Wham! took the world by storm in the early ’80s. With catchy hits like Wham Rap! and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, fans just couldn’t get enough. But as time passed, it was clear to everyone that George Michael was the duo’s shining star. It seemed that everything Michael touched turned to gold.
Almost overnight, the pop star became a multi-millionaire and music symbol, but little did people know he had some serious demons. Sadly, as his career progressed, Michael became more famous for his off-stage antics than for his music. From secret romances to grief and addictions, this is George Michael’s tragic story.
Michael’s early years weren’t particularly traumatic for the singer, but they were marked with a damaging coldness from his family. Born as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the future pop star was raised in a small apartment in London by his parents. His mother, Lesley, worked as a dancer and his father, Kyriacos, was a restaurateur who had immigrated from Cyprus in the ’50s.
While it may be some people’s dream to be an only child, Michael said that he wasn’t exactly fawned upon by his parents, nor was his father ever around. “I was never praised, never held,” the singer told People magazine. “So, it wasn’t exactly The Little House On The Prairie.”
When Michael was only six years old, he found an old gramophone in his parents’ garage and decided to write a song. It was then that he first discovered his love for music. But he didn’t realize that he wanted to be a professional singer until after he had a serious head injury two years later.
“At the age of about eight, I had a head injury, and I know it sounds bizarre and unlikely, but it was quite a bad bang, and I had it stitched up and stuff,” Michael wrote in his memoir Bare. All of a sudden, Michael only had one interest: music. However, Michael didn’t let his parents, more specifically, his father, know about his ambitions right away.
Sadly, Michael’s father wasn’t exactly the most supportive person in his life. “Funnily enough, my father always used to say that he didn’t think I could sing,” Michael told Event Magazine. But by the time Michael got to high school, it was clear to everyone that he was passionate about music.
He befriended Andrew Ridgeley, who shared his love for music, and the two began to write songs together. Many people thought that Ridgeley and Michael were a strange and unlikely duo. Ridgeley was a lady’s man and very outgoing, while Michael was the exact opposite. Regardless, the duo worked. In fact, the two teenagers were so confident in their musical abilities that they dropped out of high school.
Michael began performing in the London Underground while DJing at clubs and restaurants in the area. While this seems like the dream for any kid who loves music, Michael was unsatisfied. No. He was more than unsatisfied. It was a soul-sapping experience. One of his jobs was DJing at a fancy restaurant called the Bel Air.
It was a dinner and dancing establishment that served three-course meals to whoever could afford it. Michael was under strict instructions to play middle-road stuff. This meant no ABBA and no Michael Jackson. “Good evening,” he would say before introducing himself. After saying a few words into the mic, the future pop star faded into the background, where no one paid attention to him.
When Michael and Ridgeley weren’t working, they were hitting the clubs. One night while dancing to Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang, the duo unknowingly came up with the name for their next project.
Suddenly, Ridgeley put his fist in the air and began singing to the beat of the track: “Wham! Bam! I am the man!” Then Michael joined in. “Wham! Bam! I am the man!” “At first, it was just an off the cut call; but it soon became so much more,” Ridgeley wrote in his memoir.
The saying, or more importantly, Wham!, seemed to capture the essence of their energy and friendship. So, when it came time for the duo to think about the name of their band, it was an easy choice. “Wham! was snappy, immediate, fun, and boisterous too,” Ridgeley continued.
The duo began writing songs like Wham Rap and Club Tropicana, which many people said glorified dead-end jobs and living on social security. But the boys had a different take on their lyrics: “We were just taking a playful sideways glance at both of our lives.”
At this point, Michael was still working at the restaurant, and Ridgeley spent his days working at a camera specialist warehouse. Not only did the guys know they were destined for a better life, but the motivation to land a record deal came on the heels of an ultimatum from Michael’s father: Sign a record deal in six months or get out of his house.
This added some needed pressure to the teenagers’ lives. It was now or never. With a new band name, the duo decided to approach some recording executives.
After adding their third song, Careless Whisper, to their demo tape, the boys felt like they were ready to go. In their minds, they had just written three hit songs. With this newfound confidence, Michael and Ridgeley believed they were ready for a record deal and set out to get signed.
They didn’t care who signed them. All they wanted was a contract. With a stroke of luck, Ridgeley was able to make it happen. The musician knew a man named Mark Dean from Innervision Records from a few years back.
However, Dean was now a more important man than he was just a few years ago. By the end of 1981, he had signed Soft Sell, the synthetic rock duo responsible for Tainted Love. Dean was on the hunt for the next big thing.
