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Michael Jackson, Too Close for Comfort

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 6, 2003; Page C01

We could sit here and analyze the effects of stardom on a person's psyche, on the role of celebrity vis-à-vis the public obsession with wanting to know. We could do that. But most likely, you're reading this not for a scholarly treatise on narcissism and the public gaze, but because you'd like to know if Michael Jackson could be any freakier than what we already believe him to be.

We've seen the much-hyped and much-fought-over "Living With Michael Jackson" documentary (airing tonight at 8 on ABC's "20/20"), so we'll spare you the faux psycho-social analysis and just tell you:


Michael Jackson, left, and Martin Bashir in "20/20's" very odd two-hour tour through the pop singer's psyche. (Abc)

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Yes.

In an unprecedented gesture of candidness -- or was it desperation? -- Jackson opens the proverbial kimono to Brit journalist Martin Bashir, who spent eight months trailing Jackson from his home in Neverland to Las Vegas to the singer's famously ill-fated trip to Berlin. And the result is we wish he'd kept it shut.

All the more reason, many might think, to tune in tonight. Some 15 million Brits watched the documentary when it aired in the United Kingdom on Monday. ABC, not one to underestimate the American public's fascination with celebrity weirdness, reportedly paid somewhere between $4 million and $5 million for the rights to air it stateside. If it was weirdness they wanted, we'd say the suits at ABC got their money's worth. Here are a few tidbits from the prime-time freakfest:

• There's Jackson confessing that his favorite things to do are "water balloons and climbing trees." Michael tearfully recounting his father's sadism and how he'd "regurgitate" at the sight of his dad. Michael, after claiming that his youngest child's mother was someone he "had a relationship with," later admitting that she was a black surrogate mother who used his "own sperm cells."

• There's Michael joyfully recalling the day his 4-year-old daughter, Paris, was born. He was so excited, he said, he grabbed her as soon as the umbilical cord was cut, dashing out of the hospital without bothering to clean her first -- leaving his then-wife, Debbie Rowe, behind.

• Then there's a very agitated Jackson, shoving a bottle in baby Prince Michael II's mouth. The child, whose face is covered in a green chiffon scarf, whimpers as Jackson -- his leg jiggling up and down, up and down -- angrily defends dangling the child from a balcony: "Why would I put a scarf over the baby's face if I was trying to throw him off a balcony? We were waving to thousands of fans below and they were chanting to see my child, and I was kind enough to let them see."

This makes for good television, if you consider good television watching an apparently troubled individual reveal things about himself that are profoundly disturbing. One television exec, perhaps referring to Jackson's admission that he would throw himself off a balcony if the world's children suddenly disappeared, described the show as "the longest suicide note in history."

There is obviously a prurient quality to all this. Jackson's career may be careering off course, but there's money to be made exploiting the spectacle of the car wreck. It's one thing to joke about Wacko Jacko, quite another to witness a man's disturbances and his justification for them. Even Bashir -- the journalist who scored the famous interview with Princess Diana -- is at first sympathetic to Jackson, then seems to grow increasingly discomfited, admitting in a voice-over, "Jackson's behavior was beginning to alarm me."

Perhaps most alarming is his relationship with children: Children, his and everyone else's, seem to be props in his elaborate fantasy life. His first two kids, Prince, 5, and Paris, he says, were a "gift" from his wife. He wanted children so badly, he explains, that he was walking around the house all the time, playing with "baby dolls." And so his "gifts" are paraded around Neverland, docile and complacent, wearing elaborate masks that completely cover their faces. You can't see their faces, but you can see Prince's bleached hair -- with tell-tale dark roots -- peeking out from around the mask. He takes them to the Berlin Zoo, shortly after the baby-dangling episode, as a massive crowd of fans and paparazzi gather around them, shoving and pushing. The kids appear terrified. Michael appears oblivious.

Later, when an incredulous Bashir tells Jackson that Prince told him, "I don't have a mother," Jackson beams.

Then there are other people's children, like Gavin, a 12-year-old cancer survivor who sits cuddled up to Jackson, his head nuzzling against the entertainer's shoulder. Gavin clutches Jackson's hand as he cheerfully recounts spending many a night in the 44-year-old man's bed. Jackson, he said, slept on the floor. (The Santa Barbara, Calif., district attorney who prosecuted Jackson in a 1993 child sexual abuse case is reportedly showing an interest in the documentary.)

"Why can't you share your bed?" Jackson asks. "The most loving thing is to share your bed with someone." He's slept with plenty of kids, he says, including the Culkin kids, but the sleepovers were never sexual, more like milk-and-cookie deals in which he tucked the kids in.

"I am Peter Pan," Jackson tells Bashir.

"But you're Michael Jackson," counters Bashir.

"I'm Peter Pan in my heart."

And therein lies the rub.

Peter Pan, famously, never grew up. And Jackson appears like a case of severely arrested development. There is little talk about the man and his music. Instead, he comes off as the idiot savant of the pop music world, a man who can't articulate his prodigious singing and dancing talents, a man who dismisses criticisms of him as "the dumbest, stupidest thing I ever heard."

Here is a man who grew up in the public eye, and both loathes the attention he gets at the same time he feeds on it, like a vampire.

In the documentary, he confesses that his father rehearsed him and his brothers with a belt. As a teenager, when Jackson's face was stuck in the acned limbo between adulthood and childhood, his father taunted him about his looks, telling him that his nose was "huge" and that he didn't get his features from his "side of the family."

Still, when Bashir at first questioned him -- gently -- about this, suggesting that perhaps this was why he'd sought out plastic surgery, Jackson vehemently denied it, insisting that he'd had "no plastic surgery" on his face beyond "two operations" on his nose. The nose surgery, he said, was to help him breathe better so that he can hit the high notes.

Perhaps most poignant is the scene where Michael sits with Bashir in his movie screening room, watching old television of himself performing "I Want You Back" with the Jackson 5. The camera jumps from the young Michael -- cute, brown, innocent -- to the middle-aged Michael -- ravaged, white and clinging to the illusion of innocence, and that moment says more than nearly two hours of shock TV that comprises "Living With Michael Jackson."


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