• Interviews

George Michael: James Gavin’s Closer Look at the Beloved Icon

December 25, 2016, is a day that George Michael fans will never forget. In the midst of eating, drinking, and putting Wham’s “Last Christmas” on repeat, our phones let us know that our very own musical deity tragically and unexpectantly passed away. Gone at the young age of 53, Michael ranked number 45 in Billboard‘s 2015 list of the “Greatest Hot 100 Artists of All Time” with sales of over 120 million records worldwide. His soulful voice, good looks, and heartfelt lyrics made him an international megastar, with Radio Academy naming him the most played artist on British radio from 1984–2004. Sadly, the accolades couldn’t appease Michael’s demons.

Like most of us, acclaimed music writer James Gavin wanted to understand how such a celebrated and talented artist could succumb to heartache and insecurity. What made the shy Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou from north London so unhappy with his icon status and what traumas did his fame help to enflame?

Gavin’s recently released book, “George Michael: A Life”, offers new insights into the guarded artist’s life while providing a deep analysis of the creative process behind Michael’s albums, tours, and music videos, as well as interviews with hundreds of his friends and colleagues. Gavin, also the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet BakerIntimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, recently sat down with the HFPA to talk about why he decided to immortalize Michael and what he learned in the process. 


Please tell us about the first time you met George.

I wish I could tell you that there was a first meeting, although I saw George on stage at Madison Square Garden in 2008, I never had a meeting with him. The idea to do this book came to me on December 25th, 2016, which is the day the news came that George had died. I had for let’s see, for 20 years been dreaming of writing something about him. A few years before he died, George signed a big seven-figure book deal with HarperCollins to write his memoirs and by the time he signed that deal, sadly I learned later, he was in no shape to write a book and he got no further than maybe the first chapter or two.

I volunteered my services to the publisher of HarperCollins, Jonathan Burnham, who liked me and who had published my Chet Baker book many years ago in the U.K. and Jonathan thought that it was a great idea that I would collaborate with George as a ghostwriter, but he got back to me and said it was too late, it’s unlikely that this book is ever going to happen. And it was about oh three years after that that we all got the news. I raced to put a proposal together, thinking that everybody would want to draft this book and that at least I could throw my hat in the ring. And as the weeks wore on, I realized that unbelievably I was the only one. And Abrams, my publisher, not a publisher normally known for publishing this kind of big narrative book, they are more of an art book publisher, one publisher there came through for us, believe it or not, only one wanted it. And I hope that all the others who said no are regretting it to this day because this book has gotten more attention than anything I’ve ever done in my life.

In writing and preparing for this book, what did you discover about his life that really intrigued you?

I had no idea of the depths of unhappiness with the music world, the depth of unhappiness within himself, the self-hatred that George harbored reaching back to his childhood, reaching back to when he grew up with an unfortunately homophobic father [in] a homophobic age. And George grew up feeling unattractive, he felt like he was dumpy, fat, undesirable and very uncool. And the process whereby he got from that place of extreme insecurity to the top pedestal of the entire pop music world as a sex symbol who was lusted after the world over, was fascinating to me. And as I’ve said before, George spent the first half of his life creating this George Michael character, which really had nothing to do with who he was, and the second half of his life destroying it.

Is there a common thread that tends to run between musical geniuses?

What touches me about all these stories—the biographies I’ve done prior to George were Chet Baker, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne— all of them have one important thing in common, these were people who lived extremely turbulent inner lives, who were filled with conflict, filled with sadness and who found a way to translate those feelings into beautiful music that touches my heart and millions of other hearts, that to me is a magic process. How is it that certain artists unlock the key to our hearts? Others can sing beautifully, play at an extremely high professional level and we feel nothing. But these artists all had that alchemy. I think that, if I were to take a guess, it has something to do with empathy, there’s a certain compassion that certain people have for the way other people are feeling and what they are going through. And in that process, they can, they sing to us about themselves, but they are really singing about us.

It’s quite magical and unexplainable, and George Michael had that ability. The guy had a lot of pain, he was carrying around a lot of pain within himself. And despite the fact that he had worked his way up to this stratosphere of superstardom and wealth, he had his feet on the ground because he was suffering, he was suffering a lot inside. And it kept him, it just gave him the ability to understand how people who were not so lucky felt. His enormous philanthropy has everything to do with what I just said. The fact that one of the richest men in England could look at people, friends who were in trouble, strangers who were in trouble, organizations that helped people on a very basic human level that he could connect so deeply with those situations, and he gave millions of pounds away in his lifetime to helping people who were in trouble. And that for me signals the big, beautiful heart that he sang with.

