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George Michael revisited: binge-eating ice cream, sex and ecstasy | Culture

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George Michael abhorred fame and avoided interviews. Over his 30-year career, the singer of “Faith” released only four studio albums as a solo artist. But his figure left a lasting impact on popular culture. The public’s fascination with him lingers even today, as demonstrated by the recent release of both a documentary and a book about his life, just when the artist would have turned 59. The two works depict the pop star’s life from dramatically different perspectives.

The musician himself worked on the film George Michael: Freedom Uncut with his former collaborator, David Austin. It follows the career of one of the best voices in pop, starting in the eighties and ending in 2016, the year of his death. Narrated in the first person, the documentary gives a partial glimpse of the star. In contrast, journalist James Gavin’s book George Michael: A Life explores the singer’s dark side in great detail. The biography chronicles Michael’s addiction to GHB, also known as liquid ecstasy, his depression and his dependence on sex. According to the account, Michael spent his later years sinking into drugs and prostitution and alienating his friends, including Andrew Ridgeley, the other half of Wham!. Gavin spoke with more than 200 friends and acquaintances of the artist, resulting in a portrayal of an emotionally fragile and insecure man. According to the author’s thesis, which several friends corroborate but his family denies, the performer died not of a heart condition, as was said at the time, but of an intentional overdose: suicide.

The documentary film focuses on the eighties and nineties, the artist’s creative peak. The book, meanwhile, primarily describes his last years of life, when he made headlines more for his arrests than for his music. Both are pieces of a puzzle that the artist created before the public over three decades.

It is difficult to understand the career of George Michael, who would turn 59 this June 25, without delving into his biography. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in 1963, he rose to worldwide fame alongside his school friend Andrew Ridgeley. Together they formed Wham!, a group adored by teenage girls and despised by critics. Michael enjoyed a global fame that he never wanted. He felt undervalued as an artist, relegated to the status of a teen star. He also didn’t take well to playing the role of a heterosexual idol in order to sell records to the female public. He was ready to embrace his sexuality, but society wasn’t. At the time, both Elton John and Freddy Mercury were married to women. In Spain, Miguel Bosé walked hand in hand with Ana Obregón. A mainstream artist couldn’t afford to be gay.

George Michael in Rotterdam.
George Michael in Rotterdam. Rob Verhorst

Still, George Michael represented his sexuality with a certain impudent joy in public. In his later years, looking back, Michael said his sexuality had been an enigma, even to him, but his music was always honest. “I do want people to know the songs I wrote when I was with women were really about women and the songs that I’ve written since have been fairly obviously about men,” he said. “So when it comes to my work I’ve never been reticent about defining my sexuality.” George Michael was sex. His music was too.

On his first solo album, he broke away from his good-boy image to present himself as a sexually liberated man–in a trajectory later imitated by many pop artists, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. His first solo song, “I Want Your Sex,” was dedicated to a man, but his then-girlfriend, makeup artist Kathy Jeung, appeared in the music video. “[Kathy] was in love with me but she knew that I was in love with a guy at that point in time. I was still saying I was bisexual,” he explained in a 2004 interview with the British magazine Attitude. The song caused controversy for defending promiscuity in the harshest years of AIDS, and its explicitly sexual lyrics were censored on several radio networks.

In the music video for his second single, “Faith,” Michael played the role of the American macho, wearing a leather jacket, jeans and cowboy boots, combined with close-ups of his butt swaying to the beat. The singer was asserting himself as a mature composer. At the same time, he was sexualizing himself. The song made him a worldwide success. He began to rub shoulders with pop royalty, including Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. At that time, pop stars were at the heart of popular culture. But only George Michael used his role to confront record companies and eventually renounce media overexposure.

If singers were kings, MTV was their palace. In the 1990s, a good music video could boost a song’s sales and its artist’s fame. That’s when George Michael decided to disappear. He barely promoted his long-awaited second album, much less commercial than the first. Its first music video, “Freedom,” featured the five most important top models of the moment. The video was directed by first-timer David Fincher, who before revolutionizing Hollywood already revolutionized MTV. It has gone down in history as one of the best video clips of all time.

