As the world honours the late, great George Michael on what would've been his 54th birthday, 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.
This interview first appeared in Attitude issue 212, May 2004.
Words by Adam Mattera
A lot of your lyrics now make more sense in retrospect, particularly the Older album. And of course you dedicated it to Anselmo.
Exactly. I don't understand this idea that my sexuality was shrouded in any sort of mystery. I mean, there were three page articles about Anselmo in the papers! There was one by Tony Parsons, who I thought was a good friend. If Tony Parsons writes an article that I had taken part in about my dead was a mess, And I'm lover, where is the mystery? He outed me. Basically, I told him all this stuff as a mate, because my life had changed so much and I wanted to tell him what I'd gone through. And he put it all into print. But I didn't deny it, so all those statements stood. So where the fuck was I not out? Until you sit down in front of the press and say 'l am gay' you're not considered to be out. And I wasn't going to do that. And I absolutely believe that in some ways I went through all of that nightmare in LA rather than sit down with a hack and go, 'Yes. I am gay'. That's the problem with having too much pride. You can really fuck yourself over.
Did your relationship with the press reach a nadir there?
I was really angry with the press. Anselmo wouldn't accept medical help in LA. He always wanted to go back to Brazil, and I really think one of the reasons he insisted on that was that he was afraid for himself and his catholic family if, being my boyfriend, the press got hold of the fact he was HIV+. And I think it killed him. He went to Brazil and wasn't getting the best treatment that he could have. He died the year before combination therapy really kicked in, and with the right help I think he could have stayed alive. And so I was not a big fan of the press at that point in time. I hated them. I felt that to some degree they had been responsible for his death. And when I look back I think that's why I found it unbearable to even be civil or expose anything about myself. It makes more sense to me now, but all these things didn't necessarily occur to me at the time. Looking back it's clearer.
Why do you think that the public stuck with you through all this?
I do genuinely think that people have an affection for me in this country. Even though the press have always been baying for my blood, I have consistently given people pop music for 22 years. A lot of people may not be big fans, but they've got one or two moments that are part of their memories and they have affection for my career. It was also a moment for people to say 1) if you're honest, we like it and 2) we're much easier with the whole idea of gay people than we used to be. It was almost like the public chooses the way it responds to certain things to say something collectively. It was a way of them saying 'we don't give fairies a hard time in this country anymore'.
Of course America's very different.
Oh my God, yes. I mean all Bush had to do to distract people away from the fact no weapons of mass destruction are going to be found and that a major weapons inspector had resigned saying 'there's nothing there' is to pull gay marriage out of the hat because he knows it's such a hot potato. If he says 'I'm gonna change the constitution not to allow same-sex marriage' he knows it's a three week story and, sure enough, it's all anyone's talking about.
Did you see the letter Bette Midler sent him?
It's good. It's not a ranting one, it's smart. And Bette, what a perfect spokesperson. Other than getting Judy Garland back from the dead there's no one better.
Where do you stand on gay marriage?
I think it's pretty obvious where I stand. I do think it's a shame that so much time can be wasted over the word. We should absolutely have the same legal protections as straight people but I absolutely believe that the nature of marriage is designed for children and that it doesn't appeal to me. If I were to have a ceremony with Kenny I wouldn't want it to look anything like straight peoples'. I don't see the point. I think people should have the exact same right to make their vows under God, but why can't we have all those legal protections and call what we do something different? Why do we need their words to feel that we're equal? We need the same rights, absolutely. It doesn't seem as strong to me because my family would never presume to be more important than Kenny in the event of my death, but under law I should be able to get it sorted.
You've been harsh in your criticism of Tony Blair, but what about Labour's record on gay rights? Immigration, adoption, repealing clause 28 — he's done a lot.
Let's be honest, though, they've reneged on a lot of the promises they made the gay community too. My point is that, like most Labour supporters, I don’t think they've gone far enough in the promises that they made. I do think they've done a lot of things that they're not getting credit for, absolutely true, but unfortunately I think the urgency of getting Tony Blair off the world stage and therefore changing Britain's position in all this mess is so much greater than our own domestic issues.
You're right, though. I never give him credit for those things, but I have said I wish that Labour understood that they are in a position to go on, with or without him. There have been achievements. I have a charitable trust for disabled people and I know that they've made lots of moves in those areas, too. But unfortunately we're on the cusp of something so long lasting and damaging that the people at the centre of it need to be got rid of. The people that think it's too late to do anything else but pretend that we can beat terrorism. And I'm just one voice, but the more that no one says anything the more I'll keep saying it.
If you were saying what you were saying 20 years ago, in that golden age of pop and politics, no one would have noticed.
