It was the final official public appearance from Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, at the 11th Brit Awards, held on February 18, 1990 at Earls Court, London. Privately, the other members of Queen were aware that their enigmatic bandmate and friend was gravely ill, but this was not public knowledge at the time.
Rumors about Mercury’s health had swirled for years, with the U.K tabloid The Sun proving a particularly enthusiastic source of speculation; as far back as the fall of 1986, the paper insisted that the singer had been tested for HIV/AIDS. Mercury denied the reports, but — as it had with Elton John during roughly the same time period — The Sun knew sensationalism sold regardless of proof, and continued to publish Mercury gossip while hiring photographers to hound him.
Fans were concerned about Freddie due to their lack of tour to support their 1989 album The Miracle, though guitarist Brian May later said that even they didn’t know about how ill Freddie was for years.
“We didn’t know actually what was wrong for a very long time,” said May. “We never talked about it and it was a sort of unwritten law that we didn’t, because Freddie didn’t want to. He just told us that he wasn’t up to doing tours, and that’s as far as it went. Gradually, I suppose in the last year and a bit, it became obvious what the problem was, or at least fairly obvious. We didn’t know for sure.”
In February 1990, Queen appeared at the Brit Awards to accept the ‘Outstanding Contribution to British Music’ prize. Freddie appeared rather gaunt and strangely quiet.
Brian spoke on Queen’s behalf that night, thanks the Brits for the introduction from Chrysalis co-founder Terry Ellis and a testimonial video featuring David Bowie, Phil Collins and others. It would prove to be Freddie’s final public appearance, as he leaned in briefly into the microphone to say: “Thank you… goodnight.”
Although the group had already started work on 1991’s Innuendo LP, the members had adjusted their work schedule to accommodate Mercury’s failing health, and would complete the record by following a pattern of spending three weeks in the studio followed by two weeks off. As they walked out to the podium together, anyone could see that Mercury seemed gaunt — and atypically reserved.
Freddie kept his privacy for the rest of his life, until November 22, 1991, when he confirmed his diagnosis with an official statement. Just over a day later, he passed away.