George Michael by Nick Levine
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Nick Levine is a writer and journalist from London via south Buckinghamshire. He writes about music, pop culture and LGBT issues for publications including Gay Times, Refinery29, i-D, NME, Time Out and Vice, and has interviewed the likes of Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears.
George Michael was the biggest British pop star of the 1980s. After breaking through as one half of exuberant duo Wham!, he went solo, sexed up his sound and became a superstar: 1988’s Faith album sold 20 million copies worldwide and produced four US number one singles. His life and career became more complicated in the decades that followed, but his loyal fanbase never left him, and a 2006-7 comeback tour raked in more than $200 million. At the apex of his fame, George created an iconic image - stubble, sunglasses, badass leather jacket - that led to him being presented as a heterosexual sex symbol. This wasn't quite the real George, who was gradually realising behind closed doors that he was probably - definitely - a gay man.
But George didn't become a queer icon when he was arrested for 'engaging in a lewd act' in a public restroom in Beverly Hills on 7 April 1998. He became a queer icon in the months and years that followed this supposedly scandalous act which caused a media storm and briefly threatened to define him. Six months after the arrest, he released the brilliant disco single Outside, whose lyrics and video sent up what had happened in that LA lavatory. There was George, the biggest British pop star of the 1980s, dressed like the undercover cop who'd cuffed him, dancing joyously in a public toilet that - swoosh! - turned into a nightclub with disco balls and flashing lights. 'I'd service the community,' he sang with a wink. 'But I already have, you see.'
As Outside signposted, George Michael would spend the final 19 years of his life as an unapologetic - and unapologetically sexual - gay man. He made mistakes, some which could have been avoided if he'd called Addison Lee instead of jumping in his Range Rover. But he always let us know that satisfying his libido wasn't one of them. After he was papped cruising on Hampstead Heath in July 2006, and the insidiously homophobic tabloid press lapped it up, George called up his old friends Richard and Judy to set the record straight - or rather, set it queer. 'I've got no issue with cruising. I've talked about it many times,' he told them live on Channel 4. 'There can't be shame unless the people involved are ashamed and I'm certainly not that.'
In an interview with The Guardian three years later, George described a typical day for him and his then-partner, Kenny Goss. 'I normally get up about 10am, my PA will bring me a Starbucks, I'll have a look at my emails,' George explained. 'At the moment I've got nothing that pressurised other than keeping an eye on the video they're making for the Christmas single. Then, if I'm in the mood, I'll come up to the office in Highgate, do some work, writing, backing tracks or whatever. Come home. Kenny will be here, the dogs are here. Maybe eat locally, hang out, and then probably go off and have a shag or have someone come here and have a shag.' George then added, apparently aware he was exaggerating a tad: 'It's not typical – that's probably a couple times a week.' I've re-read this quote countless times since George died, even shared it on Twitter, and it still makes me beam. George Michael was a rich, successful and hyper-sexual gay man, and he didn't care who knew it.
Of course, being queer also caused him a great deal of pain. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2007, he admitted that hiding his sexuality during the 1980s imperial phase of his pop stardom made him feel 'fraudulent.' He also said he'd stayed in the closet so long because he didn't want his mother to worry about AIDS, which back then was being branded the 'gay plague.' The first man George loved, and probably the greatest love of his life, Anselmo Feleppa, died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage in 1993. George’s 1996 single Jesus to a Child was a tribute to Feleppa, a Brazilian dress designer he'd fallen for at 1991's Rock in Rio pop concert. 'I'm blessed, I know,' he sang poignantly. 'Heaven sent, and heaven stole - you smiled at me like Jesus to a child.'
When you listen to George Michael's music now, the queer subtext is sometimes so obvious, it's almost no longer subtext. Fastlove is about being lonely, hurt and horny, and seeking temporary solace in anonymous casual sex. Spinning the Wheel, one of his most exquisite and emotionally devastating songs, deals with the fear of catching HIV/AIDS when you're in an open relationship. Parts of Freedom '90 now sound like a tentative coming out. 'I think there's something you should know / I think it's time I told you so,' he sang, eight years before that stepping into that restroom in Beverly Hills. 'There's something deep inside of me / There's someone else I've got to be.'
George Michael wasn't a perfect queer, if such a thing exists. He could theoretically have 'come out' sooner, his lifestyle was often messy, and his proud promiscuity was catnip for the unenlightened right-wing press . He acknowledged this on an underrated later single, 2006’s An Easier Affair, when he sang: 'Don't let them use my life to put your future down / Don't let them tell you that happiness can't be found.' But one Saturday in April 2017, a few months after he died, George Michael fans gathered on Hampstead Heath, his old 'stomping' ground, to celebrate his life and the sexual freedom he represented. His life hadn't put anyone’s future down. It had inspired so many of us to live, love - and yes, shag - however we wanted.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.