How difficult was it to get interviews and to know who was the most reliable narrator?

That is a really great question, it weighs on me all the time. To address the first part of your question, writing this book was brutal, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. And very quickly I learned the difference between a superstar and a legend. The people I wrote about in the past were legends. They were not surrounded by the same protective layers of managers and lawyers and other people who have a strong, vested interest in how those people are depicted publicly. So, I found myself for the first year, year-and-a-half of this book banging my head against a series of brick walls, and I was quite despairing of getting everything that I needed because I was getting ignored and I was getting turned down a lot. And I think part of that had to do with the fact that George’s life was a tabloid feast and the kind of coverage George predominately got in the last 20 or so years of his life was quite sleazy. And I am not even blaming the journalists for that, George just handed scandal to the press on a silver platter…

So I’ve literally done thousands of interviews, and you develop a strong sense of when people are speaking honestly or whether they are speaking self-protectively, self-aggrandizing and you learn how to see through it. I show up for every interview that I do with a lot of homework done. I ask people questions that indicate that I know my stuff. And I just seem to have the knack somehow from years of practice of inspiring trust in people that I interview. My BS antenna is very finely tuned, but in this book at least I found that people were really leveling with me. And if they are not, then all you can do is cross-check your interviewees in every possible way, get as much backup information, if you are really unsure of something, discard it, or frame it in such a way that you are indicating that ‘so-and-so said’ and not presenting it as documented fact. That was a very long-winded answer to your question, but it was a great question.

George was terribly insecure despite all his successes and having famous friends like Elton John and Princess Diana. Were people like that helpful to him at all?

I discovered a lot about the nature, the intensity of self-hatred. One of the first discoveries I had as far as interviews go is David Geffen. David Geffen released my favorite George Michael album, “Older,” in the US and in Canada, and David Geffen is very smart, very insightful, and tough, really tough. And he knew George very well and he said to me that if you don’t like yourself if you don’t like what you see in the mirror, then it doesn’t matter how many people are screaming for you in a concert hall. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you how great you are or how hot you are, you will not believe them, a part of you will really distrust them and think that they are either crazy or they are insincere.

I don’t think that any amount of success, wealth or accolades really got through to George and made him feel any better about himself. And by the time that George, George met, let’s take Elton John as an example, George met Elton John when George was already on the ascent. Wham was hot, Elton wanted in, his relationship with Elton John is really fascinating because while Elton John sincerely, I believed loved George, and as he saw George falling apart and becoming a victim of addiction in later years, he tried his best to steer George off of that course and he couldn’t do it, nobody could have. Elton was not only admiring of George, but he was also envious of George, and he was jealous of George.

There was a lot of competitiveness on his side of the relationship, not so much on George’s side. Elton was jealous as hell of how beautiful and successful and talented George was. As for Princess Diana, that relationship was fascinating, because she was a fangirl. She loved pop stars and she was almost like a shy, giggling very well-mannered English fangirl around George. She was shy around him, and he was shy around her. And George did not aggressively pursue that relationship because she was the Princess of Wales, he felt weird about it. He didn’t want to seem like Elton, [who] aggressively pursued a friendship with her. George didn’t want to do it, in part because he knew that she had the hots for him. It made him very uncomfortable as you can well imagine. So, he kept a certain professional side distance from her. But it is sad indeed to see that the most, that one of the biggest pop stars in the world and one of the most beloved men in the world, that no matter how much love and success were heaped on him, none of it, in the end, made any difference, his self-hatred just escalated and escalated until it did him in.

He really had no support system, it seems.

He had a lot of sycophants around him the way every superstar does. A lot of people on the payroll, a lot of people who would not level with him because they knew it would get them 86ed. But I don’t blame them, I don’t hold them accountable so much because I believe that nobody could have saved George, George was hell bent on self-destruction. And in the last year, year- and-a-half of his life, he went to reportedly the most expensive rehab facility in the world in Switzerland and he was there for months on end and even that couldn’t save him, a few months later he died.

What do you think he would have wanted his legacy to be?

He was exceedingly proud of his ability to write catchy songs that made people feel good. The part of George Michael’s legacy that I love the most is that sad songs, because I love sad songs and melancholy, it’s what speaks to me the most, but most of the people that you mention the name George Michael to, and from the beginning of this process, whenever I told people I was writing a book about George Michael the reaction was always the same, a big smile on their faces, and they would say oh I love George Michael. And then they would name a song of his or an album that made them feel good. And I realized that the sound of his voice and even the mention of his name seemed to release a rush of endorphins in people. His name brings happy associations with people, which is astonishing when you considered the amount of self-destruction and sadness in his later life, that that part of the George Michael story did not win out, as it would say with Billie Holiday. We think of tragedy when we hear the name Billie Holiday and with George Michael we think of joy. And that would have made him very happy.