Although Ridgeley and Michael were confident in their demo tape, Dean wouldn’t meet with them. So, the duo came up with a game plan. Phase one: approach Dean’s receptionist claiming to have arrived for a “very important meeting.” When that meeting wasn’t found in the book, Michael and Ridgeley moved on to phase two.
Ridgeley would sweet-talk the receptionist while Michael acted frustrated. “What do you mean it’s not there?” Michael would snap. “We were quite the double act when we wanted to be,” Ridgeley wrote in 2019.
While this little game of deception may have worked for a number of bands in the ’60s, receptionists in the ’80s were aware of this trick. Regardless, the teenagers visited every record executive office in England. But even on the rare occasion that their ruse worked, the boys were shown the door after the first ten seconds of playing their demo.
Although the door was slammed in their face countless times, the boys were undeterred. In fact, Michael was more motivated than ever. One night, the singer decided to play a mostly finished Careless Whisper at the Bel Air.
“You’re not going to believe it, Andy, people were dancing to it,” Ridgeley recalled Michael telling him one night. Then, in February 1982, Dean called to schedule a meeting. It was finally happening! “I’m going to offer Wham! a deal with my new label, Innervision,” Dean told them. “I’d like you to have a crack at recording a single or two, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
Still going by Georgios Panayiotou, Michael knew that he needed to change his name to something with a little more star power (and something easier to pronounce). George Michael had a Hollywood feel to it. It also helped him shape a new identity.
And while everything seemed to be falling into place, Michael was wrapped up in an internal struggle. Under the surface, the singer was struggling with his weight, self-image, and other insecurities that had plagued him throughout his high school years. “Only nineteen myself, I was unaware of just how deep-seated the issues really were,” Ridgeley wrote in 2019.
Over the next few months, Wham! drove up and down the country playing concerts for people who either didn’t care about them or were too drunk to notice. Regardless of whether they had a crowd or not, Michael and Ridgeley gave each concert everything they had.
Sometimes, the guys would play three or four shows in one night. Seeing that most of their venues were nightclubs, dressing rooms were nonexistent (meaning they often changed in the bathroom or in the parking lot outside). The guys were having a hard time on the road, and comedic relief was in short supply. Well, except for one night in London.
“I remember looking across to see George executing a particularly vigorous high kick, only for his shoe to fly off into the audience,” Ridgeley recalled in his memoir. Without missing a beat, Michael kicked off his other shoe as if it was all part of his plan.
He then spent the rest of the show sliding across the stage in his socks. “I don’t think anyone was more relieved than him when the song came to an end.” Well, this kind of stamina and quick thinking paid off. By the end of 1982, the duo had developed quite the following among teenage girls around the country.
In 1983, their debut album, Fantastic! reached number four on the U.K. charts. They guys were finally on a roll. After the release of their second album, Make It Big, Wham! was on top of the world. With singles like Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper, the album quickly climbed up to the number one spot on the U.S. charts.
Everything was happening so fast. Within a year of being signed, Michael and Ridgeley were bonafide pop stars. Opportunities seemed to be coming in left and right, and the boys were soon in danger of spinning out of control.
With his crazy, drunken nights out, Ridgeley became a tabloid regular. Although Michael kept a lower profile, he was also partying and drinking excessively. After years of struggling, the guys were finally reaping the benefits of stardom.
As time went on, it became clear to everyone that Michael was the shining star of the group. He was asked to sing on the original Band Aid recording of Do They Know It’s Christmas and accompanied Elton John during his Live Aid performance in 1985. Even when the band made history as the first Western pop act to perform in China, most of the publicity focused on Michael.
It didn’t take long for Michael to branch out on his own. Wham! officially separated in 1986 after the release of their single The Edge of Heaven. But even with this immense fame, wealth, and recognition, Michael was still struggling.
He was still in the closet and lived under the constant fear of being outed. His feelings of isolation got worse as Michael ventured out on his solo career. “George entered a different way of life,” music historian Paul Gambaccini said in 2018. “Without having all of this companionship. He goes from being part of a fraternity to being a person.”
Despite feeling lost, his solo career began to take off. After the release of his single, I Want Your Sex, in 1987, Michael’s reputation as a sex symbol was through the roof. Michael knew that coming out with a highly sexualized song and a music video was bound to make some waves.
Adding to the tabloid frenzy, the singer’s then-girlfriend, Kathy Jeung, appeared with him in the video clip. “It’s not that I had stopped having sex with women, but I was already fully aware that that in and of itself was a lie,” Michael later admitted. “So, there were those feelings of feeling fraudulent as well.”
