You probably went about your day without knowing that it was the 25-year anniversary of George Michael being outed as gay by the press. That’s because it’s a perfunctory thing to commemorate, but Channel 4’s two-part documentary, George Michael: Outed, marked the occasion anyway.
The first episode explored the week in 1998 in which Michael’s life and career were thrown into disarray after he was arrested for lewd conduct in a public toilet. Subsequent tabloid scrutiny culminated in the famous CNN interview in which the singer told the world that he was a gay man.
When he died in 2016, Michael left a legacy as a candid, fiercely protective figure, a celebrated LGBT rights campaigner, and a ferociously talented pop star. But his star power is diminished in this documentary, which was more interested in the grisly story of how the tabloids secured the exclusive that shoved him out of the closet.
The talking heads included Michael’s friends and family (such as ex-boyfriend Kenny Goss and cousin Andros Georgiou) as well as numerous former tabloid editors, who spoke with notable relish of the power they wielded during the 1990s.
“We had a motto: ‘your misfortune is our fortune’, because we made money when things went wrong for celebrities,” explained Kevin Smith, the founder of the celebrity news agency Splash News. Of Michael’s release on bail after his arrest, Bill Coles, a former New York correspondent at The Sun, said: “He [left] the police station like a shot rabbit, and we [went] after him.”
Outed was littered with such disturbing comments, pointing to the tabloids’ blurring of the private and public lives of famous people. The probing into Michael’s personal life made for uncomfortable viewing.
“All great celebrity stories are essentially about hypocrisy,” explained Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of The Sun and News of the World. “The great tabloid hit is stripping away the façade and showing the truth.”
In other words, there was apparently a flagrant dishonesty in being gay and not telling everyone about it. But by their own admission, the tabloids bore some responsibility for Michael’s sex-symbol status.
Newspaper cuttings show showbiz columnists assuring readers not to panic at the rumours. “Andy Ridgeley and George Michael are two of the biggest womanisers in the Western world,” wrote one, while another noted that Michael in particular favoured “big-boobed” women.
Michael did have support from others in Outed. Holly Johnson, DJ Fat Tony and the Reverend Richard Coles took viewers through the heady gay scene of the 1980s, illustrating the secrecy and subordination required simply to exist. Pop stars Will Young and Olly Alexander appeared briefly, reflecting on the noxious era Michael withstood, and a number of other men who were also outed by the press talked us through the immense pressure and intense haunting that followed.
Outed went to great lengths to explain that the hostility towards homosexuality was due to the “moral panic” of the Aids crisis, but it all felt impossible to parse as one coherent piece of work. It did nothing to celebrate Michael’s steeliness during such a brutal undoing, nor was it willing to admonish the publications that steamrollered people’s lives.
We have come a long way since 1998, but without a more critical eye from documentaries like Outed, there is still much healing to be done.