George Michael: Why he turned his back on fame, and the 'Faith'-like songs he recorded before his death


George Michael had two strong recurring premonitions. The first was that he'd be famous. The second was that he'd die young.

"From a really early age, I believed I was going to be a star," he told me when I interviewed him at length in 1986. "I remember being on a bus when I was a child, about 8 or 9. I'd had a bad day at school -- I'd been picked on -- and I remember thinking it would be OK when I was older, because I wasn't going to be like everybody else. That's the reason kids want to be stars. They think they'll be able to rise above their problems because they're famous -- which obviously isn't true."

Michael, who died at home in Oxfordshire, England, at the age of 53 on Christmas Day, had enduring faith in his talent. But one of the most striking things about him was the discrepancy between the poised, clever sex symbol I was talking to and his accounts of growing up outside London. "People have no comprehension of what I looked like as a kid," he said, laughing. "I was such an ugly little bastard."

See photos of George Michael through the years:

17 PHOTOS
George Michael through the years
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George Michael through the years
UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 01: LYCEUM Photo of George MICHAEL and WHAM!, George Michael (Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns)
Wham 1985 George Michael and Andrew Ridgely (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)
Wham Concert In London, Britain - 1985, George Michael And Andrew Ridgeley (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)
CHINA - 1985/04/07: Young children sporting 'Mao' jackets and caps gape at George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the pop group Wham who are visiting the Great Wall as they promote the first-ever gig by a Western pop band in communist China. Wham played a concert at Beijing's People's Stadium, thereby becoming a milestone not only in pop but also in Chinese history, even if most Chinese hadn't a clue who they were and even fewer actually got to see them in action.. (Photo by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 27: George Michael of Wham! performs on stage at the National Exhibition Centre, on February 27th, 1985 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Peter Still/Redferns)
Pop star George Michael attends the British Record Industry Awards, aka the BRIT Awards, at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London on February 11, 1985. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)
British singer-songwriter George Michael of Wham!, during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.'The Big Tour' took in the UK, Japan, Australia, China and the US. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
George Michael of Wham!, portrait, Sydney, Australia, January 1985. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of George MICHAEL (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)
Michael Lipman, Tommy Mottola, George Michael and Rob Kahane (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of George MICHAEL (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)
George Michael Attends A Gianni Versace Book Launch Party At His Store In London'S Bond Street. . (Photo by Antony Jones/Julian Parker/UK Press via Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - AUGUST 03: Singer George Michael performs at the Bank Atlantic Center on August 3, 2008 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Logan Fazio/Getty Images)
British singer George Michael performs on stage during a charity gala for the benefit of Sidaction, at the Opera Garnier in Paris, on September 9, 2012. Sidaction is a charity event which aims to collect money for the struggle against AIDS virus. AFP PHOTO MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GettyImages)
British singer George Michael performs during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games at the Olympic stadium in London on August 12, 2012. Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympic Games. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages)
FILE PHOTO British singer George Michael poses for photographers before a news conference at the Royal Opera House in central London May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File Photo
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Even when fans were swooning over him, he remembered being an overweight kid who wore glasses. "He never thought he was good-looking," Rob Kahane tells Billboard. Kahane managed the singer at the height of his solo stardom. "When he looked in the mirror, he'd still see a pudgy, homely kid."

Like a lot of disenchanted preteens, Michael took solace in the escapism of pop music, and he obsessively studied how hit songs were arranged. He loved pop so dearly, he turned himself into its embodiment, and an unashamed advocate of its merits. "You either see pop music as a ­contemporary art form or you don't," he said. "I do, very strongly. It's the only day-to-day, moving art form."

Wham!, the duo he formed with childhood friend Andrew Ridgeley, was outrageously, ­blindingly pop: Their hits had quick tempos, upbeat hooks and peppy videos of the duo, often in shorts or cropped T-shirts. Michael once described them as "f---off pop songs people can't resist."

Wham! had everything but respect -- one writer called them "two unsophisticated con men" -- so Michael split from Ridgeley. He dueted with Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. He wrote, arranged and produced 1987's Faith; the album sold 25 million copies worldwide and 10 million in the United States, where four of its singles went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, leading to a Grammy for album of the year. Michael, certain he would lose to Tracy Chapman or Sting, didn't attend. (Kahane, who teased the singer like he was a little brother, called him and said, "Listen, idiot, you won.") Michael made all the music decisions, and all the business decisions, too. "Being a control freak is f--ing exhausting," he told me. "It took me about two months to suss out that the music business was full of assholes, and I knew better than they did. That's when I dug my heels in."

