As the world honours the late, great George Michael, we’re serialising the star’s Attitude cover profile from May 2004. Typically forthright, the ‘Outside’ singer spoke to us about everything from the closet and celebrity culture to open relationships, New Labour and cruising.
Check back every day this week for a new instalment in this frank and unflinching five-part series which captures the sparky, plain-spoken spirit that made George Michael an inspiration to so many, both gay and straight alike. Read the previous instalment here.
This interview first appeared in Attitude issue 212, May 2004.
Words by Adam Mattera
No celebrity, point blank, has talked as honestly about open relationships, yet it is a reality for lots of gay men. Why shouldn't you talk about it?
I quite like the fact that I'm the last person that anyone expected to do it. Being humiliated so badly in the press was a good starting point for me being honest. It gave me the guts to do it. But now I see it as a mission. To say, 'look, I know you like me, and I know you like my music. But at the end of the day I’m gay - and I'm a slut.' [laughs] Some of us are and we should be fine with that.
You've talked about open relationships for a long time. The lyrics to 'Spinning the Wheel' — 'you've got a thing about strangers...' — were pretty clear. Do you not think that open relationships breed insecurity, though? In that song you seem unhappy with the idea, as if you were on the other end of it.
That lyric was actually about how I can't believe how many people have unsafe sex. I went to a benefit for Patrick Cowley, who was Sylvester's producer, in '82 and people were talking about this new gay cancer and pretty much straight after that I started using condoms. I never stopped. Actually, I stopped when I first met with Kenny because at that time we wanted to be monogamous and we had both been tested and were fine. I'd tested after Anselmo told me he was positive but I hadn't been tested since then, which was three or four years. The period between that and when I knew my eye was wandering again was when I had unprotected sex. We were at the beginning of the relationship and we both made that decision. I don't think I would do that again because in that situation you rely on your partner having the guts to tell you the moment things stop being monogamous. Actually, I don't know if I would ever try to be monogamous again. The minute that I knew my eye was wandering again, I talked to Kenny about it and we started using protection again. I've always been very aware of it. Whether I've been pissed or taken an E or whatever, I've always used protection. Going through the whole thing with Anselmo, it just struck me that I would write a song about having a partner who just won't practise safe sex, basically. It wasn't written from a personal point of view, where I was complaining about someone sleeping around. I suppose it sounded like that though, didn't it?
You don't think monogamy can work in gay relationships?
With Kenny, well, as a gay man, you keep hold of monogamy for as long as you can — cos, sure, it's a great way to be, but then you either turn into liars and cheats or you deal with it full on and work though it and come to whatever arrangement you come to. With a man, if you fight hard enough, you'll both get to the same page and I think that's one of the real up sides of my gay relationships, that I've been able to be so direct and honest. There is so much security in knowing it doesn't matter how many times your boyfriend has slept with other people or that you have slept with other people, no-one's going anywhere. If you can be around a succession of great looking one night stands over a certain number of years — cause I don't exactly have to sleep with dogs and neither does he — you rather get the impression that nothing is going to take someone away. Lust can't do it. Once you take sexual jealousy out of it you're left with 'do I want to spend every day of my life with this person?' And you're free to say yes or no without sex being the issue.
Do you have rules?
There's never any question of taking anyone for a drink or for dinner. There have to be some boundaries somewhere. And those are ours. There's never any question of spending the evening with someone. It's just sex. I get puzzled by gay men who do lie and cheat on one another. Okay, with Kenny and I it was harder at the beginning. But I think that was more the fact we didn't have any experience. I think it's a wasted opportunity not to be directly honest with one person in your life. Kenny is the one person in my life who I can be absolutely honest about absolutely everything with. And you have an opportunity to do that as a gay man that I'm not sure you do as a straight man. Men understand each other better than men and women do.
When you were going out with women...
Which is always the big 'if' isn't it?
I'm thinking of the time around the Faith album when your image was propelled at its most...
