Michael’s death followed decades of drug use and psychological and physical trauma.
At the beginning of his career, Michael appeared to be the gorgeous and very tan main character in a confetti-filled success story. Wham! — his 1980s pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley — got its first taste of success in 1982 when Michael was only 19.
Among the hits that Michael wrote during the Wham! days was an iconic, frequently covered holiday song: “Last Christmas.”
After Wham! broke up in 1986, Michael went on to an even bigger Grammy-winning solo career — for a time, he was one of the most famous performers in the world. (In 1988, Rolling Stone wrote that he was outselling Michael Jackson and Prince.) He was big enough and bold enough to battle Sony over the terms of his contract, refusing to appear in his own music videos and later taking the company to court. (He lost the lawsuit but his contract was bought out by Virgin. In 2003, he re-signed with Sony.)
But behind the scenes he was tormented. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in London to a Cypriot father and an English mother, the boy who became George Michael had a difficult relationship with his father, who told his son he couldn’t sing. In a 2005 interview with Johann Hari for the Independent, George said his father’s doubts drove him: “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.” His parents worked themselves to the point of exhaustion to care for their family but, Michael said, “I was never praised, never held.”
At the beginning of his time with Wham!, George identified as bisexual, but by the end of the group’s brief run, he was sure he was gay, a fact that he kept from his family. In 1991, he fell in love with a Brazilian named Anselmo Feleppa, but they were only together a few months before Feleppa found out he was HIV positive. He died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993 after returning to Brazil for a blood transfusion. Michael wasn’t with him — the disease hadn’t progressed to a point where death was expected, Michael said in a 2004 interview with Jane Moore for GQ.
Michael told Moore that he finally told his parents he was gay in a letter he wrote the day after Feleppa’s death. “They didn’t even know [Feleppa] existed. The thing that really killed my mum was the idea that I had gone through that without anybody,” Michael said in the 2009 Independent interview. Even his father’s reaction was better than expected. “This is sad, but I do feel success can negate a parent’s disappointment,” Michael told GQ.
It took Michael three years to feel open to another serious relationship. The GQ story describes how, after he met Kenny Goss in 1996, Michael called his mother to tell her the good news. She told him that she had cancer. When she died in 1997, the severe depression that had clung to Michael since Feleppa’s death became overwhelming. In a 2005 interview with Simon Hattenstone for the Guardian, Michael said that he treated himself with Prozac and marijuana for a year, at which point he dropped the Prozac in favor of smoking up to 25 joints a day.
In 1998, he was outed as gay to the public when he was arrested by an undercover cop in the bathroom of a Beverly Hills park for masturbation and sentenced to 80 hours of community service. Once Michael was out, he was really, really out. As Hattenstone wrote in a second interview for the Guardian, published in 2009:
“It would have extinguished most careers, but Michael went on television, explained himself in a brilliantly unapologetic TV interview, and wrote “Outside,” a cheeky song about al fresco sex – “I’d service the community, but I already have”; the video featured urinals with silver disco balls and kissing policemen.”
The drama didn’t end there, and it often involved drugs, cars, or a combination of both. Michael lost his driver’s license in 2007, after being found passed out behind the wheel due to sleeping pills. In 2008, he was caught in another public bathroom with crack cocaine. Not long after getting his driver’s license back, he lost it again in 2010 after driving into a Snappy Snaps photo shop while high on weed. That incident resulted in a short prison stay. Even being a passenger in a car was problematic for Michael: In 2013, he tumbled out of a fast-moving Range Rover onto the busy M1 motorway in England, sustaining a head injury but cheating death as cars swerved to avoid him.
There were other health issues too. In 2011 — the year he announced his breakup with long-term partner Kenny Goss — Michael was on tour in Austria, when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia that nearly killed him. He underwent a tracheotomy and a month of hospitalization. He then landed in a London hospital for two days in 2014; the cause of that was never revealed.
Considering that history — and that’s not even the full history — it’s understandable that celebrity gossip sites have said for years that Michael was at death’s door. In his 2009 Guardian interview, Michael himself said, “I’m surprised that I’ve survived my own dysfunction, really.”
I saw Wham! at New York’s Beacon Theatre in February 1985. As I recall, my friend and I were literally in the last row at the top of the venue. I was getting vertigo during our climb to our seats. And as I’ve written before, I’ve always deeply regretted getting rid of the “Choose Life” t-shirt I got at the show. (The shirts were inspired by a Buddhism exhibit and had nothing to do with anti-abortion protestors.) George and Andrew wore “Choose Life” t-shirts by designer Katharine Hamnett in their 1984 “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video.
Five years after that concert, the solo George Michael didn’t want to appear in his own videos anymore. Instead, he went ultra-high-fashion and created one of the best videos of all time — OF ALL TIME! That was “Freedom ’90,” starring the original supermodels, including my favorite, Linda Evangelista.
Despite all he went through personally and professionally — including critics’ early dismissal of his songwriting skills — Michael produced some songs and imagery for the ages, as well as some great concerts. In his interview with the Independent in 2005, Michael spoke about of his best live performances, which was at the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert. At the time, his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa was dying of AIDS. Michael said:
“Can you try to imagine being any lonelier than that? 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.”
Here are some of the best George Michael interviews.
- Rolling Stone, Jan. 28, 1988
- Los Angeles Times, 1990
- New York Times, Sept. 16, 1990
- GQ, 2004
- USA Today, June 17, 2004
- The Guardian, Dec. 8, 2005
- Independent, Dec. 8, 2005
- BBC, 2007
- Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2008
- The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2009
- Express, Oct. 22, 2011
- LBC Radio, 2012
- Daily Mail, March 15, 2014
- Ham & High (local paper), June 5, 2014
As a postscript, here’s a new story by Simon Hattenstone, who interviewed Michael twice for the Guardian.
UPDATED TO ADD: Rolling Stone has a list of 20 essential George Michael songs.
Separately, this year’s movie Keanu was filled with George Michael references.
UPDATED AGAIN TO ADD: Before James Corden became the host of The Late, Late Show in the U.S. — and the show’s “Carpool Karaoke” segments went viral — he played a character named Smithy on the English show Gavin & Stacy. In that character, he did the very first “Carpool Karaoke” skit with George Michael. Check out Michael making fun of his own automotive encounter with the Snappy Snaps photo store.
Also, here’s Michael’s rehearsal for the Freddie Mercury tribute concert — David Bowie was watching!
UPDATED MARCH 13, 2017, TO ADD: The coroner has determined that George died of a heart condition: dilated cardiomyopathy with myocarditis and fatty liver.