How stars reacted to George Michael's death:

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Stars react to George Michael's death
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Stars react to George Michael's death
I am in deep shock. I have lost a beloved friend - the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. RIP… https://t.co/Pyeu7gb2QI
Paul on George Michael: https://t.co/t7vu2Hyjey https://t.co/ZBq0VsTatB
I would not be the artist I am if it wasn't for you. @GeorgeMichael
I've loved George Michael for as long as I can remember. He was an absolute inspiration. Always ahead of his time.
Before I sleep I wanted to send out my love to @GeorgeMichael and his family and friends. What a wonderful gift to the world he was. 🙏🏼💙
George Michael - Extras Xmas Special https://t.co/dmuLC88xcR via @DailymotionUK
I would not be the artist I am if it wasn't for you. @GeorgeMichael
George Michael was a kind and gentle soul. #Wham
So sad to hear of George Michael's passing, huge sympathy to friends and family. Particularly difficult time to lose someone. RIP.
George Michael RIP. Your music lifted our spirits. Your heart was pure. Sad. You will be missed.
A beautiful Christmas with my boys but so saddened by the passing of George Michael -and extraordinary talent - So missed RIP X
Finished the prime rib... now onto blasting George Michael and doing the dishes
George Michael Read: https://t.co/z669xGdjwM
I'm very sad about the news of my good friend George Michael. God bless you and may you rest in peace.
#Heartbroken Here's how George Michael impacted my life... https://t.co/C6oY6ekJ91 https://t.co/yFpJiuh4ed
So sorry to hear about George Michael's passing. Brilliant icon. "Kissing a Fool" one of my all time favs. Strength & light to his family.
"I have never and will never apologize for my sex life. Gay sex is natural, gay sex is good!" - George Michael
mine & mari's song of the day: JESUS TO A CHILD - GEORGE MICHAEL (R.I.P. GEORGIOS) https://t.co/A1UBaUjA4L
Song of the day...."Kissing A Fool" by George Michael. RIP George. Amazing singer and songwriter!!! https://t.co/0cgzPFcu7N
So Sad to hear of George Michael passing. I met him after his Earls Court Gig and he hosted us at his wonderful home in Highgate RIP❤️
So sad about George Michael. Truly one of the greatest songwriters.
Another fine musical talent gone--RIP, George Michael. Spent Christmas evening dancing around to "Before You Go-Go." Damn you, 2016.
Waking up to the sad news of George Michael's passing. An incredible talent taken far too soon. https://t.co/MuTlPxEDSk
Rip George Michael - What a singer, just watched him with queen "somebody to love " Vocals for days
When a baby first breathes When night sees sunrise When the whale hunts in the sea When man recognizes Freedom https://t.co/zSTUgCmXo7
Frank Sinatra's amazing letter to George Michael after the latter complained about fame. One for all stars to ponde… https://t.co/soQOiDkeQT
So sad to hear my Cypriot brother @GeorgeMichael has passed away. Will miss him & pray God will have mercy on him.… https://t.co/L2P4maiCSC
Deeply saddened by the news of the passing of George Michael. What an amazing artist we've lost... rest in peace.
" @maryjblige and @georgemichael ~ their remake of #steviewonder's AS says it all to me.." #georgemichael "ALWAYS!!… https://t.co/n6BIbQvxSs
If you're ever feeling pretty good about a piece of art you've just made, remember this. George Michael wrote careless whisper at 17. 17!!!
Farewell My Friend! 🙏🏻 Another Great Artist leaves us. 💔Can 2016 Fuck Off NOW? https://t.co/aEGIUNSJbt
This is insanely cool. George Michael & Queen rehearsing 'Somebody To Love' as Bowie looks on. Wow. https://t.co/4okLGWWpBc
I'm never gonna dance again Guilty feet have got no rhythm Though it's easy to pretend I know you're not a fool ~ George Michael
George Michael. Rest In Peace. Such heartbreaking news yet on a celebratory day. We are blasting your songs all night!
Rest in peace George Michael. Thanks for sharing your soul and talent with all of us, traveling… https://t.co/oTVB1IB3tk
So sad @GeorgeMichael What a talent & significant part of my generation's musical journey. May he find his "freedom." #ripfreedom
Gone too soon. Brilliant George Michael. RIP. https://t.co/9SNg6HT0ac
I've only witnessed true genius a few times in my life. One of those was watching George Michael lay down Feeling Good for #Elistone 1/2
Everything I know about singing I learned from listening to George Michael's perfect voice. My absolute favorite. RIP sweet man.
GEORGE MICHAEL FOREVER https://t.co/QcjKvpCpjw
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A lot of heel-digging followed. By the time Faith started to fade, "I felt like I was going insane," he later said. Michael thought his renown as a sex symbol stopped people from giving his music the respect it deserved. So in 1990, before he released Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, he planned a severe change: no interviews, no tours and no appearances in his own videos. In the famous clip for "Freedom! '90," starring five supermodels, Michael literally destroyed a guitar, jukebox and leather jacket, each a key element of his "Faith" video. "George was a very difficult person to manage -- not because of his personality but because of his belief system," says Kahane.

