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From Our Scrapbook: Michael Up Close
In a Surreal Hotel Suite in South Korea, We Found a Gentle, Gracious Host

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Two dozen people, mostly Japanese women in their 20s, stood in the lobby of the Shilla Hotel in Seoul, all dressed as Michael Jackson -- the black fedora, the Sgt. Pepper coats with all the faux-military doodads and the Ray-Bans.

Then Jackson himself appeared, and the dressed-up ladies started screaming as if they were on fire: Michael! Michael! Michael!

It was February 1998, and the King of Pop was in town for the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung. It was never quite clear to me why one of the century's great fighters for democracy, the Korean Mandela, was buddies with the eccentric American pop star. But there Jackson was, waving itty-bitty waves in the middle of a wedge of enormous bodyguards moving quickly through the jampacked lobby. He swept by all the people dressed like him as if passing through some distorting hall of mirrors, and stepped into a minivan waiting just outside the main door.

I followed along with my wife and fellow Post correspondent, Mary Jordan, enjoying the spectacle. We were there to cover the inauguration, and we had brought our 2-year-old daughter, Kate, rather than leave her at home in Tokyo with a babysitter.

Suddenly the tinted front passenger window of the van rolled down, and a familiar face shouted my name. It was a Kim aide I knew.

"What are you doing here?" I asked him.

"I'm in charge of him," he said, thrusting a thumb toward the back of the van.

We asked if we could meet Jackson, and our friend told us to come to the Presidential Suite on the top floor later.

"Michael is happy to meet you. Wait in here," he said as we arrived, pushing open the big doors to the suite where countless visiting heads of state had stayed.

We entered the main room, which had a sort of Versailles feel to it: lots of white, gilded armchairs, incredibly high ceilings, an ornate fireplace and mantel. And everywhere: toys. Scores of stuffed bears and ducks and bunnies in sweet pastel colors, plump and planted around the room.

There were Playskool castles with little steps and slides, and balloons littered the floor and floated to the ceiling like at a 4-year-old's birthday party. Michael was 39 and had a 1-year-old son at the time, but the King of Pop seemed to be on his own in Seoul.

Was this Peter Pan fantasy scene ordered up by Michael? His handlers? Some quirky rider in his contract? Or did the Shilla Hotel staff imagine this was what he might like as a welcome gesture, instead of a bowl of fruit and a pair of Shilla slippers?

We never did find out. But right then Kate decided Korea was pretty cool. She found a little white floppy-eared dog and scooped it up.

We waited about 15 minutes, alone in the Jackosphere.

Then a side door opened and there was Michael, dressed all in black with that Sgt. Pepper jacket. His shoulders were adorned with epaulets, and there were three gold stripes and a gold diamond on each sleeve. His white shirt was almost the same chalky color as his face, which was partly hidden behind his sunglasses. Long black curls fell out from under his black hat. He was taller than I imagined, probably 5-foot-10 or 5-11, and skinny as a chair leg.

"Hi," he said, in a soft, high voice. "Could you come away from the window? The sunlight is too strong for me."

Ooooh-kay.

We approached Michael and stood next to the huge gilded fireplace, where a stuffed panda sat waiting for a hug.

We introduced ourselves. I shook a small hand that felt like it might break, like a little bag of sticks.

"This is Kate," I said, holding a very, very suspicious little girl in my arms. "Kate, can you say hi to Michael?"

Kate squeezed the floppy-eared dog. She said zip.

"Hi, Kate," Michael said in that famous breathy voice, giving her a big pop-star smile. "How are you?"

Michael Jackson was absolutely sweet and endearing with Kate, who was giving him nothing back. He was warm and engaging and seemed truly delighted to meet her. He was fine with us, if a bit awkward, but when he was trying to cajole a smile out of Kate, he was magical.

Despite all the allegations of creepiness with children, he did not once make us nervous about being there with our toddler. But one thing was absolutely obvious. His hands never left his side as he talked to her. He never once reached out to touch her hand or her cheek, as many people might. He talked to her, but he kept a two-foot moat of propriety between himself and our daughter. We assumed this was behavior mandated by his lawyers. After all, he was in a room with a child with no witnesses other than the child's parents. He didn't know that we wouldn't claim "Michael Did It Again!" to nail him for an out-of-court settlement.

We asked him why he was in Seoul. He praised Kim Dae-jung's commitment to children, and he said he was considering a concert to benefit starving children in North Korea and around the world. (Jackson did headline two huge concerts in June 1999, one in Seoul and one in Munich, that raised several million dollars for children's charities.)

He asked us why we were in Seoul. We told him we were journalists for The Washington Post.

"Oh, that's nice," he said, not missing a beat or showing any obvious horror at the discovery of reporters amid the teddy bears.

As we chatted, I was standing next to Michael, which gave me a clear view of the face behind the sunglasses. What struck me was the bridge of his nose, which had a sort of crater that I could have fit my pinky into. We knew he had a long history of skin disease and plastic surgery. Up close, though, it looked like something had eaten a hole in his face.

We talked with him for a good 30 minutes, and he never gave us the impression that he needed to be anywhere else. Charmingly, he kept trying to engage Kate, who warmed up a bit eventually. But most of the time she clung to my shoulder, looking at Michael as if he were an alien who had come to Earth to swipe her blankie.

We liked Michael Jackson. He did seem like an inhabitant of a slightly different universe. His personality was so huge onstage, and so small and hesitant in person, like a kid not quite sure how to engage adults.

It seemed sad then, and tragic now.

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