George Michael's ex Kenny Goss on "tortured soul" ahead of Channel 4 doc
Caroline Frost talks to Kenny Goss and Andros Georgiou ahead of George Michael: Outed.
This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine.
“We met for lunch. We had this favourite place that George loved called Cynthia’s, which had this afrocado [avocado with ice cream]. George had a bottle of wine, maybe a bottle and a half, and I went off to do other things. Later, I went home. And that’s when I got the call...”
It was 7th April 1998, and Kenny Goss was one of the very first people to get wind of a story that would soon fly across the world. His partner George Michael, pop hit-making machine, global superstar and heart-throb to millions – mostly girls – had been arrested for lewd conduct after exposing himself to a police officer in a public toilet in a park in Beverly Hills.
“I went down to the police station and they told me how much money I had to go and get [for bail]. I had to run around a lot. It was past opening time for banks, and those days you had to go to a lot of cash machines to get even a thousand dollars,” Kenny remembers now.
“I got George out, but he didn’t want to talk about it. We had to stop by the park to get his car, then we drove home. I wasn’t bugging him, but he told me an hour or so later. It did come as a surprise to me, but I didn’t get upset with him. He seemed very stressed out.”
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Kenny had a ringside seat for the events explored in the two-part Channel 4 documentary George Michael: Outed that recounts how the star came to be outed as gay 25 years ago, how he dealt with it, and what difference it made to him and others.
The documentary also takes us back to the 1980s, when George first found fame as one half of the pop duo Wham!, with contributors including Holly Johnson, Richard Coles and DJ Fat Tony describing the gay scene at the time, a mixed bag of disco delight and blossoming social freedom under the looming cloud of the AIDS crisis, portrayed so richly in Russell T Davies’s 2021 drama It’s a Sin.
While many young men embraced the freedoms of the era, for George it meant developing a split personality. We hear him on tape recalling how he would have been prepared to come out aged 19 but for the knowledge of his mother’s fear, “her thinking I wouldn’t be able to cope with life”. And, of course, there was his burgeoning pop stardom to consider.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in June 1963 to Greek-Cypriot father Jack and English mother Lesley, George had two older sisters and grew up on the northern outskirts of London, earning money busking on the Tube and working at his father’s restaurant.
One of the contributors to the documentary is Andros Georgiou, George’s cousin, who grew up alongside the singer and witnessed their childhood shared love of music evolve into something more creative for his pal.
“At the age of seven or eight years old, we were listening to Elton John albums,” he remembers. “When we were 11, we went to see Queen at Earls Court. Our mums took us and waited for us in a Wimpy bar opposite. Then by 14, George was writing his own songs, then he was in a ska band, and by the time we were 18, he’d come up with Wham Rap!.”
Andros still sounds proud, almost awestruck, four decades later. “Within a few months, George had the demo for Careless Whisper, which I told him would be a number one record. Last Christmas he started one Boxing Day, and two days later he’d finished it.”
George often spoke of his lack of confidence as a teenager, and his cousin agrees that life got a lot better for the young musician once his songwriting prowess had been rewarded with a record deal, a string of hit singles and the chance to strut his stuff on Top of the Pops alongside his school pal Andrew Ridgeley. “Andrew was the most confident person I ever met,” remembers Andros. “But things changed for George for the better. The success of Wham! made him more confident as well.”
Such a meteoric rise brought its own challenges, however. While DJ Fat Tony remembers often seeing George in gay nightclubs during the mid-1980s – “always on the dance floor, you were drawn to that energy,” he tells the documentary – the singer’s professional success was predicated on his image as a teen heart-throb. It’s easy to see why putting off the big reveal for another day would be the safest option.
“Within our circle and in the record company, we knew George was gay, and you simply couldn’t be that,” says Andros. “You’re a pin-up. You have thousands of girls chasing you, and they’re the ones buying pop records. The record company didn’t want to know. It would have stopped everything.”
He adds of his cousin’s decision: “Everything he did was public knowledge. When your whole life is front page news, you get a kick out of being able to hold a little bit back, something that no one else knows about.”
Despite his good looks, his money, his talent, his superstardom, carrying around such a burden meant George for a long time never felt the personal contentment that was surely his due. Things changed for him in the 1990s when, having broken America with his debut solo album Faith, his millions bought him a house in Los Angeles, where the press appeared less interested in him, and he found love with Anselmo Feleppa, who he spotted in the crowd at a concert in Brazil.
“There had been other people in his life,” reveals Andros. “George’s first solo number one A Different Corner was written about a guy that he was with, who couldn’t cope with the fame. But when it came to Anselmo, it was a magical moment, love at first sight.”
George said himself, “You can only be proud of your sexuality when it’s bringing you joy,” and for the first time it was. For a few years, while he made no move to come out in public, everyone around him – including reporters in Los Angeles, where he was now spending much of his time – knew the truth.
Still the press said nothing, even after Anselmo died from an AIDS-related illness in 1993, and George began performing his elegy to his lost love, Jesus to a Child, which was composed only a few weeks after Anselmo’s death.
Nor did they write anything three years later when he settled down with Kenny Goss, a laid-back Texan he met at a spa – “a normal one, not a bathhouse,” Kenny good-humouredly confirms. “We weren’t bothered much in LA,” he says. “We did get our picture taken a couple of times. I wasn’t out either, so that was unusual for me, but I didn’t overthink it.
