WATCH THE NEW REMASTERED 4K VERSION OF FREEDOM! ‘90 HERE
Three decades ago, my agent called me to ask me if I’d be interested in shooting a music video for George Michael. It was a song from his new album ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’, a super-funky track called ‘Freedom! ‘90’.
I remember enquiring about who was directing, and which other talent were involved. The director was a young David Fincher, only months away from blast-off on a movie career that has since gone from strength to superb strength. The accompanying talent were five of the most beautiful, sought after female models of their generation – soon to be etched in cultural folklore as the original Supermodels. Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz – all frequent work colleagues and pals.
I decided I’d really like to do the job. So where is it shooting and how much does it pay? OK. But, I had a mad-busy few weeks ahead of me; could we even make it work, schedule-wise?
Around this very time, I was steadily picking up speed, gaining momentum, slipping through the gears as a non-stop working male model. I’d been the face of multiple campaigns for Perry Ellis, Burberry, Levi’s, GAP, Banana Republic – and would go on to front many more which included multiple seasons as the face of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Valentino, and Drakkar Noir. More than one highly coveted fragrance contract would follow as well as innumerable appearances in editorial magazines all around the world. Unlike modeling today, these gigs were not one-hit-wonders and then you were done; you were building a long-term career… unless of course, you were a ‘problem’ to work with. Then you might be done!
In those days, and up until perhaps the last five or six years, if you were a professional, if you were great at what you did, and likable, polite, hardworking and confident without being arrogant, you’d find yourself working for the clients repeatedly, for many seasons and in some cases for many years. A few of my clients I have worked with for 15 to 20 years. I aged from a young-gun rebel to just-married husband, then a father, and not too long ago, I even played a grandfather… bloody hell!
I was engaged in amassing a wonderful body of travel experience. I was thrown into the deep end of learning the skills required in dealing with all kinds of egos and characters, some more challenging than others. It was a world rich with great personalities, very few who were outright obnoxious. (I can literally only think of two, who will remain nameless!) And those were just victims of their own insecurities and illusions of grandeur. Such folk appear in all industries – even those running certain governments.
I was a young man with a passion for adventure, thrilled by my opportunities to travel and work with top notch creative teams. I took great pride in filling my old school pre-EU, 90-page UK passport with stamps from all over our beautiful world. I LOVED that passport with the same intensity a cub scout must feel in accumulating his various badges of merit. I felt alive, of the time and inspired by non-stop action.
And so my agents, Carole White in London and Chris Forberg in New York, worked their magic to make this video shoot work. They always chased my booking options with an impeccable eye, weighing up the best possible routes to maximize everyday, every job, with the most prestigious crews, visiting amazing countries and charging fair fees. Little did I know that this time I was about to participate in something that was to become a cultural phenomenon.
This was the week that followed. Like hopscotch across two continents, this was, in those days, a pretty normal schedule.
I shot for two days in NY before jumping on a plane to Stockholm. I shot for a day or two in Stockholm before taking a train north to Lapland to film with lensman Mikael Jansson. I remember there being almost no night sky darkness whatsoever. My hotel room had black out blinds on the windows, but due to a mixture of jet lag and the unrelenting light, I barely slept at all. I clearly remember making a bed on the bathroom floor at the very rear of the room in an attempt to escape the sun and catch some much needed shut-eye.
Back in Stockholm, I then took a flight to Paris and went directly to a night shoot in a fancy Oyster bar, high in the eves of the Gare du Nord train station with photographer Fabrizio Ferri. We worked until dawn and then a car rushed me to Charles de Gaulle for my trip to London. I’d steal some rest on the short flight.
Landing in England, a driver was waiting to speed me to the Merton Park Film Studios in South London which provided a similar vibe to a ‘Bladerunner’ set. This ride also introduced me to George Michael’s brilliant song. On the back seat of the Mercedes was a Walkman which had the 6 min and 30 second track on repeat. I needed to learn the song word for word… and so I got to it, partly terrified that I’d mess up my lines and equal part enthused by the energy and beat of the tune, the potential for a thrilling day.
Arriving at the studio, there was the typical buzz of an exciting shoot in the making. Dozens of folk running around, busy, engaged, on the job. I was greeted by a producer and taken to my waiting area. No fancy van, no sumptuous green room – this was a 1929 building housing the bare essentials and, not to forget, clouds of tobacco smoke, as in those days smoking was rampant and par for the course.
I said ‘hello’ to the glam squad who I knew well. Guido Palau on hair and Carol Brown on make up. Camilla Nickerson was styling, took one look at the clothes I arrived in and OK’d them as ‘my costume’. That was easy!
And then began the period always present on such a shoot… the waiting game. ‘Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait’ is the phrase best used to describe working days in our business. I sat around for hours and happily took in the shoot. I smoked too many cigarettes, drank coffee and made small talk and laughed with anyone inclined to chat.
As day turned to dusk, the producer took me to meet George. Of course I knew who George was and was a fan of his talent and rise to stardom. George’s birthday was June 25, mine the day before. For some reason as we were introduced, my opening line was, “Hi, lovely to meet you, I feel I know all about you as my birthday’s June 24, but I’m a few years younger!” I’ve no idea why I said that, perhaps a strategy to attempt to fast track to the essential and establish some instant intimacy? God knows! Anyway, George was lovely, didn’t seem too distressed by my comment and invited me into his trailer to go over the song. As clear as day I remember us singing the song together, backed by a stellar music system and us laughing because at one point he forgot his own lyrics and I had to correct him! It was bonkers and brilliant and I’ll always hold dear that I performed a duet with that lovely man himself. And after about 30 minutes, we were confident that I had the song down.
