When Michael Jackson died in 2009, the singer had hit a low point, dogged by personal scandals and diminishing star power that paled in comparison to the rarefied heights he achieved in his record-setting career. But the decade since his death has seen a wholesale rehabilitation of his image, returning the King of Pop to prominence as both a cultural icon and financial powerhouse whose afterlife became a billion-dollar brand.
Now, a documentary detailing graphic allegations of child sexual abuse has created a new wave of public outrage against Jackson, imperiling his legacy as a music superstar — and the business that his estate has rebuilt into an empire.
The entertainer’s estate, once roiled by hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, has flourished remarkably since his death from an overdose, pulling in a reported $2 billion through posthumous deals, including the forthcoming Broadway musical “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” a Cirque du Soleil tribute spectacle performed five nights a week in Las Vegas, and the $287.5 million Sony paid for Jackson’s share of EMI Music Publishing.
In the two-part documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which began airing Sunday on HBO, former child actor James Safechuck, 41, and choreographer Wade Robson, 36, revive the child abuse claims that have followed Jackson since the early 1990s. They accuse Jackson of plying them with gifts and attention when they were boys, then sexually abusing them for years. In interviews, the men describe impropriety at Jackson’s legendary Neverland Ranch, including that Jackson gave them alcohol, showed them pornography and even purchased a wedding ring for the underage Safechuck.
For a legion of die-hard Jackson fans, the allegations rang false. On social media, they co-opted the hashtag #LeavingNeverland as their own, posting their criticisms of the film and bombarding celebrities who tweeted about the documentary. Bus ads appeared in London, declaring, “Facts don’t lie. People do.” Jackson’s estate offered its own counterprogramming during the documentary’s premiere, enthusiastically promoting new concert footage while remaining silent on the allegations.
On Twitter, TV personality Geraldo Rivera noted that Robson years ago testified in court that he had not been abused by Jackson. Safechuck did as well, though they each later reversed themselves and sued the estate. (Their cases were dismissed because too much time had passed.)
But the accusers also have high-profile defenders. A force no less powerful than Oprah Winfrey entered the fray, with her network and HBO set to air an interview with Safechuck, Robson and the film’s director, Dan Reed, on Monday.
“For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person,” Winfrey said in a preview clip. “This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity and it’s happening right now.”
Jackson designated his mother, Katherine, and his three children as beneficiaries of his estate, which has vigorously tried and failed to stop the film from airing, filing a $100 million lawsuit last month in Los Angeles Superior Court accusing HBO of violating a 1992 contract promising not to disparage the singer.
“Michael Jackson is innocent. Period,” reads the first sentence in the filing. In a statement, lawyers representing the estate described the two-part documentary as “a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man no longer here to defend himself.”
The $100 million is “putting a price tag on what they think these allegations are going to do,” said Adam Streisand, a Los Angeles-based trial lawyer specializing in celebrity estates. “If people are turning away in droves from other very famous people and their work, is the same thing going to happen to Michael Jackson? Clearly the estate thinks so.”
The value of the Jackson brand has been the subject of vast disagreement. The estate has argued that at his death, the accusations and Jackson’s peculiar behaviors so dramatically affected his image and name that they could be valued at only $2,105, while the IRS has put the figure closer to $160 million.
The question now is whether that estate can weather this latest storm. Cirque du Soleil declined to comment on the future of “Michael Jackson One,” the show that debuted at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in 2013. The Broadway musical produced by Jackson’s estate and Columbia Live Stage will premiere in 2020 as planned, a spokesman said Monday. A Chicago tryout run was canceled after complications related to the Actors’ Equity strike, he added.
But Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing firm Metaforce and an adjunct business professor at New York University, said corporate partners may turn skittish. “For any mainstream marketing tapping into big sponsors and big advertisers, I think it’s going to come off the table, certainly for the next couple of years and maybe forever, because marketers are risk-averse,” he said. “There are plenty of choices in entertainment.”
“Leaving Neverland,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, arrives in the midst of a broader reckoning with sexual misconduct and abuse that has leveled the careers of celebrities from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein. It aired on HBO a week after R&B singer R. Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in the wake of a widely watched Lifetime docuseries that brought new attention to allegations that followed Kelly for decades.
“In some ways, I don’t think a film like this gets made or gets the kind of wide circulation that it does in absence of the #MeToo movement,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, who teaches a course on Michael Jackson and the black performance tradition. “It changes everything, in terms of our willingness to grapple with these issues.”
Few can match Jackson’s stature as a megastar. He went from baby-faced member of the Jackson 5 to singular pop entertainer who, in his prime, inspired an international craze for red leather jackets and spurred millions to moonwalk.
Controversy followed Jackson as well. Since the early 1990s, five boys alleged molestation or inappropriate behavior; the families of two arranged settlements with the pop star, reportedly totaling more than $20 million.
In life, Jackson vehemently denied wrongdoing. A sensational, months-long trial in 2005 forced the allegations against Jackson into the spotlight — he was acquitted on all 10 counts — as the pop singer displayed increasingly bizarre public behavior.
For years after, Jackson’s pop-star persona was permanently cleaved in two — music fans continued to enjoy the art of Michael Jackson, the supremely creative entertainer of the “Thriller” era, while grappling uncomfortably with the allegations.
The singer’s death in 2009 seemed to deify him in the eyes of the public. A 2009 concert-style film, “This Is It,” earned more than $200 million. A posthumous multi-album contract and video game — as well as two tribute Cirque du Soleil shows — rapidly refilled his estate’s coffers, which had been drained during the singer’s lifetime.
Jackson’s death allowed people “to reconnect with him and his music, without the scandal,” Streisand said. “There was an enormous sea change in people’s attitudes when he died.”
The new documentary could shift those attitudes once more. And some fans say they won’t support him anymore.
“I’m very sorry for anyone who loves Michael,” tweeted former Ebony editor in chief Kierna Mayo. “Very sorry. Myself included. Your cognitive dissonance is about to be violently disrupted. The love affair is over.”
While discarding R. Kelly’s music or no longer watching Bill Cosby’s show may have been easy to do, Jackson’s influence on pop culture is more far-reaching. “Looking at all of this, if I am to take seriously the gravity of the charges we see in the film and the truthfulness of them, am I willing to give up Michael Jackson?” wonders Neal. “And for me, that’s a much more difficult question.”
Bethonie Butler contributed to this report.