George Michael


In the end, George Michael has said it all on the first page of the tour programme.
“Now I’m here. I’m me. And my music represents just me. And if people like the music and they like the way I present myself then, chances are, they’ll like me. If they don’t, then they won’t. It’s as simple as that.”

The letters are gold, in capitals, fixed with a golden certainty and conviction that in the end proves wholly appropriate – forming a proud, defiant, impenetrable wall.

I throw at him, bluntly, what I can. I say: tell me you have male sex, take cocaine, wallow in money, waste money, hoard money. Tell me you’re lonely and hunted; fake, smug, unworthy, corrupt, insecure, sheltered and live and breathe a golden glamour that is impossible. Let me look at your world and then tell me your golden life isn’t real.

And, in the end, George Michael talks for fifty minutes almost without pause, with a ruthless confidence, a relentless assurance, a controlled clarity and purpose, so that it seems real. It seems designed to make you believe that the image and the real person have never been closer or less distinguishable. He is in control.

I leave my hotel room and wait in the lobby of the Champs Elysee’s Royal Monceau Hotel where George Michael is staying and watch the world of the richest visitors in Paris.

When we are about to meet for the first time, he walks past me. Immaculate, wearing that golden certainty round his shoulders like a heavy coat, he exits the mirrored lift wearing mirrored shades, a long tan leather jacket, jeans and silver-capped boots, about as disguised or anonymous as a neon sign flashing the word S-T-A-R in hundred foot letters…

Is that you? That golden star dream figure ?
“Yeah (laughing), people say that but I don’t think it’s true, you know ? I mean, I just had on a leather jacket, jeans, boots… Maybe it’s the Ray-Bans, the ones for the posters, the show. Maybe it’s the shades.”

It’s the shades.
“Yeah. Well I think people will see what they expect to see. You probably saw all the combined images that you had of me in your mind for the last five years in one look. People’s image of you becomes what you are.”

With unhesitating assertion and brusque efficiency, he postpones the interview because his voice is croaky and he can’t risk anything. I spin through the hotel doors back into my life in Paris, which is a three-day whirl of pinball arcades, Picasso at the Pompidou, the new Polanski, the Opera House, the Gaultier shop, Alsatians, roller-skaters, the blue swish of the Metro, the bad whores of Rue St Denis. And George Michael’s Paris life is strolling out for a meal, watching TV, playing tennis, business meetings, cancelling a dinner with some celebrities and two days of waiting for show time…

Is this your life?
“On tour it is. Some people can get away with having a good time as well as the work but I can’t. We’ve done three months, but there’s six left. It’s very, very restrictive and very boring. I hate touring. Basically you live for the couple of hours you’re on stage.”

What’s the point?
“Well, I’m a musician. I’m getting the music out of it – making records, performing live. It’s the centre of my life. It’s not going to change.”

I arrive at Le Zenith and pass its emblem, a huge old warplane fixed to a 60-foot cross. A poster announces the show that follows George Michael: French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

I watch the soundcheck – around 100 men working like so many ants in AC/DC T-shirts, Rod Stewart tour jackets, jeans, white trainers. Flared tempers, flared trousers, boxes of Perrier and HP sauce, French catering, English catering, engineers, carpenters, accountants, a dozen French security men like a press gang of greasy sailors. It’s all done with wires, cables, two dozen trucks, five gray tour buses, telephones, computers, lasers, walkie-talkies, and I watch them and think: these people could invade Cuba. And I stick out like a sore thumb and the more I try not to, the more I do – not least because I am the only one there not working my arse off. For George Michael…

Did you want this ?
“Yes, I did. I wanted to take this album round the world. I’ve been building up to this for five years. My ego needed to prove I could do in America what I’d done in England. Everyone’s surprised at the size of my operation but it’s just that now I’m dealing with people who are far more money-orientated. I make a point of putting names to faces but to be honest, I couldn’t really handle knowing what everybody does, everybody’s problems.”

Before the interview, I read through the proof of George Michael’s golden pudding: worldwide sales of Faith – 10 million copies; four number ones in American… He has sung with Stevie, Smokey, Aretha.

