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A brilliant new Netflix documentary about 1980s pop phenomenon Wham! tells the story of how George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley went from high school best friends to global superstars.
Caught up in that magical ride was Shirlie Kemp, who is a strong believer in fate. The first time she clapped eyes on George Michael was in the corridor at Bushey Meads comprehensive, Hertfordshire, where she was in the year above both him and his future Wham! bandmate, Andrew Ridgeley.
“It was fate that my form room was the school music room,” says Shirlie. “When we used to come out of our class, the music kids would be waiting to go into our classroom. George was one of those kids. I remember his curly hair and his violin case. He was very geeky.”
The next time George Michael – then known by his real name of Georgios Panayiotou – reentered her life, it was his voice that she heard first. She had bonded with Andrew over music, after he chatted her up in The Three Crowns on Bushey High Road and she agreed to drive him to a band rehearsal.
“Andrew put a cassette in my car and it was their demo of Careless Whisper. I had chills. I just thought: ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a huge worldwide hit.’ Then I heard Yog’s voice [George’s family and friends called him Yog]. Before that I was thinking: ‘I wonder if I could be the singer in their band?’ But when I heard George’s voice, I thought: ‘Oh s***, there is no way I’m going to be the singer!’”
The band in question went on to become the era-defining Wham!, and now a new Netflix documentary captures Andrew and George’s breathtaking four-year ride to pop superstardom. From early hits such as Young Guns and Club Tropicana, the band found success with numerous number one singles, including Wake Me Up Before You Go–Go, Freedom, and The Edge of Heaven, before finally waving an emotional farewell to 72,000 heartbroken but joyous fans at Wembley Stadium in 1986.
As backing vocalists and dancers, Shirlie and her best friend and counterpart Helen “Pepsi” DeMacque, were companions to the boys – and earned a unique position of trust in George’s life.
We asked Shirlie about that remarkable time, and what she’d do differently if she had it all over again.
It was real teenage stuff. George’s bedroom was like a little postage stamp. We just put music on and played his records. He had posters on the wall – Spandau Ballet and The Human League. His cassette recorder was always on the side, ready to record any melodies.
We used to record radio shows – George and I would do these fake interviews with each other. It was ironic that all this preparation we were doing came true. So the essence of Wham! and the magic for me stems from George’s bedroom.
Yog was like an agony aunt. We had our first real heart-to-heart when I dropped him home one night. We sat in my Mini Clubman outside his mum and dad’s house in Radlett [Hertfordshire] until about three o’clock in the morning. This was a thing with him – late at night, he always got really chatty.
I don’t think I’ve ever opened myself up to anyone like that. And he did the same with me. It just felt really comfortable. I couldn’t believe how mature he was at giving advice. But that comes out in his song writing, doesn’t it?
George went out to Ibiza first and he said: “Shirl, will you come over a few days early before everyone gets there?” I flew over and he said: “I need to tell you something.” We were walking along this long road, boiling hot, in Ibiza.
We were having a real heart-to-heart moment and he told me that he was gay, and I was like: “Well, OK.” But his big thing was: “How am I going to tell Andrew?”
I found that so sad that there was a part of him that felt he was letting Andrew down. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I would love to have that conversation again now and ask: “What was the big thing about not telling Andrew?”
A few days later, Andrew turns up. I’m in George’s room. Andrew comes in and he must have wondered what was going on. We were sat there, all serious. The room went silent. And then George told him. And Andrew’s attitude was the same as mine: “Oh, OK.”
George always said: “It was so funny how you and Andrew reacted. You so weren’t bothered.” My initial thing was: “You’ve got to tell your parents!” But he said: “My mum will worry. Oh my God, in a Greek family it’s not good.”
I think for George, it was, “You’re going to be a pop star, you need to be loved by everyone,” and I think his biggest fear was: “What if people don’t like me because I’m gay?” Aids was in the papers all the time and it scared people.
In the documentary, you see the emotional journey of his sexuality. When he’s being interviewed and asked, “Have you got lots of girls around you?” you can see his eyes flickering. I was always so uncomfortable when I knew people were asking him questions.
Yes, because my relationship wasn’t with George Michael the superstar. The boy I know is the boy who came over for a cup of tea and a heart-to-heart. I know that I was one of the people he could just be honest with.
When [his mum], Lesley. was dying, we were all at the hospital with him. One thing he loved was having his friends around him. But they were the times when you didn’t know how to help. When he was in that amount of grief, there was nothing you could do. It was all about time and accepting what had happened.
We really didn’t talk about getting older. To be honest, we never really spoke about our age because whenever we were together it was more about what was going on than our age.
He was a massive support then, so compassionate. When Martin was sick, the first thing George said was: “If you guys need to go to America, I’ll fly you all over there. Whatever you need.”
It was amazing to have that. Afterwards, Martin was recovering – he didn’t work for about five years – and George said to me: “Come and help me with my fan club,” and his label, Aegean Records.
That’s when he got arrested [by an undercover Beverly Hills police officer for lewd conduct in a public toilet in 1998]. I just remember sitting there [looking at the fanmail], thinking: “How am I gonna answer this?!”
And I had to explain it to my kids. They were so frightened. I remember [my daughter] Harley saying: “Why was he arrested?” They thought he was going to have to go to prison. I had to find a way to explain to them that it would be all right.
It is a tough one because losing him meant that Christmas became an anniversary of that shock. I just didn’t want Christmas at one point. It was too hard. Now I’m OK. Time is a healer. You know that you have to get on with your life.
Martin and I have lost all our parents so Christmas is never the same anyway because the kids grow up. It’s ever-changing. It’s learning to accept your losses and always look back with gratitude. And make sure that you keep loving everyone and living the best life you can.
In true spirit, we had champagne and cake and afternoon tea. If there is one thing I believe, it is that whoever has passed away does not want you to hold back. It was a beautifully glorious hot day and I was imagining that if he was here, he would be having a big old party.
Really grateful. It captured the essence of how I experienced them – I love those boys so much because they were just so funny and so charming. They became my best friends and they’ve captured them brilliantly.
I took [my son, and Capital FM DJ] Roman to see it and when it finished, he looked at me and he said: “Mum, you’ve had a really good life. I’m so proud of you and all that you’ve done.”
I don’t think he’d ever really realised that I had been on tour all around the world and played stadiums. I felt really pleased with that – that my son felt I had done a bit more than just being a mum.
Yes, I’m definitely a forward thinker. I like change and always feel a need to have new experiences. So yes, it did feel like another life that I had forgotten about.
Written by Paul Simper
Paul Simper has spent 40+ years as a showbiz obsessive, writing for the music press, women’s magazines, newspapers and TV and film titles including Melody Maker, No.1, Cosmopolitan, Metro, Pilot TV, Buzz, Classic Pop and Radio Times.
Paul finds it as fascinating interviewing actors, writers, musicians and other celebrity folk as they continue to create and explore in their careers (even if that’s just a trip to the jungle or the Strictly dance floor) as when he first encountered them enjoying their early success.
Paul has written two books: 80s pop magazine memoir, Pop Stars in My Pantry, and 60s cult TV tribute: The Saint: From Big Screen to Small Screen and Back Again.
On rare occasions, Paul can be seen performing the George Michael Disco with his nephew George for the Mighty Hoopla LGBTQ+ festival, delivering his heartfelt tribute to Kate Bush on roller skates – Skate Bush – or considering a revival of his 90s disco duo, Slippry Feet, with best pal and former Bananarama member Miss Jacqueline O’Sullivan. His wife, daughter and family pup Ziggy take it all in their stride.