washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tina Brown

Michael Jackson's False Front?

By Tina Brown
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page C01

The strange thing about the Michael Jackson trial is that the supporting actors are more interesting than the star. The weirdness of the King of Pop is so overexposed that no new revelation can shock. Either Jackson is a complete lunatic who slept with young boys and didn't fondle them or he's a complete lunatic who slept with young boys and did.

Better to fixate instead on pass-through characters, like the French-born cooks at Neverland featured in Martin Bashir's "Primetime Live" report "Michael Jackson's Secret World." Who but Michael Jackson would ever hire these two? The wife looks like a war criminal in a blond fright wig. And how about Bashir himself? Why on earth did Jackson and the Princess of Wales both choose to open up their entire lives to this brooding, charm-free figure? He looks about as well-intentioned as the interrogator you meet when you are rendered by the U.S. military -- and seems to wreak the same havoc on his subjects' lives. His fawning letters to Jackson -- "Neverland is an extraordinary, a breathtaking, a stupendous, an exhilarating and amazing place. I can't put together words to describe Neverland" -- are classics of the genre. They're even more journalistically embarrassing than some of the gems I've written myself to elusive interview subjects over the years.

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When the young accuser took the stand on Wednesday, one hoped for the start of some moral clarity on the unrelenting awfulness of the cast of characters. But in his first appearance, the kid's testimony was all about being a participant in Jackson's media charade for Martin Bashir.

It makes real crime junkies hanker for the exotic of the normal. That's why the arrest in the BTK case hit with such creepy, compelling force. The suspected serial killer next door, the head of the church council who police said waited in the dark with the phones lines cut -- it returned the world of deviance to the old reality format in which seemingly ordinary people nurture diabolical double lives.

One thought to consider about Jackson himself is whether he is much less weird than meets the eye. Could it be that, like Saddam Hussein's WMD bluff, the whole freak show is a stunt that's gotten out of hand? The thought struck me during Bashir's original 2003 documentary for Britain's ITV, the one that got Jackson indicted. In the low, appalled voice one reserves for especially heinous horrors, Bashir asks, "Is it true that your father used to say you had a fat nose?" Jackson theatrically averts his head at the ghastliness of this memory and then says with a half-weeping snicker: "Yeah . . . You want to die. You want to die. . . . God. It's hard."

You could argue, I guess, that the Fat Nose memory is the Rosebud in Jackson's life, inducing him to internalize self-loathing racial stereotypes to the point that he ended up bleaching his skin, straightening his hair like Morticia in "The Addams Family," and hiding the offending proboscis beneath a surgical mask even after its many surgeries had turned it into a pencil point. But what if Jackson is, in reality, having some sly fun with Bashir and by extension all celebrity journalists hellbent on getting the answers to such piffling questions?What if the whole persona is a scam under the heading of The Emperor's New Nose? After all, Jackson has shown plenty of business smarts in his time. The fey Peter Pan who tells Bashir his favorite pastimes are climbing trees and having water balloon fights was still canny enough to buy the Beatles' lucrative song catalogue.

An interview with Jackson's ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley by Chris Heath in Rolling Stone in April 2003 would support the "secretly sane" theory. "I was always saying [to Jackson] people wouldn't think I was so crazy if they saw who the hell you really are," Presley told Heath. "That you sit around, and you drink and you curse and you're [expletive] funny and you have a bad mouth, and you don't have that high voice all the time. I don't know why you think that works for you, because it doesn't anymore."

Ms. Presley, to be sure, has a reason to portray Jackson as less bizarre than people assume. Marrying someone most people regard as an extraterrestrial freak didn't do a whole lot for her image. ("Ok. Hello," she expounds. "I was delusionary. I got some romantic idea in my head that I could save him and save the world.") But it might add some genuine dramatic tension if Jackson turned out to be pop music's version of Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, the Mafia boss who fooled the justice system for years by shuffling around the streets of Greenwich Village mumbling to himself in his bedroom slippers and bathrobe. If this were true, of course, it would also mean Jackson is just a plain old garden-variety ped, albeit one who instead of hanging around public playgrounds built his own at Neverland.

Harder to figure out is the behavior of the alleged victim's mother, who handed over her sick kid to sleep in the bedroom of a previously accused child molester. Perhaps scientists will discover that celebrity is a virus that can infect the psyche's immune system as pervasively as HIV takes over the body's. It infected everyone in the Jackson case from the accuser's family to the defendant himself. Jackson started out a little strange, to be sure, but he lost his boundaries altogether only because he got the absolute permission that superstars enjoy to indulge the outer limits of narcissism.

It's hard to know if Jackson will one day be seen as a repellent relic of celebrity culture, or another Oscar Wilde or Vivaldi, an artist persecuted for something or other we can't recall. Even the people who are absolutely sure he's guilty don't want to stop listening on their iPods to "Thriller" and "Billie Jean." That's a question neither conviction nor acquittal can answer yet -- whether Jackson will be remembered for the shame or for the art.

©2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company