I meet his management, Lipman-Kehene, who are firm, polite, efficient. Then George’s security officer, Bill, who tells me he’s worked with Supertramp, Bon Jovi, Elton.
“Ben Elton !?!’ I think before realising.

The sun streams through a gap in a heavy blue curtain. Then it’s blocked off by the emblem of a Mercedes and word goes round that George is here and he strides in, with those shades but without minders, looks round and walks, without fuss or speaking to anyone, into a room on the left. I had read in Rolling Stone that George Michael is “three years younger than Prince, five years younger than Michael Jackson and outselling them both” and suddenly wonder if he’s older or younger than me.

Tell me about confidence. These entrances.
“I do have the confidence to do it, yeah. Sometimes I don’t have any confidence at all and I really wish I didn’t have to do it, that they were looking at someone else.”

You’re impossibly famous, like Monroe or someone.
“Well, it’s difficult to say what sort of fame someone like Monroe… (starts laughing). I’m sorry, I thought you said Matt Monroe then, hahaha.”

You’re the new Matt Monroe.
“Right (stops laughing). I definitely think that that sized fame is within my grasp and if I wanted it, I could have it because I’m only 24. Unless something disastrous happens to my abilities. But I don’t want it. I won’t do it.”

Why not?
“Because I still have one foot in real life and I know that if I take this to another level I’ll lose my grip on that. I’ve had to fight very hard to keep what I have at home – doing without protection, etc. Even now it’s pretty close to the point of no return.”

It’s scary.
“Touring is that scary glimpse, yeah. The whole thing of being surrounded by people in awe of you… That could be my whole life. But I’m not interested. I’ve met Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson. I didn’t expect them to be any different from the way they were. I do feel they’re different from me, yes – past the point of no return in that respect. They may be perfectly happy. Madonna seemed quite comfortable with it. Prince goes out a lot but always with heavy, heavy security. The Jackson meeting was business, to talk about collaborating, which didn’t happen. They were all very brief. What is there to talk about ?”

What’s the hardest part ?
“Losing the ability to have a normal existence, in terms of people’s perception of you, can have a really bad effect. Things like, how many people will really tell me to fuck off when they really should ? When will be the next time I’ll make a joke in a roomful of people and everybody will laugh and I’ll know it was actually
funny ?”

I’ve waited and waited for George. The security men close off the backstage area and a huge black curtain drops down and neatly cordons me off. George’s tour manager gets me a Grolsch, which makes me feel ill because I haven’t eaten and I’m nervous. I’m told George will see me now. I open a door and there’s a large black-walled room with mirrors, a giant pot of massage cream and a nasty-looking suction hoover that his masseuse tells me stimulates the blood.

George is sitting in front of a low glass table decked with salads, sandwiches, wine, water, bunches of grapes and a large, untouched plate of maybe 30 fresh prawns. For his part, the only thing that the man who all this is for eats is… Strepsils. He looks like a Sultan or a Prince as he says, “Welcome to my new house” and laughs and I think, welcome to another world more like…

Are you moving away from a normal life ?
“I don’t think so. It’s very hard to tell because a tour’s so unnatural. When I get back to North London I think I’ll be able to slip back into my lifestyle fairly comfortably. I go out three or four nights a week, play sport. Most English people aren’t really aware that I’m so huge in America. The people I mix with won’t see it as a big thing.”

It’s tough at the top.
“It’s not particularly, not if you’re a reasonably balanced person. You lose a bunch of problems and get new ones. There are loads of things that can be very tough. I think I can deal with them.”

He maintains his golden control, over his thought, his speech, his public image, these photos and even this interview. Even that supposed master of control, Sting, has said, “None of us controls the forces that could make us has-beens.” But perhaps George Michael does. At a time when nothing recedes like success, he decided he had out-lasted all English competition, targeted a level of American success inhabited only by Jackson, Prince and Madonna – what he calls “blanketing the planet” – and attained it…

You conquered America because you could, because it was there.
“Yeah, I had to prove I could. Now what ? Well, I know it’s not as simple as just making another album and doing the whole thing again. I’m very aware of the pitfalls that come at this stage. Well, like taking yourself extremely seriously – that real over-the-top-self-importance. I can enjoy celebrity in America but I’m very aware of the bullshit that seeps into it. English acts are so used to being put down, like I am, that when you get to America and everyone champions you on such a vast level, it screws everyone up. That won’t happen to me.”