Freedom: Uncut, the new documentary, focuses on that creative stage of the singer. Some of the participants in that video, such as Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, give interviews about Michael, and the film includes discarded footage that Fincher did not use. While the documentary focuses on his art, it also touches aspects of his personal life, including the deaths of his mother and Anselmo Feleppa, his great love, who died of complications from AIDS in 1993.

The two deaths had a devastating effect on Michael, and they triggered the spiral that Gavin focuses on in his book. The author calls the singer a “pathetic, lonely and broken figure.”

George Michael did not publicly come out of the closet. He was wrenched out in the most shameful way possible. In September 1998, a plainclothes officer made a pass at him in a public restroom in Los Angeles, California. When the artist played along, he was arrested. Searching him, police found marijuana and crack. The former leader of Wham! was fined only $810, but the media’s penalty was devastating. Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic lashed out at him. It was no longer the eighties, but a scandal like that could still end anyone’s career. He explained himself the best way he could: with a song. The video clip for “Outside,” the single from his greatest hits album, was based on the famous incident. It portrays several men dressed as police kissing in the bathroom of a club, while a press helicopter records different couples having sex. Michael took control of the narrative, as sexual and as honest as ever.

George Michael, during a show in Paris, 2012.
George Michael, during a show in Paris, 2012.Francois Mori

But no song could silence the news that followed. A few months later, the musician was arrested again after a car accident. The police found him “drenched in sweat” with “eyes open and pupils dilated.” It was his seventh arrest in 12 years. In the biography, Gavin expands on this stage, at the time portrayed by the press at the time in a disjointed and sensationalistic way. The author places it in the context of the impulses of a depressed, frustrated man taking refuge in drugs and sex. “For Michael, GHB seemed heaven-sent,” the journalist writes about the drug, a central nervous system depressant closely associated with sex parties. “Apart from fueling his sexual compulsiveness, it made a depressed, self-hating man feel attractive. It brought joy where there was little. GHB gave him confidence … but it also took him to a new and terrifying level of self-destruction.”

Gavin describes one of the music industry’s brightest stars as a lonely, friendless man, secluded in his mansion. He spent his days watching episodes of his favorite soap opera, Coronation Street, while binging on Haagen Dazs ice cream and junk food and using GHB. The author writes that the singer held parties with prostitutes and large amounts of drugs in his mansion in north London.

The journalist’s description is consistent with statements made this week by Kenny Goss, who had a relationship with the singer between 1996 and 2009. In an interview on the English program Piers Morgan Uncensored, the art dealer recounted that everyone around him knew that Michael would die soon. “I spent a lot of time worrying about him,” he recalled. “What’s the line he says in one of his songs? He says, ‘I can see it in your eyes when you look at me that way, it tears me in two’. And it really did.”

George Michael died on Christmas day of 2016. The official report says that the death was due to heart failure. His fans remembered him with “Last Christmas,” a song that many read as a Christmas carol, but which actually tells a tragic story about heartbreak and distrust. “All my songs are autobiographical,” the singer used to say.

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Margot Robbie’s self-confessed ambition has made her the highest paid actress of the year | Culture

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Self-doubt is Margot Robbie’s greatest motivator, and competes with ambition in the Australian actress’s psyche. She couldn’t believe her own eyes when she first saw herself on a giant ad for the Pan Am TV series in New York’s Times Square. “I still have the photo,” she told EL PAÍS a few years ago, somewhat wistful for the days when she was still a nobody. The script of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the Martin Scorsese film that put her on the map, touted her as “the most beautiful blonde in the world,” but she didn’t believe the hype. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I haven’t worked in six weeks.’ I’m sure there’s nothing out there for me,” laughed Robbie. But Hollywood didn’t share her skepticism. In July, Variety magazine ranked Robbie as the highest paid actress of the year when her US$12.5 million salary for the upcoming Barbie movie was announced.

Margot Robbie may be this year’s highest paid actress, but 17 men made even more money, led by Tom Cruise who was paid US$100 million for Top Gun: Maverick. Her Barbie love interest, Ryan Gosling, was paid the same as Robbie, even though she has the titular role, more evidence that pay parity in Hollywood is far from being a reality. Robbie ranked ahead of Millie Bobby Brown (US$10 million for the Enola Holmes sequel); Emily Blunt (US$4 million for Oppenheimer); Jamie Lee Curtis (US$3.5 million for Halloween Ends); and Anya Taylor-Joy (US$1.8 million for Furiosa).

