George Michael's Former Publicist Reflects on the Lawsuit That Crippled His Career

Kevin Mazur
Michael Pagnotta and George Michael

"George Michael, pop star, was no more. It was a world-class implosion and completely voluntary."

I was there at the High Court in London in 1993, the day George Michael testified in his lawsuit against Sony, in which he sought to be released from his recording contract.

“How are you doing?” I asked, as we waited for him to be called to the stand. “I’m shitting myself,” George said with a nervous smile.

After months of tabloid shots across the bow, it had come down to this. Were he to win, George would have done something no other artist had been able to do. Lose, and he was just … done.

“Anything I can get you?” I offered.

“Yeah,” he replied. “A fifth of Jack Daniel’s for the witness stand.”

For some, the headline was: "Ungrateful Multimillionaire Superstar Raged Against the Machine and Got His Famous Ass Handed to Him." They said he got what he deserved. I say he got what he wanted. George Michael, singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, performer, philanthropist, son, brother, friend and lover would live on, but George Michael, pop star, was no more. It was a world-class implosion and completely voluntary.

That is the thing that made George different from his contemporaries. He was willing to pay the price of his rebellion. While Prince, with whom I also worked, wrote "slave" on his face, recorded furiously and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, in part to escape his Warner Bros. Records contract, George retreated. He wouldn’t tour again for 17 years and would record new material only sporadically. Fences with Sony were eventually mended, for the sake of greatest hits packages, but it was far too late to matter. A large swath of his fans either had been alienated or bored or moved on to the next big thing. The bathroom incident in Beverly Hills kicked the last nail in.

George played the game on the way up but not on the way down. I never asked him why. He was an intensely private person keeping a few big secrets at the time, and I just assumed he’d had enough.  

“I’m done chasing it,” he said to me in a candid moment at the time. And he was. The fans ultimately returned for his recent tours, singing back at George from the rafters. The best part was they had come for the only reason that mattered to him: The music.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard

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