First published: DNA, February 2017 (unedited version)
Imagine being cruised by the world’s top male pop star on Gaydar. That’s how Steve Pafford met and became friends with George Michael. Steve recalls the sex, the spliffs and the warm and witty ‘Yog’ he knew.
In the days before hook-up apps, the cruising megasite behemoth was Gaydar. I joined 13 years ago, newly single and living in the leafy West Hampstead environs of North London. But the newfangled opportunity of internet ‘dating’ was a bizarre beast to get my head around. So many reasons to be wary. How do you know that’s them in the photo? And if it is, how do you know it’s not from a time when ABBA (or indeed Wham!) were still in the charts?
Having only had a profile for three months, if you’re suddenly on the receiving end of a series of messages out of the blue, and the person at the other end of cyberspace reckons he’s George Michael, you’re naturally disinclined to believe that one of the greatest pop stars of our times is trying to cruise you online.
It’s a wet Monday evening in April, and as I log onto the ‘dar, something more than a million users were doing every day in Britain back in 2004, I notice a message from a faceless user with a moniker not too dissimilar to that of a well known brand of vodka. He tells me almost straight away that we’re in the same business. I look at his page and for profession he states that he’s a lawyer. Mine says I’m in the music/publishing business, so I joke to myself that I’m chatting to Stevie Wonder and ask him to clarify.
“Hi. How is law my business? And do you have any pix?” This seems the only logical response I can muster. “Oh yeah, sorry, forgot about that. This is why it says that”, and then I notice he’s attached a photo. He extrapolates, “Just a little smoke-screening for unwanted guests, i.e. press. Genuinely. Are you a writer or a publisher, mate?”
I smile at his interest in my job (makes a change from asking about my dick, I chuckle) and then my beam becomes a belly laugh as I open the attachment and see a picture of George Michael! And not any old snap but a bog standard promo shot that his record label had mailed me earlier that month to accompany his latest album, Patience.
Somewhat bemused, I decide to play along. “Oh, hallo George, I have your new album but haven’t decided how good it is yet!” Cue LOLs. I list some of the music mags I freelance for and then, slightly boastfully, tell the jester about the David Bowie book I’ve authored. He sounds instantly interested. “Really, did you ever get to meet him? He was the first celebrity I ever bumped into, unless you count Nerys Hughes from The Liver Birds when I was nine!”
Slightly too blasé for my own good I confess I’ve met Bowie too many times and that, “I’d be far more interested in meeting Nerys Hughes these days.”
“Blasphemy!” counters Mr Voddy, and I detect I’m touching a raw nerve. He’s obviously an even a bigger Bowie fan than me. He tells me how he “made a right fool of myself with him, too, never forget it. I was on the way out of a studio, long anecdote, maybe I can tell you it sometime.” He continues on the book theme. “I’m just about to start on the REAL autobiography. As much to see if I have a style worth pursuing as a writer as anything else…. I live near you. Do you puff at all?”
I tell him I’d rather go for a drink, and before I forget, “Are you gonna send me a pic of you, rather than that fellow hairy half-Greek, before we meet?” Our fellow Hampstead heathen asks what I drink and then, almost as an afterthought, tells me “And that is a pic of me mate, the most famous male slapper on the planet!!” But I read the message too quickly and say to myself “I’ve got a right loony here. First he says he’s George Michael, now he reckons he’s George Michael’s mate. He’ll be telling me he’s Elton John next.”
Messages bounce back and forth over the next couple of days and I start to realise that far from being a nut job, he’s as passionate about music as me, and I begin to wonder…
When he asks if I have Greek parentage like him because “you look mainland, not Cypriot like me,” I tell him if he’s who he clams to be then he’s extraordinarily bold to cruise a member of the press on a sex site, and ask if he has a webcam. He does, and tells me he’s “totally over discretion,” and as we swap Yahoos warns me he won’t be doing anything “naughty” on it but is happy to show his face at least.
My dial-up connection seems to take an eternity to load and then suddenly, snap, lots of crackle and pop! A toothy grin dazzles my ageing monitor and lo-and-behold, it really is George Michael! He chuckles. I ask if he does this often. “The cam? I’ve only started using it the past few days.” He laughs again, and he tells me he’s just got in from misbehaving. “So relieved the album’s out and well-received so it calls for a little sluttish behaviour methinks!” He says he’ll invite me round for a “gay old chat soon.” He seems surprisingly down to earth for someone in his position, and disarmingly open.
But the moment we disconnect I get an attack of the nerves, not quite believing what’s just happened. George bloody Michael? Oh my god! It’s not that I was a fan; my sister Stella bought his records back in the day’ and in the case of that first Wham! album I was too intrigued by the bare chested pictures of ‘Yog’ and Andrew Ridgeley to need the music. This swarthy, sporty pop duo unleashed the repressed homo in me and became my first all-male wank material. Thank heavens for protective outer sleeves.
A decade on from the Fantastic plastic and I found myself in a share house with a female GM superfan. We’d barely settled in when one of our roomies (hello John Richardson, wherever you are) came home with tales of a friend of his who’d been cruised by a baseball capped George walking his dog in a park near us in Golders Green. Vicky dismissed the tale as ridiculous, “He’s not gay, you just want him to be.” But I laughed knowing there was a lot more to him than he wanted the world to know. This would have been just weeks before I caught George’s World Aids Day concert at Wembley in December 1993. Though, ostensibly, I was there as one of the Bowie contingent, cheering on the Dame in his surprising and impromptu role as the non-singing MC for the night.
