Michael Jackson's image may have been tarnished by accusations of child abuse and drug-taking but his long-time clothes designer Michael Bush is devoted to the star's memory and never saw even a hint of anything that was alleged. He tells Donal Lynch about the star, the man and the most secret Jackson costume of all
At a purely knee-jerk level, one doesn't have the warmest of feelings towards Michael Jackson's retinue. Did they seriously imagine their spindly, clearly unwell man-child was ready for another gruelling tour? And before that: why didn't they tell the King Of Pop he should stop holding hands with that 13-year-old boy? Where were they when Wacko was earning that particular nickname by melting his face, one cosmetic procedure at a time?
To meet Michael Bush, Jackson's long-time clothing designer, however, is to realise the Jackson entourage wasn't all shadowy 'yes' men with dollar signs in their eyes, as is often portrayed by the media. A softly spoken gentleman from the Appalachian mountains, where Ohio meets Kentucky, Bush was a friend to the star and his grief at his passing is still apparent: he wells up frequently when he reminisces on their lives together. Along with his partner Dennis Tompkins, Bush dressed Jackson for a quarter of a century. They crafted some of the star's best known looks; the Swarovski-embellished Bad tour leotard, a version of which Jackson wore at his legendary 1988 Pairc Ui Chaoimh show in Cork; the pearl-embroidered jacket which Jackson wore when he escorted Madonna to the 1991 Academy Awards; the gold and silver jumpsuit worn by the star on his epic HIStory tour. Highlights from Jackson's wardrobe are featured in an ongoing exhibition at The Newbridge Silverware Museum Of Style Icons.
One Jackson costume must remain a secret, though. Only a few people have ever seen it. And the only thing we can say for certain is that, at Jackson's own request, it definitely didn't involve a single white glove.
"La Toya (Jackson's sister) was in charge of Michael's clothing arrangements," Bush tells me. "She asked me to do it. She told me nobody else could do it." Bush thought he would merely visit the mortuary in Forest Lawn, California, and hand over the clothes, which the family had chosen. But the Jackson clan had other plans.
"The mortician told us that the family want you to be here because there's things they don't want anyone to see," Bush tells me, his eyes welling up with tears. "They brought me and Karen (Jackson's make-up artist) into the room. They made us sign papers saying that we can't sue them, because seeing a dead body is traumatic. I will always remember sitting in that room with the fans turning overhead and the overpowering smell of formaldehyde all around. It was lit brighter than daylight. At Forest Lawn you could look through a crack in the blind. I could see what looked like every media truck in the world waiting out there. They were camped there 24/7. There were helicopters overhead."
After Bush dressed Jackson's corpse he was asked by the mortician to help to put the star into his coffin. "I was glad that I got to experience that in a way -- it was like a vision", he remembers. "It was the last of many memorable moments with him."
Those moments extended back to the mid- Eighties, when Jackson was already a pop deity and Bush, a former blackjack dealer, was a costume-maker for TV and film. Their first collaboration was on a 3D film for Disneyland. After that, Jackson went to New York to film the video for Bad in the city's subway system. Then Bush worked on the costumes for the seminal Smooth Criminal video and their professional and personal relationship deepened. Jackson invited Bush to go full time on the Bad tour with him. It was the first time that the clothing designer, who had grown up gay in a small and very conservative Bible Belt town, had ever left the United States.
"Over time I considered him one of my best friends," Bush tells me of his relationship with Jackson. "We were the same age. He wanted someone who would make him laugh. The Three Stooges was his all time favourite film. He loved classic slapstick. You could work for 36 hours straight with him and not notice the time go by because it was so much fun and so involving."
Before the tour, Bush spent hours alone at Jackson's Neverland ranch, watching him dance. "The costumes he had at that point were very non-stage friendly," Bush remembers. "He was fighting the clothing, twisting in it. I wanted to make clothes that would move and flow with him."
Jackson was relatively tall -- 5ft 10in -- and very thin. "If he turned sideways you'd miss him," Bush says. Perhaps because of this they settled on a military theme for many of his best-known outfits. "The military jacket is very form fitting and makes you stand up straight," Bush tells me. "The body is regimented and the clothing demands attention."
