‘Almost everything to do with George Michael pointed back to his father’

'Gut ambition and crippling insecurities': the late George Michael on stage in Australia, 1988 - HULTON ARCHIVE
'Gut ambition and crippling insecurities': the late George Michael on stage in Australia, 1988 - HULTON ARCHIVE

Two years ago, I hired a man to dig a pond in my garden, who I asked me what I did. When I told him that I would be interviewing a 1980s pop star that afternoon, he nodded. “Done a bit in that line, myself,” he said. “I dug George Michael’s grave.” We both gazed respectfully down into the hole in my lawn for a minute before the pond man picked up his shovel and delivered his verdict: “Good songs. Complicated bloke.”

His terse assessment is backed up by James Gavin’s thorough – if slightly sloggy – new biography of the singer. The American journalist has combed the archives for every detail and conducted long interviews with musicians and studio personnel who worked with Michael for decades. Although Gavin isn’t in the business of finger pointing, fans will inevitably read it looking to make sense of the star’s implosion. To what extent can we blame the homophobic culture of the 1980s and 1990s for the depression and addiction that contributed to his death, aged just 53, on Christmas Day 2016?

There are no particular bombshells in Gavin’s book, but it reminds us powerfully that the shaming judgements didn’t just come from the aggressive tabloids of the late 20th century. They began at home. “Almost everything to do with George Michael, from his gut ambition to his crippling insecurities, in some way pointed back to his father,” says Gavin.

He paints an uncompromising portrait of Jack Panos: a charismatic-but-controlling Greek Cypriot, who’d come to London to work as a waiter and ended up ran his own restaurant. Along the way he married an English dancer called Lesley and they had two daughters before their son, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, was born in 1963.

But quiet George was not the macho son Jack wanted: he was chubby and awkward and wore coke bottle thick glasses. In interviews, he would recall that he was never praised or held as a child, noting in 1998: “It’s the things that are missing that make you a star.” Well, that and the music.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!, photographed with their parents in 1985 ahead of a tour to China - Mirrorpix
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!, photographed with their parents in 1985 ahead of a tour to China - Mirrorpix

Although his musicians would later suspect he stole the saxophone riff of Careless Whisper from a popular balalaika melody, the boy hated the Greek music his father played in the restaurant. But he fell hard for pop music at an early age, dancing to The Sweet and developing a crush on pretty-boy pin-up David Cassidy. Later he identified with closeted gay artists Elton John and Freddie Mercury.

At school the gawky kid fell into an unlikely bromance with the coolest kid in class. Gavin describes the young Andrew Ridgeley as “a stand out – the lad who all the girls wanted, the one with a hint of danger.” Ridgeley had no musical ability. But it was his swaggering attitude that Michael channelled in the songs he wrote for their band, Wham!

Gavin whisks through the prolific period in which the rebranded “George Michael” (two first names, like Elton John) bashed out the pop hits – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Club Tropicana and Last Christmas – that would become party standards. Early groupies included a blushing Princess Diana who found Michael “very gorgeous”. After the shock of punk, Wham! made “cute” music for a demographic the Telegraph’s Roland Gribben described as “Thatcherite youth” who were “conformists rather than rebels” who wanted to get married and have a garden and still have fun.

Confused and closeted, Michael himself was having less fun. Gavin is sharp on the exploitative record deal he and Ridgeley signed with Innervision that would see them earn just 8 per cent royalties in the UK, 6 per cent elsewhere and 0 per cent on sales of increasingly popular 12-inch records.

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael on Ibiza in March 1983, where they were recording their single Club Tropicana at Pikes Hotel - Michael Ochs Archives
Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael on Ibiza in March 1983, where they were recording their single Club Tropicana at Pikes Hotel - Michael Ochs Archives

Michael didn’t care at first. “I didn’t want to be rich,” he said. “I just wanted to be filthily famous.” But it wouldn’t be many years before the singer would come to see himself as a “slave” of the industry, famously losing a legal attempt to break out of his Sony contract in 1992. The intrusions of fame meant he had to pretend to date women, a couple of whom fell in love with him. Shame and loneliness gnawed away inside him.

