A Style caption in some editions yesterday incorrectly stated where Michael Jackson performed on Sunday. The concert was in Singapore. (Published 8/31/93)
Michael Jackson has long been a man of many obsessions. For years his fans have known about his fascination with animals and the exotic species he owns, and his concern about his looks and his health. Until recently, his love for children and the trappings of childhood gave him an image as an eccentric but innocent philanthropist.
But his preoccupation with children threatens to become the Achilles' heel of his trademark loafers and white socks.
Regardless of the allegations made by a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy, it seems clear that there are two sides to Jackson's love for kids. There is a generous, joyous side to this obsession, but there is also a more confusing one. This passion, rooted in his own turbulent, public childhood, may have led inexorably to his most excruciating moment; his best defense is that he became a tempting target made vulnerable by his own actions. A sitting duck, you could say, surrounded by money and lots of kids.
Each day a new lad comes forward to proclaim having had a friendship with Jackson when he, the boy, was 10 or 11 or 12, and to say that nothing sexual happened between them. They speak, they say, in his defense. All they did was play together, this man and these boys, buying toys, having water fights, spending the night in the same bed, for fun. But even as they defend him, they raise questions.
"What man has had 11-year-olds in his home staying with him and staying in his bed?" said Joan Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker with the Children's Division of the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute at the UCLA Medical Center, who has worked with child abuse victims since 1977. "People like me go, 'What is going on with this guy?' "
Kids Are Always Welcome
Until now, the public's knowledge of Jackson's interest in children has been nothing more than curious. His charitable acts have ranged from the large (47 tons of supplies for children in Sarajevo) to the personal (visiting a child here who had been mauled by dogs). He had two hospital beds installed in the 40-seat movie theater on his ranch so that visiting children who are too sick to sit up can watch the show -- usually a Disney movie.
"One of my favorite pastimes is being with children -- talking to them, playing with them in the grass. They're one of the main reasons I do what I do," he told an interviewer for Melody Maker magazine in 1981.
"They notice everything. They aren't jaded. They get excited by things we've forgotten to get excited about any more," he wrote in "Moonwalk," the 1988 book about himself he did at Jacqueline Onassis's behest. "There always seems to be a bunch of kids over at the house and they're always welcome."
A year ago he established the Heal the World Foundation, and later an offshoot, Heal L.A. The two organizations, funded partly with his own contributions and partly with money he has gotten from sponsors like Pepsi-Cola International and the BEST Foundation for a Drug Free America, have an estimated treasury of nearly $3 million for medical, educational and drug prevention services around the world. Jackson has said his goal is to raise $100 million.
In recent years he has taken to gathering large crowds of children onstage for the finale of a performance, sometimes to sing the "We Are the World" anthem of brotherhood he wrote with Lionel Richie to benefit famine victims. Last January, for example, he incorporated more than 3,000 children from disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles into the Super Bowl halftime show, arranging for the NFL to donate an unspecified amount to Heal the World in lieu of compensation. He also got it to provide a 30-second commercial spot during the broadcast to drum up support for the foundation.
"When it comes to charity, nobody can touch him," said William Upton, communications director for an anti-gang group in south-central Los Angeles, where Heal L.A.'s efforts are directed.
The list goes on: his visits with and the song he wrote for Ryan White, the boy who died of AIDS; his cooperation with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants the last requests of dying children; his numerous visits to children's hospitals.
Last January, for example, he took time out from rehearsals for the Inaugural Gala to visit Children's Hospital here. For two hours he visited the sickest children, the burned, the cancerous, the dying. One, hairless from radiation treatment and tied with tubes to life-support machines, had taped a white glove -- a Michael Jackson signature -- to his pale hand, and followed the singer as far as he could drag his equipment. Jackson spoke quietly to him, and signed an autograph, and the boy beamed.
Jackson was accompanied on that trip by a typical entourage: at least four bodyguards, his personal "videographer," and two boys. They said they were his "cousins," but refused to give their last names. The younger one, who appeared to be about 6 years old, had long curly dark hair, rather like Jackson. Both appeared later onstage in the crowd of kids who joined Jackson in a conga line during the inaugural performance.
A Certain Stage
There was more to the 1981 Melody Maker quote about children. "They say some things that just astound you," Jackson said. "They go through a brilliant, genius stage. But then, when they become a certain age ... they lose it."
