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Andrew Ridgeley 'was never envious' of Wham! friend George Michael's success

Andrew Ridgeley's childhood friendship with George ‘Yog’ Michael led to worldwide fame with Wham! and endured beyond the split

Wham! in 1984: George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

Celebrating Wham!’s first UK number one single, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go in 1984. Image: Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Andrew Ridgeley was born in Windlesham, Surrey in 1963, and grew up in Bushey, Hertfordshire. This is where he met Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, who would become his best friend. Together they formed a band called The Executive with others, before becoming a duo called Wham! in 1981. It was then that Ridgeley’s friend changed his name to George Michael.

After getting a lucky break in 1982 and appearing on Top of the Pops to promote their single Young Guns (Go for It), Wham! went on the achieve worldwide success, with a string of hits including Club Tropicana, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom, Last Christmas and I’m Your Man. But they amicably split in 1986 after a farewell show at London’s Wembley Stadium. They never performed together onstage again.

After a brief solo career, Ridgeley went on to live a quiet life in Cornwall, while Michael went on to further fame after branching out on his own.

Speaking to The Big Issue for the iconic Letter to my Younger Self feature, Ridgeley looks back on the incredible success of Wham! and the enduring friendship he shared with his bandmate, as well as reflecting on the heartbreaking moment when he discovered that Michael had passed away aged just 53 in 2016.

Home life was good when I was 16. We didn’t have much, but we didn’t want for anything. I couldn’t see the point of school once I’d learned to read and write. Education and academia had absolutely no purpose for me. My main preoccupation was forming a band and listening to music. The only thing I could really envisage was being in a band. I listened to pretty much everything. Radio in the late ’70s was far more eclectic, DJs like John Peel played virtually everything. Including us later [on Young Guns (Go for It) in 1982]. That was an accolade. Anyone of our era would have seen that as a real stamp of justification. 

Yog and I met when we were 12, in second year at school. We became best friends very quickly. Those friendships that you make in your teens have a depth and a substance that is rarely repeated, simply because you’re immersed in each other’s company all the time. We used to listen to music together, skiving off lessons, and we spent a lot of time recording jingles from radio shows. We sort of inhabited our own little world prior to forming the band when we were 16. Yog wasn’t so keen on local live concerts or nightlife, but we saw Queen, Genesis and Bowie. 

We didn’t think about what success would be like. The motivation was to write songs and perform them. We talked about it when we were 14 or 15. He always said we could only really go for it after he’d done his O levels. Then after our O levels, he held it would have to be after his A levels. I thought, this might never happen. So I forced the issue. I told my form tutor I was leaving school and she said: “Just as well, because we were going to ask you to leave anyway.” Because I never went in. So then I phoned Yog and said: “We’re forming a band.” And he succumbed to the pressure. Basically, he didn’t have much choice. At that point, had I left it to him it wouldn’t have happened.

I was always a very positive person. As I saw it, there was nothing not to be optimistic and confident about. George was not a confident youth, he grew into himself. There was a lot of change between us starting out at 18 years old and the person he became. There’s a great shot in the film of the final concert [The Final, 1986] and he is George Michael, the transformation was complete. But that was after a seven-year period, over which he went from being a boy to a man.  

I didn’t have the voice to compete with George, but that was fine. Being in a band was the full extent of my aspirations at 16 and I had realised it. I had no desires and no burning deep-held ambition to do anything else. So I was quite content with the role we’d established by the time we were playing gigs. Once we were touring, we’d already had chart success. So that context was absolutely fine for me. It might be difficult for people to believe I was never envious of Yog, but I just didn’t feel that way. It’s not a factor of my personality. I was thrilled to pieces with his development into the artist that he became. He was my best friend. It is so alien and bizarre to me that anyone would feel otherwise. I genuinely don’t understand it.

