Michael, George [real name Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou]
- Johnny Rogan
Michael, George [real name Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou] (1963–2016), singer and songwriter, was born on 25 June 1963 at 73 Church Lane, Finchley, London, the son of Kyriacos Panayiotou (b. 1936), an assistant restaurant manager, also known as Jack Panos, and his wife, Lesley Angold, née Harrison (1937–1997). He had two older sisters, Yioda (b. 1958) and Melanie (b. 1960). As a child he was encouraged musically by his family, but violin lessons left him cold: ‘I’m sure I would have been okay if I had wanted to learn. But when I told my parents when I was eight that I wanted to stop, they wouldn’t let me’ (Michael and Parsons, 24–5). He was far more interested in mainstream pop music than classical, naming Elton John as a key influence and inspiration.
By the time Georgios Panayiotou was twelve, the family had settled in Radlett, Hertfordshire, and in September 1975 he enrolled at Bushey Meads School. A momentous first day ended with the acquisition of a best friend, Andrew Ridgeley. As characters, they seemed an incongruous pair: Georgios appeared reserved, plain-looking, and overweight while Andrew boasted good looks, eloquent charm, and a vivacious personality. Both shared pop star fantasies and, within a couple of years, they were attending school discos and professing a love for soul music. By 1979 the ‘mod’ revival in the UK coincided with a renewed interest in West Indian music. Ridgeley convinced Panayiotou that they should form a ska-influenced group, roping in school pals David Mortimer and Andrew Leaver, along with Andrew’s brother, Paul. On 5 November that same year the Executive made their début at a Scout hut during bonfire night celebrations. Over the next year they hawked a low-quality tape to various record companies without success.
The group split and, after leaving school, Panayiotou drifted into part-time work as a cinema attendant and disc jockey, much to the chagrin of his career-minded father. At least this allowed him to write songs with Ridgeley, including ‘Wham Rap!’, a paean to life on the dole, which also provided the name of their new group, Wham! A rough four-track demo tape was completed and, thanks to Ridgeley, reached the hands of 21-year-old Mark Dean, a Bushey resident, who had recently formed an independent record label, Innervision, partly financed by CBS Records. ‘I heard the tape and the songs were so good,’ Dean remembered. ‘It was about twenty seconds per song. “Wham! Rap” literally just had a guitar and a few words’ (Rogan, 26). Also featured on the tape were short fragments of what would become future hits, ‘Club Tropicana’ and ‘Careless Whisper’. At first Dean assumed that the short clips were the sum total of their output, but was stunned when Panayiotou explained that he had already completed the songs, and there were probably more to be added. ‘I thought, “God, they’ve got talent”’ (ibid.).
The duo signed a deal with unseemly haste. As Justice Harman later noted: ‘all the young men were in a hurry’ (Rogan, 31). The song-writing talent of the soon-to-be rechristened George Michael impressed music publishers Morrison Leahy, whose co-founder, Dick Leahy, would become a valued adviser later in his career. Wham!’s first ‘tour’ consisted of personal appearances at nightclubs where they used pre-recorded backing tapes. They also incorporated two female companions, Shirlie Holliman and Amanda Washbourn (soon to be replaced by D. C. Lee), who provided additional vocals and enhanced the dance movements.
The first single, ‘Wham Rap!’, proved topical, but initially failed to reach the charts. A breakthrough hit with ‘Young Guns (Go for It!)’ was written by Michael alone. It climbed into the top three in the singles chart in the UK, followed by a hit remix of ‘Wham! Rap’. An energetic choreographed appearance on television’s Top of the Pops ultimately led the duo to their celebrated management team, Jazz Summers and Simon Napier-Bell. In the meantime there was further chart success with ‘Bad Boys’, which climbed to number two in the British charts. A witty observation of the generation gap, its theme completed a trilogy of singles written about the social problems of the urban teenager.
By early 1983 Michael was feeling the pressures of pop stardom. Continued work on Wham!’s début album, Fantastic, which entered the charts at number one later that summer, left him drained. A recuperative break in Cyprus, during which he drank heavily and became addicted to nicotine, underlined an encroaching disillusionment with the pop world. ‘Before I went on holiday I was starting to forget what we were making music for. We started out because we loved performance but once we were successful, we didn’t seem to be doing any … We couldn’t handle it’ (Rogan, 56).
There were also subtle changes as backing singer D. C. Lee, frustrated by the lack of opportunity to sing more, left to join the Style Council. Another hit single followed with ‘Club Tropicana’ (again co-written with Ridgeley), a satirical comment on the false exotica of the club scene. It helped cement Wham!’s image as cocktail-sipping ‘funsters’, posing and running around in shorts at photo shoots. That image would harden in the succeeding years.
