Lunch with George Michael takes place at an Italian restaurant in London’s Highgate on a Saturday.
He arrives in a sensible Range Rover from his modern home in swish Hampstead. He sips white wine and eats a simple dish of pasta. Though it is a freezing afternoon, he wears an understated dark, check suit with an open neck shirt and no overcoat.
There is no sign of the screaming girls who chased him 10 years ago when Wham! (comprising him and Andrew Ridgeley) were at the height of their gaudy glory; a time when he, a tad chubby, sported a sculpted blonde haircut much like the Princess of Wales.
Today, the British pop star is slim and well, his hair cropped short, the famous designer stubble now evolved into a slick goatee beard, but for the first time in a long while, he lacks an impressive suntan.
“That’s hard work for you,” he says, attributing his pallor to long hours spent in the studio. He has never looked happier.
George Michael is back and he is better than ever. The years in the wilderness for the British star are over. The last time he released a record, Mrs Thatcher was still Prime Minister, Saddam Hussein was on the warpath and New Kids on the Block topped the charts.
But six months ago, he returned to a London recording studio to complete his first album in more than five years. His first single off it, ‘Jesus to a Child’ is, he says, the best thing he’s ever done.
“It’s a special song. It was one of those songs that just felt like it was handed to me. I didn’t have to try very hard. It came naturally. It was recorded over five days but written in just a couple of hours.”
The single is a tribute to a close Brazilian friend, Anselmo Feleppa, who died suddenly from brain haemorrhage two years ago.
“Yes, it’s a sad song but I hope it has a positive message too – I didn’t want it to be all ‘woe is me, woe is me’. It is a song about bereavement. But also about hope.”
And hope has been important to the singer in recent years. For the longest time, there was always someone ready to write him off. They did it when he was with Wham! They did it when he went solo. And they have done it on a regular basis the past few years as the singer fought a long and bitter legal battle to free himself from Sony, his record company, which he claimed treated him like a piece of faulty software.
But during George’s long period of enforced exile (which saw a slump in earnings from £15.8 million in 1988 to under £800,000 last year), even some of his closest supporters have sometimes wondered if he still had his old passion to make music.
At times, even he wondered whether he’d lost it.
“I wasn’t sure myself,” he admits. “I have always kept writing songs throughout the last five years. That never stopped.
“But it was only a year ago when I wrote ‘Jesus to a Child’ that I got back confidence in my own ability. It always felt like a special song and an appropriate one to come back with.
“Of course five years is a long time to be away. But I know the people who are into my music are very loyal and I never believed there would be an impossible amount of ground to make up, not if the new stuff was good enough – which I know it is. The new record feels like by far, the most complete thing I have ever done.”
George Michael’s resurrection has not come cheap.
His new album, Older, will be released in America by Dreamworks SKG (the multi-media company formed in 1994 by director Steven Spielberg, ex-Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen) and by Virgin Records in the rest of the world.
Dreamworks and Virgin collectively paid Sony US$40m to release George from his recording contract after the singer had tried and failed to break free from Sony in the High Court.
“The dispute with Sony was never about money, it was about people. How many other industries are there where you can get to the top of your profession and be made to work with people you don’t want to work with?”
George Michael has been around for so long, it’s a shock to realise he turns only 33 years old this June. When he celebrated his 30th birthday on June 25, three years back at the Hertford-shire stud farm he had bought his father, Jack, he seemed like a man who had everything.
“Dress: Heavy ‘70s Vibe” read the invitation. Guests included Paul Young, the Pet Shop Boys and Paula Yates who dressed like pimps, hookers and extras from Saturday Night Fever in platform boots, hot pants and satin flares.
George got on stage with cousin Andros Georgiou and childhood pal David Austin (his best mates) to belt out ‘70s soul songs. It was a great party but the reality of George’s life was more troubled.
He had already issued Sony an ultimatum: he wanted to leave the record company and told them he was never going to record for them again – whatever the outcome of the legal action.
And he meant it. Music matters to him. But some things matter more. An intensely proud man, he wanted out when he started believing that Sony were no longer putting their weight behind is product – in particular the records he released to raise money for Aids charities. Even if it meant sitting out his contract with Sony until the 21st century, he would have done so.
The dispute began after George released his first solo album, Faith, in 1988. It won a Grammy for Best Album that same year and sold 14 million copies worldwide and became the biggest-selling album in America. The singer had religiously promoted the record, touring 10 months of the year and giving endless interviews, but decided, at the end of the day, he didn’t want to lead life like that anymore. He was 25 years old.
Inevitably, sales of Listen Without Prejudice, his next effort, suffered (although it still sold 7 million). It was a price he was prepared to pay.
If anything, George has shown that where his career is concerned, he is a risk-taker and is resolute in his course. It was he who broke up Wham! at age 22 although he and partner Andrew Ridgeley were a hugely successful pop duo who were chased by girls wherever they went.
But being a teen idol was not enough for George. Beneath that cheesy public persona was a restlessness. “All the time that Wham! had been growing, it had become more of a ball and chain,” he says. “I believed in it as a formula and I believed in it as a great way to entertain people, but when I walked into a room full of people, they had a totally wrong idea of what I was about.
“The point at which I was most intimidated by my public persona was when I was all white teeth and silk shorts.”
When Wham! made it big, George could have his pick of women all of whom were eager to explore his tanned, hairy body. But he declined the offers. The reason? Contact lenses.
“The worst thing about contact lenses,” he once said, “is when you decide to go home with somebody and when you’re done with whatever you’re doing, you suddenly realise you haven’t got your contact lens case. It doesn’t make you look like a superstud when you say in the morning, ‘I’m very sorry but I’ve been awake all night because I didn’t take out my contact lenses.’”
How would he live his life if he had stopped making records? Probably dividing his time between his homes in north London and Southern California, walking his beloved Labrador Hippy on Hampstead Heath, getting drunk at his local pub in St Tropez and spending time with family and friends – what he’s been up to for most of the ‘90s.
As for money, after spending five years away from the record industry and spending £4m in legal fees, he still has a fair chunk of a fortune that was estimated at £80m two years ago.
He could retire today without having to take in lodgers or give up his legendary generosity. Some of his most spectacular gifts include an £8,000 Cartier Panther watch for his cousin Andros, a Rolls-Royce and that stud farm for his father, and £3,000 to a struggling young dancer he bumped into.
But far more than being generous with his cash, he is a decent man who shows patience in the face of even the most persistent fan who refuses to leave his doorstep.
If he is kind to everyone, he trusts only a select few: his parents, sisters and close friends who still know him by his childhood nickname of “Yog”. Significantly, he is closest to the people who knew him long before he was George Michael.
“My name is Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou,” says this son of a Greek-Cypriot father and an English mother. To the outside world I am and always will be known as something else, but it’s not my name.”
More than his battle with his record company, his greatest struggle has been to find his true identity beyond the media image.
It is possibly a struggle that will never end. But one thing is certain. George Michael is ready to make music again.
“And this time I am doing it on my terms,” he says.