Thembisa Mshaka On Her First Swirl Crush: George Michael
Thembisa Mshaka On Her First Swirl Crush: George Michael
Photo of George Michael taken by Ebet Roberts/Redferns.

Thembisa Mshaka On Her First Swirl Crush: George Michael

Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

We fall in love, break up and make up to the music of artists, whose lyrics and performances give voice to the emotions we carry.

Some, we fall head over heels for. I did this over Michael Jackson as a young girl. And it was understood. My mother had done the same. I was a young black girl, born to parents who grew up listening to doo-wop and Motown. Michael was the obvious heartthrob. (Prince was off and running in the late ‘70s too, but he was strictly forbidden in my Muslim household—which is how I became a rabid Prince fan in college).

Then came junior high school. 1982. For me, it was summer between seventh and eighth grade. Growing up in Los Angeles, I watched Video One with Richard Blade religiously, and was exposed to all the Euro-pop and rock that would serve as my counterpoint to all the black music I had been raised on. A lot of that music echoed blues and soul, but the fashion, make-up and energy of these groups was so different. Richard Blade was a British transplant who had traded London for L.A. and become a top rated DJ on the prominent rock station, KROQ. His video show was appointment TV for me after school.

In the summer of 1982, Richard Blade opened my eyes to my first white boy crush: a duo called Wham!, made up of teenage dreamboats George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Now, they were both adorable. But Andrew was on guitar and looking off somewhere else half the time. But George? He would lock eyes with me (well, the camera) and not let go. “Wham! Rap” and “Young Guns” were the pair’s first singles off their indie debut album, Fantastic. Because I already loved hip-hop, their bubble gum attempts at rapping just made me love them more. Running through the streets of London, wind in hair, all carefree exuberance, free of the over-the-top presentation of our ruling stateside R&B and pop singers like Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie, Jeffrey Osborne… all of whom felt way too old to crush on.

And so, I became smitten with that other Michael.

To the point where he occupied space in my locker at the predominantly white, all-girls school I attended until I graduated in 1988. George Michael had prime real estate in a collage with Michael and Janet Jackson, Dorothy Dandridge and Malcolm X. And while I came to love the music and videos of David Bowie, Duran Duran, Robert Palmer, Culture Club, English Beat, Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode and Thomas Dolby over the course of the decade, this black girl was sprung on George Michael. Wham! could do no wrong. They paid homage to Motown with “Freedom,” where you can hear The Supremes “I Hear A Symphony” and The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself” all up and through the track. The horn arrangements on “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go) and “Club Tropicana” recalled those of Earth, Wind & Fire and The Ohio Players—just more glossy than funky. No comparison obviously, but Wham! had been doing their musical homework, and carved out a sound that became necessary listening for me. “Everything She Wants,” Careless Whisper,” and the aforementioned “Freedom” were all anthems for surviving the angst and longing that came with adolescence. And then, in 1987, seeming to know that I needed him all to myself, George went solo.

No hard feelings, Andrew. It was just time.

He crossed the bridge from playful bandmate to serious solo star with 1986’s Grammy-winning hit, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” sung with The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. In a sense, this would become George’s guest pass into black music spaces, allowing folks my parents’ age to learn what I already knew. This was one bad white boy. Like, Michael McDonald, Elton John levels of bad. But younger. Smoother. More sublime. He took the stage with Stevie Wonder at The Apollo. He straight up stole a few bars of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” on the Band Aid charity single. And his lead single from the 1987 debut Faith got him censored from American radio, replacing “love” where the word “sex” was sung on the insistent and undeniably funky smash, “I Want Your Sex”.

Photo of George MICHAEL Photo taken by Associated Press.

George’s creamy falsetto took a back seat to a guttural, low whispering vocal performance, igniting all manner of impure thoughts. Oh well. Sex was uncharted territory for me, but that did not matter. George and I were in this thing. This song had the words pornography and monogamy in it, and from my vantage point, he was literally asking whether I thought it was time I’d had sex… with him. Then, he turned around and shook his cute little booty in “Faith,” slaying with a guitar, aviator shades and a Moto jacket as his weapons of choice. In songs like “One More Try,” “Father Figure” and “Hard Day,” George Michael had a potent and much more balanced mix of sexual boldness and raw vulnerability that hadn’t met its match from a young black male solo singer-songwriter until, say… Eric Benet or Maxwell. And he was making straight up R&B music. To the point where if you hadn’t seen him, you’d swear he was black.