By now, Michael was frustrated by a low record royalty rate and a modest income. Dissatisfied, he sanctioned his legal team to challenge the Innervision contract. The battle royal seemed likely to move to trial with potentially devastating consequences. Michael found a distraction in a 31-date nationwide tour, ‘Club Fantastic’. It introduced former session singer Pepsi DeMacque, who provided the perfect visual complement to Shirlie Holliman.
Fearful of a legal impasse, Michael wrote several new compositions during this period, which sounded like palpable hits. The power shift in the song-writing towards him was inevitable: ‘Andrew was really starting to feel my songwriting ambitions begin to accelerate. I wasn’t trying to edge him out or anything but it was just so obvious that was where it was going in terms of writing’ (Michael and Parsons, 91).
Thanks to the intervention of CBS Records, the High Court action was forestalled, then settled, with the parent company signing Wham! to their sister label, Epic. There was an instant upsurge in chart fortunes when the irresistibly catchy ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, with lyrics aimed at both a young and a mature market, became their first number one hit, a feat equalled a few months later by ‘Freedom’. Sandwiched between these was another number one (in both the UK and the USA), the sultry ‘Careless Whisper’. Released under his own name, it became an instant standard, subsequently winning him the Ivor Novello song-writer of the year award. He was still twenty-one. This was the first suggestion that a solo career was likely to follow before too long.
Michael remained bothered by Wham!’s hedonistic image and challenged that self-created stereotype by accepting an invitation for the group to play a benefit show at the Royal Albert Hall for the National Union of Mineworkers. Although Michael seemed sincere, many felt his presence was either condescending or patronizing. The fact that Wham! mimed the show, minus a backing group, led to more derision.
A follow-up album, Make It Big (1984), promoted with a £10,000 launch party, showed off Michael’s additional talent as a producer and arranger. The work was more varied than its predecessor with a decidedly Motown influence. It even went to number one in the American album charts, proof of Michael’s international appeal.
December 1984 saw Michael in the ascendant, first with the memorable ‘Last Christmas’, backed by ‘Everything She Wants’, a soulful groove about a fragmenting marriage that sounded like his finest work to date. Both songs contributed moneys to the Ethiopian appeal and sold in huge amounts. What should have been a seasonal chart-topper in the UK was kept off by Band Aid’s philanthropic, multi-million seller ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, on which Michael had a key cameo vocal. ‘Everything She Wants’ nevertheless provided Wham! with their third number one single in the USA.
Throughout 1985 Wham! achieved phenomenal success in America and generated more publicity by undertaking a visit to China, where their music was barely known. They played at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing before moving on to Canton, but Michael felt disillusioned by the experience. After returning to the UK, he appeared at Live Aid, performing Elton John’s ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’. A stadium tour of America followed, buoyed by the three number one hits.
By now, tensions in Michael’s life were proving overwhelming and he felt trapped by the Wham! persona. It was almost like living as two people. Undemanding material such as ‘I’m Your Man’ (1985) and ‘The Edge of Heaven’ (1986) indicated that he could still write chart-topping pop songs for Wham!, but the reflective ‘A Different Corner’, issued under his own name, was more successful, proof positive that he could soar as a solo star. ‘Wham! don’t need music press publicity any more,’ he argued, ‘but I need something where I’m written about intelligently’ (NME, 16 Nov 1985).
Secret plans to end Wham! were brought to a head when George read that his management company had sold interests in the group to an organization with connections to Sun City, the lavish Las Vegas-styled gambling paradise located in the ‘black homeland’ of Bophuthatswana in South Africa. Fearful of bad publicity and worse, the singer cut ties with his management and announced he was going solo. There was a last hurrah with ‘The Final’, a day-long show at Wembley Stadium on 28 June 1986 when the duo, supported by an array of musical friends, said their farewells.
Michael spent much of 1986 reinventing himself. He later admitted to drinking heavily, experimenting with the drug Ecstasy, and grappling with his sexuality:
My depression at the end of Wham! was because I was beginning to realize I was gay, not bi. I felt cornered by my own ambition. I didn’t have the self-control to restrain my ego, but I knew it was leading me further and further towards an explosive end.(The Independent, 9 Dec 2005)
The following year, he collaborated with Aretha Franklin on the uplifting duet, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)’, which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and furthered his reputation as a blue-eyed soul singer. The song later secured a Grammy award.