You’re sensationally successful.
“At the moment it hasn’t really affected me because I haven’t been in America that much. I knew I’d be shutting America off. I’ve used America as a kind of bolt-hole – especially in LA, to get away from being stared at all the time, so now it’s going to get worse. The album is just so huge there, you can’t get away from it.”

I sit down and George tells me calmly we can try and make it forty-five minutes, and it turns out to be forty-five minutes of unswerving resolution and acute clarity that has no grubby ‘ums’ or ‘ahs’, no tatty mumbling or indecision, talking firmly, fulsomely, without croak. He ignores requests to sound-check and asks for the interruptions to stop, which they do. And even if he does it in a way he knows I’ll appreciate, he still does it. It’s 6.15. When it’s over, it’ll be one hour to showtime…

You’re self-conscious.
“Yeah, a lot more than I used to be. I don’t know why. That’s why in London I stick to three or four places knowing the same people will see me and not be bothered. I’m much more self-conscious about walking into new places now though, yes.”

You’re vain. You won’t allow the press to photograph you and you only provide them with two or three new pictures a year.
“Yes ! Of course ! I know I’m renowned for this in England, especially with magazines, but that’s because I’m English. Come on! There’s been about three new pictures of Prince in the last two years. I can’t just forget about it, no, because it’s me I’m staring in the face every time I open a magazine.”

It doesn’t matter.
“It does matter ! It’s part of what I do. I want to be pleased with the way I’m represented and the way my music’s represented. I find it’s objectionable to find nasty pictures of me.”

You’re insecure.
“Anyone who chooses their own press pictures is insecure about the way they look, surely (grinning). I’ve no qualms about this.”

But that’s the way you look. That’s the way you are.
“If that was true, people would just wear potato sacks when they went out. People try to make the best of themselves. Choosing the photos, for me, is the same as choosing what to wear when I go out.”

You’re smug.
“Yeah, I’m pretty smug, don’t you think ?”

No, actually. You could be worse. You should be worse.
“I think anyone who really thinks they know what they’re doing with their lives is pretty smug. It isn’t necessarily a nasty term. I could be a lot more smug though, yeah.”

He always comes clean, gets there first with a brash honesty that tells you he can afford to be honest, especially when it’s useful. He makes a show of his ethics and honesty (the South African withdrawal, selling his arms manufacturers investment), but, face it, he still does it. He doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to.

So he admits Wham was frothy, pap. He knew his image wasn’t credible so he came up with one that was credible and commercial and would win him America and admits I Want Your Sex was written to do all this.

He admits a kind of “blind ambition” and its probable pointlessness; confesses that he will “formularise when I have to”; concedes that he was the “acceptable honky” for Aretha to duet with.

He admits his self-pity, promiscuity, drunken indulgence, his arrogance, his golden luck. He pre-empts the ‘Gay Exclusive’ exposure but won’t deny anything, like being gay or not being gay, because it makes him sound defensive. And he says, “We’re all filthy rich compared to someone” and, “People think I’m going to be such an arsehole it’s not difficult to give them a real surprise. I just have to be myself.”

You’re false. That’s your function.
“No, I don’t need to formularise. I haven’t formularised at all on Faith – not with so many different styles. Some songs are more for other people than for me and vice versa. I used to make music purely for entertaining people, yes. Now I get a lot more personal satisfaction. They’re more an honest reflection of me. I need to write as a form of expression. Before was… just to prove something.”

Would failure be interesting?
“Well, A Different Corner didn’t do that great in America. It was a pretty uncommercial move – no chorus, lyrically bleak. I had to put it out then because it was so much a part of what I’d gone through.”

