Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou had the bad luck of being caught with his pants down. It was April 7, 1998, and an undercover cop discovered him in the men’s room of Los Angeles’ Will Rogers Memorial Park. The green expanse, across Sunset Boulevard from the Beverly Hills Hotel, had become a popular cruising site for gay men, and the L.A.P.D. was cracking down. Mr. Panayiotou was arrested for suspicion of committing a lewd act. It wasn’t until later that day, though, that the officers learned they’d handcuffed a multiplatinum star—English pop singer George Michael.
A month later, the then-34-year-old singer pleaded no contest to ”lewd conduct,” paid a $810 fine, and spent his 80 hours of community service delivering meals to AIDS patients. Exactly what he was doing in the men’s room wasn’t made explicit, other than that it was a solo act. ”I’d rather have run up and down Oxford Street naked saying ‘I’m gay, I’m gay’ than have it happen the way it did,” he said on British TV in December 1998.
After the arrest, it was his funny bone Michael exposed—spoofing the bust in the video for his 1998 single ”Outside,” featuring couples having rooftop sex and the singer dressed as a cop and dancing in a men’s room. (The arresting officer filed a $20 million libel lawsuit, dismissed but now on appeal, claiming the song and video caused him humiliation and mental anguish.)
The episode had no effect on the singer’s already flagging popularity (prior to the arrest, Michael hadn’t had a top 10 U.S. single since 1996’s ”Fastlove”). ”You see what an artist’s next move is following [an incident] like that,” says Amy Doyle, MTV’s VP of music and talent programming. ”Michael came back and had a sense of humor about it, so people moved on.”
Michael has mostly avoided the spotlight since the arrest, but he’s working on his first album of original material in six years, expected in November. While doing the rounds for the British release of his single ”Freeek!” recently, the singer gave BBC Radio 1 a different take on his very public outing. ”I’d gone through losing my mother, and a partner before that, and my life hadn’t been about me forever,” he said. Getting caught ”was a way of…making my life about me.”
Michael is a pro at using sexual shenanigans to make it all about him. The video for ”Freeek!” is keeping international censors busy due to its sci-fi/bondage theme, mating dogs…and Michael in a skin-tight jumpsuit. Although MTV hasn’t shown the video Stateside, ”it definitely seems as if he’s courting controversy again and taking us back to the images of the  ‘I Want Your Sex’ video,” says Doyle. ”He’s always been a very sexual artist.” And he’s got the mug shot to prove it.