More hours passed and I found myself quite mesmerized watching Fincher shooting Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista’s takes – both scenes were exquisitely cinematic. It was clear that this young director was creating some kind of magic – the alchemy of talent, song, story, and that period’s zeitgeist was palpable. We were all so young, bold, raw, fearless and game.
Darkness arrived and the producer came over to speak to me. I was on my second pack of Winston reds. “Hey John, how you doing? We’re not going to get to your scene this evening, are you available to come back tomorrow?” Yes, I responded, sure. He then nervously added, “You know, we won’t be able to pay you for two days though, but isn’t it great to be in a George Michael video?” Nope, that wasn’t going to work. I’d grafted and bartered in Yorkshire markets since being 12 years old and wasn’t having it. “Sorry, no can do, I know how much the girls are getting!” It was a lame budget trimming attempt by the producer, but I was willing to walk. Then, as remains today, being treated respectfully for my work was very important to me.
And so we agreed that I’d be paid correctly, and a car was called to take me to my digs for the evening which also proved to be of fateful significance.
My long-time sweetheart girlfriend, Alison Edmond, and I had split up a year previously as our lives were tied up on two different continents, and the pressures of travel and of bright, young careers had taken their toll. She was a beautiful young Fashion Editor at Vogue and that first day she surprised me on set, having arrived to cover the making of the video for the magazine, neither of us aware the other would be there. We hadn’t seen each other for a year, nor been in touch. But it didn’t feel awkward at all – it was actually lovely and I cheekily asked if perhaps I could spend the night at her flat in Fulham, in the spare room of course!
That evening the car dropped me off at Alison’s. We had dinner, chatted, fell naturally into the rhythms that two people who cared for each other shared. I was taken by a poster she had on the wall in her kitchen of a young Paul Newman, sat with legs stretched high within the doorway of the famed Actors Studio in NYC, a well-worn script in his hands.
I left the following morning for the studio. As ever, by the time I arrived there was the usual flurry of activity. It was clear that my scene was to happen first. I was midway through peeling an orange (vitamin C as an attempt to fend off the damage done by too many ciggies) when both David and George came over to talk to me. David sat next to me and flatly asked, “What shall we do with you then? Any ideas? “ Immediately I described the photograph that I’d loved of Paul Newman. That was it! Less than 30 seconds of brainstorming and David cued the art department to build me a door frame. We didn’t need a script as he had really liked the motion of me peeling the orange.
I was sent to glam for final touches, and got back into my own clothes in wardrobe (which had never looked so well pressed and protected in a transparent garment bag) and then took my mark. I was given another fresh orange and a bucket was placed some six feet in front of me. Two cameras were aimed on me and the surprise was that, towering behind and above the bucket was a TV monitor with an autocue offering up all the lyrics! After all my learning, my listening over and over to the track, here were the words! Nobody had told me… was it a secret ploy to make sure I did due diligence? No matter… it was a safety blanket. This was in the days of very expensive 35mm film stock, pre-digital.
And so we were ready… “Quiet please, going for a take!”
Camera ready, track ready, speed … and action! The familiar tune kicked in and I began grooving in my chair, in my private little world, making ready for the opening lyrics … and I was IN. I enjoyed the first verse, the second, the chorus, and I kept peeling the orange and hoping, like as a young bairn, that I could complete the orange peeling in one go, one piece … and I did and I threw that peel hitting on the beat perfectly and it landed first time into the bucket. The scene flowed. David called cut, followed by print. The vibe and atmosphere on the set was positive, upbeat, dare I say, a success… “Let’s do one more for safety” (always music to my ears!) The two camera angles were adjusted and I was duly presented with a new orange. Guido, Carol and Camilla jumped in to do their thing and we went again. It was almost a carbon copy.
And that was it! All that travel, effort, organizing behind the scenes and it was over in perhaps 20 minutes. Little did I know that my mouth would end up lip-syncing the opening line of one of the most iconic songs ever recorded, in one of the most iconic music videos ever made, 30 years later still standing up to the test of time.
I hung around for the rest of the day, made phone calls on a pay phone, again smoked too many cigarettes, read my book and wrote in my leather bound Mulberry diary (the must have accessory of that time). Later on, I watched more scenes being shot, enjoyed several glasses of red wine and then finally found myself leaving in the front seat of a car with Linda and Christy cracking up with laughter in the back. It was marvelous. It felt special. I was dropped off back at Alison’s flat where I stayed a second night. (A year after the video shoot, Alison and I got back together and now have been married 26 years and have three wonderful kids!)
Also during October 1990, the French and British had just completed the beginning phase of their ‘Chunnel’, a brilliant feat of engineering, a tunnel, 75 meters beneath the English channel. Many of us vowed never to use it, only to reverse such superstitious nonsense. Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and this signaled the possibility of hope between the two greatest superpowers. Kevin Costner had just premiered ‘Dances with Wolves’. And ‘The Real Deal’ Evander Holyfield flattened Buster Douglas in three rounds to win the WBA/WBC/IBF Heavyweight boxing title.
’Freedom ’90’ was released to the world on October 30 1990. It was an eventful month!
Love and masses of respect to George Michael whose talent and body of work continues to move and inspire us all these years later. Listen to the track, rewatch the video, have a dance and feel happy. I’m sure George would love that.
Images copyright Michel Haddi Studio, not for download.