That’s vulture-ish. To write so specifically about what one person has done to you when you’re with someone else.
“I don’t think it’s vulturish, no. The best way to write something lasting is to be very personal. It’s not picking the bones. I don’t think you can take your personal experiences and water them down for people. I do feel vulnerable but that’s one of the main things that set me apart from other people in my position. I allow myself to be that involved.”

The interview is concluded to give him time to relax, though he continues talking as before. I’m given a gold ticket which entitles me to sit in the celebrity gallery. I put Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses on my walkman and glance through the symbols of George’s world – the mentions in his press cuttings of all the trimmings and trappings of golden wealth and health: personal gym, in-car CD, DAT player, black Merc, the Concorde routine…

How much are you worth?
“I’ll be worth a lot, lot, more at the end of the year.”

You weren’t in Money magazine’s survey of the top 200 people in Britain. (The Queen £3,340m, Bowie a meagre £13m). You must have more than that.
“I will by the end of the year.”

Money’s got no meaning for you.
“It hasn’t had for a long time. I can’t remember what it’s like to be broke, so I really try to keep a perspective on it, through my friends. Maybe it’s just cocky but once I knew I had a real foothold in the business, say three years ago, I’ve always believed that if I lost it all tomorrow I could make it all again. My biggest confidence is in my writing – for films, other people…”

How do you show generosity when it’s always small change?
“I’m very generous to the people around me. I’ve nothing to prove to them. I’ll help them out with their career or a car. I like being generous – with people I’m secure with, when I haven’t any doubt that it’s not expected of me. I’m lucky because there are quite a few people like that in my life.”

You want more money, much more money.
“I can say without any doubt that I’ve no interest in doubling my money or even more money than I’m already making. My managers know it’s absolutely pointless trying to get me to do things for money. Like, I was offered £700,000 to do a live concert for TV, but I hate live TV: you lose all the atmosphere, it’s a pain in the arse to film, so I won’t do it. I would never see it. I know it won’t show me the way I want to be seen. That really makes managers tear their hair out. They can’t really get much sponsorship because I won’t align myself with any product. I just won’t do things that I don’t believe in, spend my time for the sake of them just making money without the creative side. It’s an abuse of my talent.”

You take cocaine.
“No, you ask anybody, I’m really Mr Clean on this tour. I’ve hardly even drunk on this tour. I hate touring, fucking ligging, the whole groupie bit. I want to take this album round the world, do a good job. I don’t want to be fucked up while I’m out there. I hate coke anyway.”

You’ve taken cocaine.
“I know what it’s like, yeah. I know I hated it. It was disgusting, absolutely. I just got a bit ill and a bit depressed, haha. Hand on my heart, I don’t do it. I’ve stayed away from all the extra-curricular activities. I have ! I hate the way coke’s totally taken for granted everywhere. I’m sure it’s very prevalent among the entourage, which is a shame because people waste so much money on it. I don’t think any drugs are worth taking once, to experience, no. I think you should only do things if you want to do them. If you want to try them, but you don’t think that you should, then you’re probably a fool not to. I understand why people do it. I don’t condemn them, except people who introduce it to others. ‘Go on, try it.’ I hate that. I get offered a lot of drugs and women at home. I don’t have to go on tour for that.”
He laughs.

In the celebrity gallery, the models and beau-monde belles arrive, throwing frisky little kisses and waves at each other. Cheeks collide posing as kisses and eyes spit secret daggers of venom as they smile the smiles of the rich and vacant and I watch them, thinking these are George’s guests, no wonder he’s, apparently, had “two pretty successful monogamous relationships” over the past four years and not much else. I think how perfectly pragmatic it is, in these times, to say, “Sex is not the enemy. Promiscuity is” – pleasing both sides at once: clean sex. I’d meant to challenge that with Woody Allen’s “Is sex dirty ? Only if it’s done right”, but didn’t slip that past him very well. There will never be another chance…

Tell me about sex. Is it easy for you to go to bed with someone for the first time ?
“It’s not a problem for me. There’s nothing about my ‘reputation’ at stake, no. I’m not bothered about someone running to the papers, because I never get anywhere near bed with people that I think even vaguely capable of that. I have to be really convinced someone wants to sleep with me, as opposed to the person they think is me. I haven’t taken advantage of my status for a long time. The idea isn’t attractive to me anymore.”