I remember when Kylie and the whole PWL thing first arrived. It drove me mad that everything they said was so perfect, so designed not to upset anyone or say anything. And that was the beginning of that new family entertainment thing that we're now swamped by, that's lost the industry all its money. All I know is there used to be a lot of people with opinions and integrity in this business, and now I look like somebody who's been let out of an asylum! It's true. Everyone around me thinks I'm my own worst enemy.
Do you think 'so what if they don't play my records anymore?'
Absolutely. I'm not attached to my celebrity anymore. I'm really not. You've got to be in a position like me where you're not worried about your future or your bank balance to be able to do it. Or maybe everyone's too fucking cowardly.
Can we talk about cruising?
Why do it?
When I was being furtive and was worried about being found out... God! It was such a turn-on. I can never be that turned-on again. Guilt is a massive turn-on.
You're very honest.
I think it's important that I can be out there and say that I'm a big tart and still have a big smash album. When I was tempted to give up in the middle of making this album, one of the things that made that difficult for me is that I would have felt I'd have let down a whole generation of young gay kids. That they'd think 'he's massive, then he comes out and then he's gone'. When I made the 'Outside' video I knew I was helping a whole generation of 15-year-olds who are cruising and dying of shame about it. I felt that lightening the stigma around cruising was the most immediately beneficial thing I could do. I know for a fact that when I was 16, 17, when I started cruising, that watching the 'Outside' video would have taken some of the weight off my shoulders.
Weren't you worried all the time about someone going 'oh my god, I've just picked up George Michael' and then hopping off to the papers and selling the story?
Well, that's the wonderful thing about cruising. The vast majority of men were either married or in the closet. So you have a mutual secret and that's pretty water tight. Especially if you're cruising outside London. If you're a suburban cruiser like my good self and you like guys that are really straight-acting, then most of the people you pick up, whether you take them home or do it there and then, are not going to tell your secret because they've got one themselves. I mean, fuck, it worked for years.
Was there a moment when people would double-take and realise it was you?
I think probably most of them did. Sometimes we'd talk about it afterwards and have a laugh. Actually only in later years. I was so ashamed but I was turned on by the fact that I was putting myself in such a stupid situation. Even with my therapist, who I'd started seeing when I found out Anselmo was positive in 1991 and I still see today, I talked about everything with him but I couldn't talk about the cruising because it was so stupid, He's an amazing man and he's helped to change my life, But one of the best things about LA happening is that I talked to him about that and it stopped it being so covert and compulsive. And fun, if I'm being honest. The compulsion to do something stupid was what kept me doing it. I would tend to do it when I was feeling bad about something. I would tend to do it as a form of self-punishment. I don't do that anymore. I wish to God I could get that excited about it! [laughing] Don't knock a bit of quilt. Catholics have the best sex on earth, I'm told.
Was cruising your secret place?
One of the things about cruising and having a secret sex life for so long is that I think it helped me keep my feet on the ground. Because I was constantly in contact with people that I had a shared secret with, well, that was totally levelling. And it meant that I was constantly meeting ordinary people. How else would I have done that, in a weird way? And be on their level? Because at the end of the day you both want the same thing out of it. Sex is very levelling. And I still believe that with the people I meet for sex. It's nowhere near as regular as it was but I constantly meet new people via people that I know are cool and I can trust. When you meet somebody, see them a few times, and basically say, 'who do you know that's cool and tasty with a big knob?' [laughing] and I meet people all the time that way. They're not in the industry, and if they are impressed, well, no-one looks like a superstar in bed. I could put that a lot more crudely but [laughs]. Now that it's not furtive, I've met some really cool people that way. Much cooler than the people that I'm going to meet at some fucking celebrity party.
When was the last time you went to a gay club?
In America I said to Kenny, 'oh come on, we've got to go to some fucking gay clubs. I'm sick of hanging out with all our straight friends all the time and only having a sexual gay life and never a social gay life'. And I tried it a couple of times, and my god! I don't even fucking sell records in America, but we were in Houston and for ages no-one said a thing because they didn't think it was me, they couldn't fathom that it was me. Then when I asked for a glass of wine they realised that it was me, because in America nobody fucking drinks wine in a bar! I swear to god, the number of people that grabbed my arse or did something as they walked past, or just stopped and stared. And the entire place got my autograph because I'm too polite to tell them to fuck off and it was just impossible.
You never get to talk about this stuff properly in interviews.
I've never talked to a gay magazine before, and Attitude's so much more intelligent than the others. Plus, I've never been in position to talk about this stuff and that's the reason I genuinely wanted to. I don't think I've gotten enough of it out the way for this stuff not to be problematic yet but I don't care, really. I feel like the best defence I have at the moment is just to be completely honest, because if I'm honest I make a headline every five fucking paragraphs or whatever, and they've got to get bored with me eventually [laughs].
Read all five parts of George Michael's May 2004 cover interview here. Images by James Dimmock