Robbie’s misgivings about her career aren’t shared by other industry giants. Martin Scorsese compared her to Carole Lombard for her comedic genius, Joan Crawford for her toughness, and Ida Lupino for her emotional range. He described Robbie as having a surprising audacity, and recalls how she clinched her role in The Wolf of Wall Street by stunning everyone with a tremendous, improvised slap of Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig's Barbie in California, June 2022.
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie in California, June 2022.MEGA (GC Images)

Robbie showed the same boldness when she lobbied director Quentin Tarantino for another role opposite DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). She sent the director a letter telling him how much she admired his films, especially her all-time favorite, True Romance (1993). The letter probably wasn’t necessary, as Tarantino already had the I, Tonya star in mind to play Sharon Tate in his new movie, describing her to EL PAÍS as an actress with a visual dynamism and personal qualities that you don’t see every day.

Robbie has wanted to work in movies ever since her start in Neighbours, the long-running Australian TV series that is coming to an end after 9,000 episodes and 37 years on the air. “Of course I’m ambitious. My career motivates me. I came to the United States with a plan, and I’m always looking ahead,” she told us. Even as a child growing up in Queensland (northeastern Australia), Margot Elise Robbie displayed her business smarts and drama queen chops when she decided to sell all her brother’s old toys from the sidewalk in front of the family home.

She jokes about her childhood, but part of that little girl always comes out in the wide variety of characters she plays. She has had all kinds of roles in little-known films like Suite Française and Z for Zachariah, and also in box-office hits like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. She won Oscar nominations for playing driven women in I, Tonya (2018) and Bombshell (2020). “Yes, many of the women I’ve played share my ambition – this is a tough industry. But I’m full of doubt like anyone else. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.

 Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018.
Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018. Jon Kopaloff (WireImage)

Seeking more control over her films, Robbie founded production company LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014 with her husband, British filmmaker Tom Ackerley, and some friends. She hopes to use LuckyChap as a vehicle for herself and other actresses, as she did with Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, a black comedy thriller film that won writer/director Emerald Fennell an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Margot is an extraordinary person,” said Fennell. “That’s why she’s doing so well as a producer who is determined to try different things and give women a voice.”

Robbie met British assistant director Tom Ackerley on the set of Suite Française in 2013. They began a romantic relationship the next year and moved in together right after attending their first Golden Globes gala for The Wolf of Wall Street. Married since 2016, the couple and co-workers in LuckyChap have a bright future ahead, judging by all the work that is piling up for Robbie. In addition to Barbie, she will appear in Amsterdam, directed by David O. Russell; as silent film star Clara Bow in Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle; and has a role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Robbie busy, a remake of Ocean’s Eleven awaits her; she will play opposite Matthew Schoenaerts in the post WWII drama, Ruin; produce a remake of Tank Girl; and play a female Jack Sparrow in another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Surely Margot Robbie doesn’t have any more doubts about her career.

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Salem’s last witch regains her honor | Culture

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As statues of slave owners and slave traders continue to fall in the United States, the embers of the bonfires that burned women accused of committing spells and witchcraft are also being extinguished. In the umpteenth revision of history to try to exonerate the victims, the most recent episode concerns the last official Salem witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., from the massive 1692 and 1693 trials in the English colony of Massachusetts. Thanks to the initiative of a middle school teacher and her students in Andover, located in the same county as Salem, her spirit can now roam free. The enthusiastic students began the vindication process in 2020 and persuaded Massachusetts state senator Diana DiZoglio (D), who took up the cause and pushed for Johnson’s pardon, which was announced last week.

It has taken 329 years for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name to be cleared definitively. She was the last of the Salem witches to be exonerated. While Johnson was spared a death by hanging, she was stigmatized until she died at 77, an uncommonly long life for the time. Historians say that Johnson showed signs of mental instability and was single and childless, all of which were signs of witchcraft during that period. She pled guilty before the court of inquisitors. Almost 30 members of her extended family were also implicated, as if witchcraft were contagious, hereditary, or both. Johnson, her mother, several aunts and her grandfather, a church pastor, were tried as well. According to historian Emerson Baker, the author of a book about the Salem witch trials, her grandfather described Johnson to the judges as a “simplish person at best.” Most likely, the judges would have equated “simplish” with different during that superstitious and pre-scientific period.

