Shirlie Kemp is recalling the moment she showed her best friend George Michael and her son Roman’s early YouTube videos. What should have been a simple proud mum moment was far more profound for George, who saw in his godson something he had always longed for – the ability to be unapologetically himself.
“Roman was just a teenager then and had started doing his own YouTube show,” says Shirlie. “I was showing George and he said, ‘I’m so proud of him, he’s so confident.’ He was absolutely fascinated.
“Going back to George as a teenager, he didn’t have that confidence and what he saw through Roman he thought was incredible – there’s this young boy who was just being himself.
“In our era, you had to create something to be someone, like Prince and Madonna, whereas in my kids’ generation it’s all reality TV.”
Shirlie, 60, is “hiding from the builders” at her new countryside home when we chat over Zoom. She shares the house with her husband, Spandau Ballet bass player Martin Kemp, also 60. They have two children together – Harley, 32, a singer-songwriter, and radio DJ and presenter Roman, 29.
Joining us is fellow Wham! backing singer Pepsi DeMacque-Crockett, who’s fresh from a workout. She’s 4,000 miles away in sun-soaked St Lucia, where she lives with her husband James Crockett. The 63-year-old, born Helen DeMacque, runs a sailing charter company and is also writing a novel.
Even via video link, the pair’s 40-year friendship is a joy to witness as they digress to discuss the Queen’s star sign. Pepsi thinks Aries, Shirlie correctly says she’s a Taurus. “She’s so strong and stoic. When the going gets tough she just goes quiet and when she’s silent you know she’s really fuming,” says Shirlie, laughing.
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The topic of the Queen evokes a happy memory for Shirlie. “I was with George when Prince William and Kate named their son George,” she recalls. “We had the news on and George just stood up on the sofa and started cheering. He was so happy he shared the same name.”
The epitome of 1980s pop, Pepsi and Shirlie traveled the world as backing singers and dancers for Wham! between 1982 and 1986. After the band split, they released their debut album All Right Now as a duo and have gone on to record backing vocals for Geri Horner.
They feature in a new autobiographical and deeply personal film called George Michael Freedom Uncut, which is heading to cinemas on June 22, three days before what would have been his 59th birthday. The singer was heavily involved in the making of the film before his death on Christmas Day 2016 and he narrates throughout, talking candidly about his struggles navigating between his private and public life.
Few people knew the real George – born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou – better than Pepsi and Shirlie, who refer to him by his nickname Yog (short for yoghurt, because it sounded similar to how his Greek-Cypriot family pronounced his name). They share memories with OK! that reveal the megastar to have been a compassionate, humble and family-oriented man who put his friends and family before fame and fortune.
Pepsi first met Shirlie (then Holliman) in 1982 outside Finsbury Park tube station in London on her way to an audition to be a backing singer. Pepsi’s first impression of George was that he was “focused but funny – and was a great hugger!” For Shirlie, her friendship with the icon dates back further. She was in the year above George and Wham! co-founder Andrew Ridgeley at Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire.
“I remember George so distinctly,” she recalls. “He carried his violin case everywhere and wore glasses – he was really geeky. I didn’t really connect with him because I was fashionable and punky.”
Little did she know that the three of them would form one of the most successful pop acts of the 80s, selling more than 30 million records worldwide. Nor did she know that her friendship with George would grow so deep that she would be the first person he’d confide in about being gay.
“We were in Ibiza making Club Tropicana at Pikes hotel and we were walking along a road,” says Shirlie. “He had his little white shorts on and a little T-shirt and he was going, ‘I really need to tell you something.’ I was so worried as he’d gone all serious and he said, ‘It’s about my sexuality – I’m gay. I think I prefer men.’ It didn’t bother me but it was such a big deal for him. I feel guilty sometimes that I didn’t take it more seriously.”
“Oh darling, I knew right from the beginning,” says Pepsi. “Being on the dance floor with George, he can only be gay, dear. He danced like a dream.”
George was 27 before he had his first gay relationship with Anselmo Feleppa,
a Brazilian fashion designer who he spotted in the crowd while on stage in 1991, who features heavily in the film. After only months together the couple discovered Anselmo had Aids, leading to his tragic death in 1993. George later dedicated the single Jesus To A Child off his third album Older (which is being re-released in a box set on 8th July) to him .
Four years after Anselmo’s death, George lost his mother Lesley Angold Panayiotou to cancer aged 60, which left him feeling like he was “cursed”. When Pepsi’s mother died a year later, George turned up at the hospital to be with her at her bedside.
“Just talking about it makes me really emotional,” Pepsi says. “It was after he lost his mum and Shirlie drove George to the hospital. I remember him coming into the dimly lit room and sitting down next to my mum who was basically dying. She opened her eyes and saw George sitting there and screamed, ‘Oh my God, if I die tomorrow!’ I made Yog a cup of tea and he was comforting me, telling me what a lovely room it was and looking at all the cards. When they left I remember holding myself, just feeling really glad they came. It meant the world to my mother and me.”
Although George had a challenging love life, he adored playing cupid for others – including Shirlie and Martin. George not only dialed the phone for Shirlie to speak to Martin for the first time after the Spandau Ballet star slipped her his number, he accompanied her on her first date with the bass player. The pair, who have been married for 34 years, made George godfather of their children, a role he took so seriously he stopped them from relocating and taking the kids to America.
“We had such a big argument about it,” Shirlie says. “He said, ‘You can’t take them away from me, we’ve got the best schools.’ He really loved our family. It was so special. He had a lot in common with Roman in particular – George really connected with him. They both loved having debates and were massive Simpsons fans. He bought Roman his first PlayStation – that really changed Roman’s life. He would come round and they’d play on the PlayStation together.”
The Kemps were due to spend Boxing Day with George before his sudden death on Christmas Day in 2016. He was found in bed in his Oxfordshire home by his boyfriend Fadi Fawaz after dying of natural causes.
“My world fell apart when I was told George had died,” says Shirlie. “I was at home – shock is the most horrible thing to the body. I don’t know if I was sick but
I just collapsed. My kids were amazing. It was a shock to them but because I was so bad they knew they had to put their grief to one side and help Mum because I was so hurt.”
It was Shirlie’s daughter Harley who called her godmother Pepsi, who was celebrating Christmas in St Lucia, to break the news. “Harley was so brave in making that phone call to me,” says Pepsi.
“When I think of that call it just breaks my heart. She knew that Shirlie couldn’t make the call and wanted me to know. I thought she was just calling to wish me a Merry Christmas. At first, it just didn’t compute – then all of a sudden the penny dropped. It was almost like a star went out and I just fell to my knees.”
“I was thinking about it today. Every time these people go they take a piece of you with them,” adds Shirlie. “I’m very aware of that and sometimes I’m quite sad and broken from losing people. But I know how to distract myself. Whenever I used to talk to George we’d always say, ‘When bad things happen, distraction is the best thing.’ I always tell my kids not to dwell in pain.”
Four years after losing his godfather George, Capital FM DJ Roman was devastated when his friend and colleague Joe Lyons took his own life aged 31, and admitted to having felt suicidal himself. He has since become an ambassador for mental health, something Shirlie believes George conveyed through his music.
“The great thing about George was he was articulate,” says Shirlie. “He could have been an amazing ambassador for mental health because he had the most beautiful way of talking about it. But he expressed those emotions through songwriting – and that’s what he’s left. That’s his talent. That’s his legacy.”
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