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Exclusive: George Michael’s publicist during ‘Faith’ album, tour remembers the pop icon

WEST HOLLYWOOD — Phil Lobel had a front row seat to George Michael’s musical juggernaut “Faith,” the singer-songwriter’s debut solo album after leaving Wham! that sold more than 11 million copies in the United States.  

From September 1987 to December 1988, Lobel was Michael’s U.S.-based publicist. From his West Hollywood office, Lobel was in charge of generating promotion for the album’s release and the subsequent U.S and Canadian legs of the mega world tour — even though Michael refused to grant interviews with the media.

Michael was found dead in his London home by his boyfriend, Fadi Fawaz, on Christmas. Michael was 53. Officials have yet to receive toxicology reports.

During an exclusive interview with Q Voice News, Lobel remembers those 15 months of working on the “Faith” album and tour and the challenges of getting publicity when the pop icon wasn’t talking with the press.

Here are some excerpts.

On getting a job interview with George Michael

“I remember it vividly. I got a phone call in September 1987 from Rob Kahane, George’s co-personal manager with Michael Lippman, who said, I’m representing an artist who’s going solo, George Michael.

“I said, Oh, the guy from Wham!?

“Rob said, Yes, but don’t hold that against him. This album will be a breakthrough. “It’s a major, major stylistic change of what he was doing.

“He messengered over a cassette. I took it to the gym and listened to it on my Walkman on the StairMaster. I listened to it twice and then again that night. I called “Rob the next day and said, You have five or six hit singles on this record.

“He said, We know. Do you want to meet George? I said, Yes.”

Publicist Phil Lobel, who represented pop icon George Michael between 1987 and 1988 during the release of his “Faith” album and U.S. tour, is seen here at the 2014 Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar viewing party. Lobel client Crumble Catering has been the party’s official caterer more than a decade. Photos: Courtesy of Phil Lobel.

On meeting George Michael

“They had met with four other publicists, but all of them said, I’m not going to work the album and tour if you’re not going to do interviews. But George didn’t want to do interviews, so he wouldn’t hire them.

“Rob told me, Do not say he has to interviews. It’s a deal breaker.

“Why doesn’t he want to do interviews? He just doesn’t want to.

“The meeting was at Michael Lippman’s house in the Hollywood Hills. George had a tennis lesson that day. I was sitting in the den, and George walked in in his tennis shorts and shirt and a tennis racket.

“First thing he says is, I guess you heard, I don’t want to interviews. Is that a problem for you? I said, No that’s not a problem for me. My background is a concert promoter, and many times we would book some of the biggest acts in the world, but wouldn’t have their cooperation, so we would have to find other creative, innovative ways to sell tickets.

“He looked at me kind of incredulously. If we hire you, you won’t make me do interviews? I said, Right.

“He said, OK. I have to leave. I have a tennis lesson.

“He walked out and then Rob walked in and said, Did you speak with George? I said, yes, he just left to have his tennis lesson. Rob said, OK. Did you say he has to do interviews? I said, No. I followed your lead. He said, OK. We’ll call you .

“That was on a Friday. I didn’t hear anything by Monday, so I called Rob. He said, George hasn’t said anything, so it’s a done deal. We’re hiring you. You’re working for us. You’re his publicist.”

On getting publicity for the “Faith” album and tour

“Now I’m freaking out. What am I going to do? How am i going to get press?

I was thinking about my options, and called Rob and ask if George had done any interviews talking about the record. Rob mentioned that George did a two-hour interview with VH1 and talked about every song on the album and asked, What’s your idea?

“Well, I just got this thing called a Macintosh. I could transcribe the interview and put it in the Macintosh and then search words or song titles if questions come in about certain songs.

“I got the transcript on a floppy disk,  a 70-page transcript. Bingo. I just figured out how I can to do interviews. I’ll find George’s words in the transcripts and send the answers back to journalists. It was always George’s words. I told them, I will get the answers from George.

Publicist Phil Lobel is seen with client Lisa Vanderpump.

“This was pre-mail. I had to figure out how do I get journalists to agree to interviews by Fax. In the beginning, George was in Japan or Australia doing concerts for the ‘Faith’ tour. To do an interviews was almost impossible.

“Being pre-Internet, nobody couldn’t search interviews. So the paper in Atlanta might have the same words from George as a paper in Chicago. How would you find out?

“I did that 127 times.

“We did do three interviews. The cover of Interview Magazine, Rolling Stone and  the Detroit Free-Press because George loved soul music and Motown. We also did a short interview with  “Entertainment Tonight.” It was nine words. They were in Detroit when he brought Aretha Franklin onstage. Their cameras were by the stage. He was getting ready to go on stage and said, I know this will be a really great show.”

On realizing why George didn’t want to interviews

“I didn’t know if George was gay or not. I had friends who knew friends in London that knew he was out. In the beginning of the tour, Kathy Jeung from the “I Want Your Sex” video was with him and would go back to the hotel with him, but they had adjoining rooms.

“A whole year went by. We were in Texas sitting by the pool at the hotel, and Rob was asked me, Do you think George is gay?

“Rob, you’re his manager. You don’t know?

“George never talks about it. We just knew he’s miserable on the road. He’s alone all the time. He’s not happy.  

“Then it all made sense why he didn’t want to do interviews.”

On working directly with George

“When he had three sold out nights at The Forum, we did some new publicity photos. I went by the Hotel Bel-Air where he was staying to have him approve them. I would pick out the best pictures and lay them on a tray. There would maybe 100 slides and George would approve two — If i was lucky. He was very particular of the light and angle and what he wanted.”

On attending the “Faith” concerts

“The music would still be going, and they would put the bathrobe on George as he left the stage. He would go to the hotel or the lear jet. By the time the lights came up, he was already gone. It was called a hit-and-run.”

 

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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