A key moment in Netflix’s new Wham! documentary takes place during George Michael and his Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley’s trip to Ibiza to shoot 1982’s “Club Tropicana” music video, when the still-closeted Michael reveals to Ridgeley and background singer Shirlie Holliman that he is gay. As that film shows, Michael did not to come out publicly at that time, mainly to avoid the wrath of his conservative Greek father. But tragically, his decision to stay in the closet had multiple long-term consequences, personally as well as professionally.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker for an upcoming George Michael-themed episode of the Totally ‘80s podcast, Simon Napier-Bell — the director of another must-see documentary, The Real George Michael: Portrait of an Artist — reflects on whether Wham! would have become such massive pop stars if Michael had been out-and-proud from the beginning. And sadly, his answer is probably not, due to the increasing homophobia, especially in the U.S., surrounding the 1980s’ AIDS crisis.
“That’s a very complex question,” muses Napier-Bell, a legendary music manager who took on Wham! as a client after witnessing their “sensational,” historic debut performance on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1982. “In America… record companies would’ve thought it would [hurt Wham!’s image], and therefore they would withdraw the support and Wham! wouldn’t have got promoted. So, that’s simple: In America, it would have killed their career.
“In the U.K., probably not, in the terms of acceptance of being gay, but you have to remember: Just at that time and towards the end of the ‘80s, there was AIDS,” Napier-Bell continues. “And AIDS was being billed as a disease which killed you and if you were gay, you would get it. Not ‘maybe’ you would get it; you would die. And if you went near somebody who had AIDS, [people thought] you might catch it. And you know, the whole promotion of music is if you are a fan, you want to see that person, you want to get near them, you want to touch them, pull their hair, touch their jacket. And here’s the media telling you if you do that and they’re gay, you might die. This is not a very tempting thing; you’re going to tempt somebody out on the closet with that going on.”
Napier-Bell, who is openly gay himself, says he and Michael “never talked about [sexuality] directly,” although he believes that “obviously one of the reasons he wanted me as his manager is because he thought he’d be comfortable with somebody who’s gay. But if he didn’t want to discuss it, it’s his business. … He and I did occasionally have sort of oblique conversations and I’d say things like, ‘You know, George, if one day you or maybe Andrew decided perhaps maybe you were gay or weren’t quite sure, you know you’d get all my support. If you wanted to come out, you shouldn’t worry about it. You can talk to me about it and it’d be fine.’ I just let him know it was there to be talked about. But he’d obviously made his mind up, so I didn’t discuss it with him.”
However, Napier-Bell does remember a heartbreaking exchange that he and Michael had when they were traveling to America for Wham!’s first U.S. concert tour. “I was reading in the L.A. Times, 9 o’clock in the morning flight, and there was a feature on the front page about AIDS,” he says grimly. “And it said, ‘Scientists have pretty much decided 100% that any gay person who’s had promiscuous sex and that’s not with a partner, and has had sex in the last year, will get AIDS and die.’ That’s what it said. That’s the gay entire gay population of America. It was very pessimistic. I almost fainted. I remember dropping the paper and sitting back with my eyes shut. George said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘Read this.’
“Now remember, we never talked about being gay; it was always in an oblique way. But he knew I knew. So, I handed him the paper, and he went white and didn’t speak for three days,” Napier-Bell continues. “Nobody knew why. The crew said to me, ‘What’s wrong with George? He hasn’t spoken since we got to San Francisco!’ So, it was very much in his mind, like it was for everybody. I think every gay person worried: ‘My God, when did I last have sex? Have I got it? Am I going to get it?’ But he was there thinking about his whole life, his whole career that he was planning out — and this was this going to interrupt his plans. So, it was devastating for him to read that.”
Michael was still in the closet an entire decade after that fateful Ibiza trip, when he delivered what Napier-Bell calls “one of the best performances of anything I’ve ever seen,” belting “Somebody to Love” at Wembley Stadium — the same venue where Wham! had staged their big farewell show in ‘86 — for 1992’s historic Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Queen frontman Mercury had died of AIDS five months earlier, and very few attendees of that all-star event knew that Michael was terrified that he was about to lose his first serious boyfriend, Brazilian dress designer Anselmo Feleppa, to the disease. Feleppa had learned he was HIV-positive in 1991, six months into his relationship with Michael, and he succumbed to an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in March 1993, just 11 months after the Mercury tribute. Feleppa’s tragic death later inspired Michael’s ballad “Jesus to a Child.”
“He had heard that Anselmo, his first real love, his absolute passion, the first time he could say ‘I’m in love’… he just heard that Anselmo had HIV and actually had AIDS. And there was no cure, and that meant Anselmo was going to die. And [Feleppa] was in the [Wembley] audience that day,” reveals Napier-Bell. “So, George was singing that song to Anselmo, in the audience. It was not easy.”
