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Shifting

GEORGE MICHAEL...

Fame... Many people would do practically anything to achieve it. After all, it often seems like if you aren't a celebrity in this world, you are not important. And even though this couldn't be further from the truth, the plain fact is that stars are revered and worshipped like no else on this earth, almost to the point of total canonization. And George Michael, who has been one of my idols for a very long time, is the perfect subject to analyze international stardom. Through his music, he has made several attempts to demystify the whole concept of fame and how it is more corrupted and twisted than the public might realize.

George is without a doubt one of the most gifted artist of his generation. And even though his "pop star" status has waned since his first impact in the 1980's, he has left an impressive array of beautiful songs. George Michael was born "Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou" on June 25, 1963 in the suburbs of London. He was a shy kid who hated his looks. Nonetheless, he still had big ambitions early on. At 16, he formed a ska-based band with schoolmate Andrew Ridgeley in 1979 called The Executive. They performed live in small venues for quite a while, perfecting their craft even though they never recorded any material.

That first group soon dissolved but they stayed together and Wham was born in 1982. They recorded demos and made the rounds, soon signing up with an independant label "Innervision" which gave them the opportunity to record a first album called Fantastic. It was an instant hit in England, reaching the number one spot on the UK charts. The album would launch three singles: Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do) Young guns (Go For It) and Club Tropicana.

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But success in England wasn't enough for them. They were very ambitious and wanted to have an impact in America. And to do that, they had to find a label which would supply them with the marketing tools and the money needed to record material suited for the international market. "Sony Music" became interested and offered them a very good deal. But in order to sign up with that new label, they had to get out of their contract with Innervision and the only way was to give up most of their royalties from the Fantastic album.

They walked away without ever looking back, confident in their potential to become succesful all over the world. With the powerful Sony Music machine behind them, they recorded a second album in 1984 called Make it big, title which would prove prophetic. The first single Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go became number one in the US and everywhere else, establishing them as pop sensations. The album spawned three more hit singles: Careless Whispers, Everything She Wants and Freedom.

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But soon, tensions in the duo became more obvious. George felt that within the group, he was confined artistically. Music from the Edge of heaven was released in 1986 as their final album. Then, they parted company. I've always suspected that they were lovers and my guess is that the formation broke up at the same time as their relationship fizzled.

Anyway, that album wasn't as succesful as their previous effort, even though it launched three hit singles The Edge Of Heaven, I'm Your Man and A Different corner. Andrew disappeared from the music scene, even though he tried unsuccesfully to come back with a solo album a few years later. But George had other plans and, since he had been the sole musical drive in the formation, wanted to become a respected solo artist.

He released two singles later that year. The first, I Want Your Sex, was a major hit while causing a controversy because of its somewhat sexual content. The AIDS epidemic was at a fever-pitch in 1987 and the lyrics of the song were misinterpreted by the medias as encouraging casual sex, even though it was really about the joys of monogamy. Therefore, the single was largely boycotted by many radio stations and didn't get much airplay.

But the sales were so strong that it made up for the lack of radio exposure and the song reached number two on the Hot 100 singles chart in the USA. George admitted in an interview later on that I Want Your Sex made his career as a solo act in America. His second attempt was a duo with his childhood idol Aretha Franklin called I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, a number one hit on both the pop and R&B charts in the US.

Finally, his first solo album was released in 1987. Called Faith, it would become his most succesful outing to date. It spawned an incredible six top 5 hit singles, four of which went to number one, making him one of the most succesful male artist of the 80's. And the album stayed at the top of the charts for twelve consecutive weeks, earning the Grammy for "best album of the year" in 1988, selling an astounding 15 million copies worldwide.

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But then, for his second solo effort called Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I in 1990, George made a bold move which was rather startling and yet, extremely courageous. From then on, he refused most interview requests and decided not to appear in any video-clips to promote his singles. The result was that the album achieved only moderate success, selling five millions worldwide with two top ten hits called Praying for time and Freedom 90.

Michael said at the time that he felt he needed a change of direction. He wanted to concentrate on his music and play down his image of sex symbol. In a way, he wanted to be heard, not seen and chose to put the focus back solely on the music. Unfortunately for him, we live in a world of images. And even though his music only got better and more interesting with time, the medias were not prepared for a star of this magnitude to not play the Hollywood game. If you want to remain a star, you have to constantly promote yourself, reinventing and reshaphing your image to fit the times, "Madonna" probably being the most succesful and enduring example.

