The many faces of George Michael

Seen here in a 2006 photograph, singer George Michael had been making donations anonymously. Tributes outside the house of singer George Michael in Goring-on- Thames on Monday.
Seen here in a 2006 photograph, singer George Michael had been making donations anonymously.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Seen here in a 2006 photograph, singer George Michael had been making donations anonymously. Tributes outside the house of singer George Michael in Goring-on- Thames on Monday.
Tributes outside the house of singer George Michael in Goring-on- Thames on Monday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Late singer George Michael had a long history of hard living, but was also given to spontaneous acts of generosity

LONDON • As heartbroken friends and fans mourned George Michael online and at his homes in Britain on Monday, questions swirled about the health and final weeks of the electrifying pop singer before his death on Christmas Day at the age of 53.

Once an indisputable sex symbol of the peak-MTV era, Michael appeared overweight and nearly unrecognisable in photographs, reportedly from September, that the website TMZ published on Monday.

News media attention also fell on a tabloid interview last year with a relative claiming Michael was abusing drugs and putting his life at risk. And after years of arrests related to drug use, as well as confessional interviews and health scares, the singer had largely retreated from the public eye, while his creative output had all but ceased.

Paul Gambaccini, a radio and television presenter who had known Michael since youth and represented him during a 2011 tour, said in an interview he was not surprised by the singer's death because Michael was "not completely well" and had a "close brush with death" five years ago when he nearly succumbed to a bout of pneumonia. Doctors had to perform a tracheotomy.

Police officials, who had announced Michael died in "unexplained but not suspicious" circumstances at his home in Goring- on-Thames, England, could not be reached for further details on Monday because of Boxing Day.

The singer's manager, Mr Michael Lippman, on Monday declined to elaborate on his statement that Michael had died of heart failure, "in bed, lying peacefully".

 
 
 

The singer's partner, celebrity hairstylist Fadi Fawaz, told the Daily Telegraph Michael had died alone. He said: "We were supposed to be going for Christmas lunch. I went round there to wake him up and he was just gone, lying peacefully in bed."

Fawaz, who had been in a relationship with Michael since 2011, said: "Everything had been very complicated recently, but George was looking forward to Christmas and so was I. Now everything is ruined. I want people to remember him the way he was - he was a beautiful person."

Forensic experts said an autopsy report could be ready in a couple of days.

While admirers sought to focus on Michael's previously unreported philanthropy and neighbours remembered his charm as a low-key celebrity in their midst, a more complicated image of his life in recent years loomed as well.

Several friends and associates noted that he had a long history of hard living.

In 2007, he was sentenced to community service and barred from driving for two years after he had been found asleep at the wheel and under the influence of drugs. The next year, he was arrested in London on suspicion of possessing crack cocaine.

"I've done different things at different times that I shouldn't have done, once or twice, you know," Michael said in a 2009 interview with The Guardian, in which he discussed his ups and downs with sex, sleeping pills, marijuana and crack.

"People want to see me as tragic. I don't even see them as weaknesses anymore. It's just who I am."

In summer last year, Michael and his publicists denied that he was facing serious drug addiction after a report published in a British tabloid, The Sun, quoted the wife of a relative saying: "I'm petrified he will die."

Michael responded on Twitter: "To my lovelies, do not believe this rubbish in the papers today by someone I don't know anymore and haven't seen for nearly 18 years."

He added: "I am perfectly fine."

Rather than dwell on Michael's difficulties, some close friends highlighted another dimension of the man they knew, describing him as a generous benefactor given to quiet and spontaneous acts of kindness.

Gambaccini recalled how in 1994, the British government cut aid to the Terrence Higgins Trust, an Aids charity. To make up for the shortfall, Gambaccini, a patron of the trust, said he had sought to raise £300,000. But, in the end, Michael donated most of the money.

"He never wanted public recognition," Gambaccini said.

Television presenter Richard Osman wrote on Twitter on Monday that Michael had secretly contacted a woman who appeared on Deal Or No Deal, a British game show, to give her £15,000 needed for an in-vitro fertilisation treatment.

And Ms Emilyne Mondo, a volunteer at a shelter for homeless people, posted that Michael had worked there anonymously. "I've never told anyone," she said. "He asked we didn't. That's who he was."

Michael formed Wham! with a schoolmate, Andrew Ridgeley, and was famous by age 20.

"I'm not stupid enough to think that I can deal with another 10 or 15 years of major exposure," Michael told The Los Angeles Times in a 1990 interview. "I think that is the ultimate tragedy of fame. People who are simply out of control, who are lost. I've seen so many of them and I don't want to be another cliche."

The interview prompted a retort from Frank Sinatra, who wrote to him in an open letter: "Be grateful to carry the baggage we've all had to carry since those lean nights of sleeping on buses and helping the driver unload the instruments."

Michael - known for hits such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Faith and Careless Whisper - famously came out as gay in 1998, after the end of a protracted legal battle with Sony Music and shortly after he had been arrested on charges of lewd conduct in a men's room in Beverly Hills, California.

In a 2004 interview with the British edition of GQ, he spoke frankly about losing his partner Anselmo Feleppa, a Brazilian, to Aids in 1993. At the time of Mr Feleppa's death, Michael was still in the closet and the antiretroviral drugs that helped Aids become a manageable disease, and not necessarily a fatal one, had yet to become widely available.

"I'm still convinced that had he been in the US or London, he would have survived because just six months later, everyone was on combination therapy," Michael said in the interview. "I think he went to Brazil because he feared what my fame would do to him and his family if he got treatment elsewhere. I was devastated by that."

Michael's mother died a few years later, leading to depression, he said. "Losing your mother and your lover in the space of three years is a tough one."

His final tour, Symphonica, ended in the autumn of 2012 and a live album drawn from those performances, released in 2014, represented his most recent commercial output.

There was some potential movement in his career of late. This year, he received a bump in pop-culture relevance when the film Keanu, a comedy from Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, featured his music prominently in its plot.

"A golden opportunity dropped in our laps," Mr Lippman told Billboard, and then went on to tease the re-release of Michael's 1990 solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, which had been expected this year. "We were trying to find as much exposure as possible."

That re-issue was subsequently pushed back to March next year to coincide with a documentary, Freedom, about Michael's life.

Producer Naughty Boy, who has worked with singers Beyonce and Sam Smith, told the BBC this month new music from Michael was a possibility.

"He's got an album coming out next year and he's going to be doing something for my album as well," Naughty Boy said. "I don't know what to expect. And, to be honest, he's more mysterious than anyone else, so I'm actually excited."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2016, with the headline 'The many faces of George Michael'. Print Edition | Subscribe