John Norris Shares Memories of George Michael, From Candid Interview on 1998 Arrest to What He Was Like Off Camera

On Christmas Day, the world learned that George Michael unexpectedly died at the age of 53 of heart failure. On Dec. 26, John Norris got on the phone with Billboard to share his memories of interviewing Michael numerous times over the years, conversations (which George Michael himself fondly tweeted about in 2012) that covered everything from his transition from Wham! to solo stardom to Michael's 1998 arrest for engaging in a so-called "lewd act" in a Beverly Hills bathroom.

Interviewing George Michael, From Faith (1987) to Patience (2004)

I interviewed him around the time of Faith, that interview happened as an assignment because at the time Kurt Loder wasn’t particularly interested in pop artists like that, so it fell on me. There were only a few of us at MTV News at the time, and I was just a writer who had never been on camera at that point, so it was a given I would do that one off camera.

The next time was for a TV special marking MTV's 10th anniversary in 1991. I was super stoked, his people requested me, I have a photo of it somewhere. I had been a Wham! fan, too. They were what they were: A fun pop band. As with George as solo artist, Wham! were discovered late by America. It wasn’t until their second album Make It Big that the states discovered them. "Careless Whisper" is without qualification one of the great pop songs of the last 50 years. It's so incredibly crafted I can't even believe it. When he created that sax line, he told me he remembered the exact time and place that came to him -- on a bus at age 16, when he was on the way to some job. As time went on, George famously blew up his [Wham!] career. Who else have we seen do that? Miley, maybe, blew up her former self and never looked back. But [Wham!'s] "Everything She Wants" he always included in his solo live show. I seem to recall him telling me once, saying it was the essential transitional song from Wham! to who he wanted to be -- a solo pop-soul artist.

Then there was a long gap. The next interview I did with him was after the bathroom bust, then we did a whole interview. It was called George Michael TV, we did a TRL-style studio audience, and that was the first time he had spoken on camera about the whole thing. It was disarming and refreshing to see him be upfront and honest about it. It was one of those things, just… you're doing what you’re doing, and more people do it than want to admit it. My only takeaway from that [bust] is, "Wow, there must not be much crime in Beverly Hills."

They told us before that he didn’t want to do 20 interviews about it. As with any artist, they like to be able to control message and the way the message is delivered. And it was pretty extensive, he told the whole story. He said, "Yes, it's embarrassing, but hey, it happened." In some people's view he was "outed" at that moment I don’t think that’s fair because he was always a private person. Were there times in the Wham! days and "I Want Your Sex" where he was presenting as straight? Or at least, presenting as someone with heterosexual desire? Yes. But we don’t need to go back in history to everyone who was closeted or semi-closeted.

George Michael's Sexuality

An important point people need to remember about George is that he was very much a product of his background. He wanted to be a good Greek Cypriot son and didn’t want to disappoint his mom by being gay. And any of us who have lived a version of that story -- whether it's a pop superstar or just a friend -- it's heartbreaking. It pisses me off when people of a more Millennial "what does it matter" mindset want to criticize someone like that who was in the closet into his twenties or whenever -- he never had a huge cover of People, Ellen sit down, coming out thing. But walk your own path. Until you've been that person in the '80s, when AIDS was ravaging people and there was near panic in the gay community…. It could not have been more of a different time. Even Boy George, who we think of as so out, handled questions about his sexuality in a coy way.

George Michael Off Camera

He was curious. My partner at the time went out to dinner with him and Kenny [Goss] and hung out once or twice socially. He was curious about other people and their lives and was pretty open. He got more open over time as I would socialize with him -- there wasn't much you couldn't talk about. One time we talked about our families and different backgrounds. In the WASPy world it's not all about family, but he's Cypriot, and it's all about family for them. So it was interesting, we had one conversation contrasting how important that was. He never had kids, I never had kids, we talked about that. Usually when people don’t have kids in their forties and fifties psychologists say they don’t want to grow up, and there may be truth to that, that was one thing I remember we talked about. Probably the last time we spent time together was around the 2004 interview [for Patience].

Fading Away From America's Consciousness

The saddest thing about this, to me, is that it felt like a slow fade to black. And that's a shame for someone that talented. You want to see somebody go out on their own terms. But George wasn’t interested in recycling the hits, and the people became less interested. What else worked against George in having a pure pop career is that he was an old soul from day one. He was drawn to classic sounds. The minute he was older, he was effectively adult contemporary. He's not someone played on pop radio, at least in the states. People here think of him as the Wham! and Faith guy, maybe "Freedom '90," but he continued to be a massive star in Britain. There are certain British artists like Robbie Williams who are absolute superstars at home but never connect in this country. In a micro way that's true of Years & Years, and Olly Alexander wrote a sweet thing about George on Twitter. Well beyond his generation, George touched the lives of young people, too.

Michael's Split With Label

George was really determined to do things on his own terms, like the whole split with Columbia. Prince's split from Warner Bros. got more attention, but George's was heated at the time. That idea of having to shake of who he'd become in Wham!, it think he felt like it became a ball and chain. I'd always hoped -- and I think he did -- move on from the anger-resentment phase of talking about Wham!, like "will a reunion ever happen?" questions, to having affection for it.

As told to Joe Lynch.