Over the last few days, former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell has suggested that George Michael may have been tortured by a childhood secret that proved to be both the singer’s inspiration and his curse.
Michael was, of course, a global superstar, recognised as one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation. A string of bubblegum hits in the Eighties with Wham! made him the bedroom-wall-pin-up for teen girls – and some teen boys – around the world.
And as he outgrew the sockless deck shoes and coiffured highlights and forged a more contemporary image rendered in brooding charcoal and black and punctuated by goatees and designer shades, his songwriting became similarly substantial, its themes darker and more complex.
The work of any artist is often a mirror on their life and so there’s no reason to think George Michael’s artistic canon should be any less personally revealing.
Simon Napier-Bell clearly knows more than he’s prepared to let on about whatever it was in George Michael’s past that tormented and drove him – and that’s as it should be: knowing can serve no great purpose and would likely only diminish him in some way.
But the possibility that he experienced a life-changing traumatic event in childhood might explain much about the way in which he lived his life and does help us to identify similar patterns in others.
Put simply, life for George Michael was an emotional trainwreck. By the time he died the world had known – and accepted – for nearly 20 years that he was gay, yet it was a secret he had felt compelled to hide from everyone, including his family, until he was 35.
His first long-term partner as a gay man died from an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage only a year into the relationship. Michael grieved for three years. Just as he got back on his feet, he lost his mother. These are life-changing events for anyone, so It’s no wonder he later admitted to feeling cursed.
Then came the acting out.
Two arrests for lewd sexual behaviour, one in a public toilet on Hampstead Heath. Several arrests for possession of both Class A and Class C drugs. Two convictions for driving under the influence of drugs. A period of drug-related hospitalisation during part of which he was said to have been comatose. And then, in 2013, he fell from his moving car on the M1 in Hertfordshire.
Though these events all eventually became public, they were nevertheless George Michael’s secrets. The ‘perceived’ dirty laundry of his sexuality, addictions, health problems and grief were all safely locked away from all but his closest friends.
And in the end, secrets are dangerous. They are the slow-acting poison that eventually corrodes you from the inside out.
You’re only as sick as your secrets.
It’s a favourite quote within 12-step recovery programmes. Addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or anything else, is a process of deceit. Addicts deceive others to hide their addiction from public view and they deceive themselves, so they don’t have to face up to the problem.
This is known as the fur coat of denial and it’s often only when someone reaches rock bottom that denial is stripped away.
We also know that addiction almost always has its roots in past trauma and that the acting out – the psychological defence mechanism of performing an action rather than addressing what is causing the impulse to perform it – is a big fat clue pointing to emotional trauma.
With all that in mind, and whether Simon Napier-Bell wants to give a name to it or not, it doesn’t take much to join the dots of George Michael’s life and trace it all back to a negative event in his early life.
But the paradox of trauma is that whilst it is ultimately destructive, it can also be the inspiration that drives people to succeed and achieve in an attempt to overcome old wounds.
In this way, the successes in the George Michael story are as consistent with trauma as the lows are. And that doesn’t just apply to celebrities, though they fly and then crash and burn more publicly – it goes for anyone who has suffered or is suffering with trauma.
George Michael kept a great many secrets during his altogether too-short life. For good or ill, he obviously believed that revealing them would have a catastrophic effect on whatever equilibrium he thought there was in his life at any given point.
There are reports he was advised early in his life that admitting to being bisexual or gay would likely decimate the Wham! fan-base and end his pop-star journey before it had even really begun. Maybe he was told that the drug addiction would destroy his image or his credibility – or both. That having a boyfriend with HIV would make him somehow publicly toxic.
We’ll never know and, to George Michael at least, it doesn’t matter now anyway. But this is the noxious dark underbelly of the fame game, where a lifestyle that should be considered acceptable is somehow twisted in such a way that the only person who really matters – in this case George himself – is made to feel in some way ashamed of who they are and what they are perceived to represent.
The nature of celebrity is such that those in the spotlight are never permitted to be honest and so they end up living a lie. And even when the lie is exiled, its legacy remains. Long after his sexuality had ceased to be an issue, George Michael continued to live part of his life in shadow because of events that were in his past.
When he died, we learned of his unconditional philanthropy, of his empathy and his humanity and we realised we had lost an incredible human being who, for reasons we will never really know, was forced to hide a core part of himself from public view.
Just as we’ll never know whether he was told his lifestyle was a potential risk to his success, so we’ll also never know whether anyone ever told him that his secrets weren’t making life easier, they were just making him sicker.
Some secrets are there to be kept – the surprise anniversary trip or a piece of knowledge that, if revealed, can only hurt someone else.
But there’s a lesson for all of us in the George Michael story about facing up to the secrets that might be hiding something more personally toxic – because those old unaddressed secrets are the ones that are most corrosive and damaging of all – and encouraging others who we know to be struggling to do the same.