George Michael, 53

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Silky-voiced and unabashedly sensual, George Michael was an enduring pop star, a philanthropist and a gay icon who inspired countless fans simply by being himself.

Fame came early to pop superstar George Michael, but liberation was a longer journey for the exquisitely talented singer, songwriter and producer who died unexpectedly of heart failure on Christmas Day.

Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in London, he rocketed to stardom in his teenage years as one half of the lighthearted 1980s pop duo Wham!. But for all the buoyancy of his early music, Michael grappled with the pressures of fame and discovering his sexuality, which he hid for years in an era of persistent homophobia and the looming AIDS crisis. Freedom -- from showbiz superficiality, from sexual repression -- was a theme that surfaced repeatedly in his music.

Peter Still/Redferns via Getty Images

As Wham!, schoolmates George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley reached No.1 on U.K. charts in 1983 with their debut album “Fantastic.” Their biggest hits included the carefree “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and the smooth ballad “Careless Whisper.”

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Michael is photographed in a Sydney hotel room during Wham!’s 1985 world tour, which included a historic 10-day visit to China. As the first Western band to play in China, Wham! was greeted with confusion -- and cheers -- by young audiences just emerging from the oppressive shadow of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

As Michael launched his solo career, he took an openly defiant stance on desire, love and identity. Case in point: In 1998, when he was outed after an arrest for lewd conduct in a public toilet, his response was the single “Outside,” whose music video included two uniformed male police officers kissing, and scenes of an arrest much like his own.

"People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn't, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music. "

- George Michael

Behind the radio hits and dance moves lay a spirit of compassion and generosity. As Michael’s fame grew, he used his position to advocate for gay rights and AIDS awareness. In the days after his death, numerous stories emerged of his secret philanthropy, from quiet volunteer work at a homeless shelter to an anonymous donation to a game show contestant who yearned for fertility treatments. In his art and in his actions, Michael channeled joy through his embrace of humanity, imperfections and all.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Michael performs during the Japan/Australia leg of his Faith World Tour in 1988. “Faith,” his first solo album, sold more than 20 million copies.

Samir Hussein/Redferns via Getty Images

Michael performs at Royal Albert Hall in 2012 in London.

3,158% jump in Spotify streams one day after his death was announced
No.1 most-played artist on British radio from 1984-2004
100 M+ records sold

2016 in numbers