In 1987 the new George Michael emerged. The provocative ‘I Want Your Sex’, accompanied by a racy video with the singer’s current companion, Chinese-American model Kathy Jeung, was banned by the BBC, but gained considerable publicity. It was followed by his début solo album, Faith. Michael wrote, arranged, and produced the work, which featured an array of styles embracing pop, power ballads, and light soul. It topped the album charts in both the UK and the USA, and sold in excess of 20 million copies, buoyed by such hits as ‘Faith’, ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’, ‘Monkey’, and ‘Kissing a Fool’. In a determined attempt to reach a new audience, Michael underwent a complete image revamp, emerging with a distinct rocker look: leather jacket, ripped jeans, mirrored sunglasses, and a silver, cross-shaped earring.
For most of the following year Michael undertook a gruelling world tour which left him suffering from throat problems. Keen to concentrate on studio work, he became more inward, completing an ambitious new album, but declining promotional opportunities. Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990) encapsulated his attitude, with its portentous, slightly pompous title, which seemed another plea to be taken seriously as a singer–song-writer. The work boasted a massive hit with the melodic, soul-searching ‘Praying for Time’, but other breakaway singles such as ‘Freedom! 90’, ‘Heal the Pain’, and ‘Cowboys and Angels’ fared less well. The album sold around 8 million copies worldwide, but left Sony Records less than satisfied. Michael’s obduracy hardly helped. Declining to appear in the lavish video of the funky ‘Freedom! 90’, he instead enlisted models Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington to lip-sync the lyrics. Executives in America could not help noting that, for all its success, the new album had sold less than half as many as its predecessor, Faith. Friction between artiste and label would worsen hereafter, ultimately leading to a legal reckoning.
While on a promotional tour in January 1991, Michael enjoyed and suffered a life-changing event. After a concert in Rio de Janeiro, he encountered 34-year-old Anselmo Feleppa, and they soon became a couple, albeit one undocumented in the mainstream media. Michael acknowledged the relationship as transformative, crediting Feleppa with breaking down ‘my Victorian restraint’, and ‘showing me how to live, how to relax, how to enjoy life’ (The Independent, 9 Dec 2005). Such enjoyment proved painfully brief. By Christmas, Feleppa was diagnosed as HIV positive and Michael’s life was thrown into turmoil once more.
One month before the diagnosis, Michael’s contemporary, Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, died from an AIDs-related illness. On 20 April 1992 Michael joined a star-studded gathering at Wembley Stadium for a tribute concert:
I went out there knowing I had to honour Freddie Mercury and I had to pray for Anselmo. I just wanted to die inside. I was so overwhelmed by singing the songs of this man I had worshipped as a child, who had passed away in the same manner my first living partner was going to experience.(Freedom, Channel 4, 16 Oct 2017)
Inviting hubris, Michael chose this same year to take Sony Records to the High Court in an attempt to secure complete control of his work. He claimed his recording contract constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade, making him ‘no more than a piece of software’. Panayiotou and others v. Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd commenced in the High Court in October 1993, effectively halting Michael’s career for several years. Along the way, the planned Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 2, was abandoned, although some of its contents later appeared on a side project, Red Hot + Dance (1992), which raised money for AIDs awareness.
On 1 June 1994 Justice Jonathan Parker ruled against Michael’s claims, insisting that his contracts were reasonable and fair and comparable to the industry standard for a performer of his commercial standing. It was a major defeat. Sony could not possibly continue working with Michael, whose contract was bought in 1995 by DreamWorks in the USA while Virgin Records controlled the rest of world. Sony retained rights to his entire back catalogue.
A year before the final ruling, Michael’s partner Anselmo Feleppa died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage. Michael returned to the public eye in January 1996 with the moving elegy ‘Jesus to a Child’, which topped the British charts. It was soon followed by Older, an album that garnered mixed reviews but sold well considering his long absence. Michael sounded positive during the completion of the work. It later transpired that he had commenced a new relationship with Texan Kenny Goss (b. 1958), a figure variously described as a flight steward, sportswear executive, and art dealer. Their involvement evidently lasted until as late as 2009.
Michael slipped back into darkness in 1997 when his mother died from melanoma. Severely depressed, he self-medicated with Prozac and copious amounts of ‘skunk’ cannabis, later admitting that he was smoking twenty-five ‘joints’ a day. ‘I lost my partner to HIV, then it took about three years to grieve; then after that I lost my mother. I felt almost like I was cursed’ (Good Morning America, 22 July 2008).
A career nadir occurred in April 1998 when Michael was arrested for engaging in a lewd act in a public toilet in Beverly Hills, California. The Sun newspaper headlined with a variation on a Wham! song: ‘Zip Me Up Before You Go-Go’. Once evasive about his sexuality, Michael was now publicly outed in front of the international media. What might have destroyed his reputation in earlier times seemed to work to his advantage, at least in the UK. Turning embarrassment into commodity, he charmed viewers of the Michael Parkinson Show, speaking openly about his lifestyle without contrition. It was a watershed moment in the public treatment of gay figures in the media. There was also a self-deprecating humour, not least in the release of ‘Outside’ (1998), a single referencing his arrest in which he dressed as a ‘porn policeman’ accompanied by a chorus line of dancing officers.