Jackson would tell Bush to "never let 'em see my legs. Because if my fans could see my legs I'd lose all of 'em".
"Even though he was a dancer he wasn't a sexual being," Bush recalls. "Sex wasn't a part of him. When he was on stage he made love to the audience but you can't touch him, ever." Jackson's vitiligo -- the skin-lightening condition he was said to suffer from -- was also an issue. "The misconception was that his skin was being bleached," Bush tells me. "But in fact it was a make-up technique to even out his skin. He had light spots but they would move around."
From that first tour Bush noticed that Jackson had trouble sleeping. He would take short naps instead of a full night's sleep. "It was difficult for him to relax. On his days off he was running a business, there was always something he needed to do. He had no body fat, he ate very, very little. From the beginning of the show to the last song he could lose five pounds of water. There was immense pressure on him because if you cancel one show it affects all the others."
Bush got to experience the Wacko insanity up close. "His whole life he had wanted to have a family," Bush tells me. "As an entertainer, he was owned by the world. All of a sudden the stars aligned for him and he lost part of his own childhood. Lisa Marie was the closest he ever got to having a partner. Debbie (Rowe -- the mother of Jackson's children, Prince and Paris) was the nurse of one of his dermatologists. She was happy to make him happy with the children -- to give him something to call his own. She didn't care about the fame."
Bush regarded others who came into the fold with more suspicion and was horrified at the child abuse allegations that dogged Jackson for much of his later career. "I saw nothing, not even a hint of anything that was discussed in the allegations," he says.
Of course, Jackson's ultimate bogeyman had a suit and earned a fat fee. Conrad Murray, Jackson's doctor at the time of his death, is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter of the star. He prescribed the surgical sedative Propofol to Jackson, with ultimately fatal consequences. Bush says he met Murray only once and he seemed more like a music executive than any doctor he had met. Jackson's behaviour did not noticeably change after Murray began working for him, Bush says. The singer's overriding preoccupation by that point was that he be ready for his London performances, the first his children would see.
Rehearsals were happening at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Bush was on his way there with a carful of clothes when he got a call from Karen Faye, Jackson's make-up artist, telling him to turn on the radio. "I put the radio on in the car and it said, 'Michael Jackson is at the Ronald Reagan UCLA hospital'. The first thing I thought is 'here we go again. Michael has brought the child to hospital and now they think he's dead.' As I got to the Staples Center parking lot Karen called back. She said, 'You have to get here, now'. I got out of the car in such a hurry that I left the engine running and all of the clothes from the This Is It tour were in the back of the car unlocked. I ran into the center. Everyone's cell phone was going crazy. They kind of put us on lock down there. It was as though the world had stopped."
Immediately before Jackson's death was publicly announced, officials brought his staff on to the stage and broke the news to them. "The hardest part was that about 20 minutes after they told us they started ripping down the stage," Bush remembers. "I mean, I know it's business, they need the next guy to come in, but it shouldn't have been that fast."
Bush made his way home but life would never be the same again. Though he had designed catsuits for Britney Spears, his first priority was always Jackson. Strewn around the Havisham gloom of his studio were half-made sequinned jackets, unfinished rhinestone gloves. "And you thought to yourself, if I finish them he might come back."
More tragedy was to follow. The following December, his true love and design partner Dennis would pass away.
The clothing exhibition is, you feel, as much a silent tribute to him as it is to Michael Jackson. A book on the star's clothing is coming.
In the meantime, Bush contents himself with the knowledge that he is impervious to conspiracy theories. "I've heard the talk -- there are those fans who think he's alive, that he's hanging out somewhere with Elvis," he says. "That day in the mortuary I got to see the truth."
The Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons, in association with Juliens Auctions, presents 'Icons and Idols' -- an exhibition of Michael Jackson's outfits. It will run until July 29 at the Newbridge Silverware Visitors Centre. See: www.newbridgesilverware.com
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