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6 March 2023

How the tabloids outed George Michael

A new Channel 4 doc explores the media’s glee at the singer’s arrest for “lewd acts” in 1998. But in the war against the papers, victory was his.

By Rachel Cooke

When Wham! became famous in 1982 – following a last-minute performance of “Young Guns (Go for It)” on Top of the Pops, this happened more or less overnight – yours truly was unimpressed, and remained so for some time. I didn’t like the pastel sweaters and the tight white shorts; the words “Club Tropicana” made me think not of a cut-price Balearic island, but of a certain Sheffield nightclub: its plastic palms, its dance floor sticky with Martini Bianco.

But in the case of the band’s late singer, George Michael, I have, as they say, been on a journey. How brave it was of him to sing “Somebody to Love” at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 even as his partner, Anselmo Feleppa, lay dying of Aids, and how cool it was of him, six years later, simply to go out to dinner after his arrest for a “lewd act” in a Beverly Hills public loo, as if nothing had happened.

I think of him now with admiration, which may be why I so enjoyed Channel 4’s series about his outing. If these films are full of awful people, he isn’t one of them. In the war against the tabloids, victory was his. Neil Wallis (a former deputy editor of News of the World) can say what he likes. We remember. It was a rout.

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Until 1998 Michael had kept his sexuality private. His friends and family knew he was gay, but early on a decision had been made to keep this from his fans, and he’d stuck with it, believing it to be no one’s business but his own. But then he was arrested – according to his then partner, the art dealer Kenny Goss, drinks at lunch had left him feeling horny – and all hell broke loose. For most of us, of course, this was bizarre.

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As DJ Fat Tony said of the first time he clapped eyes on George: “He was wearing espadrilles and three-quarter-length jeans – all the signs were there!” We knew, even if we’d never been told. For the tabloids, however, it was all systems go. Two words they loved to put together: star and shame.

So many talking heads. On one side, Goss, and George’s cousin Andros Georgiou, both adorable. Kenny, in particular, seems incredibly sweet, even if he does display his Jeff Koons-style balloon dog alongside a matching butt plug (to surprise and mystify guests). They talk lovingly of Michael, and openly about all that happened.

On the other side, the ageing hacks. I can never decide which breed I dislike most: those, like David Yelland, ex-editor of the Sun, who renounce their former careers with the zeal of the convert (why did you do it, then? I always want to shout), or those who still take some weird pride in it – the incontinent Wallis; Bill Coles, a roaring Sloane who used to be the Sun’s New York correspondent; Stuart White, former US editor of the News of the World. Coles spoke of the story’s many “angles” as if he was talking about peace in Bosnia, or a particularly complex Budget.

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But there was only ever one angle: George’s mortification. Only Michael wouldn’t play ball! First, he went out to dinner with Kenny. Then he did an interview with CNN in which he explained he felt no shame (“and nor should I”). Jim Moret, a former CNN anchor, was amazed when he turned up alone, without even so much as a publicist. And this was only the beginning. Next, a turn on Letterman, masturbation gags included, and some light smut with Parky. The tabloids were snookered, something that only makes Yelland’s insistence they were edited by “a good chunk of the cleverest people in the country” sound the more stupid. Really, David? Are you sure?

Michael’s bravura performance ensured that those who came later didn’t have to suffer as others once had: men like Andrew Hartle, a former RAF medical officer, Terry Dunning, a retired social worker, and Harvey Proctor, the former Tory MP, all of whom talked of being outed by the tabloids during the Aids crisis. Dunning wept, and it was heartbreaking. But then I pictured George, up in the clouds with a cocktail in one hand and something else (no, I was thinking of a doobie – not that!) in the other, and I couldn’t help but feel happy. What a hero. Maybe I will put “Club Tropicana” on my playlist after all.

George Michael: Outed
Channel 4, Monday 6 March, 9pm

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid