George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” Showed Me Hot Models — And My Queerness

It’s an afternoon in 1996, and there’s nothing on TV. And when there’s nothing on, my default is always channel 19. I scoot a little closer to our small living room set and I put on VH1…

As a kid, I loved VH1, because it gave me ample opportunity to watch “old” music videos; ones that were made before I could appreciate them. Between shows like Pop-Up Video and various video blocks, I was flush in music videos from the 80’s and early 90’s.

My absolute favorite music video was George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90”. Why? Because of the supermodels, of course.

A close up on the face of a model

When George Michael released his album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 decided he wasn’t doing music videos or any sort of press or appearances. Even when his record label convinced him to do a video for “Freedom ‘90” (the song is just called “Freedom” on the album, but the ‘90 was added so people didn’t confuse it with Wham’s 80’s hit “Freedom”), he refused to star in it. Instead, he decided he wanted Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and Tatjana Patitz after seeing their famous British Vogue cover shot by Peter Lindbergh. They would lip synch the song, and Michael never had to have his face on camera.

Since I saw the video for the first time five or six years after it came out, I already knew who the women were, with the exception of Patitz. I had seen them in commercials or the glossy pages of my mom’s magazines. But in this video, there was something different about them — they felt real, effortlessly cool, and impossibly sexy. They were established in their careers, but not yet in their prime, and you can still see that youthful exuberance in them. They were having fun doing something they would have never anticipated having the opportunity to do: take center stage and be the stars of a music video. Before “Freedom ‘90”, models in music videos were accessories for sexual fantasy. Think Christie Brinkley in Billy Joel’s video for “Uptown Girl” or Tawny Kitaen in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”. Not these five — they were front and center in every frame. It was years before I remembered there were also men in the video because of how much the supermodels captivated my attention.

They were everything to me, but only in this isolated space. I would sit in front of my TV and will the video to appear so I could watch these cool, beautiful women for a whopping seven minutes. It was my prepubescent version of seven minutes in heaven.

There are dozens of images from the video that have permanently cemented themselves in my mind. Linda Evangelista’s ice blonde short crop and oversized black turtleneck stirred butterflies in my stomach, especially when she pulled her head inside of the sweater. I remember silently praying that this viewing would be the time the camera panned slightly lower and to reveal her black bra, but it never was. Her easy, albeit slightly devilish smile while she lip syncs wound me up, and now the whole look makes me understand why every photographer wanted to work with her.

Freedom 90 queer: a wide shot of Linda Evangelista

Naomi Campbell’s 1960s updo and makeup reminded me of the I Dream of Jeannie reruns I used to watch on Nick-At-Nite. The first time we see her in the video, she’s in a bra top and mini skirt with moto boots, dancing around to the song presumably pumping through her headphones while she tries not to get entangled in the cord. Her second outfit’s top was completely sheer, and again, I’d pray each time that something would change and her arms would drop. (In the 2017 4k remaster of the video, you can see a bit of nip, and if nine-year-old me knew that, she would pass out.)

Naomi Campbell holds headphones against her head

Christy Turlington’s first shots in the video are some of the most iconic. She’s walking through the hall of this dilapidated building wrapped in nothing but a white linen sheet that is expertly draped around her. Her bare back and shoulders are simultaneously flooded with light and shrouded with shadow. The way the light bursts against her face enhances her absolutely stunning cheekbones as she sings the verse. By the bridge, she is crawling across that same floor like a panther, but this time, a warm light alternates between her glowing eyes and pouty lips.

Freedom 90 queer: Christy Turlington walking toward a window with a white sheet wrapped around her

And lastly, we have Cindy, who looks utterly wrecked in the bathtub. Steam is the name of the game, and her makeup looks like it’s going to slide off her face. (It never does.) She writhes around, and you realize there is no water in the tub, even though it still looks slick and gauzy thanks to the sheer white curtains. Her hands slide up and down her slick torso. She doesn’t look wet — she looks like she’s been in the sauna. She is filmed in a way that feels intimate, because the camera is straight on while she has her head resting against the rim of the tub. It would be voyeuristic if you could see anything through the steam.

