By: Joseph R. Castel
Photos: Gettyimages – Shutterstock

George Michael has been gone since 2016, but there’s been a recent resurgence of his life’s story on several streaming channels. Netflix just added Wham to their library, and Amazon Prime has several docs in their repertoire, including George Michael: Freedom Uncut; Fame Kills George Michael, and George Michael: Easy to Pretend. They all deal with the legendary icon’s humble beginnings and illustrious career, but if you’re looking for a documentary that covers the singer’s life with provocative insight, then you may want to check out The Real George Michael: Portrait of Artist, on Amazon Prime, directed by his former manager Simon Napier-Bell.

Simon opens and closes the documentary with a very candid interview of the singer reading a letter he wrote to himself when he was a younger man. It’s a sincere goodbye letter from Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (his birthname) to his stage persona, George Michael. It’s a profoundly prophetic letter about a geeky, awkward, Greek boy who creates a alter-ego in order to become a super star.

Adelante conducted an in-depth interview with Simon who strategized with Michael in making the singer one of the biggest pop icons ever, only for the performer to later unravel that heterosexual heartthrob image he had created, so he could live his life as an openly gay man.

Adelante: Tell me about the 1985 concert in China. That was quite an accomplishment for any Western band to achieve and Wham was the first. How did you convince China to do it?
Simon: At the very first meeting with George, he wanted Wham to be the biggest pop group in the world. Well, the biggest group has to be the greatest in America first. It’s about 60% of the world market. And no pop group has ever made it in three or four years. Even the Beatles took four years. I explained that it wouldn’t happen in a year.

And then my partner, Jazz Summer, said, ‘You know what? If we could make Wham the first Western pop group ever to play China . . .’ and George looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I like that idea. You do it.’

Two weeks later I found myself in China, which is not even legal cause you couldn’t get a visa for China in those days except by invitation from the government. I found someone who got me in illegally, paying a few hundred dollars, and smuggling me across the border. So, I’m sitting in this tacky hotel in China, not even going up the street, for fear I could get arrested.
I started making contacts with politicians. I bought them dinners and lunches. My book, I’m Coming to Take You to Lunch, is exactly what I did to get meetings with the politicians.

Bit by bit, I worked up from local politicians to senior cabinet ministers. After 18 months, I managed to get a message sent up to a high-ranking official who was persuaded by the Minister of Culture that this would be a good idea. My argument with the Chinese government was that everyone in the West knows that the most subversive thing in any society is youth culture, even in western democratic society. You know, when students protest.

If Communist China invites a western pop group to come and play, it tells the rest of the world they’re loosening up. They’ve stopped this strict Communist thing. They want to be part of the world again. And you’ll get huge foreign investments pouring in. That was my argument. And they thought about it and decided I was right. We played in China in April of 1985, and as a result of that, we were on ABC, NBC, and CBS News, 24/7, seven days in a row. We became the biggest group in the world that year, which is what George had asked for. Modern China was really built on that investment they got between 1985 and 1995. That didn’t all come because of Wham but that was a very substantial part of persuading the world that China would be a good place to invest.

Adelante: Interesting. So, Wham put a crack in the Communist dyke. Did you know he was gay?
Simon: I knew, but we never talked about it. He didn’t tell me he was gay. But he must have known I knew, because he’s out and about in the London gay scene. I mean, he must have known that everyone would be telling me. He chose not to talk about it, that’s his privilege.

Adelante: One of the interviewees suggested that George Michael bore a heavy heart from not coming out sooner. There was almost like this guilt. Do you think that was true?
Simon: Yeah, I mean, George was somebody who really liked to talk bluntly and directly and being forthright was part of his character, and so when he did come out, he was incredibly aware of the 20 years he hadn’t.

There’s an interview early on in the documentary with an Australian journalist who was a pretty unpleasant man. It was during the Faith tour, in 87 or 88, and the first question he asks George is, ‘Are you gay?’ And George says, ‘No.’ And even as he says it, you can see in his eyes that he knows he made a mistake. He should have just said yes. At that moment, you could almost see him kicking himself that he’d said no. And then he had to go back on it and say none of your business and all those things. He did feel some guilt about lying because all around him were gay friends who didn’t lie. When he did come out, he thought, well, let’s go for broke. Let’s really help and talk about it and try to normalize it in other people’s lives.

