At the height of his fame, George Michael had two options – both bad. If the pop superstar had told the world he was gay in the 1980s, his screaming, adoring, grabby female fans might have been afraid to touch him. Misinformation about Aids had begun to seep into society. Coming out, though, would have at least meant that he was free. If the Wham! singer hid his sexuality, he’d be the subject of relentless rumour and press intrusion and, when it finally became impossible to conceal it any longer, he’d be faced with accusations of hypocrisy for living a double life, for decades, in the public eye. The path he took, in the end, was the latter, but it all imploded in 1998 when he was arrested in a Los Angeles public toilet for “lewd conduct” (he was cruising for sex with men). That incident, and the media frenzy that ensued, is the subject of Channel 4’s heart-wrenching yet frustratingly incomplete documentary, George Michael: Outed.
The two-parter, which arrives seven years after Michael’s death aged 53, combines never-before broadcast audio of the singer with extensive interviews with his cousin Andros Georgiou and Michael’s long-time partner Kenny Goss. Memories of Michael’s angst and fragility are still very raw for them both, with Georgiou at one point reaching for a bottle of beer to distract from the tears filling his eyes. Goss speaks of the disparity between Michael the stage performer, overflowing with confidence, and Michael the introvert, as he sometimes was in private. And Georgiou talks of how “99 per cent of George’s life was public, but he had to have that 1 per cent” – his sexuality – to himself.
But the tabloid press wouldn’t allow him that. Twenty-five years on, journalists from The Sun,the News of the World and US gossip rag Splash all give interviews with a staggering lack of remorse. “Your misfortune is our fortune,” says Splash’s founder, Kevin Smith, as he proudly recalls the publication’s motto. Fleet Street was not a gay-friendly place at the time either, with one Sun journalist saying of Michael’s humiliation at the hands of the papers: “What did he expect?” There is a particularly icky moment when one paparazzo and one editor, almost drooling with excitement, reminisce about one of their car chases in pursuit of Michael, and their nine-page exposé on his cruising habits. Michael’s response? His 1998 hit “Outside”, which transformed what the papers called his “shame” into a defining moment of gay liberation.
The comments from the journalists who outed Michael come in stark contrast to those from today’s prominent gay musicians, such as Olly Alexander and Will Young, who are appalled by the Nineties headlines they read. Michael’s gay contemporaries are also interviewed about meeting him in the Eighties when underground queer culture was starting to flourish. DJ Fat Tony says he knew immediately that the star was gay. “I’m not being funny,” he says bluntly, “but he was wearing espadrilles and three-quarter-length jeans. All the signs were there.”
In the documentary’s most beautiful, moving – but much too fleeting – moment, ordinary men who have been outed, such as social workers and doctors, give interviews about the destructive impact this violation had on their lives. One, recalling being outed three decades ago, begins to weep. A whole episode could have, and perhaps should have, been dedicated to these accounts, but they are rushed through.
The absence of Andrew Ridgeley, the other half of Wham! and one of Michael’s closest friends, is conspicuous. His name is not uttered in the series and no explanation is offered for why, but it appears that he is making a separate documentary about the singer with Netflix.
These missed opportunities aside, George Michael: Outed is a crucial addition to the growing canon of documentaries about the mistreatment of celebrities – even if the perpetrators in this one may have failed to recognise their own cruelty.