How did you become a fan and what did you learn about mental health while researching this book?

I think that the reason that I’m drawn to all of the subjects that I’m drawn to, first of all my antenna vibrates in the presence of melancholy, of conflict, of inner strife, because I grew up with a fair amount of that stuff myself. While I have never, I have written about all of these people who had addiction issues, I’ve never had an addiction issue, but I grew up with a father who was an alcoholic for 30 plus years and for the first 16 years of my life. So, I am intimately acquainted on a day-to-day basis with addiction. And as you trace George Michael’s story …You see how unhappy he was with the compromises he had to make in order to reach this incredible pinnacle that he achieved, and you see how unhappy the finished results made him. George, like most superstars, craved the love of millions of strangers, which was supposed to somehow fill up the empty space inside him and make him feel whole and it had the opposite effect. In the 90s when George lost the two people who meant the most to him, Anselmo, the Brazilian fellow who died of AIDS a year-and-a-half into their relationship, the love of George’s life for all time died of AIDS, and then four years later his beloved mother, who offered him unconditional love and wanted nothing more than for him to be happy, died. And without that George just had no internal solidity inside him to get through that. And that’s when addiction really seized him, because he could not face the day unmedicated. And from that point on, songwriting became immensely difficult and painful for him.

And by the end of his life, I believe that songwriting was almost an impossibility for him and also his singing voice was damaged, and he had nothing left to live for. He had no internal foundation left to save him. And I realized that I’ve got it. Look, I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing full time now for thirty-one years and it has not been an easy road. And there are periods that I look back on and I think how did I ever get through that, periods when everything was going wrong for two years, three years, four years. And I got through it. I have friends, I have a strong sense of internal purpose and I don’t suffer from self-destructive tendencies. George didn’t have those things. The roots of self-hatred in George’s case were so deeply ingrained that all they did was grow with time. Is the answer to your question buried somewhere in that endless monologue? (laughs) I hope so.

How did his mother’s homophobia impact George?

[His] mother was discouraging of homosexuality because her brother, George’s Uncle Colin was a gay man who suffered from mental illness and who took his life at a young age. And George’s mother Lesley obviously, because mothers always know, obviously sensed the signs in George that he was different. And she was afraid that he would wind up like his Uncle Colin. But by the time George was a teenager, she had accepted, even though he didn’t confide in her for years to come, she knew, obviously she knew. And she accepted this in her boy, and she wanted nothing more than for him to not wind up like Uncle Colin and to be happy the way he was. And so, I would say, certainly by the time that Wham came around, which was the early 80s, George knew that his mother had his back no matter what. And from that point until she died, she offered him unconditional love and when he finally, in 1993, with the death of Anselmo, his Brazilian partner, he wrote his parents a letter and finally revealed what they already knew. The father was very upset, the mother only loved him even more and wanted so much for him to be happily partnered, she just wanted him to be happy. And how many people like that do we have in our lives, how many of our parents do not ever accept us for who we are? And so that is why the death of Lesley in 1997 of cancer, devastated George and he never got over it.

Is there a contemporary George Michael?

Ah yes, there are a lot of young gay pop stars and singer-songwriters now who have walked through a door that George opened for them. People like Adam Lambert and Sam Smith have been mentioned as branches off the George Michael tree. I love Adam Lambert; I think that he’s a world-class singer and a very good songwriter. Is there anybody who has George Michael’s extraordinary arena-filling presence? If they are out there, I don’t know about them. As I said earlier, I witnessed George at Madison Square Garden, I saw him walk out on stage and I felt my hair stand on end, because he had this Frank Sinatra-like presence that filled an entire stadium before he had sung a note, and that’s a superstar.

Another point I want to raise in response to this question is that George had a beautiful natural gift for singing that did not rely on cosmetic correction in the recording studio in order to make him sound good. There’s a track on an album, on George’s last studio album called “Patience,” it’s the title song and it’s the opening track on that album and he sings this sad slow song with just piano, he went into the studio and did it quickly, which was not like George, he could labor over tracks for months. He just went in and did it and that track is where you hear how well this guy could sing without any kind of camouflage, without any knob twirling, without any dreaded autotune, this guy could sing man. And I feel that contemporary pop stars rely on this technical correction to the point where they just lost me.

I listen to people sing in order to be touched, I want to feel the human being that goes along with the voice, and the humanity of George Michael as much as any other quality of George’s is what made me want to write this book and it’s why I will listen to him until the end of my life. I want to believe that there is another George Michael out there, and my ears are always open.