By Michael Pagnotta
When Michael Pagnotta became the late George Michael’s exclusive U.S. publicist in the early ’90s, George was the second client signed to Pagnotta’s own publicity business, Reach Media — the first being an equally iconic and enigmatic pop star who also passed away in 2016, Prince.
“I handled George during a tumultuous and transitional time in his career, just as he was shedding his image as a pop superstar and seeking retreat from the media and the hamster wheel of single/album/video promotion and touring,” Pagnotta tells Yahoo Music. Working on the troubled Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 album through “Jesus to a Child” and a lawsuit with Sony — “which, though a losing effort, was groundbreaking and did open the floodgates for artists interested in reclaiming ownership of their music from labels,” notes Pagnotta — the PR veteran witnessed and shaped pop history.
In this exclusive personal essay for Yahoo Music, Pagnotta remembers a fateful day on the set of George Michael’s famous “Too Funky” video — when the singer wrested directorial control from fashion designer Thierry Mugler and voiced some strong opinions about Pagnotta’s other superstar client.
I jumped off the train in Paris and hustled over to the studio. Prince had reluctantly given his permission for me to leave the Diamonds and Pearls tour to spend a few days on set with George Michael, who was about to shoot a new music video. This was a phase of George’s post-Faith career that was marked by constant tumult and conflict — all of which seemed to come to a head with “Too Funky.”
The track was controversial before it had even been recorded or a second of video footage had been shot. It was originally intended as the follow-up to Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, but given the sour state of relations between George and his record label, Sony, at that time, there would never be a Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2. So “Too Funky” was instead earmarked for a Red, Hot + Dance charity release to benefit AIDS awareness. It was also a way for George to get some new music out without having to rely on the Sony promotional machine with which he was at war.
George and Elton John had had a massive success with their duet version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in early 1992, but there had been nothing but reports of lawsuits since then, and precious little about music. George had hired me as his personal U.S. publicist, and most of the job consisted of dodging incoming from label lawyers and executives and fighting it out on Page Six. Here, finally, was the first opportunity in a long while to shift the focus away from court papers and back to CDs. Like Prince, George wouldn’t participate directly in anything I was doing, but he’d promised I’d have a lot to work with — and he was good as his word.
As I arrived at the studio, I found the cavernous space decked out like a runway show from hell. Thierry Mugler, a designer known for brilliantly outlandish fashion shows, was directing. It was buzzy and crazy, like Mugler’s shows back in the day always were. Looking back on it now, I can almost imagine Saturday Night Live’s Stefon describing the set in a hoarse whisper between his fingers to a skeptical Seth Meyers…
“Paris’s hottest new nightclub is ‘Too Funky.’ This place has everything: wigs, leather, fake photographers, breastplates with motorcycle handles, the voice of Anne Bancroft, indifferent supermodels, a fembot, passive-aggression… Julie Newmar…”
The production was on break, so I made my way to the lunchroom. George and I spotted each other and said our hellos. Even in the midst of all the chaos, he was as warm and inviting as always.
“What’s Prince up to, then?” were pretty much the first words out of his mouth.
There was nothing unusual about this. George was always asking about Prince when we were together, and frankly, Prince was the reason he had hired me. He liked what I had done with The Purple One, a notoriously difficult artist who also refused to do interviews or participate in album promotion in any of the typical ways.
“He’s working on a new album. Almost done, I think,” I replied.
“But didn’t he just release one?” George asked. “Isn’t he out touring it right now?”
I nodded yes and smiled. George just shook his head and smiled back. Where Prince was constantly recording for a next release and the next, or for no planned or particular release at all, George was more likely to record only as much as he needed. There was no mystery vault housing thousands of unreleased tunes at George’s place. Prince was the more prolific, that was for sure, but George wasn’t entirely impressed. His far slimmer catalog was impressive in its own right.
“You know what Prince’s problem is, Michael?” George offered.
“No,” I paused. “What?”
“He doesn’t know how to edit himself.”
It was a gentle but astute piece of criticism. After all, George Michael’s entire creative output and image, I always thought, had been about good editing — what to leave in, what to take out. And when. Productivity was less a part of it than proficiency. You can have too much of a good thing. Still, at the time, it sort of felt like Batman taking a shot at Superman.
“I’ll tell him you said that,” I countered jokingly.
George snapped his cap on and smiled again, and we walked back into the studio. The video shoot resumed along with the budget-busting chaos. Keyboards swirled and bass bubbled as Anne Bancroft’s sexy sample from The Graduate echoed throughout the space:
“…Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
A seduction of some sort was definitely in progress, but George wasn’t feeling it. As the day dragged on, his expression turned more and more grim. It was obvious he was unhappy. Production was halted. Meetings were called, arguments had, and by the end of the day, George was directing.
These were the days when George was at the peak of his confidence. His boldest. He’d all but succeeded in deleting the teen-idol image that haunted him since Wham! days — from the highlighted coif and manicured beard to the ripped jeans and leather jacket. It was all gone, destroyed publicly in a blaze of heavy-rotation glory for MTV’s sake and his own in the “Freedom ’90” video. (Well, maybe not the manicured beard. That stayed, pretty much until the end.)
He refused to do interviews. He refused to appear in his videos. He refused to tour Listen Without Prejudice. In fact, when he did tour in 1992, the show was half covers, squeezing out beloved songs of his own in favor of other people’s material. Considering the sheer volume of hits he’d written and recorded, this was practically pop-star heresy. He refused to take marching orders from label execs. On the contrary, he bit the hand that fed him, hard and repeatedly, suing Sony for release from his contract and ownership of his masters. He risked fame and fortune for freedom. There seemed to be something personal about it, and maybe there was, but that is another story.
So, the fact that he would dare to take the reins on the “Too Funky” shoot came as a surprise to no one — except maybe Mugler and his crew. As George sat behind the camera, his face relaxed not from a lack of pressure, but because he was in charge. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how to get it. Story of his life.
I thought about the video shoot when I heard the heartbreaking news on Christmas Day that he’d died, and I thought about what he’d said about Prince to me on that video set 24 years ago. “He doesn’t know how to edit himself.” George was a consummate editor. Of his music. His career. His life. Always seemingly at odds with his own success. Trying to fix it. Contain it.
The control he exhibited in crafting the iconic images that propelled him to international superstardom was matched only by his extraordinary and sometimes self-destructive efforts to erase them. Maybe a little more embracing of it all and a little less need to edit might have done him some good in the end. And just like the “?” mark director’s credit in “Too Funky” video’s end title seemed to suggest, we will never really know the answer.
Regardless, I never told Prince what George said.