchanted and said: "Bring him over." But to my absolute amazement, the person sitting next to me on the banquette just smiled and said: "Hi, I'm George." I remember we had a really great chat, mainly about Cyprus. George gave me his phone number and I promised I'd ring him. I remembered looking at this torn-off piece of paper that said "George Michael", with a phone number underneath. Carefully putting it into my pocket (in my pathetic, drunken stupor), I thought: "I mustn't lose that." Of course, I did. But I remember thinking at the time how many millions and trillions of women in the world would love to have George Michael's phone number. Even though it was his boyfriend, Kenny, who lit George's fire, I still mentally associated George with millions of screaming female fans.
Years later, I bumped into George and Kenny at Heathrow airport, as we all rolled off a BA flight from Berlin. George and I had both shown our films at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival. It was brilliant. We all hugged and, even though we hadn't seen each other for years, we were strongly in each other's psyche. George had been hitting the headlines for many different reasons and I, too, had had my fair share of flak. We shared a spirit of camaraderie as we waited for Kenny to clear immigration. And then the pair of them swiftly disappeared through a secret door, special services.
The next time George and I meet it's at another airport. We are standing on the runway just about to board a private jet. Here I was, flying across the Irish Sea, with the Womble beside me, George and Kenny opposite. George's lovely sisters (who are extremely funny) are on board too, along with the rest of the entourage. George's dad, Jack, is due to meet us later in Dublin at the concert as he's got a bit of a cold and George has to look after his voice. I'm a bit disappointed about this because Jack is a Greek Cypriot and I'm hoping to have a chance to talk about Cypriot politics. George and Kenny are very relaxed. George holds Kenny's hand, raises it to his lips and kisses it as the jet climbs through the cloud, and a faint moment of nerves passes through us all.
I can't help but think how manly George and Kenny look. There's nothing poofy about them. It's more like an ancient thing, like a real man thing. Maybe it is, I smile to myself. George the ancient Greek and Kenny the Cherokee Indian. Then I start to laugh because there is no way they look like the Village People. There's nothing camp about George and Kenny whatsoever.
They've been flying around in this plane for the whole tour, and at no time has any of them seemed to take it for granted. Not George, not Kenny, not any of us. I'm genuinely excited and after a couple of glasses of wine, I started to bombard George with questions.
I look across to George and my eyes flash. "When's your birthday?"
"June the 25th," he says "And we're both Cancerian and both born in the same year, 1963."
"So you're 43 as well?" I say. "Don't you find it weird?"
He laughs. I know why he's laughing. Why should any age be weirder than any other? And then I say to him: "Forty two was a really bad one." He nods and agrees quite earnestly and then says: "You come from Margate?" "Yeah," I say. "Have you been Googling me?" "No," he says, "I've just always been interested in Margate, 'cause I used to go there as a kid." "Yeah," I say, "There used to be a massive Cypriot community down there."
I remember in 1974 it was my and my brother's birthday party. We were going to the Isle of Sheppey for a picnic and our friend Mario Papagigio wasn't allowed to come and we telephoned him and shouted down the phone: "We want Mario Papagigio!" George said: "Yeah it was a mess, the war. You and I are similar. I'm half Greek Cypriot. My mum was English. Your dad's Turkish Cypriot and your mum's English." And, quite foolishly, I tell him that we're listed somewhere as the most famous people from Cyprus.
And then, more seriously, I say: "Your mum and dad - have they always been proud of you?" George goes quiet for a while, looks up sadly and replies: "Yeah. I think really proud." This is a special thing about George. You can see as you speak to him that there is no formulaic answer. It's almost like he's thinking about it for the first time, or reiterating how he feels.
George's mum died a few years ago, and you can tell as you are talking to him that he was incredibly close to her. She comes across as a big influence, almost like a mentor of sorts. A fascinating thing about George, about the whole Panayiotou family, is that they are so "family" and they are really, really funny. I think almost any one of them could take to the stage and be a stand-up comedian. They come across as very open but also extremely tight-knit and protective. I put this down as a Mediterranean thing.
I ask George how it was for his family when he came out. "It was OK by then because I was successful. I had achieved something. I was in a position where I could take care of myself, and often success can take care of a lot of other things." I then ask George and Kenny: "Do you worry about getting old?" Between them, their ages add up to nearly a century. They both turn and smile, and I know the answer should be yes, but it's actually a lot more complicated. Kenny is very happy and contented, but gets frustrated with himself sometimes. It's like he wants to learn more, faster, but there is never enough time to do it.
We reflect on the fact that we can't do all the things we used to do. We then discuss whether we still do the things we used to do. They then ask: "Tracey, what makes you feel old?" I reply, "I've never had children, and now I'm really getting too old to have children," before adding: "Don't give me that crap about the woman who was 57 who had a baby in Italy last week!"
They laugh, so I say to George: "Have you ever wanted to have children?" "No," he groans, and, pointing his thumb at Kenny, adds: "But if he had his way, there'd be no stopping him!" Kenny interjects: " Now, George," in his really sexy Texan drawl ,"you know that isn't exactly true. I love children. I love my godchildren, nieces, and nephews, but most of all, I think people who don't have children, like us, should take more responsibility for those children who need help."