Would it be difficult to find someone after such a long time with your girlfriend Kathy Jeung, to start again ?
“I don’t think it would be a big problem. I haven’t thought about it for a long while because I’m not on the market in any way.”

Apparently the woman from Heart doesn’t expect anyone ever to be able to love her for who she is rather than what she is.
“Is that the fat one (grins) ? I consider myself a decent enough person that someone could love me for the person I am. She sounds as if she’s resigning herself to the fact that she can’t tell the difference. I can. People don’t stay with you all their lives just because you’re some pop star. You know when someone’s fallen in love with you. Well, I do.”

In I Want Your Sex, you sing: “What do you consider pornography ?”
“To me, it’s sex detached from feeling. When you see those incredible hardcore porn mags in classy hotels in Amsterdam, with some poor cow, like, taking two at once, you think, fuck, who is this woman ? Where did she start off that she ended up like this ? I cannot look at a film or picture of people fucking without wondering what sad circumstances brought them to that point. People fucking for the sake of fucking is fine. People fucking for the sake of other people is pornography.”

Have you experimented with sex much ?
“No, I haven’t experimented that much sexually. In the initial period of fame I went with a lot more people than I’d ever been with before but I didn’t particularly learn how to be a great lover. You learn how to have good sex when you’re interested in making somebody happy, from which point of view I’m a better lover than before. It changes from person to person. But there are certain buttons you can press on any machine and it’ll make it work.”

You must draw me a diagram.
“In terms of casual sex there are great lovers and lousy lovers. I think I’m pretty good, probably.”

Have you had male sex ?
“No, I haven’t. ‘The obligatory male sexual experience’, no. The thing is… It’s nothing… Well, the point I normally make is I honestly don’t think anyone needs to know whether I have or not. People speculate on my sexuality all the time and they’ll continue to.”

I watch the celebrities arrive. Paul Young, in a short quiff, looks tired, glum and, frankly, finished. Geldof looks tanned, healthy, even elegant. Paula looks like Paula. John Taylor sweeps in wearing a floppy artist’s beret and long coat and looks fucking gorgeous, as does the girl who rests her head on his shoulder for the sad songs. A shaggy Rupert Everett enters in shades but no-one notices, probably because, like me, they’re all looking at his exquisitely anxious-looking Japanese girlfriend, who’s a bloody dream. And I’m surrounded by the wealthy and healthy and I’m neither and will never be and I watch them and realise George Michael refers to “sleeping with a lot more people” rather than ‘girls’ or ‘women’, but don’t know what to make of it. The show’s starting and I take off my headphones and the PA is playing Janet Jackson’s Control…

Are you lonely ?
“Not really, no. There is a certain amount of isolation and a lot of pressure, but I’m probably less lonely than a lot of people who lead perfectly normal lives. Even as a child I had three very close friends who I was constantly around. I tended to be a kind of centre for others, emotionally, a touchstone. These people have always been very loyal to me.”

It’s hard to talk about your life without seeming flash.
“To be honest, most of the people that are close to me spend a lot of time with me, so their conversations won’t be a million miles away from mine. I really did try to stay in contact with people after school – because fame came so soon after school – but I gave up. I can leave it behind, yeah, but what am I supposed to talk about that won’t sound condescending or pompous ? It didn’t make any difference with my really close friends but with just good friends, it was too tough because it didn’t leave them any sense of dignity.”

You’re paranoid.
“No. I have a very strong sense of what’s genuine and what’s bullshit. I know that ninety percent of people I deal with in my life are full of bullshit. I’m very lucky that I have people that are honest with me. You have to value those people. I’ve learnt how to trust people.”

