George Michael: “It was the most enlightening experience that I’ve ever had”

Originally published in November 1996, here we reproduce George Michael’s first interview with The Big Issue...

Despite being one of the world’s biggest stars, George Michael hadn’t given an interview in six years. The singer chose The Big Issue as the place to break that silence. He spoke to Adrian Deevoy about dope, death and his much-debated sexuality…

George Michael’s toilet seat is broken. Cleaved clean off. How could it be that the sophisticated sovereign of subdued and silky soul came to find himself in such a sorry situation?

“I couldn’t possibly tell you,” he says, busying himself with tea bags in the kitchen. “It’s too embarrassing.”

The media-reclusive multi-millionaire hasn’t invited a member of the press into his home for six years. He’s been taking stock, making music – the bewitching Older – and playing hard-to-get. That he has, for no apparent reason, decided to grant an interview is something of a shock.

Upon reaching chez Michael (to which I have been courteously chauffeured by the singer himself who’s recently taken delivery of a Jaguar XK8), there is another surprise. His house hasn’t changed in the slightest. In fact, nomadic lavatory lid apart, it is the same unassuming north-London domicile with the same departure-lounge ambience and the same recklessly stacked CD collection, with the same laid-back Labrador, Hippy, lying on the same colourless carpet. “I think most people would be shocked by the way I live,” says Michael, casting an amused eye around his modest, open-plan homestead. “I mean, in pop-star terms, this is a hovel.”

I know it’s lunacy but the horrible truth is that the grass really helped me

The house may not have changed, but the owner most definitely has. “I won’t be talking again until I’ve got something to say,” 27-year-old Michael said back in 1990. Now, at 33 (“the same age as Jesus”), he feels that he’d like to speak.

“Certain things have happened,” he says, taking a carton of milk from a fridge whose contents total a tub of taramasalata, half a bottle of wine, and a half a dozen cans of Coke. “Whereas my public image is more removed from the real world, I don’t feel that I am any more. I’m more…” he grasps for the precise word, “…human.”

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He sets down two mugs of tea, the first of many in our marathon three-hour conversation, and lights a cigarette. “There’s something that’s changed,” he sighs, tapping the fag packet. “I smoke now. What a fucking stupid thing for a singer to do.”

His tobacco habit, he says, developed out of another relatively recent hobby: smoking dope. “I started smoking grass because it was either that or some kind medication which I didn’t want to take,” he says. “Then when you couldn’t get a joint you lit up a cigarette and that was that. It took about three years for me to become a real smoker and in the last year-and-a-half I’ve been trying desperately to give it up and have been failing miserably.”

Dope smoking seems such an unlikely pursuit for a self-confessed control freak. “I know,” he laments, shaking his closely cropped head. “But, I tell you, this time last year I was a complete and utter pothead. I know it’s lunacy but the horrible truth is that the grass really helped me. It got me through making Older. I was under more stress than I’d ever been. This had to amount to something substantial to justify the wait. And grass really helped me with the lyrics. I’d know there was something I really wanted to say but I wouldn’t know how to say it, so I’d have a few drags and stand behind the mic and in a few minutes it’d be there. It’s bad because I don’t want to smoke but I can’t see myself giving grass up as a writer.”

The pressure to write a world-conquering album was • compounded by the singer’s high-profile court case against his former record company, Sony. Put simply, Michael says he was “trying to get myself into a situation where I worked with a company that had some respect for me”. He lost the case, which had prevented him from releasing new material for two years, and left the company. Although his new deals with Virgin in Britain and DreamWorks in America now give him the freedom he craved, there is still bitterness in his voice when he talks about his old label.

I’d just say that it was the most enlightening experience that I’ve ever had

“They basically shat on me,” he scowls. “I was honest with them and said, ‘I’m 24 and I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that right now if I don’t do something quick then no one’s going to have anything to sell’. Now if a 24-year-old who’d just sold 15 million albums came to me and said that, I’d humour him. But it was like, ‘You don’t feel good? Well, piss off, we’ve got lots of other people to work with’. It was incredibly disrespectful. I didn’t work for them, but we’d worked together and sold a fuck of a lot of records. The fact this was suddenly irrelevant was extremely irritating.”

