George Michael, Pop Icon And Gay Rights Activist, Dies At 53

By Keri Blakinger 12/27/16

The legendary singer's public battle with substance use and depression shadowed him throughout his career.

George Michael
Photo via USA Today/YouTube

Grammy winner and '80s pop icon George Michael died Sunday, December 25, of heart failure. He was 53. 

"It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period," the singer’s London-based publicist told USA Today in a statement. 

"The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage."

Throughout his life in the public eye, the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou enthralled fans with hits like “Last Christmas” and “Faith,” even as he struggled with addiction and run-ins with the law. 

The son of a Greek immigrant, Michael became a household name and steamy teen idol with the pop duo Wham! In 1989, his first solo album Faith nabbed a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. 

His life was, at times, taken as tabloid fodder—but he negotiated publicity both good and bad with a daring self-confidence. 

In 1998, he was arrested for allegedly "engaging in a lewd act" in a Los Angeles public bathroom. Three days later—at a time when gay marriage was still against the law in every state—Michael came out on CNN. He went on to become well-known as a gay rights activist. 

Another piece of tabloid talk was Michael’s ongoing struggle with substance use and depression. 

In the early '90s, Michael’s lover Anselmo Feleppa died of an AIDS-related illness and a few years later, Michael’s mother passed as well, kicking the singer into a dark spiral that took more than a decade to defeat.

“I’d say my recovery really started two years ago,” he told The Guardian in 2005. “So that’s 12 years of depression and fear, and lots of other shit. I swear to God it was like I had a curse on me. I couldn’t believe how much God was piling on at once. There was so much death around me, I can’t tell you.”

What pulled him out of it was a steady stream of Prozac and cannabis—but his drug use sometimes landed him on the wrong side of the law. At one point, it was widely reported, he was smoking 25 joints a day. 

In 2006, he was arrested in London for possession of cannabis, and in 2007 he was slapped with a two-year driving ban after pleading guilty to driving under the influence, according to the BBC. 

The following year he was cautioned for possessing Class A and Class C substances. 

In 2010, he was charged with pot possession and driving under the influence after he plowed into a storefront while returning from a Gay Pride parade. The incident briefly landed the singer behind bars, but he later cited it as a turning point.

“It shook me out of my denial. After that crash happened, I started drug counseling and was two weeks in detox, none of which I made public,” he said, according to People

In 2014, he said he’d abstained from cannabis for more than 18 months, but the following year he checked into rehab for marijuana addiction, as The Fix previously reported. 

But even as he battled his own demons, the “Heal the Pain” singer was secretly doling out charitable gifts. It wasn’t till after his death that accounts of his clandestine largesse starting surfacing across the internet. 

He quietly donated millions to a children’s charity, gave financial support for HIV-fighting advocacy group Terrence Higgins Trust and donated all of Wham!’s “Last Christmas/Everything She Wants” royalties to Ethiopian famine relief.

“He was determined not to make his generosity public so no one outside the charity knew how much he gave to the nation’s most vulnerable children,” Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen told the Press Association.

After Sunday’s tragic announcement, musicians and fans across the world banded together to share memories of the singer and mourn his passing.

“I am in deep shock. I have lost a beloved friend—the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist,” Elton John wrote on Instagram. “My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.