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Young George Michael Knew He Was Going to Be a Star — See Rare Photos of the Legend

Even before he hit it big with Wham!, the singer had faith he’d become a global superstar

“I’ve been planning all this since I was a kid,” a young George Michael told the British pop music magazine No. 1 in 1983, as he was enjoying his first real tastes of success with Wham! At that time, he had no idea the heights to which his career would eventually soar — before his untimely passing at 53 on Christmas Day in 2016. What he always knew and had belief in, however, was the talents he possessed as a singer and songwriter.

“My music is some of the most honest music that’s been released,” he’d note to Interview magazine a few years later. “When I open my mouth and sing, the truth comes out. When I write, the truth comes out. I can’t lie. That, I think, is one of the strongest elements of my music.”

Fans certainly responded to his songs — and the raw emotions in his later solo work — from “Faith” and “One More Try” to “Praying for Time” and “Jesus to a Child.” He’d also earn a Grammy for Record of the Year for Faith in 1988, as well as one for his 1986 duet with Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting.”

His Childhood Years: Young George Michael

young george michael with arms out
George Michael (1983)Getty

For the star, born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou — “It’s a real, get-your-teeth-into-it Greek name,” he’d joke on the English chat show Aspel & Company — his wait for stardom started as a child growing up in London, where he was born on June 25, 1963, the son of Greek immigrants. “My father was the archetypal 1950s immigrant from Cyprus, very determined, and every single member of his family made something of themselves in this country. They’re a typical immigrant family that worked their a—es off and reaped the rewards,” the singer told The Sun.

During his early school years, young George Michael sported huge glasses and struggled with feelings of insecurity. “I was very awkward … a very strange-looking bloke. And quite shy,” he noted in the Netflix documentary Wham!, once admitting to Interview magazine that “when I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly attractive.… I suppose maybe if I had been an attractive child, I would have had less inclination to push my physical presence [later on in life.]”

young man smiling with arms up
George Michael (1982)Getty

To escape unwanted attention from classmates as much as his own insecurities and the seeds of early depression, he’d sometimes skip school and simply ride the bus, which, as he shared during a Greek television interview, was the only place he felt safe. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘One day, no one will be able to touch you. You’ll somehow get away from everyone else in some respect,’” the future global icon recalled.

Around age 14, while washing up in his dad’s restaurant and listening to music, his escape plan would start to reveal itself, based on an innate talent he discovered. “It occurred to me that some melody shouldn’t have gone that way; it should’ve gone another way. And it suddenly occurred to me that I would’ve written it that other way. That was the first moment that I ever remember thinking, ‘I could write that — but better.’”

Chasing His Dreams

two men smiling together; young george michael
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (1984)Getty

By 1979, he and Andrew Ridgeley, his Bushey Meads School pal since the age of 11, were “musically joined at the hip,” as Andrew explains in Wham! Later in their teens, they’d start a band called The Executive. “It was ska music, and we were terrible,” George admitted in the documentary, but he was able to flex his early songwriting talents, even if his pursuing a career in music was a hard sell to his parents.

“[My father] was more than apprehensive. He didn’t think I stood a chance in hell,” George told Interview. “He had no confidence in me whatsoever and was convinced that I was going to be coming to him for money when I was 40. We argued about it constantly.” Though they got along well once George was an adult, the singer insisted, “I had a terrible time with [my dad] in my teenage years. All we did was scream at each other.”

two men singing on stage
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (1985)Getty

The oppressive household, as he described it, weighed heavily on the young George Michael. “Because [of me] being the domineering father,” his dad, Kyriacos “Jack” Panayiotou, admits in the Wham! documentary, “I wanted to dictate terms with him.… I wanted him to become a doctor or an accountant. Behave like I expected him to behave. And I said, ‘You couldn’t sing to save your life anyway.’”

Upon Andrew’s insistence, however, the teens kept at their musical pursuits. “At a certain age I just stopped arguing [with my dad],” George said. “I realized that there was no way [my father] could see, because for him to approve of what I was doing, he would have to have some belief in me as a musician. And he was not a musical man.”

Breaking Through … and Opening Up: Young George Michael

George was incredibly musical, however, and he and Andrew started hitting the club circuit around 1981, specifically one place called Le Beat Route. He began writing songs inspired by their fun nights there, including “Careless Whisper.” “I remember when it was finished…I said to [Andrew], ‘I don’t know who will do it and I don’t know whether I’ll be good enough to sing it, but that is a number-one song,” George recalled in Wham!