One of the downsides of being famous is not having any privacy. “If you are perceived to be concealing a true identity—this was not allowed to be your private life— you were going to be pursued by journalists and photographers until they exposed you,” Lesley-Ann Jones, a friend and music journalist, said in 2018.
Despite these struggles, Michael continued to cement himself as a pop icon. From the clothes he wore and his blonde highlights to being very particular about only being photographed on his “good side,” Michael focused on creating a persona that he could hide behind.
In 1988, 25-year-old Michael began his first international tour as a solo artist. His troubles seemed to disappear on stage, but off stage, he felt trapped. At this point, Michael was a superstar with more money than he could ever have imagined. But he wasn’t living an honest life, nor was he happy.
The persona he had carefully curated was becoming more trouble than it was worth. “That was the turning point for me. I had to negotiate some relationship with celebrity that wasn’t going to destroy me,” Michael told interviewers in 2004.
When the tour came to an end over a year later, Michael took two years off. He reevaluated his life and radically changed his look. He also refused to appear in any promotional content for his new album, nor would he appear in any new music videos.
However, his label had a hard time with this new, 2.0 version of George Michael. But the singer didn’t care. He was no longer going to be what everyone wanted him to be. The release of his music video for Freedom! 90 was the epitome of this new attitude.
After a 1991 Wham! reunion concert in Rio de Janeiro, Michael’s life was changed forever when he met the man who would become the love of his life. However, this love was only brief and had a tragic ending.
He met a fan named Anselmo Feleppa, and it was basically love at first sight. “The moment I looked at him, it was just like, ‘Wow, I’ve met someone I actually think I’m gonna fall in love with rather than just want their body for a while,'” the singer told Behind the Music.
Within just a few days, Michael and Feleppa were a couple. “For six months, I was happier than I had ever been my entire life,” Michael said in 2017. “Fame, money, everything else just kind of paled by comparison to finally, at 27 years old, waking up in bed with someone that loves you.”
Feleppa moved to Los Angeles to live with Michael, and for a few months, they were just like any other couple. However, that quickly changed when Feleppa fell ill. He had flu-like symptoms and a rash that he just couldn’t shake.
Doctors later confirmed what the couple had feared: Feleppa had contracted HIV. In the documentary George Michael: Freedom, the singer explained that he and Feleppa waited to get the test results during Christmas 1991.
Waiting to hear if his partner was terminally ill and then wondering if he would fall ill, all while keeping it a secret during Christmas time, was the “darkest, most frightening time of my life.” A few months later, Michael was asked to pay tribute to the late Freddie Mercury at a televised concert at Wembley Stadium.
With an audience of over one billion, Michael was forced to put on a brave face, but true to George Michael fashion, the singer didn’t miss a beat. In fact, he stole the show. However, no one knew the grief and the agony he was going through behind the scenes.
“I had to do two things. I had to honor Freddie Mercury, and I had to pray for Anselmo,” the singer told interviewers in 2004. “It was so much for me, all in that one performance. I’m so proud of the fact that I held onto that feeling because on the inside, I just wanted to die.”
In March 1993, Feleppa suffered a brain hemorrhage during surgery and passed away. He was 36 years old. Michael was devastated. “He still, 23 years later, brings a tear to my eye,” the singer said in the documentary Freedom. “He was my savior.”
The death of his partner sent Michael into mourning for a very long time. He began looking for ways to alleviate his pain, and, pretty soon, the singer became more well-known for his drug problem than for his music. Unable to share his pain with his family, friends, or the public, Michael secluded himself from the world.
Then, in 1996, three years after the death of Feleppa, Michael found love again. This time, it was with a Texan businessman named Kenny Goss. “I think Kenny was very helpful in showing him that he could love again, that the death of Anselmo was not the end of the world, and that this planet keeps spinning,” Paul Gambaccini explained in 2018.
But Michael’s happiness was short-lived. That same year, he received some devastating news—this time, from his mother. Lesley had just received a phone call from her doctor. She had terminal cancer with only months to live.
Lesley was able to spend one more Christmas with Michael and the rest of the family before passing away two months later in February 1997. She was only 60 years old. Michael was emotionally and spiritually crushed after his mother passed away.
The singer fell into a deep, dark sadness in the years following. “I’d never felt that kind of depression. It was something different from grief,” the singer continued. “It was on top of grief, I was grieving for my mother still, but it was something else. It was the darkest time.”
The year after his mother’s death, Michael began to unravel. This time, Michael was too depressed to hide his grief and self-destructive behaviors from the public. In April 1998, a plainclothes police officer was investigating a tip that the bathrooms at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in L.A. were the site of some illegal, meaning homosexual, activity.
