Who was the real Michael Jackson?
With a new documentary about his life due to hit cinemas and his cherished Neverland ranch now all packed up for sale, our reporter asks the vexed question - Who was the real Michael Jackson?
Published 18/01/2016 | 02:30
It was to be a 3,000-acre monument to the childhood Michael Jackson dreamed of but never had. "I'm just putting behind the gates everything I never got to do as a kid," he once said, of his theme-park residence Neverland, with its zoo, fairground rides and dolls' houses. Jackson, on stage since he was five, had been driven into stardom by his formidable father - a man whose presence frightened the young singer so much as a child, he once said he'd sometimes vomit at the mere sight of him.
Now, Neverland is up for sale. As the estate agents open the doors of the ranch, which has a price tag of $100m, the public are afforded a previously unseen look inside.
But all traces of the eccentric fantasy Jackson imagined are gone. The zoo is empty, the animals gone. Even the name has been changed to the decidedly more sober Sycamore Valley Ranch. The marketing message is clear - the Jackson circus, and all its sordid associations, has well and truly left the property.
By the time the writer Paul Theroux was invited to visit 10 years ago, the project seemed already corrupted and soured. Theroux described in livid detail the disgruntled animals, the empty fairgrounds, the unmistakable pall of despair that hung over every square metre of this edifice which contrived, yet failed, to manufacture innocent childhood joy.
It's been over six years since the singer died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. At next week's Sundance Festival, Spike Lee will screen Off The Wall, a look back at the singer's life in music. But the loose ends surrounding Jackson's troubled and troubling persona have still not been tied up. Not least the eternally vexed issue of whether, in the much-scrutinised story of Jackson's life, he was the victim or the villain of the piece.
From almost as soon as he could dance and sing, Michael was the clear, undisputed star of the Jackson family. Born in Indiana in 1958, he was the seventh of nine children shared by Joseph Jackson and his wife Katherine. As a young man, Joe had dreamed of being a rhythm and blues singer, but ended up working in a steel mill. While Katherine, a devout Jehova's Witness, worked in a department store.
Early on, Joe began coaching his children to perform. He was a punishing task-master, regularly pushing his children to the point of exhaustion, and even whipping them when they made a mistake or fell short of expectation. "He practised us with a belt in his hand," Michael once said.
The Jackson 5 started on the road to fame via performances at talent shows and strip-clubs, before they eventually got their big break on television on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even as a child, Michael was ambitious, a perfectionist and a natural performer. But, in spite of this, he always felt decidedly ambivalent about life on stage. "When you're a show-business child, people make a lot of decisions concerning your life when you're out of the room," he once said.
For the rest of his life, he would always feel keenly the wounds of his childhood. To journalist Martin Bashir, he revealed that his father was abusive, saying "If you didn't do it the right way, he would tear you up." As a child on tour with his older brothers, they would sometimes bring girls back to their shared room for sex. Later, those who would defend him against the charges that he molested children would argue that these early, and inappropriately precocious encounters with adult sexuality, along with his father's philandering, instilled in Jackson a lifelong aversion to sex.
His relationship with his family remained troubled throughout his life. When he died, he made no provisions in his will for his father or his siblings, preferring to leave everything to his mother, whom he adored, and made custodian of his children.
Indeed, it was rumoured that he hated his own family so much that he used a sperm donor to father his children, in order to avoid passing on his genetic heritage. Stacey Brown, a family friend quoted in a 2005 profile of Jackson in Vanity Fair, claimed. "He hates dark-skinned people. He did not want to take the chance that a child of his would look like Joseph."
In the early 1980s, Jackson made his triumphant transition from child performer to the biggest pop star in the world. But by the end of the decade, outward signs of inner trouble were becoming manifest. Not least through his changing physical appearance. Some reports suggest that Jackson underwent up to 100 surgical procedures through which he metamorphosed from the wide-smiled, dark-skinned African-American in the Thriller video to the uncanny-looking, sharp-featured oddity he eventually became. Though he always denied that his skin was whitened through bleaching, saying it was Vitiligo, a chronic, long-term condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin.
It's perhaps revealing that his dermatologist, Arnie Klein, was one of his closest friends during his life.
It was Klein who set Jackson up with his assistant Debbie Rowe, who became Jackson's wife - though they never lived together. Later, through surrogacy, she bore two of his children, Paris and Prince. His third, Prince Michael II who later became known as Blanket (the one he dangled off the balcony in 2002) was also conceived via a surrogate and a separate egg donor. Though the identity of both women remains unknown.
By 1993, he was well on his way to morphing into the Wacko Jacko caricature much taunted by the tabloid press. Then catastrophe stuck. Jackson was put under investigation by police following claims made by the family of a 13-year-old boy named Jordan Chandler, a fan who had met Jackson by chance after the star's car broke down. The singer had struck up a relationship with the boy and his mother that seemed at the very least peculiar. He reportedly called the boy often, invited him to Neverland with his mother and sister (they soon began spending every weekend there) and lavished the family with expensive presents.
According to an in-depth report by journalist Maureen Orth published in 1995, Jackson and the boy soon became "inseparable", and eventually started sleeping in the same bed, with Jackson attempting to allay the concerns of the boy's mother by saying, "Why don't you trust me? If we're a family, you've got to think of me as a brother. Why make me feel so bad? This is a bond. It's not about sex. This is something special."