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Then in 1993, feeling that his label Sony Music hadn't properly marketed Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I, he decided to sue them for breach of contract. His argument was that the label didn't support him on the fact that he wanted to be left out of his own videos and never really made an effort to promote his album. He lost the suit but eventually, was able to get out of his contract but only after the Dreamworks Records label bought it back from Sony for an undisclosed amount reputed to be in the hundreds of millions.

Thus, George became the first major artist to sign up with the new company Dreamworks formed by such personalities as Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Under that label, he released a third solo album in 1996 called Older. And even though it is technically flawless and contains some of his best work, the critics were very harsh and the public gave it only a lukewarm reception. This album was to become one of the major disappointment in sales for the year 1996, damaging George's career considerably.

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Two years later, the final blow came. On April 7, 1998, Michael was arrested and charged with committing a "lewd act" in a Beverly Hills park men's room. Up until that point, he had never publicly admitted his homosexuality. But when he got caught with his pants down literally, he had no choice but to acknowledge his sexual orientation. I am sure getting arrested in such an embarassing position wasn't the way George had intended to come out of the closet. But can you imagine how difficult it must be for such a public personality to find sexual partners when the world thinks you are a heterosexual?

He came back on the scene later in 1998 with both a video compilation and a best of album entitled Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael. Containing 22 tracks including a new single "Outside", it enjoyed more success than its predecessor even though the kind of sales figure Faith delivered in 1987 were long gone by now. In a way, George had deliberately destroyed his own image and the mainstream public, often fickle and thirsty for new thrills, had deserted him in large numbers.

Despite the fact that his stardom is not what it used to be, George truly is a very gifted songwriter and he has written a song about that very subject. Star People is the 11th track on his album Older which is a masterpiece if you ask me. Sadly enough, as I said before, the album was considered a commercial flop at the time of its release. Personally, I think it was only a question of bad timing and the fact that the album wasn't properly promoted. And strangely enough, it was also too brilliant and introspective to become a huge success, with low key vocal performances and slow tempos, except on a few tracks like the previously mentioned Star People and the single Fastlove.

In "Star People", George talks about fame like few other songwriters would dare to, especially a star of George's magnitude. When I first heard that song, it struck me as being very courageous on his part to denounce the trappings of stardom in such a stark and honest way. The lyrics revolve around the cost of fame and what makes people yearn to become stars in the first place. Here are a few excerpts that were particularly revealing to me:

Star People
Counting your money till your soul turns green
Star People
Counting the cost of your desire to be seen

Star People
never forget your secret's safe with me
Look at all the wonderful people
Trying to forget they had to pay for what you see

It's a dream
With a nightmare stuck in the middle
But without it where would you be
Without all this attention
You'd die, I'd die, We'd die
Wouldn't we?

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What also impresses me about George Michael is the fact that he doesn't seem to have a vain bone in his body. For example, he hates to have his picture taken and always tried to hide as much as possible. I always got the feeling that he didn't like his looks and he did his best to put the emphasis on his sound rather than the visual imagery of his persona. That is most likely why he decided at the height of his fame to stop feeding his image to the public by not appearing in his own videos, something few other stars would ever consider. And this was probably why his commercial success was severely compromised.

And you know, I really admire him for that. I saw a documentary from 1990 where he grants one of the very few interviews at that point in his life. And he explained that, even though he had wanted to become a star and be recognized by the public when he was younger, he doesn't really feel that need anymore. He mentioned that he didn't think he was "important" as a pop star in our culture and the only thing that matters to him is to leave something behind through his music as a legacy to future generations.

He also talked about the subject of stardom, saying something that really clinched it for me. He was referring to superstars, those musical figures so hugely famous that they become icons like Madonna, Prince or Michael Jackson. According to him, people who become huge celebrities are racked with insecurities. And they basically yearn to be somebody else. And even though he himself had insecurities like everybody else, he never wanted to be someone else and that is why fame to him was never that important, even though it came to him as a result of his success.

And you know, he is absolutely right on target. Fame is so hard to reach that someone has to be consumed with an insatiable thirst for attention to get to it. Those people are usually so insecure that the only way to calm that self-loathing they suffer through is to get love and approval from as many people as possible. It wouldn't be enough for them to get love from their spouse, family and friends. They want the world to love them. And unfortunately for me, I feel exactly like that even though I will never become a star of that magnitude.

George on the other hand wants to be recognized as a serious musician much more than as a musical star. He doesn't care at all about being seen and his image only serves the purpose of putting the sound of his music out there. In a way, George is probably one of the least "vain" star ever in a world where images are shamelessly glorified. As for me, like most star wannabes, I can't wait for my image to be seen by as many people as possible like countless other fame-seekers who would do anything to get any kind of recognition in the show-business world.

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STAR SYSTEM...

Being a star with all the "trimmings" might seem like a dream to mere mortals who will never experience the fame and wealth internationally-renowned stars possess. But there is a price to pay for all those privileges and most people often forget just how high it can be. There are many downsides to celebrity and only the precious few who have lived through it know exactly how demanding and debilitating it is.

A star has to work a lot harder than most people. It's not unusual for a star to work 18 to 20 hours a day 6 days a week for many months at a time. And for movie stars especially, getting up at the brink of dawn is often a necessity while shooting a film with only a few hours of sleep every night. They have to travel constantly, flying from one city to the other for various purposes, not being able to stay very long in any given location.

Consequently, since they travel through great distance all over the globe, they constantly suffer from "jet lag", this infringing on their sleeping time which is severely deprived in the first place. After a while of having to endure such a wild regimen, anybody would just crave to go home and sleep in their own bed. But as they say, for a star, the work is never done and traveling is an absolute necessity.

As you know, a world-renowned star can not casually take a stroll down the street or go anywhere without being accosted by countless strangers and signing autographs for hours. This might sound thrilling to get recognized on the street everywhere you go since it is something most people will never experience. But even though it is very flattering for them, stars like any human beings sometimes need to get around incognito without being bothered by anyone. And the more famous they are, the less possible it becomes. More often than not, they are confined to their homes, at different work locations and various hotel rooms around the world. And this might sound fun for a while but in the long run, it would drive anybody crazy and feeling more like a prison term than anything else.

They are never left alone with, in most cases, a full entourage following them like puppy dogs. They are constantly being told what to do, where to go and what to say by various people such as managers, producers, directors, agents and publicists. They must grant interviews and go through various promotion activities endlessly until they feel like running away screaming. They have very little spare time if any at all and are constantly required to accomplish one task after another with a schedule so tight that anybody would go insane.

Flocks of strangers constantly try to get to them, yearning to get into the spotlight by association. Also, stars have to be on their best behavior all the time in public and be nice to everyone or run the risk of being torn to pieces through the medias by some fame-hungry stalker and different members of the press who are always thirsty for fresh news. Not to mention being at the mercy of some deranged "fans" who, by worshipping their idols, become obsessed and can turn violent and even deadly.

They also have to accept the fact that "paparazzis" will be on their heels every step of the way, harrassing them everywhere they go while trying to get the most unflattering picture possible. And when they get themselves into some embarassing situation (like George did in that bathroom), they see their mistakes plastered on every television shows and magazines on the planet. Can you imagine having to constantly be reminded of a stupid mistake you made? And worse, knowing that everybody in the whole wide world will find out and judge you for it?

Human beings are flawed creatures who make mistakes and say stupid things all the time. I am sure every one of us has done or said something we regret and don't want anyone to know about. But stars don't have that luxury. They are exposed to such a degree that the world finds out about very intimate details most people would never dream of sharing with anyone. And yet, they have to go along with this giant publicity machine called the media, always thirsty for any celebrity news.

The "tabloids" in particular are a real plague for stars. They print preposterous celebrity stories which are often ridiculous and most of the time complete lies. The star usually chooses to ignore the whole thing, even though it is difficult to be the target of a vicious attack without saying anything. Sometimes though, the star fights back and sues the tabloid in question if the story is too extreme and damaging. Tabloids can be extremely cruel and denigrating to certain stars. Oprah Winfrey and Roseanne were both tabloid darlings for a while and, because of their weight-issues, were easy target for those papers who feed on the misery of anyone famous.

There is a popular saying that "When you are the center of attention, you also become the target". The more famous someone becomes, the more attacks they will have to endure from every direction. When you are a celebrity, there is no place you can hide. You are scrutinized and looked at all the time. And as you might imagine, fame stirs up envy big time. So, a celebrity has to endure being humiliated in front of the world by hordes of jealous people who would do anything to take their place.

And all through this, they must remain at the top of their game for fear that a younger, prettier version of themselves replace them in the public's heart. In a way, star become prisoners of their fame. Everything they do, every word they say, every action they commit can have an impact on their image and therefore, can either make or break their career. One false move and boom... A star can fall from grace faster than a speeding bullet.

