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Pop superstar George Michael dies of heart failure at 53

Associated Press logo Associated Press 12/26/2016 By GREGORY KATZ, Associated Press
FILE- In this June 25, 2008, file photo, singer George Michael performs during his "Live Global Tour" concert in Inglewood, Calif. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File) © The Associated Press FILE- In this June 25, 2008, file photo, singer George Michael performs during his "Live Global Tour" concert in Inglewood, Calif. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

LONDON (AP) — George Michael's moment of liberation followed what seemed at first to be a time of deep humiliation.

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2012 file photo, British singer George Michael performs at a concert to raise money for the AIDS charity Sidaction, during the Symphonica tour at Palais Garnier Opera house in Paris, France. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2012 file photo, British singer George Michael performs at a concert to raise money for the AIDS charity Sidaction, during the Symphonica tour at Palais Garnier Opera house in Paris, France. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

He was blessed with extreme good looks and an exquisite voice, attributes he used to become first a teenybopper heartthrob and then a mature solo artist with videos that played up his considerable appeal to the opposite sex. He kept his own sexual preference private, until he was arrested in 1998 for lewd conduct in a public toilet in Los Angeles after being spotted by a male undercover police officer.

FILE - In this Saturday, July 2, 2005 file photo, British singer George Michael accompanied by other musicians and children from Africa wave to the crowds goodbye at the finale the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London. George Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said on Christmas day, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Saturday, July 2, 2005 file photo, British singer George Michael accompanied by other musicians and children from Africa wave to the crowds goodbye at the finale the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London. George Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said on Christmas day, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File)

In an earlier era, that might have doomed his career. Instead of retreating, however, he made a single and video — "Outside" — that ridiculed the charges against him and mocked the Los Angeles police officers who busted him.

FILE- In this July 21, 2008, file photo, musician George Michael performs in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen, File) © The Associated Press FILE- In this July 21, 2008, file photo, musician George Michael performs in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen, File)

Everyone remembers the image of the two uniformed policemen kissing in the video — it was both funny and outrageous at the time — and the image helped Michael come out as a proud gay man. He was unashamed, unapologetic and ready to poke fun at himself even as he produced a steady stream of hits.

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 file photo, British singer George Michael leaves his house in north London, after recovering from a life-threatening bout with pneumonia that kept him in a Vienna hospital for a month. George Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said on Christmas day, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 file photo, British singer George Michael leaves his house in north London, after recovering from a life-threatening bout with pneumonia that kept him in a Vienna hospital for a month. George Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said on Christmas day, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File)

But Michael, whose death from heart failure at 53 was announced Sunday, struggled in his later years, fighting a number of health issues and substance abuse problems. His voice remained golden — at times it seemed there was almost no limit to his range — but his behavior in public became ever more erratic.

FILE- In this July 13, 1985, Britain's Princess Diana meets singers Elton John, center, and George Michael, right, on her arrival at Wembley Stadium in London for the Live Aid famine relief concert for Africa. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo, File) © The Associated Press FILE- In this July 13, 1985, Britain's Princess Diana meets singers Elton John, center, and George Michael, right, on her arrival at Wembley Stadium in London for the Live Aid famine relief concert for Africa. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo, File)

Despite his great talent, he never found a niche for himself as a senior statesman of the rock world. His fans stuck with him despite it all, and many expected one more comeback. People rooted for Michael, even as they felt he was slipping away, giving in to his torment.

FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2010, file photo, British singer George Michael leaves Highbury Corner Magistrates Court in north London. Michael pleaded guilty in a London court to two drug offenses. He admitted driving under the influence of drugs and possession of cannabis following an incident on July 4 when his car crashed into a shop in north London. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2010, file photo, British singer George Michael leaves Highbury Corner Magistrates Court in north London. Michael pleaded guilty in a London court to two drug offenses. He admitted driving under the influence of drugs and possession of cannabis following an incident on July 4 when his car crashed into a shop in north London. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, File)

Michael shot to stardom at an early age in the teen duo WHAM! and moved smoothly into a solo career. It was a classic showbiz story — a lad named Georgios Panayiotou with strong Greek Cypriot roots takes the name George Michael and forms a band with Andrew Ridgeley that brings him wealth and worldwide fame.

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 1, 2008 file photo, George Michael performs at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on the last stop of his 25 Live tour. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Carl Abrams) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 1, 2008 file photo, George Michael performs at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on the last stop of his 25 Live tour. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Carl Abrams)
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The photos and videos from that era show Michael with long locks, piercing eyes and a cheerful, show-stopping smile. He was made for MTV, which was emerging as a dominant force, and he had a powerful video presence, borrowing some of his dance moves from Elvis Presley and sometimes styling himself as a motorcycle rebel who would have made James Dean or Marlon Brando proud.

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 1993, file photo, pop star George Michael arrives to give evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Michael was petitioning the court to release him from his contract with Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alistair Grant) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Oct. 28, 1993, file photo, pop star George Michael arrives to give evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Michael was petitioning the court to release him from his contract with Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alistair Grant)

He seemed to be on top of the world when he graduated from WHAM! and started scoring his own hits, but later said he was struggling with his sexuality and remembers his late 20s as a very depressing period.

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 31, 1989 file photo, George Michael accepts one of his three American Music Awards during ceremonies in Los Angeles. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alan Greth) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 31, 1989 file photo, George Michael accepts one of his three American Music Awards during ceremonies in Los Angeles. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alan Greth)

The AIDS crisis was hitting the gay community extremely hard at the time, and he lost one partner to the disease. He said it took him several years to recover.

