Photo by George Michael. (Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty)
James Gavin still remembers the moment he fell in love with George Michael.
“I’m a sucker for sad songs, and I’m a sucker for hurting people, hurting artists, who translate that into beautiful music, and that’s the story of Older“, says James.
The Scrapbook Older, released by George Michael in 1996, was inspired by Anselmo Feleppa, the love of his life. Tragically, Anselmo died of AIDS-related illnesses a year and a half after they met.
“George had this very narrow six-month window of time where he felt he had found true love – something he thought would elude him forever,” James explains.
Losing the man he loved so deeply sent George on a downward trajectory. The relationship came to define his life, as James writes in his new biography, George Michael: A Lifea fascinating and meticulous dive into a man whose music has broken hearts.
George Michael grew up in a ‘homophobic’ environment
George Michael was born in 1963 to Greek Cypriot restaurateur Kyriacos Panayiotou and English dancer Lesley Angold. He grew up in London in a fiercely paternalistic and homophobic environment.
“All our problems start in childhood with our parents, don’t they?” said James.
“George had on one side this intimidating and tough Greek Cypriot immigrant father who had worked his way up from a dirt village to become a successful restaurateur in north London. He had the same masculine precepts that all men of his generation had, but a little more.
Kyriacos had strong beliefs about how boys should express themselves, and he wasn’t afraid to have his opinions respected.
“His dad thought men were men and girls were girls,” says James. “He believed in homophobia at the time and George grew up around it. Words like ‘poof’ were commonly used in the household.”
On the other hand, George’s mother loved him “unreservedly”, but she was afraid that her son would have a “tragic” life if he were gay. His own brother was a homosexual who died by suicide.
George was always close to his mother, but his relationship with his father was strained.
“Towards the end of his life, George said his father had mellowed and become a nicer guy, but the damage was done. Lesley, his mother, spent the rest of her life trying to catch up with George to what had gone wrong in his childhood.
He became famous in a world deeply hostile to homosexuals
From the age of seven he knew he wanted to be famous – he longed to leave his mark on the world, but as he reached his teens he became terrified that his sexuality would get in the way. reach for the stars.
“He felt on the one hand this tremendous desire to be famous, to reach the top and to be loved by everyone,” James said. “But on the other hand, he had this specter of fear hanging over him – what if people found out? Because then the whole dream would dissipate.
In 1981 George formed Wham! with Andrew Ridgeley. They instantly achieved stratospheric success – their debut album Fantastic topped the UK charts. By 1986, George had gone solo.
It was not an easy time to be openly gay. Homophobic attitudes were commonplace and the emergence of HIV and AIDS brought a wave of hatred. Gays have been mocked and denigrated in the media, with hateful headlines wishing gays dead. In this context, George Michael has kept his sexuality a closely guarded secret.
“Today it’s an asset if you’re LGBTQ+,” says James. “In George’s time, very few artists were away.
“Everyone knew Boy George and at that time everyone knew Elton, but Elton and Boy George had this clown image and that was OK. However, if you were a beautiful sexual figure like George was , it made you menacing because suddenly you were a sexual creature. You weren’t a funny guy.
As he became more and more famous, George was increasingly terrified that his career would end if he came out as gay. While researching the biography at the British Library, James recalled how hostile the environment was for gay people at that time when he glanced at the tabloids of the time.
“There were tons of microfilms of The sun and world news and the Daily mail, and from the mid-1980s there were all these shocking covers that portrayed AIDS as the ultimate horror spectacle and gay people as complete outcasts, threats to society,” James explains. “George knew about all this because you couldn’t help it – these papers were on every newsstand. So the poor guy was really tortured about the whole thing.
It was in this context that George met Anselmo. The year was 1991 and George was invited to perform at Rock in Rio in Brazil. What should have been a simple appearance at the festival ended up changing her life.
“At this time, George was in serious despair as to whether he would find true love. Being a superstar obviously comes with issues, and being a closeted superstar weighed heavily on George,” James says.
“While he was still in Rio, he met this angel from above. George loved telling this story of being on stage at the stadium and spotting Anselmo in the audience and making deep eye contact with him. My hunch from interviewing people who were there that night is that it was probably George’s imagination, but it lines up with how George felt about Anselmo – that he was that angel that had descended into his life .
Anselmo pursued George and plotted to meet him, and the couple quickly fell in love. They spent six idyllic months together before Anselmo was diagnosed with HIV.
“In order to tell this story, I had to go back in time and remember what it was like back then,” says James. “The shadow of AIDS loomed over everything and added this whole level of stigma and shame to gay life on top of all the other stigma and shame. George was in a tough spot and then he saw very quickly that this man which was a once-in-a-lifetime find was going to be taken away from him.
Devastatingly, George didn’t think he could speak publicly about his relationship. He was not at Anselmo’s side when he died and he could not publicly mourn his loss.
Three defining tragedies set George Michael on a path to self-destruction
Anselmo’s death left a chasm in George Michael’s life, but it was only the first of three defining tragedies that would set him on a path to self-destruction. In 1994, a judge dismissed his high-profile lawsuit against his record company, which he accused of “professional slavery”. Three years later, her mother Lesley died.
“Those three things together absolutely rocked him,” James says.
Reality has become “too painful” for George to deal with. In the mid 90’s he started to become addicted to drugs and around 2003 he started using GHB.
“I think GHB is the biggest factor that led to George’s untimely destruction. Then after that, he took crack. He just couldn’t face the world without being stoned. And of course, the more you immerse yourself in these drugs, the more your body becomes addicted to them.
George was “seriously going off the rails,” James says. After Older, he struggled to find the mainstream success he enjoyed in the 80s and early 90s. An album of standards didn’t make an impact. The next step was Patiencean album that took five years to complete.
“This process has been fraught with pitfalls, distractions and public humiliations,” says James. “That album was number one in the UK, but it flopped in the US. The sadness was that his career was mostly over in the US.
It didn’t seem like George was considered eternally cool, but more like that disgraced 80s popstar
Because George Michael’s star status had faded in the United States, it was not easy for James to convince a publisher to publish a biography. Most were uninterested, even after George’s death, thinking “nobody would care” about the singer’s life. He received a few offers to write a book soon after George’s death on Christmas Day 2016 as a cash-in, but he knew it was time to dig deeper into the singer’s life.
“Around the time George died other great people died – David Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince and Leonard Cohen, and all of them are considered eternally cool. It didn’t seem like George was considered eternally cool, but more like that disgraced 80s popstar whose relevance had long since faded,” says James.
Writing the biography has helped James see how much people still love George Michael – including a younger generation of LGBTQ+ people who weren’t around when the singer’s career took off.
George hasn’t always been totally popular within the LGBTQ+ community, James explains. The way he was unveiled at the height of his fame has led some to see him as an unsavory figure unworthy of respect. This view has faded over time.
“The fact that George was an extremely charismatic, gifted, handsome and imposing gay man standing on the arena stages made him look like a true gay hero,” James explains.
“Younger gay men don’t know the whole backstory. They just know he was an inspirational, charismatic gay man who stood tall in front of the world doing his thing – and that’s enough.
George Michael: A Life is published by Abrams.