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Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the future superstar was the youngest child of Jack Panos, a prosperous north London restaurateur. When Georgios, nicknamed Yog, arrived in June 1963, Jack already had two daughters, Yioda and Melanie, with his English wife, Lesley. So expectations were high for his longed-for only son. But there was a problem.
Raised in the conservative Greek Orthodox faith, George’s father had homophobic views typical of men of his generation and background and no idea that his adored boy was secretly gay. This situation was not only the trigger for his son’s lifelong battle with his sexuality. It compelled the talented singer to prove himself and impress his father, while concealing his true identity.
He was only 18 when he formed the pop duo Wham! with his friend Andrew Ridgeley, and only 20 when they had their first hit single Young Guns. From the start, the dark good looks of George, as he was now calling himself, were key to the band’s popularity with its young, mostly female, fanbase.
An appearance on Top of the Pops, featuring a smouldering George in rolled up jeans, with an open leather jerkin over his bare torso, helped to propel Young Guns to No. 3 in the charts.
But, as writer James Gavin remarks in his authoritative new biography, the chart-topping heartthrob might have fooled everyone else but he wasn’t fooling himself.
“He knew people were shrieking for someone he wasn’t,” says Gavin. “His worshippers, he decided, were not there for his voice or songs. They had fallen for the image – and it was a lie. A gay man packaged as a modern-day Elvis.”
Success followed success. Wham!, with a catalogue of hits such as Bad Boys, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper, were soon international superstars and in 1985 embarked on a huge world tour, becoming the first western band to appear in China.
But behind the scenes, George was tiring of Wham!’s teenybopper appeal, and was looking to appeal to a more sophisticated audience.
He performed with Elton John at the 1985 Live Aid concert and began adding his vocals to other artists’ records. In 1986, Wham! split and George was free to be himself… creatively, at least.
He duetted with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in 1987 and then released his smash hit debut solo album Faith. In 1988, US Billboard magazine named him the biggest pop star in the world.
But he continued to struggle with his sexuality. He had a relationship with make-up artist Kathy Jeung, who he once described as his “only bona fide” girlfriend, and confessed to her that he was bisexual.
And then, in January 1991, George met the man he would later describe as the love of his life. At a gig in Rio de Janeiro, stylist and designer Anselmo Feleppa was in the audience and was instantly smitten.
He found out that the star was throwing a party in a nightclub and inveigled his way in. From that night, they became an item, although one George would still not admit publicly.
“He was the first love of my entire life,” George told Kirsty Young years later on Desert Island Discs. “I was happier than I’d ever been. Fame, money, everything just paled by comparison.”
As they toured the world together, he showered Anselmo with gifts: a Cartier watch, a Mercedes, designer clothes. But they were already being stalked by tragedy. While George had always practised safe sex, his lover had not been so careful, and AIDS had been claiming lives among the gay community since the mid-1980s.
In autumn 1991, eight months into their relationship, Anselmo told George he felt sick. He was due to fly to Brazil to spend the holidays with his family. He promised he would get tested there.
George subsequently revealed that he remembered shaking his fist at the sky: “Don’t you dare do this to me!” he cried.
The Almighty ignored his pleas. In Brazil, Anselmo got the news he was dreading: he had AIDS. He called George in LA and they cried together. At 35, Anselmo had received a death sentence.
For a while they lived together at the star’s LA mansion, but eventually Anselmo returned home to Brazil to die with his family around him. A conflicted George didn’t join him for fear his secret would come out, especially if he visited his boyfriend in hospital.
A few days later, a blood transfusion triggered a brain haemorrhage and Anselmo was dead at 36.
The singer subsequently said of him: “Anselmo was the most beautiful, kind-hearted angelic person I’ve ever met which has sometimes been hard for my subsequent partners.”
It was the start of another difficult time for George. His personal grief was matched only by his professional frustration. He tried to end his association with his record company, Sony, but could not get out of his contract.
So he sued, lost the case, and depression and panic attacks set in.
He started taking Prozac, later augmented by a heavy marijuana habit. He was high on pot almost from the time his feet hit the bedroom floor each morning. One critic described him as “the Howard Hughes of pop music, sitting in a darkened room, brooding. Or, suitably attired in trademark shades and designer stubble, walking his dog in lonely misery”.
For five years, George released not a single track. In July 1995, he opened a newspaper to read a sobering quote from record producer and Wham!’s erstwhile manager, Simon Napier-Bell: “I haven’t met anyone in the business,” it said, “who cares about George Michael any more.”
That seemed to do the trick.
The album, Older, released in 1996, was designed to tell the world the pain George had suffered without divulging too many intimate details.
The royalties from stand-out track, Jesus To A Child, were secretly donated to Childline. It was that album that persuaded James Gavin to tell George’s life story.
“He was spilling out his pain,” he says. “This was a man in tremendous anguish. He’d lost the love of his life. The melancholy spoke directly to me.”
James was at pains to avoid being either an apologist or a judge.
“In the four years that I worked on that book, though, and via the 200-plus interviews I did, I came to like and admire him very much indeed.
“As he later explained, he was driven to be a pop star because he was so unhappy with the face he saw in the mirror. He had so much self-hatred welled up inside him, nothing but the adoration of millions of strangers would do.
“And yet, when he attained that, it wasn’t enough. So, he’d spent the first half of his life creating the George Michael character and the second half trying to tear it down. “I didn’t know that, of course, when I started researching the book. All I saw was someone in tremendous anguish who turned that into creating beautiful, honest, moving music.”
After losing Anselmo, there was more heartache wasn’t on the way. George’s mother told him she was ill but that it wasn’t serious. As it turned out, she had skin cancer and was on strong painkillers. By February 1998, he learned that Lesley’s hours were numbered.
On February 24, George won a Brit Award for Best Male Solo Artist but he didn’t attend. He was in the hospital with his mother who died the following morning, aged just 59. To deal with his grief, George took comfort in one-off sexual encounters. In his uniform of shorts, T-shirt, hoodie, baseball cap, sunglasses and sneakers, he’d climb into his Mercedes and drive to various community toilets.
It was called “cottaging”, anonymous gay sex in public places.
A popular haunt was the Will Rogers Memorial Park, just a mile from George’s home on the borders of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.
On April 7, 1998, George had an encounter there with a man who turned out to be a plain clothes policeman. George was arrested, resulting in one red-top headline: “Zip Me Up Before You Go-Go!”
Interviewed subsequently on television, George declared: “I feel stupid and reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed in this way. But I do not feel any shame whatsoever and neither do I think I should.”
He later told chat show host Michael Parkinson: “Believe me, I’d rather have run up and down Oxford Street, shouting: ‘I’m gay! I’m gay!’ than for it to happen the way it did.”
In the event, George was found guilty of lewd conduct, fined $910 and sentenced to two years’ probation. He also had to agree to five hours of therapy and undertake 81 hours of community service.
By this stage, George had met handsome Texan, Kenny Goss, the second significant relationship of his life.
But he was already on the path to self-destruction and nothing, not even the sage advice of concerned friends – Elton John among them – could help him step off that path.
- George Michael: A Life by James Gavin (Abrams, £25) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832
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