George Michael, the British bubble-gum teen idol turned international pop star known for his flamboyant style and sexually provocative lyrics, died on Christmas in England.
He was 53 years old. A publicist reported the death but provided no cause.
Michael, whose real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, first stepped into the global spotlight in the early ’80s as a member of Wham!, a duo whose brand of blue-eyed soul produced a series of lively hits, including “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper” and the enduring holiday ballad “Last Christmas.”
In 1987, his fame exploded with the release of his debut solo album, “Faith,” which won a 1988 Grammy for album of the year and produced some of the most sexually provocative hit singles of that era, including “I Want Your Sex” and “Father Figure.”
These songs, which some American radio stations refused to play at the time, helped burnish Michael’s image as a sex symbol – an image which stayed with him as he pursued club-oriented pop music for the rest of his career, all of which benefited from the richness of his voice and the sultriness of his phrasing.
“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,” his publicist said in a statement. “The family would ask their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.”
Michael was born in London June 25, 1963, the youngest of three children of Jack Panayiotou, a Greek immigrant and restaurant owner, and Lesley Panayiotou, a homemaker.
He attributed his pop-star ambitions to a tape recorder his parents gave him for his seventh birthday. “I literally never entertained any other thought in my entire childhood and adolescence after that,” he said in a 1998 interview for Rolling Stone.
It was a few years later at Bushey Meads School where he met Andrew Ridgeley, his partner in Wham! and an influence in Michael’s music and style.
Michael gained notoriety in 1998 after he was arrested in Beverly Hills for engaging in a lewd act alone in a public restroom. This incident prompted the artist to publicly reveal that he was gay in an interview with CNN.
“I don’t feel any shame. I feel stupid and I feel reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed this way. But I don’t feel any shame whatsoever,” he said in the interview.
After that, Michael was more outspoken about his sexuality, giving interviews about why he kept his private life secret for much of his time in the spotlight.
In one 2014 interview, he said he didn’t want his family to fear that he would contract HIV in the 1980s and 1990s. In another, he said hiding his sexuality made him feel “fraudulent.”
The pop star has been arrested numerous times for illegal drug possession. In 2010, he landed in jail for a month after he crashed his car while high on marijuana.
He released his last album of new songs, called “Patience,” in 2004. A decade later, he released “Symphonica,” an album documenting a tour a few years earlier.
Michael’s public life has been quieter after he survived a serious case of pneumonia.
Immediately after his death was announced on Christmas Day, tributes started pouring in.
“I am in deep shock,” singer Elton John wrote alongside a picture he posted on Instagram of himself and Michael. “I have lost a beloved friend – the kindest, most generous soul and brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans.”
“He was such a brilliant talent,” American comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. “I’m so sad.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Richards contributed to this report.