The report filed by the Los Angeles Department of Child Services about the alleged abuse reads like a classic tale of seduction told in the bureaucratese of a social worker. The child is "the minor." His psychiatrist is the "RP" (referring). The $850,000 Beverly Hills home where the interview was conducted was "clean and well-kept, no apparent safety hazards, all utilities working." The "minor had a difficult time focusing and often went off the topic," but was "consistent in his story." Which was: Jackson called him every day for long conversations about video games and his ranch, that he bought him toys, took him to Las Vegas, and they watched a tape of "The Exorcist" together there. That both he and Jackson were so scared by the movie that they slept in the same bed, and did so other times at both of their homes. And that after several of these sleep-overs Jackson began kissing him, rubbing up against him, and ultimately engaging in oral sex and masturbation.
Aside from the sexual allegations, the boy's story is consistent with stories told by other boys about their friendships with Jackson.
Brandon Adams, a young African American actor now 15, was 10 when he played the young Jackson in his video "Moonwalker." For almost two years, Adams has told reporters, he was a "special friend," invited to travel with Jackson, dress like him and spend the night. Nothing untoward happened between them, he says.
Brett Barnes is another lad who has come forward. The 11-year-old Brett, an Australian native, looks like a young Michael Jackson, and was staying on his ranch with his mother when detectives raided it in search of incriminating evidence last week (which they have not found). Brett told reporters that he and Jackson had shared a bed, but "he slept on one side and I slept on the other. It was a big bed."
Wade Robson is also 10 and Australian; he met Jackson after winning a contest and was subsequently flown to the United States to be in a Pepsi commercial. He has also spent the night with Jackson, who put Wade's mother Joy on his payroll for a time. "He's the best friend I ever had," Wade said on a Los Angeles television news broadcast Thursday night. A blond interested in a show business career, Wade said nothing sexual happened between them, just video games, amusement rides and shopping for toys and records. Jackson's attorney, Howard Weitzman, was present during the interview, a source at the station said.
At least four other boys, in addition to the one making the allegations, have been photographed with Jackson, some while on trips in this country or abroad. Two are or were child stars -- Emmanuel Lewis and Macaulay Culkin. Lewis, who has a health condition that stunted his growth, was 12 when he and Jackson became friends in 1984, but small enough that Jackson carried him around like a toddler, including at the Grammy awards that year. According to an unauthorized biography of Jackson by J. Randy Taraborrelli published in 1991, Lewis's mother ended the relationship after learning that the two had registered at a hotel as father and son.
Culkin, 12, the top-grossing child star of the "Home Alone" movies, "spends all his vacations" at Jackson's 2,700-acre ranch, the singer told Life magazine last June. Culkin also has his own go-cart there, and helped design a Waterfort that is rigged with squirt guns. Culkin also appeared in a video with Jackson. He has refused all requests for comment since the sexual abuse allegations became public.
In various accounts, the boys who have spoken publicly describe doing "fun stuff" with Jackson, such as water pistol fights, pranks, food fights -- just the kinds of things Jackson used to do with his older brothers when they were trapped in hotels during their grueling tours. And Jackson's ranch -- which he named Neverland Valley after "Peter Pan" -- certainly sounds like a boy's paradise.
There are 35 video games, an Indian village, a three-car train, decorated golf carts, a lake with Jet-Skis and a ferry boat, every toy conceivable, a vast kitchen where monogrammed cookies are baked, a staff of servants to clean up, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, two horse corrals, a basketball court and some dangerous wild animals. The movie theater has a candy counter where everything is free and the seats swivel.
Jackson also commissioned vast paintings, sentimental tableaux of himself surrounded by the beaming, awed faces of lovely children. He has 25 rooms to live in, not including Elizabeth Taylor's special guest house, and yet he still describes himself as "lonely," often riding the rides at night all by himself.
Joan Johnson, the UCLA social worker, said that if she had heard of an adult cultivating close relationships with a number of young children and sleeping in the same bed with them she would immediately have launched an inquiry. "The red flags would be flying for me high and fast. ... Why isn't he associating with his peers?"
Other people do not feel so alarmed.