The fact that Johnson didn’t have any descendants deprived her of anyone to vindicate her good name, as relatives of the other defendants did. The first attempt to do so happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, in the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law exonerating those found guilty, but it failed to gather all the names. A 2001 attempt at justice excluded Johnson because, after her conviction in 1693, she was formally presumed to be dead (executed).

The social hysteria against everything that deviated from the norm, against the minimal exercise of free will, was implacable against women, as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (the playwright adapted it for the big screen in 1996) and recent variations remind us. The theme lends itself very well to artistic creation, but in real life it amounted to opprobrium for those who suffered it and represented a cause for scorn among puritans.

Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.
Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.The Granger Collection / cordon press

Salem was more than a witch trial. According to historians, it was a collective exorcism fueled by a puritanical inquisition based on paranoia and xenophobia, a gratuitous auto de fe that unleashed people’s worst instincts: fear and the human tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes. At least 172 people were indicted in the 1692 trial. About 35% confessed their guilt and were spared the gallows; according to sources, around twenty insisted on claiming their innocence and did not escape that fate. The rest of the detainees were acquitted or sentenced to prison. The Salem witch trials represented a collective bogeyman through which one can foresee the later threat of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard not to wonder what bonfires would have burned today on the pyre of social media and extreme polarization.

The great Salem witch hunt can be re-read through the prism of gender. As the adage goes, se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if it is not true, it is well conceived). Witches, like those in Salem and the woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (made into a film in the 1950s), were demonized for going off the rails. The dominant society’s puritanical stance against any kind of heterodoxy or freestyling, against rebels with or without a cause, led people to be targeted for dressing exotically by puritanical standards or for daring to drink at a tavern, a sacrilege for the morals of the day. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the bonnet of a witch on the gallows to the handmaid’s white bonnet in Margaret Atwood’s novel: all were women who were demonized, objectified, and scapegoated for deeper ills.

Beyond gender, other historians emphasize the socioeconomic dimension of the Salem witch trials, which combined a deep-seated inequality with racism, the United States’ original sin since well before the Declaration of Independence. The trials targeted colonial society’s most vulnerable during a period of economic instability that unleashed fierce rivalry among Salem families. According to historian Edward Bever, society was permeated by interpersonal conflict, much of it stemming from competition over resources. People did whatever they could to survive, from physical aggression to threats, curses, and insults. One of the first women accused, Sarah Osborne, was a poor widow who dared to claim her husband’s land for herself, defying the customary laws of nature, which granted the inheritance to sons. The accusation of witchcraft ended Osborne’s claim. Tituba, an indigenous slave, was accused of being a witch because her racial origins differed from the norm. Sarah Good was also poor, but she defended herself against the humiliations of her neighbors, which led her to the gallows; her daughter, Dorothy Dorcas Good, was Salem’s youngest victim: she was arrested at only four years old and spent eight months in prison.

Since then, history has not changed the fact that vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances beyond their control. That the Puritans of the time considered women—the evil heirs of Eve —prone to temptations such as the desire for material possessions or sexual gratification was only an added factor. Poor, homeless, and childless, these women in the shadow of society’s dominant morality were fodder for the gallows. But Elizabeth Johnson Jr. didn’t just manage to save her life; 329 years later she recovered her honor as well.

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Meridian Brothers: A fake salsa band ignites the rebirth of an old New York record label | Culture

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A new album will land on the salsa dance floor by the end of this week; one that fuses rhythms from the 1970s with the technological dystopias of the future. Behind it is Ansonia Records, a label that, after its creation in 1949 among Latino immigrants from New York, would produce several merengue, jibara, bomba, guaracha, mambo, and boogaloo albums, before stopping altogether in 1990. This Friday, after more than 30 years, Ansonia Records will return with a salsa album.

