The curtain raised and the crowd inside New York’s Radio City Music Hall went wild for the music royalty that was now the world’s most famous — and most unlikely — newlyweds.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Jackson told the audience. He then looked over at Presley, who was smiling but also appeared nervous. “And just think, nobody thought this would last.”
Then, Jackson took off his sunglasses, leaned in and kissed Presley. The four-second kiss generated some of the loudest cheers of the night from the crowd and dominated headlines from media outlets around the world — some believing they witnessed the couple consummate the marriage on national television.
They were the biggest item in show business. And Presley hated it.
“He knew I didn’t love that,” she told Oprah Winfrey of the infamous kiss in a 2010 interview after Jackson died in 2009. “I would be there, uncomfortably. And his hand was blue after we got off that stage. … I had squeezed it so hard. … But as his wife, I needed to do some things like that.”
The memorable moment in pop culture from nearly 30 years ago would be one of many that followed Presley for the rest of her life. Presley died Thursday at a California hospital at age 54. The death was announced in a statement by her mother, Priscilla, just hours after Presley was taken to a hospital from her home in Calabasas, Calif. No cause of death was given.
Decades before they married, Presley and Jackson met in Las Vegas in 1974 during one of the Jackson family’s shows at the MGM Grand, according to author J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2009 book, “Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story, 1958-2009.” Presley, who was 6 at the time, was a big fan of the Jacksons, especially Michael, who was then 16.
“I always liked him,” Presley recalled of Jackson in the 2009 book. “Michael fascinated me with his talent. I loved watching him dance. He wanted to know me better, but I always thought he was sort of freakish. I didn’t really want to know him any better than I already did.”
The two met again years later in the early 1990s at a private dinner hosted by artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, a mutual friend in Los Angeles. At that point, Presley was trying to find herself as a singer. Danny Keough, her husband, had produced a handful of songs for her, but she had little confidence in herself as an artist and was afraid to be compared to her legendary father, Taraborrelli wrote.
That changed once Jackson listened to her tapes and told Presley that she had “real talent” — a compliment that floored the young artist. Strong recalled in the 2009 book that as the two were leaving the party, Jackson shot Presley a penetrating look and said: “You and me, we could get into a lot of trouble. Think about that, girl.”
From there, the two spoke on the phone so much that Presley felt like she was seeing a totally different side of Jackson. When the rumors intensified that they were together, they’d meet up at Trump Tower in New York thanks to Jackson’s friend, Donald Trump, who’d later brag, “I’ve known this secret for a long time.” Less than a month after she divorced Keough in 1994, Jackson proposed over the phone. Presley and Jackson married in a private ceremony in the Dominican Republic.
Months earlier, Jackson had reached an out-of-court settlement over claims of child abuse in a deal that his lawyers said did not acknowledge any guilt. Concerned about his failing health and addiction to painkillers, Presley said she “wanted to save him. I felt I could do that,” according to Taraborrelli’s book. Part of that meant letting the world know that her marriage to Jackson was not a publicity stunt.
“My married name is Mrs. Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson,” she said in a statement to the media following the ceremony. “I am very much in love with Michael, and I dedicate my life to being his wife. I understand and support him. We both look forward to raising a family.”
As the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards were about to begin, the announcer inside Radio City Music Hall transformed the awards show into a wedding reception, introducing the newlyweds to the public for the first time: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson!”
Salli Frattini, who helped oversee nearly two decades’ worth of MTV Video Music and Movie Awards shows, recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2002 that the MTV staff was “surprised” Presley and Jackson went through with the producers’ idea for them to lead off the show.
“We had come to them with the whole concept [including the kiss], but I’m sure Michael ad-libbed,” the producer said. “We brought them in a private door and held them in a private area. We kept it very quiet. They came down, did their thing, and when that was over, they left.”
Newspapers around the world led their coverage of the awards show with the kiss, and critics had a field day with what they witnessed. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jackson was “inhuman as ever in a black military jacket,” while Presley appeared “relatively normal in a two-piece slinky dress.” The New York Daily News wrote that Presley “seemed profoundly embarrassed.” And the Daily Telegraph in Great Britain claimed Jackson had forced Presley into “a grotesque display of public affection.”
“Few happily married men feel the urge to kiss their spouses in front of an audience, especially an audience of 250 million people,” the paper’s Tony Parsons wrote. “But Michael Jackson is either very much in love or very desperate.”
Presley filed for divorce from Jackson in 1996, citing irreconcilable differences, but she later said she and Jackson considered reconciling for years after their marriage ended. In what would be their final conversation in 2005, Jackson asked Presley if she still loved him. Presley, who admitted to Winfrey years later that she had shut herself out from having any emotion toward Jackson, told her former spouse that she felt indifferent about him. The answer made him cry, she said.
“That’s part of the problem with my love life,” she once said about her marriages. “I’m looking for someone similar to [my father], and nobody could ever compare.”
But they always had that kiss in New York.