“I grew up in Dallas, but my parents retired to a small country town. When the National Enquirer first got hold of my family, my dad said to them, ‘You trying to tell me my boy’s gay?!’ Then, when the story [of George’s arrest] came out, my dad went out trying to buy up all the local People magazines. My buddies were all like, ‘You’re gay and it’s George Michael?’”
Kenny was similarly relaxed on that fateful day in April 1998, in the face of the world’s press knocking at their door, and helicopters circling above the house. “I was just trying to understand the situation and reassure George that everything would be OK,” is how he remembers the first 24 hours.
“He was stressed out. He took to his bed, then the next morning, we got up, and I told him, ‘Yep, still a few helicopters up there.’”
After his initial shock at being arrested, George swung into action. Just as he was known for being a control freak in the recording studio, producing his own music as well as writing and singing, so he firmly took the reins of what happened next in Los Angeles.
“The first day he didn’t know what to do, or what was going to happen, how to tell people,” Kenny recalls. “But that all changed within the next day and a half. He had his plan of action. He wanted people to see him and that he was in good shape. Suddenly, he said, ‘We’re going out to dinner.’”
By then, Andros had arrived to witness this change in George’s attitude. “I went straight to the house, with 50 camera crews outside and me ringing the doorbell. There was no answer, nor was he picking up the phone. I got back in the car and kept ringing. Eventually he picked up and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I was blow-drying my hair.’ That’s when I knew he’d be fine.”
Dinner at one of Los Angeles’s glitteriest restaurants was followed by interviews, first with veteran CNN anchorman Jim Moret in the US, then with Michael Parkinson in the UK. George disarmed both audiences with his honesty and sense of humour. As he told Moret, he had reassured himself, “You’re a human being. Just go on TV and get it sorted.”
“I would have buried myself in a hole,” laughs Andros, “but he did the opposite, and that was what George was about. He wasn’t ashamed. His way of pushing back was to get it all out there: CNN there, Parkinson here, game over.”
In a way, Andros reflects now, being outed in such a public way came as a relief for the star. “It was a mistake, but probably a mistake that was meant to happen,” he says.
It also heralded a new era for the singer. “What changed was, he got more and more strong-minded with the idea he was going to do what he wanted,” says Kenny.
“He wrote the song Outside and made the video [lampooning his arrest, turning the public toilet in the park into a glitterballed disco with George at the centre, dressed as a police officer], and that gave him his confidence back. Once he was outed, he was saying, ‘Jeez, why did I do this for so long?’”
Kenny, who was with George for another 13 years, admits he spent a disproportionate amount of time worrying about his partner once the brakes were off. “From the moment he was arrested, when he wasn’t with me, there was always a little bit of me, thinking, is he going to be OK? I was always worried about what might happen, that he might get into trouble again.”
After 15 years together, the press reported that Kenny had left the relationship, something that used to bother George, who would phone in to radio and TV stations to say it wasn’t true. Kenny remembers he took to telling him, “I haven’t left you. Please don’t go on the morning show.”
They did part ways, however, in 2011, amid reports of both suffering from their own addictions. Now, Kenny says proudly, “We kept the foundation we had built together, and I never stopped checking on him.”
The last years of George’s adult life were as complex as the first. On the face of it, he was a hugely successful, intelligent artist, no longer hiding the secrets that had weighed down his early years of fame. “He knew he had a voice and people would listen to him, and he helped a lot of gay men in the music industry to accept themselves and come out,” Andros says.
But he also believes his cousin never got over the grief of losing Anselmo in 1993 and then his mother in 1997. “Plus, he’d become bigger than he’d ever dreamt, so there was no need to fight for that any more.”
Certainly, any creativity during his final decade was stymied by his struggles with substance abuse. Living back in the UK with new partner Fadi Fawaz, George was often in the headlines for more run-ins with the police. After he crashed his car into a branch of Snappy Snaps near his north London home, he was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and served four weeks in prison. Once again, in public, George was able to see the funny side, but the humour had become very dark.
There is a catch in Kenny’s voice as he describes one of his last conversations with his former partner. “I felt so much for him. He was a tortured soul. When I talked to him in later years, I always closed by saying, ‘We all love you, remember that. You have a lot of people that love you.’”
George’s death from heart disease, aged 53, on Christmas Day 2016 came as an immense shock but no great surprise to those who loved him and knew him best, but they find comfort in the enduring appeal of ultimately the most important thing to him: his music.
Andros says: “It was always really about writing amazing songs and proving to the world he was one of a kind. McCartney had Lennon, Bowie had Iggy Pop, Elton John had Bernie Taupin. They all had co-writers, but George did it all.”
For Kenny, whose Goss-Michael Foundation in his native Dallas continues to raise millions of dollars to help disadvantaged people, not a day goes by without a thought for his late love.
“I think about him all the time, I try to do a better job for him. Because of his generosity, what George taught me, I became a better person at understanding how you should help other people.
“Not long before he died, he asked me, ‘What’s going to be remembered about me?’ But he kind of answered the question for me, ‘I hope it’s my songwriting.’ But I think he’ll also be remembered as a kind man who made a difference.”
George Michael: Outed airs tonight and tomorrow on Channel 4 at 9pm. Check out more of our Documentaries coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.
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