Andrew Ridgeley looks back with fondness at George Michael

NEW YORK — Long before he was a music icon in skintight jeans, leather jacket and designer stubble, George Michael was something else — awkward, chubby and insecure. He even went by the very unhip nickname Yog.

A loving portrait of a young, striving Michael is offered in a new book by his closest friend and former bandmate, Andrew Ridgeley. His Wham! George Michael & Me is part memoir and part monument to one of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s.

“The point of the book was really to illustrate our friendship and how it really formed,” Ridgeley told The Associated Press. “It’s very difficult to put it into words or really put your finger on exactly what it was that people found so attractive about Wham! But it was a lot to do with George and me and our friendship.”

In the book, Ridgeley traces the rise of Wham! and key moments in the band’s career, like the creation of hits like Careless Whisper and Everything She Wants, their appearances at Live Aid and the time in 1985 when the band became the first Western pop group to visit China.

But while this may be Ridgely’s memoir, Michael looms large and the book peters out after Wham! broke up in 1986 as Michael’s star soared, almost as if the most interesting thing Ridgeley has to write about is his friend, who died on Christmas Day 2016.

There are fun anecdotes, such as the drunken hijinks that accompanied the video shoot for Last Christmas, the reason why Ridgeley wasn’t part of Band Aid and the note he drunkenly wrote on his parents’ fridge that became the title of a Wham! hit: “Mum, wake me up up before you go go.”

The book also deals with more weighty subjects, like how their lives changed as tabloids stalked the pair and that during the band’s life Michael realized he was gay but remained closeted. It was a business decision to stay there.

“He felt it would undermine us and our chances of success. And it was very important to both of us that Wham! was a success that we wished for,” said Ridgeley. “It was tough for him. There’s no doubt about that. And it caused him a great deal of discomfort.”

Ridgeley met a 13-year-old Michael — born Georgios Panayiotou to a Cypriot family — in 1975, at school in Hertfordshire, England. They quickly bonded over a shared sense of humour and music, both loving Queen, Elton John and David Bowie.

The pair formed a ska-influenced quintet called The Executive and then in 1981 re-emerged as a duo, taking the name Wham! from their first completed song, Wham Rap.

Ridgeley, 56, writes that Wham! was never meant to last very long, saying the youth-driven duo was intended to “burn brightly, but briefly.” Ridgeley just wanted to form a band, write music and perform. Michael soon outgrew his bandmate and their breakup was amicable. “I achieved my ambition early in life,” Ridgeley said.

The book charts the evolution of Michael from a frumpy, uncool kid who collected Spider-Man comics into a superstar, with detours into very tight Fila shorts and plenty of hours of hair teasing. Ridgely has a few well-intentioned cracks at Michael’s early fashion mistakes and his later endless obsession with his appearance.

“He struggled with his looks and his weight as an adolescent,” Ridgely said. “His transformation, in every sense, is quite amazing. Music and the career that he chose, allowed him to become, in some ways, the man in his mind’s eye.”

Ridgeley said he didn’t always handle the tabloid press very well, unable to shake the “Animal Andy” or “Randy Andy” labels as a hard-partying pop star. In many ways, the book is a lesson for any wannabe pop stars out there about the pitfalls ahead.

“If I was advising the 20-year-old Andrew Ridgeley from this perspective, I’d be telling him to do things very differently,” Ridgeley said.

“Perhaps the biggest lesson that I would say is the one to learn is not to let fame and fortune get inside your head,” he added. “Give yourself a healthy bit of distance between your fame and reality because they are two different things.”

Among the book’s highlights are the dozens of photos included, complete with witty captions from Ridgeley. One of the duo wearing swimsuits is labeled “poseurs,” another of them dancing onstage is given “prancers” and a third of them joking around gets “prats.”

“I had great fun doing that. I could just imagine George next to me going through those,” Ridgely said. “It was important that whilst the music and the making of the music was serious business, we weren’t a serious business.”

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