He dumped his former bestie, Ridgeley, and went solo, saying: “The fact he didn’t contribute anything must have been a terrible blow to his ego.” Like his father, Michael became controlling – finetuning every detail of his image and sound, as the engineers who worked on his worldwide tours tell Gavin.

Michael amped up the eroticism in leathers and stubble, gyrating to I Want Your Sex and Faith, while denying the rumours of homosexuality he – quite realistically – felt risked ruining him. Attempts at outing him were brutal. In 1988, The Sun ran a feature co-written by Piers Morgan titled “The Poofs of Pop”, which included a photo of Michael with Boy George. One 60 Minutes documentary opened with the interviewer, Jeff McCullen demanding, point blank: “George, are you gay?” Today McCullen says: “Friends that I deeply respect thought I should never have gone there. But once you’ve gone into marketing sexuality as a product, it’s fair territory to explore.”

With both men dead, Gavin can’t really get inside Michael’s life-changing love affair with Brazilian dress designer Anselmo Feleppa in the early 1990s. But he offers a moving account of Michael’s 1992 appearance at the star-studded Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for Aids Awareness at London’s Wembley Stadium, belting out Queen’s Somebody to Love while his own lover was dying of Aids. He later called it “probably the proudest moment of my career.”

Princess Diana and George Michael attend A Concert of Hope, a benefit concert on World Aids Day at Wembley Arena, December 1 1994 - Popperfoto
Princess Diana and George Michael attend A Concert of Hope, a benefit concert on World Aids Day at Wembley Arena, December 1 1994 - Popperfoto

Gavin quotes friends who believe that – despite the ongoing hits and later boyfriends – Michael never really recovered from the loss of Feleppa to Aids in 1992, and the death of his mother shortly afterwards. He was walloped again by the death of his friend Princess Diana in 1997. Not long before her death, his answerphone had recorded a conversation with her, in which she sighed over her divorce from Prince Charles: “It’s been pretty grim,” she said. “A very loving and compassionate family, this one I’m leaving.”

In 1998, Michael was outed after being arrested for propositioning an undercover policeman in the loos of a Beverly Hills park. He took the bold decision to confront the issue directly, telling himself: “You’re a human being. Just go on TV and get it sorted.” He told the camera: “I don’t feel any shame whatsoever.” Gavin is good on how this attitude – and Michael humorously referring to his arrest in songs like Outside – only made Brits love him more, even if the Americans were less impressed.

But the tale of his slow decline into drug-fogged desolation is painful reading. There’s the messy litany of car crashes and arrests. The time he threw himself from a moving car and the night he almost succumbed to hypothermia after spending hours in his swimming pool gazing at framed photographs of Feleppa and his mother. Gavin is good on how Michael tried to ease his pain with cash, writing dryly that “buying expensive homes had always lifted his spirits”. Michael famously gave millions to charity and volunteered at homeless shelters. But it seems he could be mean too, not giving his housekeeper a pay rise in 20 years and not covering his US employees’ health insurance.

The account of his death – allegedly after a drug-fuelled row with his ex-boyfriend Fadi Fawaz – is bleak. Fawaz destroyed much of Michael’s London home before the family had him evicted. He would later tweet, bitterly, that Michael was “extremely boring” in bed and “never wrote his own music… Not so talented after all.” In August 2020, Fawaz was filmed wandering East London bashing parked cars with a hammer.

Gavin concludes with words from an anonymous gay fan from Texas who wishes Michael’s death had provoked a deeper conversation about the gay community’s ongoing struggle for acceptance. “That’s the strongest thing gay men have in common,” he says. “We constantly believe there’s something wrong with us.” Yet he left us with music that continues to liberate listeners. Deejay Will Automatic tells Gavin that he often plays Michael’s self-acceptance anthem Freedom! 90 to end party nights. “When the chorus hits,” he says, “they’re crying on the dance floor.”

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George Michael by James Gavin is published by Abrams at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books