The Mail on Sunday – Review March 11, 2001
London’s Lanesborough Hotel with a 67-year-old driver, Stan, who has been chauffeuring Michael since the singer was a teenager. Stan was illuminating on the subject of that facemask. ‘It’s for the fans and you lot in the Press, isn’t it?’ he chuckled. ‘Putting it on guarantees pictures will appear in tomorrow’s papers. Never forget that Michael is a showman.’
The fans were out en masse at the back of Michael’s hotel, dozens of them camping in plastic bags on the pavement for a glimpse of their idol. As Michael settled into his suite, I watched his video man going around the crowd, who screamed and wept messages to Michael into his camcorder. It was both touching and disturbing.
Upstairs in the suite, Michael was seeing his doctor. I wondered when he emerged if he would have any idea who I was. However, lie spotted me and greeted me with a funny military salute. I’ve no idea if he really recognized me, but he made a convincing job of making me feel lie had.
Michael’s make-up and quiet, shy manner make it seem as if he is etached and unaware of what is going on around him, but lie has almost 360-clegree vision and rarely misses anything.
Everybody, of course. wants to know what this mysterious man is really like. To me. he comes across as childlike, funny. generous spirited, considerate, if quite demanding, and unfailingly polite. He is also unexpectedly gossipy, though never really malevolent. He has, for instance, a pet snake jokily called Madonna but is always anxious to say how he really thinks the world of his rival for the number one superstar spot.
His voice is light and has a distinct Western twang and, although lie speaks quietly and dreamily, also laughs loudly and often, especially at any physical joke. People bumping into things and throwing food about crack him up. He hates even the mildest swearing and is always asking questions. He listens carefully, watches you with ever-so-slightly suspicious eyes and ensures by not saying much that he is listened intently. As for his appearance, don’t pretend to fully understand why he cultivates the image he does but I’m sure it has to do with shyness and wanting to hide. Up close, his cosmetic surgery is obvious and now seems to be competing with the natural aging process. I have no reason to disbelieve (and some reasons to believe) his claim that he suffers from a skin-lightening condition and I know for certain that he is proud of his black heritage.
He told Jackie Onassis, who helped him with his autobiography, Moon walker, that he used to wear masks to hide, and it is also known that his father, the famously harsh and demanding Joseph Jackson, told repeatedly as a child that he was ugIy – a pretty scarring inheritance. Michael reminds me of an anorexic teenager who is never quite satisfied with the image they see in the mirror and has to keep changing it.
There was a knock on the suite door as Michael and his mentor were deep in conversation that evening. Michael asked if I wouldn’t mind going to the door. Outside was Macaulay Culkin in London for his West End play and here to hang out with Michael. ‘Hi, there, you big, fat monkey head,’ Culkin said to his friend.
You either understand Michael Jackson’s Peter Pan thing or not, but he is earnest about it and says that he is not fond of adults and not proud of being one – hence his fellow feeling with ex-child stars like Culkin who, like him, missed out on childhood.
We left Michael and Macaulay to do whatever they do, which according to one tabloid, was sit on Michael’s bed and watch kids’ films.
It’s interesting that when it comes to Michael, people say that what puts them off is the (ultimately fruitless and unproven) accusations in the early Nineties of child molestation and how he made an L18million settlement to quell his accuser.
When I point out that I he local District Attorney subsequently invited further accusations, and that none came despite there being so much money on the table, and how surprising that is considering that some 10,000 children a year visit Michael’s home, Neverland, people shift their objection to the indisputable fact that he looks a bit odd – a lesser charge, I can’t help feeling.
But perhaps I had already become too understanding of Michael after our time in New York.
I saw him there working tirelessly on planning Heal The Kids, which will ‘campaign globally for parents to spend quality time with their children’. He did this despite being under pressure from his record company to get on with recording his album, his first new music in nearly a decade.
I saw him in conversation and holding his own with child psychiatrists, bankers, writers and society bigwigs, and assured and informal on a conference call with actor Denzel Washington and Nelson Mandela, whom he asked to join the Heal The Kids board. (‘I’ll do whatever you want, Michael,’ Mandela said. ‘You know how I respect you!)