"I totally believe 100 percent in Michael's integrity," Elizabeth Taylor said in an interview with Newsweek magazine en route to the island nation of Singapore to join Jackson. "He'd rather cut his own wrist than harm a child," she added. "He worships children."
"If Michael was the type of person who had many young friends and we knew nothing about them until this week, then perhaps we would have reason to be surprised," said biographer Taraborrelli. "But we've always known that Michael was friendly with children -- for it to be used against him now is just unfair." Taraborrelli, whose book was thought by reviewers to be largely negative, said he interviewed one child friend of Jackson's during his research who did not say that anything wrong had gone on between them.
"He's a guy who never had a normal life," said another psychiatrist who asked not to be named. "He's been on public display since he was a child. What effect does that have on you? He's a guy who has had a lot of trouble figuring out who he is supposed to be, and people like that are often more comfortable with children because they are less threatening."
A Lost Childhood
It would be hard to argue that Michael Jackson had a "normal" life even before he became a singer. He was the seventh of nine children in a clan dominated by father Joe, who ruled them with his fist and his voice. Even Jackson, reticent about most other private matters, has written that his father hit him repeatedly, "sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch," and that he took more abuse than his siblings because he fought back verbally. Jackson has never gotten along with his father, and once he turned 21 fired him as his manager.
Joe and Katherine Jackson have separated several times but remain married. Katherine is a Jehovah's Witness, as was Michael until until 1987. It is a strict faith; members do not celebrate Christmas or birthdays and there are many proscriptions on sexual behavior. Joe Jackson, on the other hand, is neither a Witness nor an ideal husband -- he has been unfaithful to his wife and even fathered a daughter with another woman, as documented in Taraborrelli's book. Michael Jackson has always remained loyal to his mother and been angered by his father.
If this dichotomy weren't enough, he spent his early years enveloped in the restrictive cocoon of his performing family; practicing and performances, and later, recording, took up their weekends and evenings, and soon his public school days were replaced by lessons from a tutor. He appears never to have graduated from high school but says he is a voracious reader.
The Jackson 5 had a string of hits in the 1970s -- "ABC" and "Rockin' Robin" among them -- but it was after going out on his own that Jackson really achieved super stardom. "Thriller" was the top album two years running, 1983-84, and became the biggest-selling album ever, with sales of more than 42 million. Altogether, he sold 100 million albums in the 1980s; in 1984 he won an unprecedented eight Grammy awards, out of a career total of 11.
As he got older and became a solo act, his songs became more sophisticated, wonders of recording studio wizardry. His concerts have been extravaganza-style affairs involving huge light rigs, speaker systems and special effects (including lots of explosions), a large rock band, dancers (usually male) and huge projection screens for video. They include virtual re-creations of some of the videos Jackson has devoted a lot of time to creating as companion pieces and promotions for his hit records, some of which have been very controversial.
In 1991, the video for "Black or White" originally ended with a shot of a black panther that turned into Jackson. For the next four minutes, without music, he exhibited animalistic behavior, smashing the windows of a parked car, throwing the steering wheel through the window of a store, grabbing and caressing his crotch (a gesture he started using in 1988), zipping his fly down and up. After receiving many complaints about the explicitness and violence, Jackson had the last four minutes cut.
He has always been a performer who gives his all -- energy, spectacle and even emotion. He has been known to break down in sobs during a concert, as he did during his performance in Bangkok Friday. His appearance, as well, has always been an obsession, dating from his adolescent years when acne made him feel unattractive and self-conscious.
A strict vegetarian, he says he also never drinks or uses drugs because he has seen the effects of these substances on other musicians. His appearance has changed from that of a normal-looking African American youth to an exotic, unclassifiable adult, a fashion trendsetter for the junior division. His skin has lightened -- due to a condition called vitiligo, he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview in February. And the skill of a plastic surgeon has given his features a sharper, prettier and conspicuously androgynous look.
Before he was so involved with children, Jackson was famous for his exotic pets. He still has many, both wild and caged, at Neverland Valley: Bubbles the Chimp, who slept in a crib, the peacocks Winter and Spring, the eight-foot boas Muscles and Crusher.
Unlike children, animals remain forever innocent.
Contributing to this report were staff writer Ian Katz and special correspondents Jessica Crosby and Martin Booe in Los Angeles, and staff writers David Brown and Mary Alma Welch in Washington.