At the dawn of the millennium Michael released Songs from the Last Century, a collection of cover versions that became his worst-selling solo album, failing even to broach the American top 150 (though it reached number two in the UK). It was a significant fall from grace, compounded over the next few years by a lower rate of work. There was a smidgen of publicity thanks to the provocative ‘Shoot the Dog’ (2002), a political satire aimed at Tony Blair and George W. Bush in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. In the ultimate volte-face, Michael re-signed with legal combatants Sony Records in 2003. The following year they issued Patience, which echoed a pattern of recent years, with decent sales in the UK, but a poor performance in America.
Thereafter, the singer’s musical career was overshadowed by a seemingly endless series of self-destructive exploits. The senatorial Elton John claimed that Michael was in ‘a strange place’ and had a ‘deep-rooted unhappiness in his life’ (Wenn News, 30 Nov 2004). Michael dismissed the speculation as inane gossip but subsequent events suggested that John was correct. Clearly, Michael was self-medicating with copious amounts of marijuana and becoming careless and reckless in public. There were lurid reports of car crashes and worse. Struggling to replicate his previous success, Michael all but abdicated pop music as a spent genre.
In 2006 Michael attempted to change tack, announcing his first tour in fifteen years with an over-ambitious itinerary spread over two years. Alas, that campaign was eclipsed by more negative headlines when he crashed his Range Rover into a Hampstead photo shop. This time he received a five-year driving ban and was imprisoned for eight weeks. He sounded stoical: ‘Remarkably enough—I know people must think it was a really horrific experience—it’s much easier to take any form of punishment if you believe you actually deserve it, and I did’ (The Guardian, 6 March 2011).
A reinvention of sorts occurred in 2011 with the ‘Symphonica’ world tour, during which Michael performed at classical music venues and opera houses, backed by a full orchestra. On 21 November that year he suffered severe pneumonia and was hospitalized in Vienna for five weeks. He later admitted that he was close to death: ‘It was touch and go’ (BBC, 23 Dec 2011). There were rumours of his being admitted to a rehabilitation clinic, but alarming news reports still dogged his progress. In May 2013 he was airlifted to hospital, having fallen out of his chauffer-driven car onto the M1 motorway near St Albans. In 2014 his live album, Symphonica, débuted at number one in the album charts in the UK, but overall sales were only a fraction of those achieved by his earlier albums.
In a year in which many were already commentating on the number of celebrity rock-related deaths, Michael’s name was added to that grim list. On Christmas Day 2016 his recent companion Fadi Fawaz (b. 1973), a Lebanese hair stylist, found the singer immobile and unresponsive at his home in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. ‘We were supposed to be going for Christmas lunch. I went around there to wake him up and he was just gone, lying peacefully in bed’, he reported (Daily Telegraph, 27 Dec 2016). The cause of death was given as dilated cardiomyopathy with myocarditis and fatty liver. Michael was buried in Highgate West cemetery, next to his mother, on 29 March 2017.
- J. Rogan, Wham! Confidential, the death of a supergroup (1987)
- G. Michael and T. Parsons, Bare (1990)
- R. Steele, Careless whispers: the life and career of George Michael (2011)
- The Times (27 Dec 2016)
- Daily Telegraph (27 Dec 2016)
- The Guardian (27 Dec 2016); (30 March 2017)
- The Independent (9 Dec 2005); (27 Dec 2016)
- WW (2016)
- private information (2020) [Simon Napier-Bell, Jazz Summers, Mark Dean, John Blake]
- personal knowledge (2020)
- S. Morris, dir., George Michael: a different story (2005)
- Freedom, Channel 4, 16 Oct 2017
- performance, light entertainment, documentary, and interview footage, BFI NFTVA
- M. Putland, photograph, 1987, Hult. Arch./Getty Images [see illus.]
- E. Watson, photograph, with Andrew Ridgeley, 1982, NPG
- B. Aris, bromide print, with Andrew Ridgeley, 1982, NPG
- B. Aris, bromide print, group portrait, 1984, NPG
- J. Swannell, bromide print, with Andrew Ridgeley, 1985, NPG
- J. Swannell, digital print, 1985, NPG
- photographs, repro. in Rogan, Wham! Confidential, the death of a supergroup (1987)
- photographs, repro. in Michael and Parsons, Bare (1990)
- photographs, repro. in Steele, Careless whispers: the life and career of George Michael (2011)
- obituary photographs