I also listened to Jackson in business meetings, where a different man still emerged – focused, numerate, business-savvy and imaginative. He has a host of plans for his future from property acquisitions to publishing ventures and leisure businesses.
And I witnessed the extent of what I think is Jackson’s real commitment to children. Rabbi Shmuley’s eldest daughter, Mushki, had complained tearfully to Michael on one of his frequent visits to the Boteaches’ home that she was being bullied by a boy at school.
Michael proposed hosting a peace conference, chaired by him, with the boy’s parents to sort it out. This was no idle promise, either.
For a week, Michael phoned Shmuley and Mushki daily demanding to know how arrangements for the summit were going. When the day of the meeting came Michael discovered it clashed with the photographic session for his new CD cover.
So rather than change the date, he began the session at 5am to get it over with. In the event, ironically, the boy and his family failed to turn up.
Shmuley also told me, from the hundreds of hours of interviews he has recorded with Michael for a book they are writing together, about Michael’s torment over the Jamie Bulger murder on Merseyside which he surprised his Oxford audience by mentioning last Tuesday.
The reference was dismissed by some as an attempt to inject local colour into the speech, but in fact Michael’s concern over the case goes back to his first marriage, to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis.
They ended up arguing about Jamie Bulger on a trip to London when Michael outraged his wife by saying that, devastated as he was for Jamie and his parents, he was also concerned for Jamie’s killers because he was sure they must have had a bad childhood – as indeed was the case.
Michael refuses to believe on principle that any child can be fundamentally evil.
As late as last autumn Michael was asking what had happened to Jamie’s killers and saying how he would love to have written to them, but wouldn’t dream of doing so because his fame would make them think they were being rewarded, which he knew would be unacceptable.
He was, says Shmuley, quite downcast when he realised how his celebrity status could occasionally be a handicap in his mission to help children.
I joined Michael again on Tuesday afternoon in his suite, as he did a dry run of his Oxford speech, which he had been working on with Shmuley for a week.
They were already behind schedule, thanks to Michael’s foot. He was insisting on delivering the speech standing up, and even reading through it as he would at Oxford, apart, that is, from the stripy grey pyjamas with Mickey Mouse on the breast pocket.
His focus and attention to detail were remarkable. The speech was to climax with Michael forgiving his father. There was a line where he said if the Jackson Five did a great show, Joseph would say it was OK, and if their did an OK show, he would say it was lousy.
‘You know, Michael said, ‘I’m wrong there. He never said it was lousy, he just said nothing. This has got to be honest.’ He went quiet and sat for a while, holding a tulip from a vase and seemingly lost in thought.
He changed the fine, and that bleak ‘nothing’ was the very word where, that night, he broke down and sobbed for nearly a minute. Some thought this was theatre – I am certain it was genuine, as were most of the Oxford students around me. While Michael was getting dressed and seeing the doctor again, the hours were ticking worryingly away, I had a nose around the suite. Everywhere were the results of Michael’s reported £2,000 after-hours shopping spree at HMV with Macaulay and a pretty, blonde, 20-year-old student daughter of a family friend in London, whom Michael has known since she was young.
Scattered around the suite were DVDs of various children’s films, the David Attenborough wildlife video collection (down from £59.99 to £49.99) and dozens of CDs, including the Beatles’ album 1, to which Michael of course owns the rights, and so by buying, was paying himself royalties.
It struck me that it’s not correct that Michael Jackson only enjoys the company of children, as is often said. What he likes is to surround himself with people in their twenties whom he has known since they were young – and therefore, trust, such as the lonely student.
Before we left, getting ever later, Michael gathered up fruit for the journey to Oxford (No apples, a banana two plums and an orange) and frantically hobbled around on his crutches looking for reading material, a pile of up-market magazines plus a copy of the Royal Academy’s £25 catalogue for their current exhibition, The Genius Of Rome 1592-1623 – a present from his student friend.
