British pop singer and songwriter George Michael, who rose to fame in the 1980s as the frontman of Wham! before pursuing a successful solo career, has died “peacefully” at his home in England at the age of 53.
Michael, born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, first made his name on the UK pop scene in the early 80s as one half of Wham!, with chart-topping hits such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, “Club Tropicana” and “Last Christmas”.
After the duo broke up in 1986, he forged a career as a solo artist, winning a Grammy award for his album Faith only a year later. He sold more than 100m albums during his lifetime.
The pop icon’s death was confirmed by his publicist on Christmas Day. The cause of death was heart failure, according to his manager Michael Lippman.
“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,” Michael’s publicist said in a statement.
“The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage,” he said.
British police said they were treating the pop star’s death as “unexplained but not suspicious”.
Born in north London 1963 to Greek Cypriot immigrant parents, Michael played music on the London Underground before finding success alongside school friend Andrew Ridgeley as Wham! in 1981.
The pair went on to release a string of successful dance hits and ballads and built up a teenage fan base. After Wham! split, Michael launched his solo career, and would achieve global success with his work centring on themes of sexuality and desire.
A pilot solo single “I Want Your Sex” was banned by daytime radio stations but became one of his most popular hits.
In the 1990s, Michael sought to distance himself from the pop industry with his album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. In the music video of his 1990 hit “Freedom ‘90”, supermodels lip-synced his lyrics while Michael himself did not appear.
His time in the spotlight was dogged by public discussion of his personal life, including his own sexuality and drug abuse.
In 1998, the singer disclosed that he was gay after being arrested by an undercover policeman in Los Angeles for engaging in a lewd act in a public toilet. He reacted by releasing the hit single “Let’s Go Outside”, the music video for which featured a bathroom transformed into a disco and Michael dancing dressed as a policeman.
“I feel stupid and reckless and weak for letting my sexuality be exposed that way,” Michael told CNN at the time. “But I do not feel shame [about my sexuality], neither do I think I should.”
Fellow musicians wrote tributes to the singer following Sunday’s news. Former Wham! bandmate Mr Ridgeley said he was “heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog”, the nickname he used for Michael.
“I am in deep shock,” Sir Elton John wrote on Instagram, posting a photograph of himself and Michael. I have lost a beloved friend — the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans.”
Pop star Madonna posted an undated video of herself on stage with Michael in a tribute on Twitter. In the clip, she makes reference to some of his best known lyrics: “George, I want your sex, so be my father figure and I will have faith if we have to live hand-to-mouth. The diva himself.”
Michael’s death comes at the end of a year in which several music icons have died, including David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. Rick Parfitt, guitarist of British rock band Status Quo, died on Saturday at 68.
Michael was in the process of relaunching his career after suffering from ill health over the past few years. In 2011, he postponed a number of concerts after time spent in hospital with pneumonia.
Earlier this month, it was announced that he was working with producer and songwriter Naughty Boy on a new album. He had also recently been making a documentary named Freedom, focused on his rise to fame with Wham!, the protracted legal battle with Sony Music over his contract and the making of the “Freedom ‘90” music video.
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