Going back to the ‘80s, the still-closeted Michael became a global superstar with the release Wham!’s 10-million-selling sophomore album, Make It Big, and Napier-Bell recalls that “he did begin to hate fame — George seemed to dislike it more than most other people. … But that was very much linked to knowing he was gay and not knowing when he should come out or how to come out, and being afraid of the press, as much as he disliked them. I mean, he was cheating them, and he knew that. He didn’t like that. He loved to be honest and frank and forthright; whenever he spoke to the press, he always made a point of saying how blunt and forthright he was and how he didn’t cover things up. And he knew he was covering something up. So, he was sort of complicit in his own problems with [the media], and he was aware of that.”
Napier-Bell recalls that Michael had planned to come out after he disbanded Wham! in 1986 and released his debut solo album, Faith, a year later, but he “lost his nerve. The idea of going solo was: ‘I don’t have the pressure anymore of having to pretend!’ But of course, the temptation of fame and Faith, both those temptations, kept him in the closet for another [decade].” Napier-Bell didn’t manage Michael once the singer went solo, but they stayed in touch, and he reveals that if he’d still been managing Michael in the late ‘80s, he “wouldn’t have let him do Faith” — despite that record’s blockbuster success, which included 25 million in worldwide sales and a Grammy for Album of the Year.
“I wouldn’t have been the right manager for [the Faith era], because I would’ve continually said to him, ‘You’re miserable! This is stupid!’ … I mean, I knew that he was gay and he was having a problem with it, and whole point of breaking up Wham! was to say, ‘Right — now I gotta be myself.’ And instead, he got sidetracked. He was tempted by fame. He wanted to be as big as Madonna and Michael Jackson. And so the Faith image was even more heterosexual than the Wham! image,” says Napier-Bell — referring to Michael’s grizzled persona in the Taxi Driver-inspired “Father Figure” music video, or the casting of Michael’s “beard,” then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung, in the “explore monogamy”-sloganeering video for “I Want Your Sex.”
“He put himself in this terrible predicament of leaving Wham! so he could be himself, and then making himself even more false. And he realized it. He knew that he’d done something wrong in personal terms, and he wasn’t enjoying it,” Napier-Bell explains. “At the same time, at the end of two years of Faith, he’d had five No. 1’s. He’d made himself $50 million. He wouldn’t have to work again. He could now do what he wanted for the rest of his life. So, he had achieved what he meant to achieve — and [Faith] did sell more than Madonna that year; it was the biggest-selling album — but now he wanted to try to get himself back and rescue himself from the music industry. That was very difficult. And he never really managed it, either. … By the end of it, he was pretty unhappy, which I knew he would be.”
While Michael’s close friends, touring entourage, and eventually even his parents knew about his sexuality, Michael wasn’t officially out to the media and his fans until 1998, when he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in Beverly Hills park restroom. Michael owned that incident with seemingly good humor and became very open about his sexuality after that, but the reluctant pop idol, who had spent much of the ‘90s refusing to do typical record promotion and famously suing Sony to get out of his record contract, still had a “chip on his shoulder.” As Napier-Bell’s documentary sadly shows, in the final years of Michael’s life, before his death at age 53 from heart and liver disease on Christmas Day 2016, the singer was on a downward spiral — struggling with health issues and substance abuse, getting arrested for multiple drug-related offenses, and checking into rehab in 2015.
“Nearly all the people working with who had worked with him could all see it happening, but George was a very stubborn person. People tried to help him — Elton [John], Geri Halliwell,” says Napier-Bell. “But one journalist George opened up to, [he said], ‘I don’t care. I know what I’m doing. I’m happy taking too many drugs and wrecking myself. That’s what I like doing.’ He got annoyed with the people who tried to help him.”
Napier-Bell — who likens Michael’s lonely post-Wham! existence, as a constantly paparazzi-stalked and bodyguarded solo superstar with “no Andrew to tell jokes and have fun with,” to being in “solitary confinement” — says he tried to warn Michael about the downside of fame. “Right at the beginning when you manage an artist, you explain where they’re going. And they’re not going somewhere nice,” the music industry veteran, who’d previously managed Jimmy Page and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, explains matter-of-factly. “Andrew understood that, which is why he was quite happy to withdraw; he’d had his fun, and he left before he suffered any of that. George couldn’t leave. It was in his soul, in his being. He had to go on being [a musician].”
However, with the release of the two above-mentioned documentaries and Michael’s upcoming long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Michael’s artistry is finally being celebrated again — even if he paid an extremely steep price to pursue it. “He was a brilliant songwriter. He had a magical voice. … He was a real artist, a real creator,” raves Napier-Bell (who hopes that Elton John will be the one to induct Michael at November’s Class of 2023 Rock Hall ceremony) as he fondly recalls Michael’s “blossoming” in those early, iconic Wham! years. “It was inevitable that he was going to be star.”
Simon Napier-Bell’s Totally ’80s interview — in which he also discusses brokering a deal to have Wham! be the first Western pop act to play China, how George Michael modeled himself after Andrew Ridgeley, and his The Real George Michael film — will run in full on Aug. 17.
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