We piled into the people-carrier with the manager, the doctor, a bodyguard and Shmuley an hour before we were due in Oxford for dinner. Michael cradled the art book on his lap in the back, where he sat with me and the doctor and discussed Renaissance art. He explained that Diana Ross had taught him a lot about art, but that his father was also a talented painter.
It was Rabbi Shmuley who suggested when we were on the Cromwell Road that Michael phone his father in Las Vegas. ‘You’re making a speech forgiving him. I think now’s the time, Michael,’ Michael considered the idea silently all the way to Hammersmith, when he suddenly asked for the nearest mobile phone and dialed. ‘Joseph,’ he said, as we crawled through the London rush hour. ‘It’s me, Michael. I’m in London I’m OK, I’ve broken my foot and it hurts a lot, but I wanted on to know I’m on my way to Oxford University to make a speech, and you’re mentioned in it … no, no, don’t worry, it’s very positive .. sure…how are you keeping? Uh-huh…sure, of course I will. I love you Dad, bye.’
After saying this, he stared out of the window for a long time. ‘You know,’ he said to all of us, beaming, ‘that’s the first time I’ve ever, ever said that. I can’t believe it. ‘Shmuley gave him a bear hug and congratulated him. Michael continued reading.
It was a happy journey, apart from the traffic. Michael complained that all the CDs his manager had chosen for the drive were too loud. At one stage on the M40 I here was a silence and I cracked one of those jokes you wish you hadn’t. ‘It’s getting boring now,’ I said. ‘I think we should have a singsong. Can anyone here sing?’
Normally, making jokes around celebrities is unwise, but the atmosphere was so jolly and excited that I couldn’t help it. To my delight, Michael had the generosity to laugh loudly.
Michael began to panic as we got later and later. He wanted to phone everyone he had inconvenienced by being late. For a star who doesn’t need to give a damn, it’s hard not to be struck by his solicitousness.
Michael’s speech was amazing. We know the students and the newspapers and TV were bowled over by it, but I wondered what the reaction would be of Trevor Beattie, the advertising creative guru, who was in the packed Victorian debating chamber, with its statues of Asquith and Gladstone.
Beattie is probably Britain’s most renowned ad man, and has worked on commercials for UNICEF recently with Mandela, and with everyone from Muhammad Ali to Tony Blair, whose TV commercials for the forthcoming Election campaign he has just made.
Beattie, in other words, knows a bit about presentation. ‘What I’ve seen tonight confirms what I’ve always believed about Michael, he said. ‘All these theories about one trying to become white miss the point. I believe his great thing is not to be anything like his father and that tonight, he has finally laid the ghost of Joseph and can start again.
That’s why I find it sad that until now, everyone’s concentrated on things like his appearance and his eccentricities and overlooked his personal turmoil. He did it brilliantly with obvious sincerety, I couldn’t admire the man more.’
We went on to an incredibly grand, starry, late dinner for 40 at Blenheim Palace, where I was aroused to watch Richard E. Grant, a Hollywood star himself, fretting over how to approach Michael.
‘I mean, what does one do ? Do you pretend you know him and say hi, and introduce yourself…I’m just not quite sure.’
And the next day came the glitzy Geller wedding. Michael was late again (more trouble with that foot, exacerbated when he slipped on it believe it or not – in a fish and chip shop in Marylebone.)
People were sorry, especially for Uri’s wife, Hanna, but then Michael also had to cancel a helicopter trip front the Gellers’ out to George Harrison’s home. Harrison, he told me, is the Beatle he is closest to.
My 11-year-old daughter shook bands with Michael and pronounced him, ‘Not as scary as in photos, actually really nice looking.’ And I was asked to dance under the wedding canopy with Uri, Shmuley and David Blaine, the American magician -and with the world’s number one song-and-dance man, Michael Jackson, sitting in a chair, three feet away clapping along.
Noting my hippopotamus-like attempts at rhythm, the King Of Pop winked at me. I do not expect to be signed up for his next video any time soon.
He, on the other hand, seemed happy, as if some sort of weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
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