Double Wham!my George Michael & Andrew Ridgeley Are Making It Big
"Brooke, who's the man you want to meet most right now?"
"Brooke: "George Michael."
Several weeks before Brooke's prayers are finally answered, Michael and Andrew Ridgeley have arranged to satisfy a reporter's curiosity at an exclusive back-street club in London's West End, a rich man's pleasure palace that seems to be popular with trysting couples seeking discretion. Ridgeley, Wham!'s lesser half, is alone at the bar, an eyebrow raised to no good. He carefully tracks the shapely rear end of a blonde as it disappears—with her ex-husband—up the corner staircase. Moments later, camouflaged by dark glasses and a new beard, George Michael arrives, perfectly tanned and so sublime it's easy to imagine the waves of swooning females he has left in his wake. A girl looks through the window; her eyes widen to the size of billiard balls. Having spent the morning escaping the crush of fans, Michael is able to put the phenomenon of fame into perspective.
"When we suddenly became a screamed-at band, it was obviously very exciting and hard to pull back from," he explains. "But at the beginning of the year the newspapers decided we were the closest thing to the royal family in terms of selling papers. And fame for us in England now has gone well beyond pop fame, making normal life totally wankers."
Deftly ushered up a narrow staircase and through a concealed door in the paneling, Michael and Ridgeley plop on overstuffed chintz sofas in a parlor oozing opulence. Adjacent is a bedroom dominated by a round, canopy-covered bed—a sexual carousel. Erotic oil paintings decorate the walls, and one in particular, three nudes bathing, prompts a brief, scientific discussion of the effects of gravity on bosoms. "And the critics call us lightweights," Ridgeley laughs. "Well, bollocks!"
Michael and Ridgeley are sitting across from each other, flinging small silk pillows into the bedroom, symbols one imagines of the countless sexual partners these two must have deposited in this brothel-like hideout. Michael, tired of blond curls, has let his hair return to its natural dark brown color. Ridgeley, his black hair newly cropped to within an inch of his scalp, is lamenting the diminutive size of his nose, the result of plastic surgery last spring. They are an odd pair of 22-year-olds: Michael, ambitious, talented, soft and romantic; Ridgeley, a scamp, outgoing and energetic. Still, the mix is potent. "There's no doubt that our ambition is to become the biggest band in the world, and I think it's within our reach," Michael says with a cockiness regularly mistaken for conceit. "Why not? There's nothing to be ashamed of when it's proven."
The kid could be onto something. With their pictures on dozens of products sold at London street corners, their concerts guaranteed sellouts—including their first U.S. tour which ended in Philadelphia two weeks ago—and even a line of clothes that recently debuted in Bloomingdale's, Michael and Ridgeley are no mere Wham!-bam-thank-you-ma'am overnight sensation. Toss in three No. 1 hits from their triple platinum LP, Make it Big, and Wham! has to be considered a title contender.
In his own mind Michael is already a titleholder: the shrewdest craftsman of commercial tunes. "People want to be able to hear something and," he snaps his fingers, "like it instantly, and those are the type of songs I write." Ever since he was a kid carrying around his demo tapes and thinking, "Somebody has got to want to make money from these," Michael has taken it for granted that he could produce hit after hit. "All my life has been spent listening intensely to chart music. The structures that people feel comfortable with are the ones that come to mind. So when I'm writing, I don't have to make it sound like a pop record. It just comes naturally." Elton John, for one, couldn't agree more, calling Michael "the Paul McCartney of his generation."
Despite his confidence, Michael is irked by critics who regularly dismiss Wham! as so much gloss 'n' goo. "It's not that you're not selling records, because, Christ, past however many million you're not worrying about your bank balance," says Michael, the market analyst. "It's just the idea that people who could have your music in their home, don't."
Wham!'s ascension to pop aristocracy, despite contractual squabbles early in its career with former management, proved swift. Six months after submitting a demo tape made for $30, Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)be-came a U.K. disco gold mine. Three more hit singles off their 1983 LP, Fantastic, followed, making Michael and Ridgeley England's favorite white soul boys. But in retrospect Michael would rather forget that first album. "To me it sounds like a white group trying to sound like a black group and not doing it terribly well," he says.
New material was not forthcoming until Michael wrote the infectious, Mo-town-inspired Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, which he calls "obviously the one you'd choose to criticize as light." Nevertheless, included on Wham!'s second album, Make It Big, Go-Go went-went straight to No. 1. Make It Big did likewise, topping the U.S. charts for three weeks.