When people become famous, they have to learn very quickly to separate their public persona from their own personal identity. What the public sees from a celebrity figure is not the real person but rather, a constructed and fictional entity composed of different images aimed at creating a new creature called a star. Some people can function rather well with this dichotomy between what is "real" and what is "reel" even though it can be a difficult experience. On the other hand, quite a few end up losing themselves in the process.

And especially in the case of movie stars, with the aging mechanism everybody has to go through, it can become a nightmare. After all, when stars become older, they constantly have to compete with younger versions of themselves which have been fixed in the public consciousness through photographs and pieces of film. And those images remain fresh and vibrant, being instantly accessible to anyone who wishes it.

But in the meantime, as the years fly by, the real person made of flesh and blood gets further away from that young and gorgeous version and gets older, looking less and less like their youthful counterpart. The sad truth is that, even though some stars can succesfully continue to act in their more mature years, many of them are not allowed to grow old gracefully. In the public's mind, they remain eternally young even though time doesn't spare any of us. And sadly, many stars end up chasing a ghost of their former self in their minds.

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JAYNE MANSFIELD...

There are countless examples of stars who weren't able to cope very well with the pressures of stardom. Old movie stars like Jayne Mansfield, William Holden and Rita Hayworth are among them. Born in 1933, Jayne always knew she wanted to become a movie star. Being an actress for her was not as important as getting famous. In the 1950's, she was hailed as the answer to Marilyn Monroe for a while. She had huge breasts and a good body which she used in every conceivable way to get attention.

Still an unkown, she would walk around in very revealing swimsuits in public, handing out autographed pictures of herself to startled pedestrians who had no idea who she was... She attended as many Hollywood parties as she could, wearing one revealing accouterment after another craving to get attention and constantly trying to have the press take her picture. She became completely immersed in self-promotion and no publicity stunts were wild or outrageous enough...

One incident in 1955 caused a sensation and got her a movie studio contract with Warner Brothers. She had attended a movie junket for Jane Russell's movie called Underwater with a dozen other starlets. To get noticed by the studio heads, Jayne emerged from the pool topless as if it had been an accident, even though she had carefully planned it. The sight of this very well-endowed woman all wet and all smiles had the proper effect on every man present and her career was launched.

But it was only through a stage play called "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" that she made her first impact on the public. She would eventually play the same role in the movie version which was a big success at the box-office in 1955. Soon followed another hit called "The Girl Can't Help It" which made Jayne a star. But the fact is that her whole movie persona was actually a copy of Marilyn Monroe's dumb blonde image and Jayne was only one of the several actresses who would have done anything to take Marilyn's place. But her success was temporary and the fame she desperately craved only lasted a few years.

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Eventually, she became a washed-up actress no studio would hire, reduced to appearing at supermarket openings and in nightclub acts around the country to earn a living. All her life, the only thing that really mattered to her was to become a star. But when her movie career came to a dead-stop in the early 60's, she couldn't accept it and soon took refuge in alcohol, still chasing fame even though it had deserted her. Finally, she was killed in a car accident in 1967 and unlike Marilyn's death, her demise became nothing more than a footnote in Hollywood's history.

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WILLIAM HOLDEN...

William Holden was born in 1918 and at the tender age of 21, became a movie star with "Golden Boy" co-starring with Barbara Stanwyck. From then on, he starred in more than seventy movies in his lifetime. But he is probably best remembered today for his role as a washed-up screenwriter in Billy Wilder's masterpiece from 1950 called "Sunset Boulevard". Gloria Swanson, an actress who had been a huge star in the silent days but didn't really make the transition to sound, also starred in the film with one of her best performances.

Gloria and William got Academy Award nominations for their work, even though they both lost. But that film gave new momentum to his career and many good roles would follow. William was nominated a second time in 1953 with "Stalag 17" and this time, got the coveted prize. But behind the cool and debonair exterior, William was extremely insecure about his looks and acting talent. He had never really wanted to become a star in the first place and wasn't able to function well within the confines of the movie studio system of that era.

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He started to use alcohol early in his career to help calm his deep anxieties about facing the camera. Pretty soon, he became a life-long alcoholic. And all through his life, he had many frantic episodes of panic attacks, always on the edge of despair. He died in 1981 after a long tortuous existence filled with self-doubt and angst, even though his career is nothing short of astounding. Fame for him was torture more than anything else and he often felt like he didn't deserve all the accolades that come with being a celebrity.

