George Michael had not been ill immediately before his death, his publicist said on Sunday night, which made his sudden, abrupt passing from a heart attack all the more shocking.
But in a long career and at times turbulent private life, the singer had already survived more than one brush with death, as well as enduring depression, bereavement, paralysing grief, legal battles with his record company, public embarrassment, several encounters with police and a long and unhappy period where he felt unable to acknowledge his homosexuality.
Michael very nearly died in 2011, after he fell ill from severe pneumonia during his Symphonica tour and spent a week in intensive care in Vienna. Two days before Christmas that year, very shortly after being released from hospital, he made an emotional speech outside his home in London paying tribute to the staff at Vienna general hospital whom he said had saved his life. It had been, he said, “by far the worst month of my life”. Asked what had kept him going he said: “The fact that I have been so lucky and the fact that I have plenty to live for. I have an amazing, amazing life.”
Eighteen months later, in May 2013, he was airlifted to hospital with a head injury following a bizarre incident on the M1, when he fell from his car on to the tarmac. He spent several days in hospital the following year, after concerned friends dialled 999 after he fell ill at home.
For 12 years from 1991, Michael said in 2005, he was trapped in “depression and fear and lots of other shit. I swear to God it was like I had a curse on me.” His long-term boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa died from an Aids-related illness in 1993 without the singer able to publicly acknowledge their relationship.
His mother died shortly afterwards, followed by a beloved new puppy. “I had an overwhelming feeling that the best was behind me,” he said later, turning to Prozac and marijuana. At one point he was smoking 25 joints a day.
Since 1992 he had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with his record company, Sony, after he claimed the label had failed to promote his second solo album Listen Without Prejudice. Two years later he lost the case.
Michael’s arrest in 1998 for performing a “lewd act” in a Beverley Hills toilet was the first of several high-profile encounters with the police. But while the episode could have ended other careers in disgrace, the singer was unapologetic, acknowledging his sexuality for the first time and turning the incident into the defiant gay anthem Outside.
Back in the UK, he was arrested several times for drug offences, including a conviction for driving when unfit through drugs when he was found collapsed in his Mercedes in 2006. In 2010, he was given a five-year driving ban and sentenced to eight weeks in prison after crashing his Range Rover into a branch of Snappy Snaps in Hampstead. Michael’s barrister told the court the singer was “deeply ashamed” of the incident, and that he had checked himself into rehab immediately afterwards. “His creativity, so long hampered by his drug dependence, is re-emerging,” the lawyer said.
Michael said he had had his first relationship at the age of 27, and having lived unhappily in the closet for so long, the singer defended his lifestyle, which included frequent cruising for sex on Hampstead Heath while living with his long-term partner Kenny Goss (the pair split in 2009).
Some people wanted to view him as a tragic figure “with all the cottaging and drug-taking”, he told the Guardian in 2009, because “those things are not what most people aspire to, and I think it removes people’s envy to see your weaknesses”. To Michael, however, those were not weaknesses. “It’s just who I am,” he said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010