After lunch at the club, Michael starts in on his third bag of malted-milk balls. Ridgeley asks if he isn't going a little heavy on the chocolate, and Michael quickly retorts, "I've been giving you half," thereby providing the perfect metaphor for their longtime and extremely loyal friendship.
The partnership is definitely lopsided—never has been equal, never will be. Michael writes nearly all the material, arranges and sings lead on all the songs and produces all the albums. On the drawing board after the next Wham! album is a solo project for Michael. Everywhere but in the U.S. Careless Whisper was released as a George Michael single. It's Michael who calls all the shots, takes the raves and gets the girls, including it seems the ethereal Brooke, who met with Michael for post-concert rendezvous in Chicago and Philly. No apologies or explanations needed, though Michael makes an oblique stab at the latter. "I happen to know that, in terms of my songwriting, Andrew is perhaps my biggest fan. He doesn't mind standing aside and allowing my writing to follow its most natural course, which is also the quickest way for us to achieve our goals. But Andrew is my reference point. Ever since we met I've been strongly influenced by him—and not just because he has always led me into trouble."
Ridgeley flings a pillow at Michael. "The strength of our friendship is that we've known each other so long there are no surprises," he explains. Even Michael's solo plans fail to provoke a negative reaction from the happy-go-lucky guitarist. "I know the range he is capable of, and it's ridiculous to think he should waste fantastic songs just because they don't fit into what we want to do as Wham!"
The two met when Michael, then a tall, fat 12-year-old stuck behind a pair of thick glasses, moved with his family to Bushey, a middle-class suburb in Hertfordshire, and took a seat in school next to Ridgeley, the class rascal. Though by age 7 Michael had decided to become a pop star, it was Ridgeley, "wanting some sort of fame," who suggested they form a band. Michael first wanted to complete his O levels (a series of high school exams), but by the time they turned 16, Ridgeley had talked both out of school and into pursuing fame and fortune as rockers.
Their first band was called the Executives, and rehearsal on Day One was almost their last. Five musicians plugged into a single amp that passed out electric shocks whenever anyone approached. Before the day was over, the amp blew up, and soon the group followed suit, with Michael and Ridgeley agreeing to carry on alone.
It was a shrewd decision. With their latest royalty check both will see their bank accounts climb past the million-pound mark ($1,390,000). And admitting to only three clear-the-air-type arguments over the past few years, it's plain that both rely on each other for support to get through the craziness. "It's hard to understand teen idolatry unless you live it," Ridgeley says.
It's an understatement to say that Ridgeley's reputation as a hellion precedes him at most of London's night spots. "Animal Andy," as the British tabloids have dubbed him, regularly makes the papers for displays of drunken excess, perhaps to compensate for all the attention Michael receives. He was asked to leave the post-Live Aid party for being too wild, and days later was seen outside the Hippodrome being sick on the sidewalk.
Such incidents, put under a microscope by the British press, are merely random glimpses into their private lives, their most precious possession. Until recently each of the dynamite duo lived with his parents. Ridgeley, whose father is a sales exec and mother is a teacher, still lives at home, in a room wallpapered with photos of himself. "I'm well overdue to get out, but I'm lazy," he explains, embarrassed. (He won't often allow photos taken of himself with his dad and mum, lest it hurt his image.) Meanwhile Michael, the son of a restaurant owner and a housewife, moved out of the family home four months ago and began renting a two-story flat in central London. Already, he complains, legions of girls have begun to patrol outside. While Michael will reveal that he lost his virginity at 12, he remains silent on his current romantic adventures. "A long time ago we figured out we'd looked stupid giving people the impression we wanted them to know of our endeavors in bed," he says.
Both Michael and Ridgeley find security within their families. Much to Ridgeley's chagrin, his younger brother Paul just signed a contract with Wham!'s first manager. "I told him to get a good lawyer," he says. Michael, whose real last name is Panayiotou, has given his sister Melanie the sacred chore of styling his hair and his other sister, Yiorda, a job as backup singer in their band. When the 200-million member Youth Federation of China invited Wham! to become the first Western rock group to tour the mainland last spring, Michael and Ridgeley took along their families rather than groupies. "It was incredible to think you'd introduced that sort of thing to them, that you were the first to show them rock 'n' roll," Michael says, referring to the Chinese, not his family. "It was a little piece of history to call our own." With that in hand, the boys are looking forward to their next objective: a big piece of history.