EXCLUSIVE: George Michael’s publicist during Sony Music lawsuit shares memories of pop superstar

In the early 1990s, Michael Pagnotta was George Michael’s personal U.S. publicist, handling any and all media inquires about the pop superstar.

Michael didn’t speak much with the press, but Pagnotta constantly fielded calls about Michael’s lawsuit and trial against Sony Music Entertainment.

ALSO READ: EXCLUSIVE: George Michael’s publicist during ‘Faith’ CD, tour remembers pop icon

LAWSUIT AGAINST SONY

Michael sued the music juggernaut, claiming that the eight-album contract he signed in 1988 was unfair under British and European Union law because it bound him to the company for more than a decade and gave him no control over how his music would be marketed. Michael filed the lawsuit after the release of his 1990 release “Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1,” which he said Sony failed to promote as punishment because Michael wrote songs that downplayed his sex symbol image.

Michael lost the case in 1994.

GEORGE MICHAEL’S DEATH

Michael, 53, was found dead in his London home by his boyfriend, Fadi Fawaz, on Christmas 2016. Michael died of natural causes as a result of heart disease and a fatty liver, a British coroner said.

In an exclusive interview with Q Voice News, Pagnotta, president of the New York City-based Reach Media, remembers the “war” with Sony, not worrying about the gay question, and watching Michael perform at Madison Square Garden.

Here are some excerpts.

Michael Pagnotta, left, was the U.S. publicist for George Michael, right, in the early 1990s. Photo: Kevin Mazur.

Working with George Michael

“George had released ‘Listen Without Prejudice ,Volume. 1,’ but he wouldn’t do interviews and wouldn’t do videos. I thought I could help him,” Pagnotta says. “I had developed a reputation for handling clients who didn’t like dealing with the press. There was was Depeche Mode, The Cure, Morrissey.”

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Witnessing music history

“To be a young person and to be in a position to work with these musicians promoting their music and getting out their message was an incredibly intense time,” Pagnotta says. “It was real learning experience to be thrust into historic pop music circumstances. Prince changed his name.”

Too stupid or too ambitious?

“I had worked at Rogers & Cowan on the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour. I had a clear sense of what it took to work international clients. I don’t know if I was to stupid or too ambitious to do it,” Pagnotta says with a chuckle.

‘It was war’

“The lawsuit was about to start. When that happened, it was war. Representing George against Sony was tough,” Pagnotta says. “In terms of publicity, I had to get things out that people were interested in. I took every little thing about the music and had to figure out, Where can I place this?”

Didn’t worry about the gay question

“George wasn’t worried about the gay question. He wasn’t hiding. People knew. It almost never came up,” Pagnotta says. “There was no direction from management about not asking the question. There was no crisis strategy. If someone leaked it, we would handle it. We had bigger fish to fry.”

Freedom

“To George, the most important thing was to erase that guy. He wasn’t going to be that pop icon. It was very intentional,” Pagnotta says. “You don’t do that at that level without having a huge price to pay, and he accepted it. Read the lyrics to ‘Freedom 90.’ That was it.”

After the lawsuit

“Our working relationship just stopped,” Pagnotta says. “George lost the lawsuit. He wasn’t planning to tour. No music was planned. There was nothing to do.”

Concerts with 20,000 women screaming and crying

“George sold out four nights at the Garden for the Cover to Cover tour (in October 1991),” Pagnotta says. “I looked up at the rafters. There were 20,000 women screaming and crying, but he couldn’t have been less interested. He was changing his image. George had a blue blazer and cropped hair.

“That walk through the Garden was dripping with irony,” Pagnotta says. “It was like ‘The Twilight Zone.’”

George Michael, left, Michael Pagnotta, center, and Linda Evangelista on the set of Michael’s “Too Funky” video shoot in Paris in 1992. Photo: Kevin Mazur.

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.