George sticks his head out of the door as his business meeting ends. He is topless, sockless, like a poster. He seems more relaxed than anyone there, including me. There’s less than half an hour to go. Inside, the screams are deafening, the excitement extraordinary. It’s pitch black when a green laser scratches out the Faith symbols, the third of which is unmistakably a pound sign. Very Prince. Thousands of golden lighters are held aloft before he’s even sung. He makes a great entrance. I watch I Want Your Sex, a thin, graceless thing compared even to Prince’s B-sides but which in the days of Rick Astley must surely be applauded. A Different Corner is Joy Division for kids. Faith is modern Shaky. Most of it is Cliff Richard playing at Prince and perhaps it’s from years of Cliff that he’s learnt this gleaming assuredness, simple, direct awareness. His faith is in himself.

After three songs he asks them, in English, not to scream but to please listen. It’s seriously sincere until the line, “Do you want to have sex with me ?” when he thrusts his groin back and forth like a dozen Rik Mayalls. For the gorgeous gold gloom of One More Try, he punches the air for every line and you can hear your heart beat, there’s such a hush. He gets the crowd to sing the song Faith, unaccompanied, which they do, explaining his exercise to them like a magician at a children’s party but it still has real magic.

Certainly when he said, “If you don’t like anything on Faith you don’t like Pop Music”, he was right. It’s a stunning display of smooth anguish, golden pop professionalism, energy, charm and verve. The small man on stage controls the whole show, the whole crowd for two hours and I don’t really recognise him as the person I was talking to two hours earlier…

What do you want ?
“I’m looking forward to just sitting down and writing, which won’t be for some time yet. To the tour ending. I always enjoy that period of reassessment when I stand back and decide what to do next. I know I’m going to approach lots of different musical areas. Also, taking time off, enjoy the fruits of my labour.”

I remember James Baldwin said, “It’s rare that one like a world-famous man: by the time they become world-famous they rarely like themselves,” and think George Michael proves him wrong on both counts.

Bright golden brown eyes, smooth golden tan, even the giant grin is gold, dazzling. Anything less than absolute confidence would seem churlish. Thoughtful, considerate, enormously engaging, his shining friendliness proves indomitable and “balanced”, as he puts it.

I say, “How old are you ?” as we finish and he’s 25 in July and there are mere months between us and he says: “You would never know, would you ? I talk like I’m 50,” and grins and just for a minute, beneath the tan, the beard, the fame and glamour, the immaculate star image, he looks his age, like the boy he would be without all that, all this. But just for a minute…

Could you do with a setback, something to fuck you up ?
“I already had one of those to make this album. I hope it’s not necessary to do it again to make the next one.”

Are you happy ?
“Here, I’m only really happy when I’m playing. I’m not a great traveller or great absorber of foreign cultures. I would never live abroad. I am happy, yeah. I think I’ve managed to get to a level of celebrity which is normally accompanied by the celebrity being the main attraction and the most important thing about my career is still the next record. I feel very, very comfortable with that. And I’ll probably deal with my future in a different way. I feel very balanced.”

After the show, the girls on the Metro are carrying their £5.75 tour programmes and singing: “I want your sex”.

I’m invited to a party for George at Rue des Colisees. Outside there are several dandy Arabs who can’t get in because they haven’t an invite. The women inside are beyond beautiful and more in love with themselves than even George and I put together, which is a considerable amount.

George is in an exclusive restaurant room at a table with Geldof, Yates, Young and some guests from the gallery. It seems we have been invited to peer through the curtain and watch them eat, laugh, slap each other on the back, which we do, which they do. It’s like a scene from Bunuel’s Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. I leave and stop a BMW that’s leaving and ask for a lift and the driver is a rich Israeli woman who gives me a lift and says her sister lives and breathes for George. I don’t see George again.

It’s a golden life.
“No. I don’t think so. It’s hard for people to really understand just how hard it is. No-one can really understand this situation, the life I lead. You do lose a large part of your life. You pay for it.”

Is it real ?
“The touring isn’t real, that’s why I don’t actually get involved in it. I tend to keep myself to myself. When I’m not touring, it’s real. It’s still my real life. This isn’t real.”