Five years later and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind whether Yog was well swung. When you’re a massively famous popster who’s just been arrested for cottaging in a public toilet you can either go to ground and pretend it never happened or go completely the other way and release Outside. Wonderfully witty, humane, camp, subversive, hilarious and utterly defiant, both song and video were a disarmingly self-mocking response to the kind of grubby, sleazy entrapment that ended careers in darker times. Was there ever a more perfect coming-out record than this? It impressed me so much that, Ladies and Gentlemen, I bought my very first George Michael album.
Fourteen months after that debut Gaydar communiqué, I receive a firm invitation to a palatial Georgian house in Highgate. By this point George owned at least four homes in England alone, and the Hampstead abode was now just an occasional “shag pad”. I was being allowed into the inner sanctum, as it were.
It’s Monday 13th June, 2005, and Yog calls my mobile: “You’ve always sounded like fun. Bring your videos with you if you like.” (I’d recently starred in a couple of saucy suit films for Menatplay.) I arrive dead on 8pm as agreed and he comes to the gate dressed in khaki shorts and a baggy black T-shirt, one of his beloved Golden Labradors tracking his every move. He’s warm and chirpy, and in pretty good nick. Good start.
He leads me (not by the hand) to a kitchen diner that looks out onto one of the biggest gardens I’ve ever seen but, before I’ve even had a chance to sit down, George gets a phone call. It’s his sister, Melanie: “Put Sky News on. They’re about to announce the Michael Jackson verdict!” So we sit, glued to the flat screen TV on the wall, waiting for the court’s judgment on the latest round of child abuse allegations. We’re so engrossed in the drama that Yog realises he’s completely forgotten to offer me anything. “Do you drink? I think I’ve got a bottle of wine somewhere.” It’s obvious alcohol is no longer his regular drug of choice. This becomes ever more apparent as he spends a good ten minutes looking for a bottle opener. At one point I turn round and catch George Michael with his head inside the washing machine. “Oh, I thought the cleaner may have put the corkscrew in there. I think she’s hiding it from me.”
He then sits at the dining table with two packets of Silk Cut and a stash of hash and rolls a couple of joints. We watch the Not Guilty verdicts come in. After the first one George is incredulous. “No, fucking way!” he cries. Then the next: “I don’t fucking believe it. This is a travesty. Just how many people have been paid off?” It goes on and on, and I can see George’s rage building up. He’s as red-faced as Jacko was white. He clearly believes the court have reached the wrong verdict, so I ask him if he’s ever met MJ.
“Oh yeah, we were even going to work together. But his bizarre behaviour put the kibosh on that. We drove all the way to his house in the steaming heat of California, met for over an hour and not once were were offered a drink or even a chair. He kept his sunglasses on the whole time and let his manager do all the talking. I came away thinking this guy is a complete and utter nutter. This was 1986 and it’s funny, looking back, but at the time we were the biggest male pop stars in the world, rivals I suppose. And our label Sony had this grand idea of a duet – the two Michaels – it could’ve been the biggest thing ever But no amount of record sales was worth that kind of behaviour.”
George switches off the telly and starts to calm down. I’m struck by how extremely grounded and well-mannered he is: “My mother always taught me to treat people with respect and common decency.” We bond over music and he regales me with stories of some of his contemporaries: “Stevie Wonder I adore, but because he’s blind he has no concept of time. I once waited for him an entire day at the studio.” The Dame: “I knew I was never gonna be Bowie, with a level of coolness that was way above everyone. I always thought I was gonna be Elton without the piano.”
As with Jacko, the only time Yog is less than polite about someone is when he feels he’s been treated badly by them. “I invited Mick Hucknall to share my stage and as soon as the show is over he slags me off to the papers. What an absolute cunt!”
It was the middle of the night before we went upstairs. George had a shiny and new iMac in his Mahogany panelled bedroom, which I couldn’t help but notice he’d named Bill Gates’ Mac. Oh, the wag. As a mood setter, Yog wanted to watch a couple of the ‘movies’ I’d made but they wouldn’t play! Never mind, I guess we made our own entertainment. He eventually drove me home around 5am. When I told Jamie, my then partner, this inconsequential fact, he went ballistic, asking how many spliffs he’d puffed. It was a fair few, but I countered he seemed almost immune to their effects.
I saw George quite a number of times after that, and I can honestly say that the tabloid portrayal of him as a man constantly incoherent and off his face was not one I recognised at all.
A couple of years later George let me interview him for a Gay Times cover feature to tie in with him opening the new Wembley Stadium. I took along the Deputy Ed, Richard Smith, for company and, as we turned over the tape Yog asked him, “Did Steve tell you that he turned up at one of my concerts last year wearing a T-shirt that said ‘I wanked off George Michael’? I should have written on the back of it, “You most certainly did not!”
This was the last time I saw him. In 2007 I found myself in a relationship that was to become both monogamous and my longest by far. The boyf and I bought a house in Dulwich on the other side of London, but Yog and I kept in touch.
The George Michael I knew was warm, funny, generous to a fault, extremely talkative and with a razor sharp wit. The only things that bothered me was how housebound he was, almost imprisoned by his own celebrity (“Two people followed me to my doctor’s this morning, and I have people outside my house three or four days a week”), and that he’d started to become a little too enamoured by guys in the sex industry, both porn stars and escorts.
One night he messaged and asked for “any recommendations” and I mentioned a handsome Lebanese guy I’d met through Gaydar a couple of years prior. “What about Isaac Mazar? Fadi’s his real name. You’d like him, I said. “He’s a taller, more muscular version of me.”
From hook-up to friend to Cupid. Was I stupid? I didn’t read the signs (baby). It took a while to realise I’d probably done myself out of a relationship without ever expecting that he was looking for one. I’ll miss you, Yog, and feel honoured to have known you…
© Steve Pafford 2017