Scroll To Top

When an Icon Dies

George Michael

Celebrity deaths often give us pause to think about our own lives.

The first time I remember crying as a child is when Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on his way to Nicaragua to help survivors of a devasting earthquake on December 31, 1972. As I was a Pittsburgher and a Pirates fan, future Hall of Famer Clemente was my childhood hero, and the news of his death devastating.

Once, when I was very young and at the Pittsburgh Airport when the Pirates were returning from an away game, my dad spotted Clemente and pushed my brother and I towards him. Clemente tapped us both on the head, and I can still feel the weight of his special hand on my scalp.

The very tragic death of Kobe Bryant over the weekend made me think about Clemente's death, and it also gave me pause to consider the icons in our own community whose deaths shook me to the core and affected me and my life in dramatically different ways.

The first one that comes to mind, in my generation, was the death of Rock Hudson. It wasn't so much a shock that he had died since press reports and photos taken before his death revealed he was very sick, but it was the cause of death, AIDS complications, that was particularly jolting. It's hard to overstate just how enormously famous Hudson was. During the 1950s and '60s he was one of Hollywood's biggest (at times the biggest) draws, his films coming in number 1 at the box office. Similarly, he transferred his film success to television, scoring huge ratings with his NBC hit McMillan & Wife. I recall loving that show, specifically Hudson's character. "Mac" was funny, smart, butch, and handsome. Everything a man should be. He was the epitome of a masculine Tinseltown hunk.

Though Hudson spent his life in the closet, toward the end of his life, with the revelation of his AIDS diagnosis, it became well-known and assumed that he was gay. Many of us who spent years in the closet could relate to Hudson's dilemma of not being out. At his death, I was still the Pittsburgh-sports-loving, straight-acting, and closeted guy, so when the news about Rock Hudson hit, it gave me considerable pause. "Someone like him is gay?" I felt some reassurance, particularly because I always considered him straight with no gay affectations. That lasted for a brief moment, until I started dwelling on the reason for his death, and then became afraid again. His death both lifted and spooked me.

I guess the next one, not too long after Hudson's death, was the death of Liberace, and that's because it was sort of personal. My family went on vacation to Niagara Falls when I was 6, and we spotted Liberace in the lobby of our hotel. My father gave me a pen and paper and told me to run over and get his autograph. Liberace was in a hurry to leave, but he told me to bring my family up to his room the next day, and he'd give me an autograph. We left the next day, so we never got the chance to meet him.

But that changed 14 years later when I was in downtown Pittsburgh, cutting through the Pittsburgh Hilton, on my way to an interview for an internship. As I walked through the lobby, and it was like deja vu. There he was, Liberace, hurriedly moving, with bodyguards, toward to the elevator. I ran up behind them, put my foot in the entrance to hold the door, and told Liberace about my missed autograph opportunity.

He smiled, grabbed the outstretched manila envelope and pen, signed a note, handed it back to me, and said, "I'll see you again in 14 years." By this time a crowd had gathered, and when I saw that he wrote, "To John, with Love, Liberace," I was mortified. It was pretty obvious at this point that Liberace was gay, so I feared that if anyone saw what he scribed, that they'd take it the wrong way. I was sad when he died, sadder still because it was from AIDS, but again, did not want to be perceived as sympathetic to someone as flamboyant as Liberace, so I kept my grief to myself.

As I got older, I was enduring that rite of passage -- being a young man struggling with my sexuality, and all the while trying to maintain "being cool." Masculine like Hudson, and certainly not flashy like Liberace. George Michael's coming-out in the 1990s was a seminal moment for me and helped influence my decision to finally come out. His courage spoke volumes to me and undoubtedly countless others who were frantic about acceptance, and who yearned to be seen in their true light. Sure, there was Freddie Mercury, but George Michael was "my time" in my generation, bursting into global stardom as I was coming of age as a young man. Yes, he was at times gaudy, but to me he transcended his flashiness into superstardom which, to me, validated his acceptance as an idol among my peers who danced and sang to his music. He was good-looking, imperturbable, and talented. His music, particularly "Freedom," was so apropos, and his persona touched me.

When he died suddenly on Christmas Day in 2016, I was affected in a way that I'm not usually affected when a celebrity dies. His death forced me into an unexpected examination of how I decided to come out, and how his life touched that critical decision. I spent a great deal of time listening over and over and over again to "Freedom" and his duet with Elton John of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." I didn't realize until he died what he had meant to me.

We all have our own moments dealing and weighing the death of someone famous who has touched our lives, and particularly those who were gay or made an impact on our culture and community. One of the hazards of getting older is to see deaths of celebrities we grew up with, and looked up to, become a much more common occurrence. Kobe Bryant's death, as untimely and stunning as it was, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significant passings of others in the public eye who have impacted our lives. We mourn their losses, but we also mourn for the memories about ourselves that these losses precipitate.

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.