By now, I am in the undertow of this swirl with the British boy whose caramel brown eyes burn through every album and single cover, every music video… until he refused to appear in one, replacing himself with the only people who could since he was so ridiculously fine: supermodels. Enter “Freedom ‘90,” the record that marked his line in the sand in his lawsuit with Columbia Records. “I don’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to me/Freedom/You’ve gotta give for what you take”. This song became an anthem for any and every relationship. He may have been speaking to his label, but for the fans, he gave voice to the frustration of navigating the choppy waters of identity, being misunderstood, dating, love and sex.

By the time I had come to Sony Music as a member of its creative department in 1998, George had parted ways with Sony and gone to record for Dreamworks/Virgin in the years prior. But be clear: Older is my jam too. My loyalty never waned. You don’t leave a man that sexually liberated, that emotionally intelligent, whether you’re in an actual relationship or not. Or rather, songs by a man like that don’t leave you. And I was definitely in a relationship with his voice, his melodies, his poetry and his entire catalog.

Months into my time at the company, my one-sided, decades long love affair with and encyclopedic knowledge of music by George Michael would win me the coveted assignment of campaign copywriter for Ladies And Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael. When I got the news that I would actually get to work on an album of all the songs that sent me head over heels for an icon I’d never dreamed I would meet? You couldn’t tell me nothing. This time, George was signed to the Epic label, and then Design Director Carol Chen was my creative partner on the design of the 29 song, 2-disc box set. We would geek out over our good fortune. Working on a George Michael project was up there with Sade.

We had struck gold.

One day, Carol and I happened to be in the Sony Music elevator bank at 550 Madison, on our way up to the creative floors, which were above the label floors. We’re waiting for the matte slate grey metal doors to open. We’re chit-chatting about our recent assignment the week before. The doors open.

They part to reveal…him. George. Michael.

Thembisa Mshaka On Her First Swirl Crush: George Michael Photo by Putland/Retnauk/Starface.

He is everything any lover of George dreams that he would be in the flesh. Glowing, glorious, effortlessly impeccable. To imagine a 40-something Chinese American lesbian woman and my twenty-something straight black self standing within breath’s reach of George Michael would be to imagine us high-pitch screaming our heads clean off. At him. Like 15-year-olds at the Faith tour. In the Sony lobby. Professionalism and decorum left our bodies. We screamed at him for at least 5 seconds. He waited for it to stop, patiently. In hindsight, he had no choice. Because, we were screaming and blocking his path.

Him: “Hello, ladies.” He excused himself easily, because we were frozen post-scream. Then, we remembered ourselves as his perfect hair and clean scent floated past us, our hands shaking uncontrollably. We stepped into his elevator and as the doors closed, screamed some more, up 29 floors.

Sidebar: It has probably eased a bit now, but in the ‘90s, pre-social media, Sony executives were not allowed to fan out or ask for photos or autographs from artists—and it really would have been silly to do it anyway, because one day it’s [Bruce] Springsteen, [Barbara] Streisand, or Tony Bennett at the office, another day it’s Shakira or Beyoncé, so you’d be exhausted if you kept that up. And you’d be fired. But no one saw or heard us except our beloved George, so we figured we were safe.

Carol and I part ways upstairs. Hyperventilating, heart pounding, I settle back in at my desk. I can’t think. I can’t see straight. My first swirl and I just shared air. I am jarred back to reality by the digital chirp of my phone. It read: Barnett, S., Asst.

This is a problem.

Steve Barnett was the Chairman of Epic Records at the time, where George Michael had now join the roster, after selling 100 million albums for Columbia. It could not be a coincidence that his office was calling me, the screaming copywriter. It just can’t. I’ve been summoned. I just got this job. I moved across the country for this job. Seconds later, Carol is at my door. She’s been summoned too. Oh. Shit.

Carol and I are looking at each other and praying to our respective higher powers as we ride the fateful elevator back down to Epic. Steve beckons us to his office’s reception area. He greets us with a neutral face, then an outward gesture with one arm. “Carol and Thembisa, allow me to introduce you to George Michael. He’s here for meetings about the box set. Thought he should meet his advertising team. George, meet your writer and designer.”

George Michael masks any trace of our elevator encounter minutes before. He locks those dancing eyes with us as he takes each of our hands, shaking mine with gentlemanly enthusiasm. He got my name right off the bat, smiling that unforgettable, perfect smile widely, while holding back a nearly indiscernible chuckle. He winks at me and nods at Carol. “Thembisa, Carol, what a pleasure to meet you both.” Our secret is in fact, still between the three of us. I fall even harder and more deeply in love; this swirl cannot be undone. He was part cowboy, part angel and all gentleman.

Though gone far too soon, may Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, known to the world as George Michael, rest well.

Thembisa S. Mshaka was the Creative Campaign Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael. She is also a business author. Chuck D of Public Enemy calls her book, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your Entertainment Business, “the definitive industry bible.”