George Michael was not only the most brilliant singer and performer of my lifetime but he quietly fought more than half of his career for the LGBT community and AIDS-related causes. He died Christmas Day at the age of 53.
Both blessed and star-crossed, George Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in north London in the summer of 1963. He sold more than 100 million albums in a four-decade career. He wrote “Careless Whisper” when he was just seventeen. He made the five o’clock shadow and aviator shades permanently cool. And he was the first man to sulk, rap, sing, cry, embrace himself while he danced, stalk supermodels in the bath, walk through street smoke (aka steam coming up from a manhole) and wear the Caesar cut and the neck shave unironically.
Everything we hold dear about pop music, everyone orbiting in the stratosphere now from Adele to Gaga to Beyonce borrowed exclusively from Michal’s playbook. Love, sex, breakups, more love, sex, breakups, more love, sex breakups …and now death. That is his legacy.
I grew up on George Michael and when I say that I mean, literally he was there every awkward, messy and ill-informed step of the way for me.
The first video I ever saw on MTV was “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” I feel like whatever that first video was informed everyone’s life from then on. Some became addicted to metal. Some found salvation and a fashion statement in hip-hop. Some discovered soul was the only key to their heart. I realized for the first time as I watched George and Andrew invent the whitest dance ever under the black lights in fingerless neon gloves that regular people like me were capable of great things. I cried when my grandmother made me turn it off.
My first lessons in sex and relationships came from blasting side one of Faith on my sister’s busted-speaker single-deck boom box she kept on the front seat of her old Mustang. We had gone to the mall under the guise of a different errand and she bought the tape. “Don’t tell mom and I’ll let you listen to it.” Of course, I told mom and she never let me listen to it again.
My senior year of college, a friend brought over a VHS copy of her Wham! video anthology (entitled Wham! The Video) thinking a few of us would get a kick out of it. That was fall semester. I cannot think of one night passing during that school year when that thing was not playing in its entirety and on a loop. As the evening wore on, someone would inevitably pass out on the L-shaped couch only to wake suddenly when George poured his free drink into the “Club Tropicana” pool. See: Below.
Once in my mid-20s, I stayed up all night talking (yes, just talking) to someone I had just met. It was one of those moments before your brain is fully formed when everything sort of liquefies around you and time ceases to exist for a moment. Just two people in the world sharing the myths of one another. The soundtrack to that evening was Songs from the Last Century, George Michael’s fourth solo album.
On a ski trip through Europe in the mid ‘00s, I bought one thing at the Munich airport kiosk upon landing, Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael. If going 110 mph on the Autobahn in a compact Mercedes has a soundtrack to me, it basically goes “Fast Love”, “Too Funky” and “Freedom 90” on repeat. Trust me, you will be liberated if you do this — liberated for life.
Four years ago, my niece, all 15 years of her, knew few things about her uncle, but one of them was his abiding and constant love for George Michael. She made me a collage of him for Christmas. It now sits in my son’s closet waiting to be hung “when he’s old enough.” That’s not an idle threat, that’s a promise. She and I were texting about it just two days ago.
George Michael went from teen heartthrob to become one of the first artists to fight for LGBT equality and raise money and awareness for AIDS back when both causes were considered career-killers.
In a 1999 interview with The Advocate, Michael told editor Judy Wieder, “I used to sleep with women quite a lot in the Wham! days but never felt it could develop into a relationship because I knew that, emotionally, I was a gay man. I didn’t want to commit to them but I was attracted to them. Then I became ashamed that I might be using them. My depression at the end of Wham! was because I was beginning to realize I was gay, not bisexual.”
George Michael dated Anselmo Feleppa, a Brazilian dress designer, whom he had met at the 1991 concert Rock in Rio. Six months into their relationship, Feleppa discovered that he had HIV and in 1993, Feleppa died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage. Though not a full-time activist, George Michael used his voice to back the Labour party in the 1980s. He dedicated a 2007 concert in Sofia, Bulgaria to the Bulgarian nurses prosecuted in the HIV trial in Libya. And he championed California’s same-sex union legalization in 2008. Much of the final decade of his life was spent fighting various illnesses as well as battling drug addiction and quietly committing one charitable act after another.
It should be noted that in November 1984, George Michael joined other British and Irish pop stars of the moment to form Band Aid, singing on the charity song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for famine relief in Ethiopia. This single became the UK Christmas number one one month later and Michael’s own song “Last Christmas” by Wham!, came in that year at No. 2.
He died December, 25 2016 on his Goring, Oxfordshire, England property of heart failure. And Christmas can never be the same again.