Cindy Crawford leans back in a bathtub

I never wanted to be one of the supermodels, I wanted to be close to them; to sit on the floor and drink in their beauty, inches away from the real thing. I wanted Linda to smile at me like she does in the video, and to dance with Naomi with the same abandon. To sit at the edge of Cindy’s bathtub, and feel the softness of Christy’s sheet. These weren’t feelings I could articulate in elementary school, but I knew how they sat in my body. How my belly would tingle with each lip synched line.

There’s something to be said about the element of surprise when you’re a little girl who doesn’t yet know how to put those feelings into words. I never grew less giddy at seeing the video, probably because it was always a surprise. I couldn’t anticipate when I’d see it, but I knew that those feelings would come, that warmth deep within my core that would make me sit closer to the TV, to secretly wish for a camera angle that didn’t exist.

Just because George Michael doesn’t appear in the video for “Freedom ‘90” that doesn’t mean he’s not there. It’s known for being the video that helped Michael blow up his previously held public image. I mean that quite literally. In the video, we see three iconic images from Michael’s Faith era: his leather jacket, the jukebox, and his guitar. One-by-one, each item is ceremoniously destroyed over the course of the song. The jacket is slowly engulfed in flames, while both the jukebox and guitar quite literally explode as Michael belts the song’s chorus. The destruction of those items effectively freed Michael from who he didn’t want to be.

A leather jacket engulfed in flames

“By the end of the Faith tour I was so miserable because I absolutely knew that I was gay… I didn’t suddenly want to come out. I wanted to do it with some kind of dignity. So I thought ‘okay, you have to start deconstructing this whole image,’” Michael said in a 2004 interview for British magazine Attitude.

When I was deep in my consumption of the “Freedom ‘90” music video, Michael had not yet been outed. That happened in 1998. I remember it because for me, it felt like a confirmation of something I had long suspected. The video for Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is another favorite of mine, and something about George in that video screams gay. His Faith persona was a good cover-up, but I knew a lot of gay men as a child; a beard wasn’t enough to fool me.

The year George Michael was outed is the same year I put words to why his supermodel stand-ins caused a flutter in my stomach: I was attracted to girls. I forced myself to name the reason I wanted the cameras to slip down and show me more skin and maybe a hint of areola, and it was because those things made me feel warm inside.

A model shrouded in darkness, only her bright green eyes visible

Even now, almost 33 years after the video premiered, if I watch it, I am taken right back to those prepubescent rumblings of desire. Linda’s smile, Cindy’s wet, tousled hair, Naomi’s cat eye, Christy’s pout. But now if I ever want those seven minutes in heaven, I can simply go to YouTube and watch it as many times as I need.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 102 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. As a young teenage trans woman in the 90’s still YEARS from having any idea what was going on with me. Linda Evangelista lip-synching “Heaven knows I was just a young boy Didn’t know what I wanted to be” made me FEEEEEEEEL things! OMG. and the “Sometimes the clothes do not make the man” lip-synched by a woman.

    Additionally EVERYTHING else you said about the women, I mean I was a teenager flooded with testosterone.

  2. I was 11 when George Michael released Too Funky..i was obsessed with that video.it gave me tingly feelings and I strutted like them but not wanting to he a supermodel just wanted to feel what it was like to strut confidently …when in reality i wanted to be invisible in school,def no syrutting there. They were so beautiful…and i loved the song..that yeah yeah at the End…
    my cool aunt with the good music taste, cool clothes was a big fan of Prince and George Michael( amongst others)and her leather couch( totally diff world to me) was raving about his music a lot.
    We didnt have MTV in 92.
    .cause my parents didnt know to search for newer channels so we still had only the few 80s channels. So i could only watched mtv visiting her.
    in 1993 she did programm the channel at christmas( and the first thing i remember distincly seeing til this day was Nirvanas Live N Loud.I was so shocked when Kurt spit on the Lens…becoming a nirvana fan a few years later.hmm Freedom 90 didnt exite me as much.maybe because they were rather distant and not seducing with come hitherlooks to the camera whichyou are used to see whenever women graced the screen.i can now appreciate the way the women kinda dont cater to the male gaze in Freedom much more but back then i got more exited about being seduced of hot models walking towards me looking directly at me.and the sexyness in his voice in that song…omg.

  3. I feel so old just reading this article. I was in my midtwenties when Freedom 90 came out.I was also long out (of the closet). But I loved the first part of your article when you talked about watching VH1, which I used to do on Sundays when they would play Behind the Music marathons. Thank you for the memory.

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