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RITA HAYWORTH...

"Margarita Carmen Cansino" was born on October 17th, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York. She started her career at the early age of twelve as a dancer in her father's stage act. With her new name Rita Hayworth, she appeared in her first movie in 1935 at 17 and would get to act and dance with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in several movies all through the 40's. During World War II, she was a pin-up girl for a while, much like Betty Grable which is another blonde bombshell of that era.

Her signature role would come in 1946 with the movie "Gilda". She played the title character and with her long flowing hair and tremendous sex-appeal, that part would transform her into a Love Goddess of the 1940's... She lived through many tribulations in her personal life including five unhappy marriages. Rita even tied the knot with famous director and actor Orson Welles for a little while and played the title role in one of his movies called "The Lady from Shanghai" in 1948. The very next year, she caused a scandal by becoming involved with Arabian Prince Aly Khan, whom she eventually married for a few years, giving up her movie career.

She had never really cared about being an actress and gladly left North America, moving halfway accross the world to be with her new husband. After a while, when her marriage proved unhappy once more, she reluctantly came back home to resume her career. But her glory days were mostly in the past and her popularity started to slow down even though she still worked steadily until the early 60's. Then, at age 42, she started to suffer from an early case of Alzheimer's Disease. But that affliction wasn't known yet and she wouldn't be diagnosed for twenty years until the discovery of that disease in 1980. People at that time only thought she was slowly going crazy.

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She made a few movies in the 1960's in Europe but by then, she had lost most of her memory and needed cue cards for every line. Pretty soon, it was impossible for her to work and she had to give it up. Her disease really started to affect her social relations at that point and most of her friends left as they didn't understand her often very shocking behavior. She eventually had to be hospitalized, becoming a total recluse. Slowly but surely, the disease destroyed her mind until she died in 1987, long after her medical condition had robbed her of her sanity.

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BURNING FAME...

Fame is a very demanding God and many people are not well-equipped to stand the pressure. William and Rita both were extremely shy and insecure people, not at all convinced of their own worth as human beings, even though they became very famous while being adored by millions. William used alcohol as a crutch while Rita tried to find her salvation in love, always ending up badly hurt in the process. And even though these two people would probably not have been any happier even if they had not become stars, the pressure of fame made their lives even more miserable.

Unlike the other two, Jayne wanted stardom more than anything. In her case though, it was when she lost the little fame she had acquired that she became self-destructive through abusive relationships and alcoholism. Without stardom, life didn't mean much to Jayne, even though she adored her four children and did her best to provide for them until her death. And while she would never experience fame like she had in the past, she couldn't help but pursue it. That desire to be loved and worshipped by many is simply too strong to ignore for someone like Jayne, who had the misfortune of tasting stardom just enough to miss it terribly when her fame evaporated.

And yet, despite the fact that becoming a star can be a nightmare, millions of people still yearn for fame. Why? One possible explanation could be that what the public see through the medias seems so magical and attractive that they can't help but be drawn to it. We get some glimpse of the stars going to a movie premiere, granting interviews, attending award shows in one glamorous setting after another and earning millions of dollars in the process. Their lives seem like a fairytale and when we compare it to our everyday existence, it is very difficult not to yearn for that alternate reality.

But this is only part of the story. As you've probably seen through documentaries about movie-making, it requires a lot of exhausting work to make all that fantasy world. And also, we often forget the fact that 95% of all people who want to become famous never succeed. For every person who makes it to the top, there are thousands who fail. Not everyone is cut out to become a star even though countless people would do absolutely anything to achieve fame.

It is extremely difficult to become a star because you have to prove you are worthy of that special attention every step of the way, over and over again. No one will ever hand you fame on a silver platter and those who get "notorious" at an early age are extremely lucky. For most of the elite who become stars, it usually takes years of struggle where hard work and persistence are constantly required. And that is what I'm doing. Yes, I want to become a star, that was always clear in my mind. But why? Honestly, I don't know. Where does it come from? Why is it so important to me?

And honestly, even though I am perfectly aware of all the bad sides of fame, I still want it more than anything. And the lyrics from "Star People", that wonderful song written by George haunt me precisely for that reason. What is missing in my life that I have this consuming desire to be seen by as many people as possible? Why is it that I want complete strangers to be aware of my existence? Why do I get this disturbing feeling that my life will not be complete unless I reach a certain level of fame? I wish I knew...