Los Angeles, 9 April, 1998. Two days after George Michael is arrested by an undercover police officer for performing a “lewd act” in a Beverly Hills public toilet. His cousin, Andros Georgiou, rushes from London to be by his side. Outside Michael’s house, more than 50 international camera crews are gathered. There are helicopters overhead; paparazzi everywhere. Georgiou circles the block trying to phone his cousin. Finally Michael answers and apologises for not picking up. He was blow-drying his hair. One of many details in George Michael: Outed that made me love him even more than I did as a screaming teenage girl. Which is a lot.
Inside, Michael explains to his people that he, as Georgiou puts it, “had a few glasses, got a bit horny, and fancied a bit of sex”. Hardly the stuff of the scandal of the decade, but these were viciously homophobic times, as the first episode of this two-part documentary barely needs to reminds us. The tabloids were king, and outing people in the public sphere became a national blood sport. Which is the true scandal of this story. If Outed had a hysteria-inducing headline it might be “Tabloid’s Shame”.
It’s zippily told, if almost too entertaining, as the action toggles back and forth between the start of Michael’s career in the 80s, and his arrest a decade later. The kick-ass making-of-a-gay-icon stuff, when he singlehandedly turned the situation around with Outside, which remains the most gloriously proud screw-you disco hit in the history of pop, is saved for the second episode. Perhaps the most powerful effect of Outed is to make you want to immediately revisit Outside. Don’t resist the urge.
It was an open secret that Michael, who died in 2016 on Christmas Day at the age of 53, was gay. His ex-partner Kenny Goss recalls how, when they started going out in 1996, they would walk into the Ivy holding hands. “He was wearing espadrilles and three-quarter length jeans,” is how DJ Fat Tony puts it with an ironic smile. “All the signs were there.” The media made it impossible for Michael to come out, then had a field day mocking him for hiding after he was arrested. Fleet Street was a brutally homophobic place where, as one ex-Daily Mirror journalist puts it, the “shirt-lifting jokes” came thick and fast and “if you were homosexual you had to keep it quiet”. Still, the complete remorselessness of certain former editors remains breathtaking to behold. “We had a motto at Splash News,” says Kevin Smith, founder of the publication that broke the story of Michael’s arrest, behind the wheel of his convertible Bentley. “Your misfortune is our fortune.” “That’s a great headline,” says former deputy editor of the Sun and News of the World, Neil Wallis, slapping the Sun’s famous “Zip Me Up Before You Go Go” edition which contained nine pages on “the fatal flaw in the man who wanted to be Mr Perfect”. “What did he expect?” Wallis concludes, invoking the classic tabloids-are-a-mirror-reflecting-society argument. “If you do this sort of thing, it will come out.”
This was (and clearly still is, for some) the world in which Wham! became the biggest band in Europe and Michael was marketed as its ultimate Smash Hits-approved pin-up. And he had grown up with a mother who “had a fear of me being gay” and a father who “wouldn’t even have considered that he could have a gay son”. “The first thing he says, and I’ll never forget it,” says Goss, recalling when he saw Michael after the arrest, “is ‘thank God my mother is not alive to see this’.” As Michael – and I would have liked to hear more from him in the first episode – put it in a radio interview: “If you have the option of hiding when you’re more successful than you ever dreamed you were going to be, what the fuck are you going to do?”
Then came the Aids epidemic. “Everyone wants to touch a pop star,” says Wham!’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell. “Everyone equates Aids as something you can catch by touching someone. How can a pop star say he’s gay?” It was in this frenzy of moral panic that the tabloids began outing people. All the gay men who appear – a former RAF medical officer, social worker and Conservative MP – start crying when they recall the impact of being outed at the time.
As the front pages emblazoned with George’s Shame rolled off the presses and the homophobic jibes spewed forth, Michael responded with pure pop star grace. “‘We’re going out for dinner’,” Georgiou recalls him saying that night in Los Angeles. “He said: ‘Let’s just front this up. I’m not hiding.’ Most people would have locked themselves away.” Georgiou’s eyes begin to glisten. “I’m still so proud of him for that.” Me too.
George Michael: Outed aired on Channel 4 and is on All 4.