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 18, 1993, file photo, pop star George Michael, 30, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London at the start of his court action against Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alistair Grant, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 18, 1993, file photo, pop star George Michael, 30, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London at the start of his court action against Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alistair Grant, File)

"I had my very first relationship at 27 because I really had not actually come to terms with my sexuality until I was 24," he said. "I lost my partner to HIV then it took about three years to grieve; then after that I lost my mother. I felt almost like I was cursed."

FILE - In this Wednesday, May, 11, 2011 file photo, George Michael poses for the cameras at an event to announce his European Orchestral tour in London. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Wednesday, May, 11, 2011 file photo, George Michael poses for the cameras at an event to announce his European Orchestral tour in London. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

He was unsettled and unhappy and, at the same time, became that rare artist who enjoys both chart success and tremendous respect from his peers. He sold well over 100 million albums, walked away from awards dinners weighed down with trophies, and recorded duets with the giants in his field.

FILE - In this July 2, 2005, file photo, George Michael, left, and Paul McCartney, right, perform during the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London. The concert is part of a series of free concerts being held around the world designed to press leaders of the rich G8 countries to help impoverished African nations. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this July 2, 2005, file photo, George Michael, left, and Paul McCartney, right, perform during the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London. The concert is part of a series of free concerts being held around the world designed to press leaders of the rich G8 countries to help impoverished African nations. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

The long list of people who recorded with Michael includes all-time greats: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti and Elton John, for starters. Their willingness to share the spotlight was a sure sign of the way Michael's talents were appreciated by fellow musicians.

FILE - In this April 7, 1985 file photo, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of the British group WHAM! perform during a concert in Peking, China. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo) © The Associated Press FILE - In this April 7, 1985 file photo, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of the British group WHAM! perform during a concert in Peking, China. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo)

Critics generally viewed his WHAM! songs as catchy but disposable pop and gave his solo efforts far higher marks. His first solo album, 1987's "Faith," sold more than 20 million copies, and he enjoyed several hit singles including the raunchy "I Want Your Sex," which was boosted by a provocative video that received wide airplay on MTV.

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 1988, file photo, singing great Aretha Franklin, right, joins George Michael during his Faith World Tour in Auburn Hills, Mich. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53.(AP Photo/Rob Kozloff, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Aug. 30, 1988, file photo, singing great Aretha Franklin, right, joins George Michael during his Faith World Tour in Auburn Hills, Mich. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53.(AP Photo/Rob Kozloff, File)

The song was controversial not only because of its explicit nature, but also because it was seen as encouraging casual sex and promiscuity at a time when the AIDS epidemic was at its height. Michael and his management tried to tamp down this point of view by having the singer write "Explore Monogamy" on the leg and back of a model in the video.

FILE - In this July 13, 1985, file photo, from left, George Michael of Wham!, concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith, Bono of U2, Paul McCartney, concert organizer Bob Geldof and Freddie Mercury of Queen join in the finale of the Live Aid famine relief concert, at Wembley Stadium, London. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Joe Schaber, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this July 13, 1985, file photo, from left, George Michael of Wham!, concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith, Bono of U2, Paul McCartney, concert organizer Bob Geldof and Freddie Mercury of Queen join in the finale of the Live Aid famine relief concert, at Wembley Stadium, London. Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. He was 53. (AP Photo/Joe Schaber, File)

His career was peaking, but a protracted legal dispute with his record company Sony took a toll.

FILE - In this Dec. 2, 1993 file photo, George Michael performs at "Concert of Hope" to mark World AIDS Day at London's Wembley Arena. According to a publicist on Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, the singer has died at the age of 53. (AP Photo/Gill Allen) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Dec. 2, 1993 file photo, George Michael performs at "Concert of Hope" to mark World AIDS Day at London's Wembley Arena. According to a publicist on Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, the singer has died at the age of 53. (AP Photo/Gill Allen)

As the hits slowed, he became better known for health scares and brushes with the police, many of them stemming from a series of driving-under-the-influence-of-drugs incidents, including several crashes. He was fond of marijuana and prescription sedatives — the dangerous combination had an effect on his driving, and several times he was found slumped over his car's steering wheel, not moving.

Some made jokes about his erratic driving, but the underlying problems were serious. His driver's license was finally revoked for five years in 2010 after Michael drove his Land Rover into the side of a Snappy Snap photo shop with so much force that his vehicle dented the wall.

A witty passer-by remembering Michael's early career wrote the word WHAM on the spot his SUV had hit.

He was arrested a second time in public toilets — this time in North London in 2008 for drug use, an incident that prompted him to apologize to his fans and promise to get his life in order. He seemed to sense that he was wearing out his welcome with the public, offering an apology to everybody "just for boring them."

He said at a press conference in 2011 that he felt he had let young people down with his misbehavior and had made it easier for others to denigrate homosexuals. By that time, many of his songs had become popular gay anthems, including those written and released before he revealed his sexual preference.

Despite these personal setbacks, Michael's musical performances remained strong even as his material moved farther from the teen tunes that first brought him to stardom.

The Telegraph newspaper in 2011 described a London concert appearance as an impressive event, calling his voice, "A rich, soulful instrument, it's capable of serious emotional heft, expertly matching the confessional tone of his own material."

He was straightforward about his reasons for starting first a ska band with Ridgeley and later forming WHAM!

"I wanted to be loved," he said. "It was an ego satisfaction thing."

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