You could say it was the beginning of the weirdness: the night Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire on the set of a Pepsi commercial. In an accident so surreal it could happen only to him, Michael was dancing down a staircase at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 27, 1984, when a smoke bomb ignited two feet from his pomaded curls. His hair in flames, he fell to the floor in pain, crying to one of his brothers, ”Tito, Tito!” Though the fire was quickly put out, screams filled the hall: ”Michael Jackson has been shot! Michael Jackson is dead!”
In fact, Jackson suffered second- and third-degree burns on his scalp. He was wheeled from the scene swathed in bandages — with only his spangled glove showing: ”Leave the glove on,” he instructed an ambulance attendant, ”the media is here.”
And the media never really left. Within weeks, the 25-year-old singer made the cover of Time and won eight Grammys. His Thriller became the best-selling album ever, with 40 million copies sold. And the Pepsi footage shot before the fire was edited into a TV spot. At the coy star’s insistence, the minute-long concert scenario, which aired for a year, showed his face for only three seconds.
Michael’s predilections, meanwhile, were growing more bizarre. While visiting other burn patients, he discovered the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a coffinlike box used to speed healing, which he tried to buy to sleep in. During his recovery, he tooled around his Encino estate in an electric car and tossed his hospital gown to a fan at the front gate.
Jackson threatened to sue Pepsi but backed off when the company paid him $1.5 million on top of his $700,000 fee. He reportedly said he was most hurt by jokes about his Jheri-Curl, indignantly denying that the hair lotion caused the blaze. But there was one Jacksonesque bright spot. ”I remember enjoying the ride to the hospital,” he wrote in Moonwalk, his autobiography. ”I never thought I’d ride in an ambulance with the sirens wailing. It was one of those things I had always wanted to do.”
Time Capsule: January 27, 1984
Moviegoers warmed to Terms of Endearment; TV viewers favored 60 Minutes. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was the best-selling book, and Yes scored its only No. 1 hit with ”Owner of a Lonely Heart.”