Adelante: That’s when he started giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Project Angel Food in Los Angeles and other LGBTQ charities.
Simon: It would’ve made him really happy to have said yes at that moment. And his life would’ve changed, and he probably would’ve gone on being just as big a star. Cause at that moment, he was already a huge star. It’s very difficult to stop. It would’ve been a wonderful thing to say to that journalist. ‘Yep. I am.’

In America, he had five number ones, but he wasn’t very big in England. UK people are much more able to spot something being false. I think most people in the UK sort of knew that whole image he had for the girls was not true. And even when the Faith tour came to UK, it didn’t sell out. But later, once he’d been caught in the park toilet in Beverly Hills, he became the biggest artist in the UK and in Europe. That killed his American career very much, but it boosted it everywhere else.

Adelante: The 1998 arrest particularly caught my attention because I used to drive past that public park restroom every day on my way to work up Benedict Canyon past the Beverly Hills Hotel. I said, damn, I didn’t know that place was cruisy. I thought he’s really self-sabotaging his secrecy of being gay.
Simon: I wouldn’t be surprised if he planned that before he got caught. I bet you he thought many times, if one day I get outed, I’m gonna do these things and talk about it. He was a great planner and plotter. He must have gone there knowing that he was risking that and perhaps wanting it to happen, because he didn’t know any other way of telling people.

Adelante: Exactly. He took a page out of John Rechy’s classic novel, Sexual Outlaw, in which cruising is an act of defiance for gay men. The very act of two men being together is immoral, and used to be illegal even in private, so Rechy was like, take it to the streets, to the parks, to the toilets. And that’s what Michael’s did.
Simon: Damn it. You’re the first person who’s ever said that about John Rechy. He’s my favorite author.

Adelante: Mine too. When I moved to LA, I read Sexual Outlaw and I made a beeline to Griffith Park.
Simon: When I was 18, I went to America. I was a musician. I was gonna become a famous jazz musician. I discovered Rechy’s novel City of Night, which wasn’t published yet, it was printed chapter by chapter in a literary magazine called Big Table.

George said that he thinks his arrest was probably a subconscious decision. He liked taking risks and then resolving those problems afterwards. He once said to me, ‘I’ve never done anything I could regret later’. I thought that what he meant was that he’s very careful of never doing anything he could later regret. But then I realized what he meant was that anything he did which caused a problem, he would find a way of turning that problem to his advantage so he wouldn’t regret it. And that’s what he kind of did with the toilet music video, after his arrest. It was absolutely stunningly brilliant.

Adelante: He definitely flipped the script on his arrest in that 1998 “Outside” music video where men are having sex in the restrooms, and the arresting police officers end up making out with each other. I really didn’t expect to see metallic urinals spinning on the walls of the video’s discotheque. So, over-the-top psycho drama.
Simon: Everyone in the UK looked at him and said, ‘Well, we always knew, fine. We forgive you for hiding it from us. Now come and be our big star. But it killed his career in the States.

Adelante: Yeah. America is such a big hypocrite. The documentary suggested that Michael’s drug usage was the result of several deaths that impacted him, including his mother’s and the therapist. Do you think that was true?
Simon: He didn’t realize how much he needed his therapist. When you’ve had a therapist for a long time, you trust him and then when you suddenly don’t have him, you’re likely to go to pieces. You find another therapist quickly or you’re going to run out of your legal drugs and then you’ll have to start looking for the ones you did before. George was an incredibly sensible person and he knew himself well, but he did allow himself to get more and more wound up and taking more and more drugs after his therapist died.

Adelante: So, his drug usage had nothing to do with being gay and disappointing his family?
Simon: No, not really. After his boyfriend, Anselmo Feleppa (Brazilian dress designer he met in Rio, 1991) died of AIDS in 1992, George wrote a letter to his parents coming out. And of course, his mother didn’t mind the slightest about him being gay, and she had probably always known. And he thought his dad would go mad, but his dad didn’t mind either. Of course, his dad didn’t want George to be gay. He wanted his son to be a typical Greek father. He wanted his son to be a strong, strapping lad and have 10 children. I don’t suppose his dad really was anti-gay at all. It was just something in George’s mind.

You can watch The Real George Michael: Portrait of an Artist” streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Peacock (with ads), the Roku Channel, and Tubi TV.