When Christy Turlington Burns checked her phone after Christmas dinner at her in-laws', she found a simple, one-sentence text from fellow supermodel Linda Evangelista: George Michael had died. "It was pretty shocking," she says.
She had met Michael face-to-face only once in her life, when she appeared in his video for "Freedom '90," a bright-sounding, piano-imbued anthem about fighting to break free from oppression on his Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 album. It was nevertheless a meaningful experience. "I remember him being kind of shy," she tells Rolling Stone. "He was a person who was certainly in control; his aura. He came in with a baseball hat. He didn't have an entourage or anything like that. The whole production seemed pretty pared down, in retrospect."
She, along with the other models – Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz – had appeared together on the cover of the U.K. edition of Vogue, a black-and-white cover by photographer Peter Lindbergh. Michael had seen the cover and was so taken by it, he sought out the five models to appear in his David Fincher–directed video to lip-sync the song's lyrics in sensuous poses.
The first time Burns heard the song was on a Walkman in the car on the way to the shoot. "That was the only time I had to learn it," she says. "And to go straight off a plane and onto a set is always a little bit strange and unsettling. It's such a happy song which I guess is contrary to the feelings in the lyrics."
Although she points to one scene that focuses on her eyes, only showing her mouth occasionally to avoid the pressure of lip-syncing perfectly, she felt comfortable on set, though she and Michael didn't spend much hanging out or talking. "He was super focused on the production and getting it exactly as it seemed he had in his mind," she says. "He was super hands-on and looking through the camera oftentimes and just incredibly engaged in each shot. I've heard since that he micromanaged it quite a bit and I think he ultimately had the final cut, which I learned about only this year. It wasn't a party atmosphere."
Each of the models shot their parts on separate days, with the exception of Burns and Evangelista who had a scene together; it was one of the few times she and Michael interacted – even if she doesn't remember it. "There's a photograph of Linda and George and me that just in the last month has been out there in my feed," she says. " I recently put it up as a Flashback Friday thing, and I don't remember even taking the photo. So there was a moment where we did pose for a photo but other than that, there wasn't a lot of hanging around, per se. Linda and I, if we weren't shooting, were in our own little vacuum."
Upon reflecting on Michael's death, Burns posted a photo of herself in the video on Instagram in tribute to the singer, to whom she wrote, "Thank you for your soulful music and open heart." When asked about what she meant by "open heart," she recalled the feeling of being on set with him that day.
"It was about his vulnerability," she says. "Without knowing him very well, certainly there was a sense that he was a person who struggled a lot having a persona and trying to maintain some kind of private life publicly. There are some people who do it better than others, clearly, and I thought he was just very open-hearted about what he was dealing with in the moment at any phase of his life and career. And I think that's something to respect. It's something to learn from."
That's also a sentiment that translates to the meaning behind the autobiographical song, in which Michael reflects on his past as a teen idol and transition into becoming a mature solo artist. "It's so interesting to be able to see an artist struggle or to have a statement like that that can be so visible and so powerful and for it to still mean as much for him even towards the end of his life as it did then when he wrote it," Burns says. "I was aware enough at the time that there was a struggle with the label and to think that an artist could have the ability to turn it around like that and to not silently lose control of your persona or your voice, but to be able to have the last word, was impressive. He did and has. It feels very pointed and very powerful."