The rumour is that Prince kept phoning during the trial to offer him advice and support. “Oh yeah,” cackles Michael mischievously. “I just never rung him back. We weren’t exactly in the same boat. All I really wanted to say to him was, ‘Wipe that fucking word [‘slave’] off your cheek, you’re not exactly doing me any favours’. The only time I really spoke to him we had this 45-minute conversation about God. Maybe I got him on an off day.”

As the court case lumbered on, reaching a point where even his most loyal supporters became numb to the endless legal hair-splitting, George Michael’s personal life hit a cruel low. The most devastating incident occurred in 1993 when his friend Anselmo Feleppa, a 32-year-old Brazilian – “someone that I truly loved” – died. A searing sense of loss, a gradual healing and a kind of redemption followed.

“I can’t talk about that in any detail,” Michael apologises. “It’s just not me to do that. The album refers to it several times. I’d just say that it was the most enlightening experience that I’ve ever had. The minute someone you really love is irretrievably lost you understand life in a different way.” He reaches instinctively for another cigarette. “Your perspective changes. You understand how short life is, how incredibly painful it can be. But once you’ve seen the worst of things you can then see the best of things, so that experience was very painful at the time but very positive in its outcome.”

Was it sudden? “Yes, he had a brain haemorrhage,” he says quietly. “It was a terrible shock. The grief is always there and sometimes it comes back. You feel it every bit as painfully as if it was yesterday, and other times you think of the person and how fantastic the experience of knowing them was.”

He moves to the microwave to warm up his tepid tea, mulling over one of life’s imponderables as he does so. “The really puzzling question that it leaves you with is, ‘What’s more important: to have a long and healthy life or to enjoy every day as it happens?’ I’ve always obsessively invested in the future but now I wonder if I should spend so much time worrying about it. There might not be a future.”

Did he come close to a breakdown at the time of Anselmo’s death? “No, not then,” he recalls. “After he died I went through bereavement counselling, which helped me a lot. I’m not naturally depressive. I mean, I’ve suffered from depression in depressive circumstances, but I don’t have a tendency towards it. I’m not very good at wallowing. If I’m going to feel bad, I distract myself.”

All the biggest pop stars have unanswered questions about their sexuality. It’s what draws people to them

He was, however, on the verge of a nervous collapse during the Faith tour in 1988. “I genuinely thought, ‘This is what happens. This is when you lose it’,” he recollects with a small shudder. “Do you know, I spent almost that entire year in sunglasses. I just couldn’t make eye contact with strangers. I think I even went to bed in them.”

While waiting for the kettle to boil we once again discuss Oasis, of whom Michael is an enormous fan; and cocaine, of which he isn’t; and, inevitably enough, sex. “How’s your love life?” I ask.

“Fantastic,” he grins. “Absolutely fantastic. That’s all I shall say. I’ve got everything I want at the moment, which is quite a scary position for me to be in. You automatically start to look for something to go wrong.”

Has sex gotten better as you’ve got older? “Oh God, in my case, yeah. It’s not even a matter of it getting better, it’s a matter of me finally knowing what it’s about and being with the right people and having the right sexual experiences.”

And yes, he is a condom man. “I’ve always used them,” he admits. “But if I’m in a relationship, I make sure we end up getting tested. I don’t really think condoms are enough. And they’re not reliable enough. They break.”

Talking to George Michael about sex is a curious experience. As he has never made his sexuality known, you find yourself self-consciously hopping across a non-gender-specific minefield. Is he, I eventually enquire, talking about sleeping with men or women? “I don’t believe in people making public statements about their sexuality,” he answers quickly, primed for the question. “I’m so unattached to my public persona now, it would never even occur to me that I would want to clarify my sexuality.”

DID YOU KNOW…

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Should a gay man in a prominent position admit to being gay? “I think if every gay pop star and actor in the world came out it wouldn’t make any difference at all to the gay community,” he shrugs, before launching into a speech which, you suspect, he prepared earlier. “I think we all speculate about one another’s sexuality and it’s a very human thing to do. Humans spend a lot of time trying to work out if what they are is ‘right’,” his fingers describe inverted commas in the air. “We question ourselves from the moment we’re old enough to, and most people need to feel that their particular form of sexuality is right – therefore they need to be able to identify people who are the same as them and people who aren’t. So you get this whole game where you’re trying to work out who is gay and who is straight.

