How Princess Diana's Crush on George Michael Affected Their Friendship

In an exclusive excerpt from James Gavin's new book, George Michael: A Life, PEOPLE gets a glimpse at the unique relationship between two global icons and why he kept her at a "careful distance"

Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

As two of the biggest celebrities of the 1980s, Princess Diana and George Michael had a lot in common.

Both Brits found fame in the same glitzy decade, quickly became pop icons and each suffered a tragic death at an early age. But, by the time Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash in August 1997, the 36-year-old royal had forged a remarkable friendship with Michael.

That relationship is explored in James Gavin's upcoming book, George Michael: A Life, which comes out on June 28, three days after the singer would have turned 59 and more than five years after he was found dead on Christmas Day 2016.

In the intimate look into Michael's life, it is claimed that the then-married Princess of Wales developed a crush on the "Freedom! '90" singer. Knowing this, Michael — who was secretly gay and remained in the closet during Diana's lifetime — kept her at a "careful distance" while still maintaining a friendship that involved lunches at Kensington Palace.

George Michael Biography Exclusive: How Princess Diana’s Crush on Pop Star Affected Their Friendship
James Gavin's new George Michael biography.

According to George Michael: A Life, they were close enough that she called him at home, he referred to her as "darling" and even gave her a gold watch.

Looking at their lives, it almost seems as if the princess and the pop star were destined to find a connection. Born Georgios Panayiotou in London in June 1963, Michael had his first hit with the duo Wham! when the song "Young Guns" raced up the U.K. charts in 1982. The year before, Lady Diana Spencer made headlines around the world with her engagement to Prince Charles. Both were 19 when they found fame.

Their joint global stardom collided on July 13, 1985, when the Princess of Wales attended the Live Aid concert in London's Wembley stadium. Michael joined stars like Queen, Elton John and David Bowie to perform in the televised benefit to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia.

It was clear from their first meeting that Diana was smitten, Gavin claims in his book. He writes: "In attendance was England's most distinguished rock-star groupie, Princess Diana. According to the Daily Mirror, Diana allowed that she found Michael 'very gorgeous.' Michael issued a public response: 'Thank you, ma'am—you're pretty smashing yourself.' Thus began the awkward 12-year friendship between a smitten aristocrat and a closeted sex idol."

Wham Perform At Birmingham NEC In 1985
George Michael performing as part of Wham! in 1985. Peter Still/Redferns

In the exclusive excerpt that follows, the full extent of that relationship is revealed — from how they supported each other during difficult times to Michael's loyalty to Diana and her family even after her death:

In October 1993 Michael was involved in a highly publicized London court battle with his record label Sony. Princess Diana offered some comfort behind the scenes while his bid to be let go from his contract made headlines.

Michael's trial held far greater weight because he had more to lose. Throughout the trial, he received matchless consolation in the form of calls and occasional meals with the Princess of Wales. If anyone understood the loneliness and cold scrutiny known to those who lived in that unimaginable stratosphere, it was Diana. She and Michael were close in age and had become famous at approximately the same time. Michael called her "my darling," and even gave her a gold watch. They confided in each other, knowing their secrets would go no further.

Gill Pringle, the Mirror's former pop columnist, had observed the relationship from afar: "I think they shared a sense of being such hugely public figures that it was hard to know whom you could trust. It was hard for them to make real friends, to be their authentic selves without being watched.

"Obviously both of them enjoyed their gilded cages but felt trapped by them. The fact that she had his home number and was calling and chatting with him — that's not a relationship you normally see with the royal family, where somebody's secretary would call up the other person's secretary and make a very formal meeting."

HRH, The Princess of Wales, Princess Diana, on her arrival at Sarajevo airport Friday, 8th August 1997 at the start of her two-day tour to publicise the international problem of land mines. . Picture taken 8th August 1997. (Photo by Kent Gavin/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Princess Diana in August 1997. Kent Gavin/getty

Still, he kept Diana at a careful distance and called her rarely. Michael didn't want it to seem as though he were badgering one of the most pursued women alive, even though he suspected she was "lonely and would love to hear a friendly voice." He had another reason to step back: He sensed she had a crush on him. That suspicion was borne out later in the Daily Telegraph by writer Cassandra Jardine, who reported that Diana had "tittered about her fancy for the singer George Michael."

