The exclamation point is part of the group’s name but also befits the duo’s success. With their catchy hooks and sugar-coated melodies that embraced a youthful spirit, Wham! became one of the most successful acts of the 1980s. Michael and Ridgeley sold 30 million albums in just four years, spawning eternally catchy hits such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper.”
It quickly became clear, however, that the charismatic lead singer was not only the star of the show, but one of the biggest talents in the business. Michael achieved icon status; Ridgeley, recognizing his creative limitations, briefly took up professional motor racing and released a minor-selling album of his own before exiting the business for good. They stayed in touch peripherally. But when he got the call from Michael’s sister about his death, “I put down the phone,” he writes, “and, doubled over in grief, began to sob.”
What happened in between? Here are the five most fascinating revelations about Michael’s life, courtesy of the man who proudly calls himself his best friend.
1. He Was Shy and Sensitive About His Looks
“Yog,” as Ridgeley nicknamed him, was deeply insecure. His Greek father was a strong character and narrow-minded about the world, determined that his son become a success. “That Yog was a more sensitive boy would have only exacerbated the effect of that,” he writes. Michael was particularly vulnerable when it came to his unruly hair, his glasses and his soft physique -- so much so that he didn’t like to take his shirt off in public and often fretted about his wardrobe choices. (He discovered years later that he was color blind, which affected his style.) When the then-teenagers tried out to be part of a local punk band and failed to make the cut because they weren’t sufficiently anti-establishment, Ridgeley says Michael took it hard. “Yog later admitted that the rejection had been a huge knock to his fragile self-esteem,“ he writes. “I hadn’t realized the depth of his anguish.” Years later when Michael gave himself a pop idol makeover complete with a designer stubble, leather motorcycle jacket and who-cares attitude, “I thought it was so far removed from who he really was.”
2. “Careless Whisper” Was Inspired by Michael’s Cheating Heart
Soon after they decided to start their own pop group in the early 1980s, the two collaborated on a No. 1 song that would become a radio staple for decades. Ridgeley composed the minor-chord-based progressions; Michael supplied the lyrics that imbued emotion and regret. “Yog decided to draw on his own recent teenage experience,” Rigeley recalls. “The tale he crafted of a cheating lover, hemmed in by guilt, was inspired by feelings prompted by two-timing his girlfriend, Helen Tye, a year previously.” Turns out that while Michael was in a relationship with the tall brunette, he reconnected with a girl named Jane -- who previously rejected him because of his looks -- and the two started going out on the sly. The ballad served as his confession.
3. Michael Came Out to Ridgeley in 1983
In a chapter titled “Revelations,” Ridgeley recalls the moment that his friend, who had now rechristened himself George Michael, came out to him. They were in Ibiza, Spain, to film the video for their new song “Club Tropicana” and Michael phoned him one morning and asked for a chat. With backup singer Shirlie Holliman in the room for support, Ridgeley says that his friend -- who had gone a few years without dating -- shared the news. His words, per Ridgeley: “’I didn’t know whether to tell you this ... but I’m going to: I’m gay.” Ridgeley’s nonchalant response? “Oh, OK. Well, that’s a bit of a surprise!” After the confession, “He definitely seemed more relaxed, probably because he realized it had made no difference to me whatsoever ... George seemed happy with the announcement. And the three of us went to breakfast as if nothing had happened. And, in truth, it hadn’t.”
Nonetheless, he made a conscious effort to conceal his sexuality in the press. The decision took an emotional toll. “George was adamant his sexuality should be kept under wraps, which created a wholly unwelcome extra level of stress for him to manage,” Ridgeley says, adding that he never met his friend’s paramours. “But he feared coming out at the time of [the tour] Whamamerica! would scupper any chances he might have of competing with artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson in the States.” He says Michael also didn’t want his sexuality to be an issue as he prepared for an inevitable solo career. Michael didn’t come out until 1998 in the wake of his arrest soliciting sex in a public restroom.
4. He Argued with Paul Weller During the Band Aid session
At the height of Wham!’s success, both Michael and Ridgeley were invited to be a part of Band-Aid, the group of music all-stars that recorded the historic charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to benefit famine relief in Africa. They didn’t have all that information at the time. Indeed, Ridgeley only received a deliberately cryptic fax requesting his appearance at SARM West Studios in England’s Notting Hill on November 25, 1984 -- but dismissed it as being “of little importance” and never showed up. It was only when he conferred with Michael post-session that he realized the magnitude of the event.
Still, Michael was palpably upset in the days after the gathering (which also included U2, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Phil Collins and Bananarama). Paul Weller of The Jam “had taken exception to George’s description earlier in the year of the miner’s union leader Arthur Scargillas ‘a wanker’ and told him so,” Ridgeley writes. “Unknowingly, Weller had hit a raw nerve.” He also notes that the competitive Michael later became miffed that the Band Aid sing-along overtook Wham!’s “Last Christmas” as the most popular Christmas song in Britain that year. “Chart success was an important affirmation of his self-worth and getting to No. 1 really mattered to him,” he says. “I knew he was smarming.”
5. He Had Doubts About Solo Success
Wham! closed out their supernova-like run in 1986 with a farewell show at Wembley Stadium. (Michael insisted on a single concert instead of a final tour, much to Ridgeley’s dismay.) Closing out the performance, “There was a sense that our relationship would never be the same again, no matter what happened,” he writes. “Life was going to be very different for us both as we went our separate ways, having spent the previous ten years together as schoolboys and then bandmates.” Ridgeley maintains he never felt envious of his friend’s success.
Ridgeley did visit Michael while he was recording the multi-platinum 1987 album, Faith, and sensed that he was troubled. “The self-doubt had returned,” he says, “And he was struggling with what being George Michael truly meant.” Ridgeley says he gave his old chum an honest assessment: “If he were to stand any chance of finding happiness, he would have to fulfill his talent. He didn’t have a choice. The only thing for him to do next was claim his place as the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation.” They shared the stage only one more time, when Ridgeley was invited to play backup for one of Michael’s solo shows in Rio in 1991.
Wham! George Michael & Me: A Memoir is now available.