The issue was settled out of court and little has been heard of Jordan Chandler since the trial. He is said to be estranged from his family, and living in New York, presumably in some comfort - he received a pay-off from Jackson rumoured to be in the region of $20m.
But the story did irreparable damage to Jackson's public image. He did little to help his own case when, in 2003, in a sensational interview with Martin Bashir, he was asked about sharing his bed with children, and replied, "Why can't you share your bed? That's the most loving thing to do, to share your bed with someone. You say, 'You can have my bed if you want it. Sleep in it. I'll sleep on the floor. It's yours.' I always give the beds to the company."
Two years later, he was in court answering a litany of charges relating to sexual abuse, brought by another adolescent boy - this time a teenage cancer patient. By then, the singer's life, always chaotic, had gone into a tailspin. One of his lawyers claimed that the settlements from the child abuse suits he'd been fire-fighting had cost him close to $100m.
The trial was a showbiz spectacular, which blew the lid off Jackson's bizarre life, and his mountains of debt reportedly were in the region of $300m.
He faced 10 felony charges - four counts of lewd acts on a child, one count of attempted lewd acts on a child, one count of conspiracy to kidnap a child, false imprisonment and extortion.
If the trial was a circus, Jackson's eccentric image only served to further reinforce his role in it as the circus freak. Unwittingly, through his bizarre behaviour, he had earned a reputation as a kind of creepy, corrupt Willy Wonka, who lured children to his bed using his fame and wealth as bait. During the trial one of his maids memorably described Neverland as "Pinnocchio's pleasure Island".
The defence's main strategy was to claim the whole thing was a trap - an exploitation trick. "If you go into Neverland you are struck by the child-like, Disney-like, fantasy-like atmosphere . . . Michael Jackson met [the accuser's] family because he was contacted and told a young boy had cancer and wanted to meet him and needed his help. And unlike others, who smelled the ruse, he didn't."
No one could deny that Jackson's behaviour was bizarre, and inappropriate at the very least. But there was a persuasive voice of dissent in the form of Macaulay Culkin, who described how he'd slept in the same bed as Jackson many times, though fully-clothed, and insisted that nothing untoward had ever taken place. "I've never seen him do anything improper with anybody." he said.
He was, of course, sensationally acquitted, much to the delight of the devoted fans who gathered outside the courtroom every day in support. The testimony of his accusers was sufficiently discredited by the defence, who cast them as fame-hungry opportunists. And an alternative narrative about Jackson emerged; that of a child-man stuck in a state of arrested development, who had never progressed beyond his pre-pubescent self, and was trapped by almost unfathomable loneliness. Certainly, by then he already seemed the perfect archetype of a star almost entirely isolated by his own fame. "I believe I am one of the loneliest people in the world," he wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, in 1998, adding poignantly, "People think you're lucky, that you have everything. They think you can go anywhere and do anything, but that's not the point. One hungers for the basic stuff."
But basic stuff, even normal relationships always seemed to elude him. Only Lisa Marie Presley, whom he married in 1994 (though the marriage lasted a brief two years) ever claimed to have had a sexual relationship with him. She later said that she believed he loved her, "as much as he can, possibly. I don't know how much he can access love, really. I think as much as he can love somebody, he might have loved me. It was always like a mind that was constantly working. It was a scary thing - somebody who's constantly at work, calculating, calculating, manipulating. And he scared me like that."
In the aftermath of the trial, the world divided into two camps, firmly split over the issue of his guilt or innocence. The outcome, though ultimately in Jackson's favour, seemed somehow unsatisfactory, with all parties involved leaving with morale and reputation in shreds.
Financially and psychologically, Jackson never really recovered from the ordeal of the trial. As a result of the trial, his fantasy-ranch was forever tainted. He didn't return to Neverland, instead disappearing into exile, first as a guest of the Sheik Abdullah of Bahrain. It was an ill-fated sojourn, punctuated by further scandal when Jackson was photographed at a mall wearing a face veil and gown, and later, when a member of his entourage was stopped at the airport carrying suitcases full of the powerful prescription opiate Oxycontin.
He had better luck the next year when he moved temporarily to Ireland. He was here for a six-month stay - a rare and apparently "idyllic" window of reprieve from the madness. With just his three children, their teacher, a nanny and a magician in tow (the latter to facilitate the search for leprechauns, naturally), the family spent much of their time at Grouse Lodge in Co Westmeath, where they lived a quiet, low-key existence, far away from the usual barrage of media scrutiny. It was, by some reports, the most stable and normal period of their lives. "He was mad interested in Irish music and the history of the area . . . he felt really relaxed here," Grouse Lodge proprietor Paddy Dunning later told The Guardian.
But his health was already desperately fragile. And even more pressingly, his creditors were closing in. In 2008, he put Neverland up for sale and moved the family to Vegas to negotiate a comeback run of Casino concerts, while also entering into discussions to embark on a run of 50 concerts at London's 02. It was to be a firm and definite step towards rehabilitation. Financially, morally and for his public image. But his comeback never came to pass. He didn't live to see opening night.
It's ironic, perhaps, that though he faced ruin while alive, the year after Jackson's death was one of his highest earning ever. Prompted, by his death into a wave of nostalgia, fans snapped up 31 million albums and contributed $1bn to his children's inheritance.
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