“Someone like me, who sits there with this big neon question mark above my head and openly invites those questions, is therefore a thing of fascination. If people fit very neatly into one sexual category or another, they are immediately rather boring to the media. I talk to both gay men who want me to be gay and straight women who want me to be straight and a lot of people who are not too sure about their sexuality. All the biggest pop stars have unanswered questions about their sexuality. It’s what draws people to them.”

So is this sexual ambiguity something he’s fostered? “No, not in the least,” he frowns. “I think everything about me has always been ambiguous. From the way I look to the tone of my voice. I mean, let’s face it, I’m not exactly Bruce Springsteen.” The kettle finally gets there. “Anyway,” he says evenly, “my sexuality is no one’s fucking business.”

So, we can conclude that he’s happy with whatever he is? “Very,” he smiles defiantly. “Even though my sexuality hasn’t always been completely clear to me, it was never a moral question. I’ve never thought of my sexuality as being right or wrong. I’ve wondered what my sexuality might be but I’ve never wondered whether it was acceptable or not. To me it’s always been about finding the right person. The only moral involved in sex is whether it’s consenting or not. Anyway, who really cares whether I’m gay or straight? Do they think they’ve got a serious chance of shagging me or something?”

Having successfully filtered out the elements of celebrity he feels least uncomfortable with, and by creating a persona that now works for him on a commercial level, George Michael has managed to develop a certain mystique. “The same thing that makes everybody look when I walk into a restaurant will actually keep fuelling my career,” he muses. “A fascination combined with a lack of availability. In reality my celebrity is something that I don’t like, it limits me a lot. I don’t do a lot of things I would do if I were anonymous. I live a smaller life, in a way, because I don’t put myself in a lot of public situations. My consolation for that is that I’ve got this great career. And,” he adds wryly, “the money’s pretty good too.”

The same thing that makes everybody look when I walk into a restaurant will actually keep fuelling my career

Having reaped the rewards of more than 60 million album sales worldwide – with Older selling one million in the UK alone – is he comfortable with his wealth? “Much more so than I was,” he nods. “In reality, I’ve given such a huge proportion of it away, I really couldn’t feel guilty about it anymore. The reason I do it is quite simple: there are a lot of people who need money and don’t have it and I have a lot of money that I have no particular use for. I mean, look at this house. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this isn’t extravagance. I’ve got houses in LA and St Tropez too, but the three houses combined would fit comfortably into the average rock star’s house. I’m not saying that to prove how modestly I live, but I don’t have a very expensive lifestyle and I’ve sold a lot of records.”

He gives a substantial amount of money anonymously to various charities, although he’s unwilling to give details. Is this merely to assuage his conscience? “I obviously do that to some degree,” he replies. “I can give away large amounts of money without it having any effect on my life. So you can do a lot of good at arm’s length, which I’m sure people will criticise me for.”

As an admirer of Tony Blair, would he be prepared to pay more tax under a Labour government? “I’d feel enormously unhappy about paying 50 per cent tax to another Tory government,” he glowers. “But I’d pay 50 or even 60 per cent to a Labour government. As it is I’ll probably end up paying more anyway. I think Labour are going to introduce a special George Michael tax.”

But that’s the price you pay for once having been a member of Wham! and a beacon of Thatcherism. “That’s bollocks, isn’t it?” he sniffs. “That was always a stupid, superficial view to take of me. I never had a Thatcherite attitude. I never believed for a moment that things were good. Thatcherism was based on that ‘trickle down’ idea – that everyone would eventually get some – and I always knew that was bullshit. I was incredibly ambitious, but for myself not for money, and I was never, never a fucking Thatcherite.”

This afternoon, he will visit the recording studio to tinker with the latest of his seductive jazz-pop songs. If inspiration doesn’t strike, he’ll smoke some grass and wait for what he self-mockingly calls “that conduit moment”. But before we sink back into the creamy upholstery and cosy decadence of his new Jag, there is one small matter to clear up. The toilet seat, we never did find out what happened to the toilet seat. Reluctantly, George Michael reveals his sinful secret. “Wiping too vigorously,” he says, then laughs like an escaped lifer.

“Feels good to be free.”