Andrew Ridgeley
Andrew Ridgeley. Image: Harleymoon Kemp

I didn’t feel sad when we brought Wham! to a close. It may have been the end of a chapter, but we still remained friends. And we were lifelong friends. We’d always known what the life of an artist entailed. Yes, we would be spending less time together. But we were both embarking on new chapters in our lives. I don’t see things in a negative sense. It was all positives. We were extremely fortunate to have the friendship we did. And we were extremely fortunate to be doing the things that we did. With Wham! we’d achieved far more than we ever thought we would. We’d hoped we were going to be really successful. For us then, that meant getting a record deal and getting played on radio. Then it was having a hit. By the time we brought Wham! to a close at Wembley Stadium in 1986, we’d achieved absolutely everything we could possibly have wanted to. So it was not depressing or sad. Obviously, there was an element of… not sadness, but you know, we were saying farewell to the expression of our youthful friendship. It couldn’t exist into adulthood and old age because that’s not what it was. Which is why we decided relatively early on to bring it to a close. We both understood that it couldn’t go on forever.

At that point I had no real idea what I would do next. I didn’t have any real ambitions to do anything else in music. I didn’t have any artistic destiny like Yog. I had a girlfriend and we had a really rather nice couple of years in LA. I was offered a few film roles and I went to an acting coach. It was immediately apparent to me that it was not something that I wanted to do. The chap said to me, “Imagine your mother’s died.” I think he was trying to get me to cry but I thought, why the fuck would anyone want to imagine that? 

Wham! onstage in 1983
1983: Wham! perform in Aberdeen (l-r) Michael, Helen ‘Pepsi’ DeMacque, Shirlie Holliman, Ridgeley. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

What would I have done differently? I would certainly have worked harder, but I’m really not one for what-ifs. What has been done is done. Maybe if we’d had a manager who – and this isn’t a criticism of Simon (Napier Bell) – also advised us on life, the career aspect of our lives, that would be handy to have. Generally a little more life advice growing up probably wouldn’t have been a bad thing.

Yog and I were very close, but I think he discussed his personal life more with Shirlie [Holliman, friend and later Wham! backing singer] than even with me. We were a very close-knit trio for three years when we were younger. Shirlie and me were dating before my 18th birthday. Certainly in matters of artistic decisions, he’d always ask my counsel first and foremost. Like with the first recording of Careless Whisper [with Jerry Wexler, the legendary Muscle Shoals producer, in 1983]. Yog knew it wasn’t up to it. Then when he played it to me I told him it wasn’t up to it. We saw things very similarly, and he valued my opinion.

Wham! at Wembley Stadium in 1986
1986: Before an adoring throng at London’s Wembley Stadium during ‘The Final’, Wham!’s last-ever concert. Image: Roger Bamber/Shutterstock

When Yog told Shirlie and me he was gay, we mostly worried about what his father would say. That was the main concern. I felt on the one hand that he perhaps could have come out. I mean, I don’t like that expression. He could have made it public – would that have affected our career success? It didn’t affect Boy George’s. It didn’t affect Freddie Mercury’s or Elton John’s later on. It’s a question that will never be answered. But at the time, as 19-year-olds, we felt that he ought not to tell his dad.

If I could go back to any time in my life, it would probably be when Yog, Shirlie and I were knocking around together as a very, very happy and affectionate trio. That time of life before anything had been released. That’s when we had the least concerns. We had absolutely nothing, but we had each other’s company, hours spent together doing nothing in particular, just trying to write songs. In those teenage years there are no demands of life upon you. You are essentially carefree. And only a few elements of outside life impinge upon that. That’s the golden moment.

Wham! in 1986
1986: Ridgeley with George Michael as Wham! prepare to wind down after an incredible run of success. Image: Tony McGee

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be my dad. He died in an unfortunate way. And we didn’t get to say goodbye. So there are a few things that I’d like to be able to go over with him, and I didn’t get the chance. But it would have been impossible, it was difficult to have a conversation with him. We didn’t have a physically affectionate relationship, to be honest. But we had a great love of each other.

When I found out [George had died in 2016] it was a moment of disbelief. I think that’s a very good way of putting it. I think anyone finds it difficult to comprehend when someone they’re so close to passes away, it’s an inconceivable moment. It leaves a void in your life. I’d love to just have a sit-down lunch again, to chat and play scrabble with Yog.

Wham! The Singles: Echoes From the Edge of Heaven is released on 7 July

The documentary Wham! is released globally on Netflix on 5 July

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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