Hermano del futuro, vengo buscando iluminación; brother from the future, I come looking for enlightenment. So says one of the songs from the new album, called Metamorfosis, by the old salsa group Renacimiento. But there is a catch: Renacimiento does not exist. It never did. It is a fake group, and this is a fake cover, explains musician Eblis Álvarez, founder of the Colombian group Meridian Brothers, who had already experimented with various genres, from cumbia to vallenato. A group that practices “tropical cannibalism,” says Álvarez. This year, Meridian Brothers decided to launch a group of salseros straight out of fiction: Renacimiento.

Colombian group Meridian Brothers.
Colombian group Meridian Brothers.Perla Hernández Galicia (Cortesía)

“Renacimiento [rebirth] is the typical name that musicians would give a salsa group in the 1970s,” Álvarez tells EL PAÍS. “For example, in the Nueva Trova movement there was talk of a political rebirth, but at the same time they combined this with a spiritual factor: when one listens to groups like La Columna de Fuego [from Bogota] or Los Jaivas [from Chile], there was a common pattern: everyone was waiting for a rebirth of the soul, and of society.”

Although on stage Renacimiento is made up of five artists — María Valencia, Alejandro Forero, César Quevedo and Mauricio Ramírez, besides Álvarez — when the album was recorded it was the founder who played all the instruments, besides doing the voice of the salsero that accompanies the songs. The album has nine tracks, some similar to the older, slower salsa, and others to the faster, contemporary style. Between the piano, the timbales and the percussion, we find verses with the concerns of the 21st century: love that “communicates by algorithm,” or the threats of atomic bombs that “take us to the cemetery.” Metamorfosis, the single that has already been released, begins with a man who wakes up turned into a robot and longs for a time “when nightclubs really had an atmosphere, not like now, full of cameras, full of drones.”

“I wanted it to sound like salsa from the 1970s,” says Álvarez. “There is no originality, or the originality of this lies in being able to replicate the music as best as possible, but in terms of the material there is nothing original, as it is made with the collective unconscious of Latin America, of Colombia, of Latinos. This is an extrapolation from the 1970s to today, and it speaks of transhumanism, like the matter of highest concern that everything, absolutely everything, is now packed inside the damn cell phone.”

The rebirth includes both the album and the label, as this is the first recording in more than 30 years to be released by Ansonia Records, a company created in 1949 and later forgotten, despite having been one of the first labels founded by a Latin migrant in the United States. Puerto Rican Rafael Pérez, its founder, brought Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians from Latin Harlem or the South Bronx, who had not found a home among American record companies, to several studios. He produced his records before the time of the powerful Fania, which made New York salsa famous.

To Liza Richardson, an American radio host who was also a music supervisor on series like Narcos or the movie Y tu mamá también, Ansonia Records is a gem. In the early 1990s, she found an Ansonia album in the station’s archives and, fascinated by the label’s production, became close to the heirs of Pérez. In 2020, she bought the record label with the intention of reactivating it. She, with the help of a small team, has begun to digitize more than 5,000 Ansonia-produced songs; an eighth of them can already be found on streaming platforms like Spotify.

Colombian group Meridian Brothers during a live show in Bogota.
Colombian group Meridian Brothers during a live show in Bogota.Perla Hernández Galicia (Cortesía)

Souraya Al-Alaoui, manager of Ansonia Records, explains that most of the artists chosen by the label were focused on the Latin American diaspora. That was their base; they valued the traditional sounds from islands like Cuba or Puerto Rico, and were not looking to become westernized.

“Johnny Pacheco, founder of La Fania, started with Ansonia Records, and Ansonia was an inspiration for what would later become La Fania,” says Al-Alaoui. “Ansonia was also a pioneer as a label owned by a Latino, an independent label with a founding message: ‘this is from us and for us.’ That’s why it was an inspiration for what came after.”

Over the years, La Fania grew and the seed of Ansonia Records faded away. The label never managed to promote its musicians in concerts like La Fania did, and after the arrival of the digital world, they did not set up a website or try to upload their music to any streaming platforms. Thus, it became a label that was only known by a small group of music lovers, like Liza Richardson and Eblis Álvarez.

“Now, we are hoping to release a new record every year, and we are thrilled to start with this one by Meridian Brothers,” says Richardson. “This is an album that looks to the past but tries to move towards the future, and that is exactly what we are trying to do: look to the past to, at some point, be able to grow again, to thrive.”

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