Between them, of course, such things went unspoken. And as 1993 ended, they shared a project that lifted Michael out of himself and [refocused] him on the truly unfortunate. On Dec. 1 at Wembley Stadium, Diana commemorated World AIDS Day with her first annual Concert of Hope, headlined by Michael and televised worldwide. It would benefit two organizations, National AIDS Trust and Crusaid. For Michael's British fans, this was the first chance to see him onstage in over two years. Largely because of [his late boyfriend] Anselmo [Feleppa who died of complications from AIDS], he stayed driven to help fight AIDS; that aside, the show gave him positive PR when he needed it most.

Diana had asked him to organize the show. David Bowie came aboard to host and deliver a dignified opening speech, but he didn't sing. For that, Michael chose two supporting acts, and gave them as much stage time as he claimed for himself. k.d. lang was a Grammy-winning country-pop favorite; Mick Hucknall led Simply Red, a blue-eyed soul band that had topped the British and American charts.

Known for his long ginger dreadlocks, Hucknall walked out in a black cape over a colorful vest and made everyone rock along with his mellow R&B groove-funk. The Canadian-born lang, then 32, had a golden tone and an acquired twang; she wielded both with a confidence that surpassed even Michael's. lang steeped her love songs in irony; she viewed romance and heartbreak through a superior wink. At Wembley, she stood before the princess in black boots and a white dress that looked like a cross between a Druid's robe and a bedsheet. She worked the stage with big, sweeping gestures, rapture on her face as she luxuriated in making creamy-toned, arching phrases that swelled and soared.

Offstage she had another distinction: The year before, she had come out as a lesbian and suffered little fallout. Michael had noticed. But lang seemed almost oblivious to who he was. Later she told a reporter: "I did a show for Princess Diana and George Michael was on the bill. He came up to me and said, 'You're so comfortable onstage.' " Somehow lang concluded "that he hadn't really played live before, which took me by surprise because he was really huge at the time." Her conclusion: "With the technology we have today, anybody can make an album. But not everyone can cut it live."

Michael, though, not only lived up to his highest standard but showed a poise and maturity that truly befit the occasion. For his segment, which closed the show, he wore an exquisitely tailored dark blue-green, three-piece plaid suit; he was tanned and groomed impeccably, his hair combed back and his stubble now a close-trimmed beard. To [percussionist] Danny Cummings, who played for him that night, Michael "looked absolutely wonderful, a picture of health and vitality." As twinkly, electronic space-age music filled the night air, lights rose on Michael, posed on a round platform in the middle of Wembley as though he were rising from a 45 rpm single. He stayed there for "Father Figure" then leapt off for "Killer"; clapping his raised hands, he strolled amid the band and backup singers and danced his slinkiest moves, reveling in his own charisma. He dedicated "Love's in Need of Love Today" to everyone in the audience who had lost someone to AIDS. It was "unbelievable," he announced, that "we're not conceivably much closer to finding any end to this awful situation."

Michael made sure to thank "the lady who made this evening possible." As a spotlight sought her out, Diana, wearing a white suit with a red AIDS pin, looked down, hands folded in her lap, then waved demurely.

Michael and Princess Diana remained friends until the end of her life. A year before she died one of their telephone conversations was accidentally recorded.

Michael's friendship with Princess Diana had been more sporadic, limited mostly to occasional lunches—some with Elton John at Kensington Palace—and the odd phone call. She had touched him with a consoling call after the death of his mother. But Michael sensed a lonely woman. If his stardom and wealth had made it hard for him to form honest relationships, for Diana it was almost impossible. A doctor of hers, Michael Skipwith, described the princess in terms to which Michael could relate: "All she wanted was to be treated like other people, and for those she trusted not to talk about her."

A brief recorded memento exists of her friendship with Michael. In July 1996, as Diana underwent a painful and humiliating divorce from Prince Charles, Michael's phone had rung late at night. As he sat in the living room with [his friend] Andros [Georgiou], a familiar voice began leaving a message. Michael ran to the phone and picked up. The tape kept rolling; it wound up in the possession of Andros, who eventually sold it for publication.

"How are you, my darling?" Michael asks the princess. She refers delicately to her divorce from Charles, which was then in progress. "It's been pretty grim but we're near the end of it," she says. "A very loving, compassionate family, this one I'm leaving." With a demure laugh, she thanks him for having called to wish her a happy birthday.

G: You know I missed it.

D: That's quite all right.. You're so sweet. Well, thank you ever so much. We saw you in Elton's film last night… Oh, what was it called?