As it just so happened, Michael was in the bathroom when a police officer witnessed the singer “engaged in a lewd act.”. Michael later claimed that the officer committed entrapment and encouraged the singer to do what he did.
Michael was arrested on the spot. “There was a defiance about it,” Lesley-Ann Jones said in 2018. “Now, there were no restrictions. After his mother died, there was nothing left to lose.” The singer was released from jail on a $500 bond.
Now that he had been arrested for homosexual activity, Michael finally decided to come out. He scheduled an interview with CNN’s Jim Moret and told the entire world his secret. “I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I’m in a relationship with a man right now,” the singer admitted. “I have not been in a relationship with a woman for almost ten years.”
Although Michael had finally come out, he was still depressed, which made his drug problem even worse. In 2008, London police found Michael using crack cocaine in a public bathroom. Since the number of drugs that he had on him was small, he was released from police custody without further legal action.
According to his partner, Kenny Goss, taking drugs was just part of Michael’s daily routine. “I would find drugs and flush everything down the toilet,” Goss told The Sun. “He was absent-minded, so would [sic] just think he’d lost them.”
The singer’s addiction to drugs was bound to affect his life one way or another. In October 2006, Michael was found half asleep and slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes in the middle of an intersection in North London. He was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
In May 2007, after learning that Michael had been under the influence of several drugs at the time of his arrest, the court sentenced him to 100 hours of community service. His license was also suspended for two years.
Michael’s drug use got so bad that Goss couldn’t take it anymore. In 2009, after thirteen years together, Goss packed his things and moved back to America. This amplified Michael’s drug use, and the following year, he was involved in yet another mishap while behind the wheel.
At around 4 a.m. on a Sunday in July 2010, London police respond to a call about a car that had crashed into a building. The driver was still behind the wheel of his Ranger Rover, the person said. When police arrived at the scene, they discovered Michael again slumped over his steering wheel.
Michael was in possession and under the influence of marijuana. The court wasn’t so lenient this time. The singer was sentenced to eight weeks in prison (he only served four). Three years later, Michael found himself in the headlines again.
In 2013, the singer fell out of a speeding car (going 70 miles per hour, no less) while driving on the highway. He reportedly tried to close his improperly closed door before falling out onto the asphalt. He was airlifted to the hospital, where he was treated for a serious head injury.
This incident came on the heels of another health scare. In 2012, Michael was in the midst of yet another tour. However, after three months, he mysteriously collapsed. The singer had developed a form of pneumonia and eventually fell into a coma.
He spent over a month in the intensive care unit. “It was basically, by far, the worst month of my life,” Michael told reporters outside of his home. He was still wheezing. “So, I have to believe that somebody thinks that I’ve still got some work to do here. I have plenty to live for.”
From falling out of a speeding car, to mysteriously collapsing in 2014, the singer was clearly dealing with some heavy stuff. To make matters worse, Michael was no longer in the right headspace to create new music. This was his breaking point.
The singer began to let himself go and was often photographed not looking his best. “The fact that his physical appearance had altered so much must have been quite hard to take for him,” biographer Robert Steel said in 2018. “This is a guy that, for a large period of his life, had been a sex symbol.”
Michael again turned to drugs. While the public knew of his life-long struggle with substance abuse, many of his fans had no idea just how bad his addiction was. This was especially true in the final years of his life. “I believe easy access to drugs was the cause of his problems,” his close friend Gary Farrow told The Sun.
“Once this disease gets hold of you, it’s hard to fight it.” Another source had similar things to say. “He’s been rushed to A&E on several occasions,” the source said, meaning that Michael sought out emergency medical care for drug overdoses.
By now, Michael had taken a step back from public life. Even still, he had a huge fan base who loved and supported him. At Christmas time, the superstar is often on millions of people’s minds, thanks to his holiday classic, Last Christmas.
This makes it especially sad and ironic that Michael passed away on Christmas Day in 2016, while his song was making someone, somewhere, very happy. On that morning, the singer’s partner, Fadi Fawaz, showed up at Michael’s house for lunch. That’s when he discovered Michael “lying peacefully in bed.”
Fawaz immediately called the authorities, but there was nothing the paramedics could do. George Michael was already dead. He was only 53 years old. Paramedics and the police were initially puzzled by his death; however, they didn’t think there was foul play.
A few months later, the coroner revealed that the singer had died in his sleep from natural causes—specifically issues related to his liver and heart. Despite the coroner’s report, Fawaz believes that Michael took his own life. “George died on his mother’s birthday, so that might answer a few questions,” Fawaz told The Telegraph.