Macho? Look, I tried really hard. [laughing] I put the pearls on the leather jacket. Didn't you notice? I had my earring and I had my pearls! Basically, people look at my relationship with Kathy [Yeung, the Japanese-American girl George dated in the late '80s] and say 'Oh, she must have just been your professional beard'. I've never had a professional beard in my life. Really early on there was a girl that went to the papers and said she had slept with me, an old friend of Boy George's. She was a really sweet girl called Pat. I remember we went to a party, the Camden Palace or something, early 80s, and I was absolutely rat arsed — I'd gone from drinking nothing, I never drank beer, I went from Coca-cola to Scotch and used to get totally rat arsed. Anyway, Pat must have known almost immediately because I announced to this whole fucking party, pissed out of my head, that I wanted to have sex and invited the whole room basically! I ended up going downstairs with this American guy and this English girl. So she knew really early on about that. She fell in love with me, and I told her there was no way, and what happened was, she got so hurt by me that she sold her story to the papers and then left the country because she was so ashamed.
Later, the whole thing with Kathy was... okay, it was ecstasy-fuelled. But it was totally real. She was in love with me but she knew that I was in love with a guy at that point in time. I was still saying I was bisexual. It was a relationship that was basically fucked up. She was fully aware of my sexuality and when the drugs run out and I had to work, well, then the relationship ran out with them. And she was the only female that I ever brought into my professional life. I put her in a video [l Want Your Sex]. But I was e-d off my tits half the time. Of course she looked like a beard. I thought she looked like that myself at the time! I don't even remember how I felt at that time. It was all such a mess, really. My own confusion and then on top of that what I was prepared to let the public think.
And then there were all the supermodels...
But that was just marketing, wasn't it? Because I didn't want to be in the videos anymore and it was a genius idea, you've gotta admit. It meant that video [Freedom 90] was on forever and I didn't have to be in it. They were the hottest thing at the time and at the end of the day, I love looking at women.
So when you burnt the 'Faith' jacket in that video, was it just as much about getting rid of that whole idea of being a packaged commodity as it was 'I don't wanna play this role anymore, this big straight heart-throb'?
Oh, absolutely. By the end of the Faith tour I was so miserable because I absolutely knew that I was gay. I was so attracted to this one guy. So then I had to start deconstructing it. I didn't suddenly want to come out. I wanted to do it with some kind of dignity. So I thought 'okay, you have to start deconstructing this whole image.' And that's when I disappeared for a bit of time and waited a few years and really got my life together. And sure enough, in that time I met somebody and started my first proper relationship. That was the point where I realised I was totally playing a role. And I thought there has to be some way of backing out of this slowly. And I knew there were all kinds of things that were wrong with my life that were stopping me from having a relationship and definitely one of them was that I wasn't openly gay. It's incredibly difficult to talk about that period of my life because I've spent six years now being completely out and it's really hard to remember how I felt. It's hard to remember not being certain, because I feel so certain about everything now.
Are you jealous of someone like Will Young who can come out at the very beginning of his career and be accepted by the public as gay?
No, I actually think that 12 or 13 year old girls would always accept Will Young or me if it was presented right. And mums and grandmas would always accept it — I mean, they love a nice fairy, don't they? But it's the late-teen girls that would have more of a problem with it. I actually believe that if your music touches people’s hearts, especially as so few musicians are aiming for people's hearts, that people will take it where they can get it these days. That was a pretty song that he had out just before Christmas. His intent is good and he's trying to make good music. Though actually I should apologise to him. I said something about his lisp on Radio 2 and I don't know why it came out. It just did! And I'm never nasty about people like that. But no, it's not hurting him at all. Things have changed. Absolutely. For young pop stars it makes sense that it'll be alright. It's perfect for young girls because they don't have to think about any comeback. You know? The man might as well not have a knob. At a certain age that's what girls want. God knows I tried hard enough to look like I didn't have one for a couple of years. [laughing] You can't get much worse than wearing a couple of curtain rings in your ears with Lady Di hair!
Even songs in the early '90s like 'Cowboys and Angels' were codedly gay...
The funny thing about 'Cowboys and Angels' is one verse is addressed towards a man and one verse is addressed to a woman. It's that triangle I was telling you about. She was in love with me because she couldn't get me, and I was in love with him because I couldn't get him. I mean, who the fuck was going to know that? It's a very personal lyric, but it's about the ridiculousness of wanting what you can't have.
Read all five parts of George Michael's May 2004 cover interview here. Images by James Dimmock