G: That's right, he did that documentary; he actually invited me 'round to see it. With his boyfriend. I must admit I was kind of horrified.

D: [Laughs] George, is life treating you kindly?

G: Fantastically at the moment, actually… The album's doing pretty well everywhere. Actually, it's doing great everywhere but America, and I'm not worried; I'm not really that bothered by the Americans, actually. I'm madly in love, so I'm doing very well at the moment.

D: Oh, lucky you!

G: Lucky me, yeah!... I'd love to see you.

D: Well, George, at the moment, can I wait 'til this is all quieted down?

G: Absolutely.

On August 31, 1997, Michael and the rest of the world heard the shocking news. Just past the stroke of midnight, a chauffeur-driven car had sped through a tunnel in Paris; it held the former Princess of Wales, her bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones and her new boyfriend Emad "Dodi" Fayed. A battalion of paparazzi had trailed them in cars and on scooters. The driver, Henri Paul, lost control of the car, which crashed; an autopsy revealed that he had been driving under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs. Only Diana's bodyguard survived. Among her last murmured words as photographers with cameras surrounded the totaled car: "Leave me alone."

Instantly a feeding frenzy began, with "intimates" selling stories to tabloids: hairdressers, a medium, a masseur. The situation, over time, would play itself out again with Michael. For him, the circumstances of Diana's life and death hit unnervingly close to home.

Pop stars George Michael (top) and Elton John leave Westminster Abbey after the funeral service 06 September of Diana Princess of Wales. The Princess was killed in a car crash in Paris 31 August. (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP via Getty Images)
George Michael and Elton John at Princess Diana's funeral. JOHNNY EGGITT/getty

On Saturday, Sept. 6, 1997, two billion TV viewers watched the funeral. Untold thousands of mourners crowded the grounds of Westminster Abbey; giant video screens monitored the proceedings as though the funeral were a concert at Wembley.

But the press was more focused on the dream explosion of boldface names: Sting, Luciano Pavarotti, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman. Overhead photos show Michael and Elton John arriving together, trudging forward amid the sea of VIPs in black. Among the celebrity quotes about Diana, Michael's was among the most heartfelt and perceptive: "I think she was there to remind people of their humanity."

The funeral uncorked his deepest grief over [his mother] Lesley. "I bawled my eyes out," he said later. "It was almost like I was reliving my mum's funeral." Elton John had hastily rewritten "Candle in the Wind," his sentimental 1973 hit about Marilyn Monroe, the first line, "Goodbye, Norma Jean," to make it "Goodbye, England's rose." He wasted little time in recording the song as a benefit for some of Diana's pet charities.

John, like Michael, was obsessed with hitting No. 1, and "Candle in the Wind '97" could not have been better poised to get there. Plans were underway for the release of yet another single from [his album] Older, "You Have Been Loved." Its hoped-for ascent to the top would undoubtedly be blocked. "I think he asked Elton to delay the release of his record, and Elton wouldn't do it," recalled Danny Cummings. Sure enough, on September 20, "Candle in the Wind '97" peaked at No. 1, while "You Have Been Loved" stayed in second place.

The whole Diana episode was a reminder of the brittleness of the fame he'd achieved and that still obsessed him.

In 2011, nearly 14 years after Princess Diana's death, Michael worked on a special gift for her son, Prince William, and his bride Kate Middleton, ahead of their April 29 wedding. It was, in part, to make up for once turning down the royal's childhood request.

Michael's philanthropy rolled on. Britain's Prince William was about to take a wife, Kate Middleton. As a wedding gift, Michael recorded the Stevie Wonder love song "You and I." He announced that he would offer it on his website, asking only that downloaders donate to the couple's Royal Wedding Charitable Gift Fund, which endowed a variety of causes. Wonder agreed to waive his share of the rights.

Michael was driven partly by guilt. In 1990, William's mother, Diana, had invited the singer to a small Christmas party at Buckingham Palace. The prince, then eight, approached him. "Would you sing a song and Uncle Elton play the piano?" Michael declined; he hated singing for small groups of mostly strangers. "His little Christmas smile disappeared," recalled Michael. "I bloody said no to the future king of my country... oh, the shame." He would not attend the wedding. The royal couple, he explained, should be "surrounded by people they love, not dodgy ex-con pop stars."

This excerpt was adapted from George Michael: A Life by James Gavin published by Abrams Press ©2022.

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