On this point, I think Kenny is absolutely right, and I ask them: "Do you think people who don't have children are different from people who do? A different species, a different kind? And do you think being gay means that you have a different kind of relationship?" The answer, of course, is yes. "So, as gay men, is your commitment within a relationship different to a heterosexual's?" Kenny replies: "Tracey, have you ever slept with a woman?"
"Yes - of course I have. I think most women have. It's called safe sex! You don't hear many women say, 'I'm off across the Heath tonight to do a bit of cruising.' Why is it OK for gay men to have such open relationships?" George says: "Maybe we've already discussed it. Maybe it's about the children thing, or maybe it's just a way of life for some people. What do heterosexual people do?" "They sleep with their friends," I say, "which somehow is a real fuck-up."
I change the subject, to make things a bit lighter. I say, "Sorry I didn't come and see you in Earls Court, but I had seen the BBC news coverage from Manchester. Thousands of women beside themselves with absolute ecstasy, crying, laughing. I can't remember how many thousands of women it was, but I decided I couldn't cope with it at Earls Court. Why do you think it is that women love you so much? It's so obvious you're gay and always have been." I think silently of all the men who must have whispered slowly into the ears of their lady friends, "If you're gonna do it, do it right. Do it with me. Now listen... I'll be your boy, I'll be your man, I'll be the one that understands..." So I say to George: "Why do you think a lot a men dislike you so much?" He looks at me completely stony faced, 100 per cent dry. "Because they feel cheated." We land.
I always get the jitters going to big concerts. To be honest, I don't really like them. The crowds, the hotdogs, the coldness and then the sweat, but this time in Dublin everything feels very gentle, very at ease. There's a sense of very thorough, military organisation, down to every last detail. In among the crowds of thousands I feel very safe and cosy, nestled between Kenny and George's larger-than-life family.
The atmosphere is electrifying. The crowds are ecstatic. My favourite moment of the whole concert is when George raises his hand towards where we are sitting and calls out to the crowd: "This song's for Kenny, Kenny, the love of my life." And the whole crowd goes into raptures. Good going for a predominantly Catholic audience; good going for any audience when you think how much things have changed in the past 20 years.
It isn't really a pop moment, it feels very classical and I think about the voice of George Michael that I remember from 20 years ago. The high-octane, beautiful teen. Now what I'm listening to is the voice of a man plus thousands of screaming women.
Now I realise why women adore George Michael so much. He simply has an incredible voice and the fact that he's gay makes him even more lovable. Given the choice of a shoulder to cry on, who would you rather have, Barry White or George Michael? George Michael or Barry White? I'm even happy to throw Robbie Williams into the equation. When we listen to love songs, to ballads, we want to trust the words that we're hearing and be able to translate them into our own lives.
George Michael is definitely on the side of vocal integrity. On top of that, he's big enough to admit his own failings, and that's exactly what he's doing to the audience. It's incredible. He apologises for being gone for so long, but now he's back. In between every song, he explains the lyrics or what the song means to him. The whole crowd is intoxicated with warmth.
Later on, back in George and Kenny's suite, we are having a late dinner. Room service arrives. The mood is very relaxed and George is genuinely happy. I ask George and Kenny lots of intimate questions but for some reason the conversation always reverts to talking about my breasts. I ask Kenny how he and George first met. "I met George at a really posh..." and then he stops. "Well, actually, we have two stories. There's the one that we tell people and the one in which we actually met. There's a really posh spa called the Beverly Hot Springs. It's a very straight, above-board spa but, you know, if we tell people we met in a spa they always get the wrong idea. So we often tell people that we met at Fred Segal." I burst out laughing and say: "The shop?" "Yes," says Kenny, "The shop." "But that sounds really camp."
Kenny continues: "Well this was 11 years ago. George still had a very strong private life then. Everyone knew he was gay but he hadn't actually come out. We just thought it sounded better that we say we met at Fred Segal's, but now we don't say it any more, we always say we met at Beverly Hot Springs because, you know, we would be at a dinner table with 10 people and some would ask us the same question at the same time and one of us would always tell a different answer so now we always say the truth. We met at a spa." I ask them if they think it is important to tell the truth. They both nod earnestly and George says simply: "Life's too short."
He has a song, "My Mother Had a Brother". The lyrics are about his uncle, who died suddenly and tragically, apparently on the day that George was born. There's mention of suicide and fear and a burden of hidden homosexuality. The number of people who walk around in life never being themselves. Being afraid of themselves, disagreeing with their internal reflection and suffering internal, physical heartache because they are well and truly closeted. George is right. Life is too short.
I leave their room at four in the morning, quite tipsy, feeling really happy and I go to sleep with the voice of an angel in my mind. Love doesn't have to be the same for everybody.
Tracey Emin, George Michael, Kenny Goss and Scott Douglas support the Terrence Higgins Trust. Tracey and Scott's fees for this article have been donated to the charity. The Terrence Higgins Trust Lighthouse Gala Auction will be held on 12 March
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