Profile: George Michael, careless driver

FOR the generations too young to remember Young Guns, Wham Rap!, and short-lived fad for wearing espadrilles to nightclubs, George Michael is hard to place. They might know him as a comedy sub-plot on EastEnders, idolised by the hapless Heather Trott, or recognise one of his solo singles from TOTP2. But given his recent history, they are more likely to associate him with car crashes and public toilets than top-selling singles.

His most recent entanglement with a pavement was on July 4. Driving home from a Gay Pride party at 3.40am, Michael crashed his Range Rover into the Hampstead branch of Snappy Snaps. Police found him slumped over the steering wheel, "wide-eyed, confused and dripping with sweat". He initially denied driving into anything - the officers had to spell out to him what had occurred - and was unable to walk in a straight line. They found two joints in his pockets and traces of cannabis, but no alcohol, in his blood. The court later heard that he had also taken a potent prescription drug, Amitriptyline, to help him sleep.

Michael admitted driving under the influence of drugs and possessing cannabis. He was given a six-month interim driving ban before being sentenced next month. The judge has not ruled out jail.

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Meanwhile the local wits have been at work. The bashed shop front already has the legend Wham by George scrawled on it.

Michael, 47, is as familiar with controversy as he is with the charts. He has sold 100 million records but, since his arrest in a public toilet in Beverly Hills in 1998, for "engaging in a lewd act", sex and drugs have overshadowed the rock'n'roll. Since 2006, he has been questioned by police over his driving five times. He was banned for two years, and given 100 hours community service, after being found asleep at the wheel of his Mercedes with cannabis in his pocket. He was also cautioned after being found with crack cocaine and cannabis in a public toilet in Hampstead Heath.

None of which was part of the script when two 18-year-old lads from a commuter town in Hertfordshire first brought the pungent smell of hair gel and testosterone to the pop charts in 1981. As Wham!, Michael and school friend Andrew Ridgely created the soundtrack to the early days of Thatcherism.

Back in the day, Wham! were absolutely enormous. They played Wembley stadium and were the first pop group to tour China. But Michael was outgrowing his teenage fan base. He performed on the Band Aid single without Ridgely and had an immense solo hit with Careless Whisper before the pair officially split.

When they did, Michael's new career looked to be on the same upward trajectory. He re-emerged in 1987 with a more soulful sound and a jawful of what became known as designer stubble. For his first album, Faith, he wrote all the songs, played most of the instruments and drove the mixing desk himself.He also recorded a duet, I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, with one of his heroines, Aretha Franklin. It won them a Grammy.

So Michael was a huge international stud muffin star. Yet it was an open secret among his friends, music insiders and one of his two sisters that the author of the aggressively heterosexual I Want Your Sex was gay.

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He was also weary of the endless demands of the music industry. Faith sold 20 million copies, thanks to full-scale promotion, stadium shows, glossy video shoots and awards ceremonies. For the follow-up, Listen Without Prejudice, Michael refused to tour or even appear in any videos. One of the tracks, Freedom '90, even hinted at the struggles of a gay man in the closet. It did have a video of sorts, directed by the now acclaimed David Fincher, with supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford lip synching Michael's words.

That was not enough for Sony and they scrapped the follow-up, signalling the end of their relationship.

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Meanwhile, his private life was falling apart. Michael's partner, Anselmo Feleppa, died in 1993 of an Aids-related illness. His mother died four years later. He spent much of the decade in a deep depression.

Michael now admits that being arrested in a Beverly Hills toilet was his subconscious attempt to force the issue.

"Aids was the predominant feature of being gay in the 1980s and early 90s as far as any parent was concerned," he told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. "My mother was still alive and every single day would have been a nightmare for her thinking what I might have been subjected to."

The singer who kept his private life under lockdown for two decades even told Radio 4 listeners he wished he had been caught cottaging when he was 19.

"I wish to God it had happened then. I don't think I would have the same career - my ego might not have been satisfied in some areas - but I think I would have been a happier man." But the thought of his mother's torment kept him silent. "I was too immature to know I was sacrificing as much as I was."

Michael is now in a long-term relationship with Kenny Goss. They have houses in north London and Dallas, where Goss runs an art gallery. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates Michael's wealth at 90m. His daily routine centres around drinking Starbucks, smoking spliffs (down from 25 a day to eight) and watching Big Brother.

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Having accepted a hefty advance from HarperCollins to produce his autobiography, he has handed it back, feeling he is not yet ready to write. He released a Christmas single and DVD last year then played three Australian dates in February and March. Between then and the Snappy Snaps incident, his little namesake on EastEnders - Heather named her illegitimate son George - has been busier.

Michael, however, is relieved that his days at the coalface of hit-mining are over and that everyone knows the truth."People want to see me as tragic with all the cottaging and drug-taking," he said last year. "I think it removes people's envy to see your weaknesses. I'm surprised that I've survived my own dysfunction."