Though that hit wouldn’t be released for years, it was enough to get them rolling with other material, and they started shopping their tunes to record companies until their big break came with a deal in March 1982. “It was just absolutely magical playing out your fantasies. It was just a dream — and with your best mate!” George said of that heady time.

two men singing on stage; young george michael
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (1984)Getty

Though their first song, “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do),” stalled on the charts, they refused to get discouraged, working hard to build up a following. They struck upon some success in the clubs with “Young Guns (Go For It!),” which led to an appearance on Top of the Pops, then the only primetime music program in the U.K. “It’s such a funny dance routine when you see it, but it worked in a weird kind of way. Everybody remembered it at the time,” George recalled, and the exposure soon paid off. “The single flew up the charts.”

Their 1983 debut album Fantastic took off in England, eventually making it all the way to the No. 1 position on the charts there. While filming their video for “Club Tropicana,” George, then just 19, was in the midst of accepting his sexuality, and he shared his truth with Andrew and others in their close circle. “At that point in time…I really wanted to come out [publicly], then I lost my nerve completely,” he said of not fully publicly addressing his being gay until 1998.

“[Success] happened so quickly and I didn’t have time to establish what kind of person I wanted to be,” he’d later explain to Interview. “You know, the years between leaving school and actually becoming an adult are very important years. You make a lot of choices as to the type of life you want to lead and what type of person you want to be. There were so many people who had opinions of me, a lot of them very unflattering, that it was hard to make up my mind about who I was supposed to be.”

Global Superstar

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George Michael singing (1988)Getty

After deciding to stay mum about his private life for the moment, George was determined to “forge an identity through my success,” he’d said. And that he did: After a well-received Wham! tour and the guys signing a better record contract, George solely took over writing duties for their future projects. “I’ve always seen [songwriting] as the gift I was meant to protect. Never been any question about that,” he shared.

He certainly proved his worth on their next single, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which was one of the biggest earworms of the 80s and their first No. 1 single. That song, which he also produced, was instrumental in Wham! crossing over with similar success here in the U.S. It anchored their second album, 1984’s Make It Big, which also included hits such as “Everything She Wants,” “Freedom,” and that gem of a song George penned when he was just 17, “Careless Whisper.”

That now iconic smash was released, with Andrew’s permission, as a solo single in England, while credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael” here in America. “We always understand that there would be a point where there was a crossover between Wham! and the start of my solo career,” George notes in the Netflix documentary, and his childhood friend for decades didn’t want to stand in the way of his pal’s growth — not only as an artist, but as a person.

two men singing on stage ; young george michael
Geoge Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (1985)Getty

“His songwriting was becoming the vehicle in which he could draw out the person he wanted to be,” Andrew shared, adding that the lyrics to “Freedom” could “have equally related to his sexuality: Like a prisoner who has his own key, and [saw your] lover with another… He’s definitely referring to his own dilemmas.”

The red-hot reception “Careless Whisper” earned him would, of course, set the stage for the artist to head out on his own as a solo artist. But before that, George would be a featured vocalist on 1984’s Band-Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which was “really catchy…[and] a major threat to our [‘Last Christmas’],” a now classic holiday tune that came to George’s mind, and out from his pen, in an instant when he wrote it. That year, he won two prestigious Ivor Novello Awards, including for Songwriter of the Year. “I compare him to Barry Gibb, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, people like that,” Elton John, who presented George with one of his awards said, calling him “one of the best songwriters I’ve heard out of Britain for a long, long time.”

Flying Solo: Young George Michael

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George Michael (1988)Getty

George and Andrew still had some magic to make together after that, and Wham! set off on a 1985 world tour that sold out arenas. They also made history by becoming the first high-profile Western band to play in mainland China in the spring on 1985. Just a few months after returning from the east, George wowed audiences at July 1985’s historic Live Aid benefit concerts, performing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with Elton John at London’s Wembley Stadium. “George was emerging as an artist in his own right. At Live Aid, more than a billion people got to see that for themselves,” Andrew said of his bandmate’s career-defining appearance.

Ironically, Wembley would be the same arena in which the sun would set on Wham!, with George and Andrew giving their emotional farewell show there on June 28, 1986, right after releasing their third and final album together, Music From the Edge of Heaven. “Because I’d come out to Andrew, he understood it was more than a band at sake: It was kind of my sanity, and he didn’t put any sort of pressure on me to continue,” George said of his decision to move on professionally without his childhood friend.

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George Michael (2012)Getty

“We’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve and we’ve now been given the opportunity to finish it off better than anyone ever before,” George told Smash Hits magazine of his and Andrew’s last hurrah, joking about what the future held for him as a solo artist. “I know exactly what everyone will expect of me…to become a cross between Barry Manilow and [German big-band leader] James Last!”

But he aimed higher than that — and succeeded, going on to sell more than 120 millions records as a solo artist. “By the end of [Wham!’s days], I had no doubt that I could become an international solo success,” George insisted of his younger days with Andrew, “[but] I would always remember this journey, [which was] absolutely beautiful. And happy.”

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