Kahane hated Michael's plan, but Michael's U.S. label hated it more. Don Ienner, who was president of Columbia Records, explains: "Clearly, I was concerned that George didn't want to promote the album, tour behind it or star in his own videos, all of which had made him, deservedly, one of the most important stars in the world. If that was his vision, then we'd support it, but I thought there was a more elegant way to quiet the frenzy that was making him uncomfortable. Why announce that he wasn't supporting the album, instead of being quiet and letting the music speak for itself? And when he blew up the guitar, the jukebox and the jacket, I felt it could offend fans who loved those images."

At one point, according to subsequent court testimony, Michael overheard an argument between Kahane and Ienner, who allegedly referred to the singer as "that faggot client of yours." ("It's a silly accusation, and it's untrue," Ienner told me.)

"That was the trigger that set George off," says Kahane. The singer went to court to dissolve his contract, which he ridiculously likened to slavery. "It was a moral issue," he later said. He lost the lawsuit, which cost him about 30 million British pounds and kept him away from recording and touring for three years. "He was stubborn," adds Kahane. "But that's also why he performed at so many benefits — he had principles."

In the midst of the Sony lawsuit, Michael's partner of two years, Anselmo Feleppa, died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage. "When he lost Anselmo, I thought he was going to do something bad to himself. I had people stay with him," says Kahane. Michael came out to his family. Soon after, his mother, with whom he was very close, told him she had terminal cancer.

See photos of George Michael and his former boyfriend:

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George Michael and boyfriend Fadi Fawaz
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George Michael and boyfriend Fadi Fawaz
VIENNA, AUSTRIA - SEPTEMBER 04: George Michael and Fadi Fawaz arrive at Airport Vienna on September 4, 2012 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Luca Teuchmann/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 31: George Michael and his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz are seen on July 31, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 31: George Michael and his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz are seen on July 31, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 31: George Michael and his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz are seen on July 31, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 29: George Michael and his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz are seen at Barcelona El Prat Airport on July 29, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 14: George Michael and Fadi Fawaz are seen on March 14, 2012 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by JJ/ROCHAS/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 29: George Michael and his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz are seen at Barcelona El Prat Airport on July 29, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 29: George Michael and his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz are seen at Barcelona El Prat Airport on July 29, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
VIENNA, AUSTRIA - NOVEMBER 29: George Michaels boyfriend Fadi Fawaz (R) leaves the AKH hospital where Singer George Michael was reportedly admitted last week with pneumonia on November 29, 2011 in Vienna, Austria. Michael was forced then to abandon his current tour due to his health. (Photo by Hans Wurst/Getty Images)
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Michael later said he was clinically depressed during that period. Sometimes Kahane's sister would read the singer's tarot cards. "He was obsessed with saying, 'I know I'm going to die young,'" recalls Kahane. "He'd say, 'It's OK. I've had a great life.'"

DreamWorks Records paid a hefty fee to buy his contract from Sony, and he released Older in 1996. It sold well worldwide but flopped in the United States. "George delivered us a completely finished album package, which is unusual. He understood how to use videos and photos in a way few people did," says Robin Sloane, head of creative services at Geffen Records. But the images he picked were "somber, moody, mournful. It was over the heads of MTV viewers. People wanted the other George Michael."

In 1998, he was arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" with an undercover policeman in a Beverly Hills park. Michael felt his fans already understood that he was gay. "He said it was everywhere in his lyrics," recalls Bryn Bridenthal, who was head of publicity at Geffen. But he agreed to an interview on CNN so he could come out formally. "He had a sense of humor about it and wasn't defensive. He did charming really well," says Bridenthal.

Unlike his contemporaries -- Michael Jackson, Madonna, even Prince, to an extent -- Michael stopped trying to make hits. He released only two albums in his final 20 years: an album of mostly standards, sung with an orchestra, in 1999, and 2004's Patience, on Sony Music, where again he worked with Ienner, who was now chairman and CEO. Michael's music was chilly, thoughtful and rarely celebratory. When he made headlines in the last 10 years, it was for personal problems: a near-fatal case of pneumonia that forced him to cancel a 2011 tour of Europe, or drug arrests, or a car accident while driving under the influence, which led to a four-week jail stint.

In early December 2016, when Kahane was in London, a mutual friend encouraged him to reach out to Michael, who had recently finished 18 months in a Swiss rehab facility. "I called him, and he said, 'I'm good.' He sounded fine," says Kahane. Though the two hadn't talked in years, they made a plan to have lunch in January. And Kahane heard a few of Michael's new songs, which he says are "totally pop, like something that would've been on Faith. The songs weren't depressing. That's why I thought everything was OK with him."

Michael was intermittently active on Twitter, and in April 2014 he told fans he'd been watching video of his 2011 tour. "I saw the luckiest man on earth. So much love given to one man," he wrote. "If only I had known, way back then, I'd have been one seriously happy kid. I love you."

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard.


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