1. His band, Wham!, was first Western pop artist to perform in the People’s Republic of China, in 1985
Queen and the Rolling Stones also wanted the historic gig, but after 18 months of appeals and negotiations by Wham!’s management, Chinese authorities granted the duo the opportunity to perform in Beijing and Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), performances that documented in the film Foreign Skies: Wham! In China. Chinese audiences, whose concert experiences for decades had been only Communist-approved ballet and Chinese opera, were confused by the volume of the music, and how George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley moved around onstage while performing. At the time, listening to “Western” music in China could lead to arrest and spending the night in jail. In an interview with BBC, Chinese concert-goer Lin Wenjun remembered, “Not many people knew about them at the time, but I listened to their music on Hong Kong radio, which wasn’t blocked back then (Hong Kong was still a British colony)…Before that day, I had only seen a ballet performance, so the concert was a shocking experience because of all the lights and the stereo sound. I wanted to sing along with the lyrics but I didn’t dare because no one else in the audience was singing.” (This was, of course, long before George Michael was banned from the BBC in the UK, and from radio play in several cities across the US, for his then-scandalous “I Want Your Sex.”)
2. As a solo artist, he crossed racial and ethnic boundaries into what was once know as “Black” music
In the 1980s, the U.S. Billboard charts included “Top Black Albums” & “Hot Black Singles.” (They were renamed R&B, based on “rhythm and blues,” in 1990.) In May 1988, George Michael was the first white solo artist to top the Black Albums chart, with ‘Faith’ (the top-selling album of 1988) holding the #1 spot there for six weeks. He also topped the Black Singles chart in June 1988 with gospel-tinged ballad “One More Try.” He even won a Grammy in 1988 for Best R&B Performance, for his song “Knew You Were Waiting,” a duet with Aretha Franklin. This phase of his career was a sharp departure from his dance-pop past while performing with Andrew Ridgeley as Wham!, and he was never classified as an R&B artist. But R&B and gospel continued to influence his music, such as songs like “Freedom ’90,” and he paved the way for the genre to include later artists such as Lisa Stansfield, Robyn, P!nk, and Robin Thicke.
3. He had to persuade Linda Evangelista to appear in his “Freedom ‘90” video
After his worldwide success with Faith, George Michael was weary of music videos and photo shoots, famously vowing to never appear before a camera again. His label demanded a music video for his gospel-funk anthem of rebellious self-actualization, “Freedom ’90,” so he decided the lyrics would be lipsynched by other people. Inspired by Peter Lindbergh’s January 1990 cover spread in British Vogue, he insisted that all five of the cover models – Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford – be cast for the shoot with director David Fincher. “He thought it would make us into a big deal, that it would be good for us,” said Evangelista. “I was like, ‘Please, we’re here. We’ve already arrived!’” He called her himself, eventually convincing her to rearrange her schedule, and the night before the shoot, she was up until 3 a.m. bleaching her hair platinum white. “It was so much fun,” she said of the shoot, “Little did I know that to this day, when someone meets me for the first time, they bring up that video. That’s what they remember,” she admits, “So, yeah, George was right.”
4. He gave millions, and millions, to charity—usually in secret
In the hours after his death was publicized, his generous secret donations revealed, including anecdotes of cash gifts to needy individuals, to sustained donations to British charities including Childline (which provides free phone counseling to British citizens 18 or under), the Terrence Higgins Trust (an HIV/AIDS charity), and Macmillan Cancer Support. Dame Esther Rantzen, founder and presidnet of Childline, spoke out praising the singer, saying Michael had given the organizations “millions,” and insisted on doing so anonymously. “For years now he has been the most extraordinarily generous philanthropist, giving money to Childline, but 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.” The money he donated included the royalties from his song “Jesus To A Child,” which Michael wrote as a somber tribute to his former lover, Anselmo Feleppa. The two met while Michael was in Rio de Janeiro to perform in 1991. Feleppa died two years later from an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage.
5. His career was still going strong, 35 years after he formed Wham! in 1981
Although known as a 1980’s and 90’s artist in the U.S., George Michael’s career thrived up until his death. He continued to tour well into the 21st century, and his album Symphonica, featuring songs recorded from live performances at Royal Albert Hall in London, debuted in the U.K. at #1 in 2014.
Bonus Fact: Although speculations abounded about the true nature of his relationship with Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley, the two really were just business partners and friends. Ridgeley is now married to Keren Woodward, a fellow 80’s icon as a member of the girl group Bananarama.