Michael Jackson was supposed to be a basket case. During the darkest period of his toughest year, rumors dogged the eccentric pop star: He was about to be indicted on charges that he sexually abused a young boy, and he was descending into a drug-fueled nervous breakdown somewhere overseas, probably in London. Back in L.A., his lawyers were squabbling publicly, and his former security guards filed suit against him, charging that they had been fired for knowing too much. A few days later, his mother and brother appeared on TV in a dramatic plea for his return.
But in the center of the maelstrom, Jackson was methodically phoning one of his advisers in Los Angeles every day. Among other things, he was checking on the transfer of his music-publishing company to EMI Music, the largest deal of its kind in history, which will net him at least $70 million. In those conversations, Jackson did not sound drugged or barely coherent. Nor did he seem like a sad and beleaguered Peter Pan. According to the adviser, Michael Jackson was mad, and he was clearly capable of articulating his feelings: ”He’s incensed. He’s hurt and disturbed by what people have said about him, what the press has been doing, all the leaks, the whole thing.”
But anger alone may not be enough to fight the mounting allegations, which increasingly detail his questionable relationships with young boys. Strangely isolated at a time when he would seem to need friends and family the most, Jackson is facing his own High Noon — lurid civil charges, an ongoing criminal investigation, and a career in disarray.
Without a single criminal charge yet filed, Jackson, 35, is at the center of the biggest scandal in the history of entertainment. At stake is a centimillion-dollar empire that includes records, music publishing, concert tours, music catalogs, a record label, a film company, charities, sponsorships, and merchandising — not to mention Jackson’s global image as a humanitarian. And as a close look at the current state of his support system — his record company, his family, and his legal team — shows, he is on shaky ground:
· Over at notoriously tight-lipped Sony, with which Jackson has a reported $65 million deal, music executives are outwardly optimistic. In what would seem a show of support, they recently released a seventh single off Jackson’s two-year-old Dangerous album. ”It looks like his label is behind him in the sense that they’re still spending ad dollars and working on sales,” says Larry King, a buyer at Tower Records in L.A. ”It hasn’t affected sales one whit. Sony’s behind a new video right now, and they’re tying in the CDs and cassettes as well with the new single. So it’s not just like he’s a pariah and they’re jumping for cover.”
But privately, Sony is said to be more than a little concerned about Jackson. Even if the scandal is not hurting sales, how much more he will produce for the company is very much in doubt. One Sony executive is pessimistic. ”I doubt he’ll ever come back to this country again,” he says — despite the claim of Jackson’s lawyer Howard Weitzman that his client will return to the U.S. to be deposed on Jan. 18 in the civil suit, which was filed on behalf of the 13-year-old boy who says Jackson abused him.
· Jackson’s relations with his family appear to be growing increasingly strained. Although his mother, Katherine, and brother Jermaine told CNN that they had spoken with Michael, others close to the family say Jackson has avoided them. ”The family is just beside themselves,” says a longtime friend. ”Nobody knows where he is or what he’s up to. He’s always been difficult to reach. He allows himself to be sheltered by people he thinks can take care of him.”
Jack Gordon, who’s married to Michael’s sister La Toya, says his wife watched her mother and Jermaine on TV from her hotel room in London, where she was on her European tour. ”They have no idea where he is,” says Gordon, who claims Michael has been calling La Toya but not detailing his whereabouts. ”When Jermaine said eh spoke to him — that’s not true.”
It was not until several days after her TV appearance that Katherine actually spoke to her son, according to a friend of the family. ”Michael finally did call her,” says the source. ”But it wasn’t when she said he did.”
· The L.A. triumvirate in charge of Jackson damage control — lawyers Weitzman and Bert Fields, and private investigator Anthony Pellicano — has suddenly splintered. Fields fell abruptly out of favor on Nov. 23, when he let ”slip” that a Santa Barbara County grand jury was ready to indict Jackson on criminal charges. In fact, nobody knows for sure whether such a grand jury has even been convened. If Fields’ move was a ply to postpone the civil suit — on the grounds that Jackson’s legal team needed time to deal with the criminal case — it backfired badly and cast even more doubt on Jackson’s innocence. ”Weitzman is his lawyer now,” a member of the Jackson camp says tersely. ”The problem with Bert Fields is that he mishandled the situation. I really don’t know why he said what he said.”
Without a firm had to guide him, Jackson’s chances of overcoming the controversy that has enveloped him seem slimmer than ever. ”This is like a forest fire,” says a major Hollywood producer who’s known Jackson for years. ”I don’t think there’s anything more that can be done. What has to be done now is pray, because it’s so big and outrageous. But one of Jackson’s close associates talks tougher. ”He’s innocent,” he says. ”He says he’s innocent, and I know he’s innocent. At the end of the day, he’ll rise above it and triumph.”
Triumph or disaster? Either way, Jackson’s future is rushing toward him — whether he chooses to deal with it or not. While 1993 began as a comeback year for the singer after a period of declining impact and sales, it couldn’t be ending more sourly. And the start of 1994 looks equally bleak. Here’s what Jackson faces in his not-so-happy New Year:
The Criminal Investigation: First begun in August — soon after a 13-year-old boy befriended by Jackson in the fall of 1992 accused the singer of sexually molesting him — the police probe is expected to be concluded sometime during the first few months of the year, according to law-enforcement sources.
After a quiet fall, the case heated up in mid-November when police searched the Jackson family home in Encino, Calif., and prepared a warrant for a strip search of Jackson to verify the boy’s description of distinguishing marks on his genitals. At about the same time, Jackson quit his world tour, claiming that he had become addicted to painkillers, and left Mexico City with Elizabeth Taylor on a plane bound for Europe. Several days later, a London doctor said he was treating Jackson for drug dependency, though many industry insiders and even members of Jackson’s family don’t buy the story. ”He’s not under any treatment,” says Gordon. ”He’s not addicted to those pills at all. That was a story that the attorneys put out. [Michael told La Toya] that he’s not addicted. He’s terrified of pills. He’s only staying away on advice of counsel.”
Neither the Santa Barbara nor the L.A. County DA’s office wills ay whether a grand jury has been convened. They both say they will make a statement only when their investigations are completed and the decision on whether to file charges has been made. If Jackson were indicted on criminal charges and refused to return to the U.S. from Great Britain, he could be extradited.
The Civil Suit: More damaging, for now, is the claim filed by lawyer Larry Feldman on behalf of his 13-year-old client. Unless criminal charges are filed beforehand, which could delay civil proceedings, the suit is scheduled to come to trial on March 21 in L.A. Superior Court. The suit seeks unspecified damages and claims that Jackson performed oral sex on the boy, masturbated him, ate his semen, and had the boy fondle his breasts and nipples while he masturbated. The boy has suffered emotionally and physically as a result of the molestation, according to the suit.
More than a dozen people, from Ben Brown, former president of the defunct Jackson Records, to maids at Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in Santa Ynez Valley, have been subpoenaed to testify. Chauffeur Gary Hearne allegedly told lawyers that he drove Jackson to his accuser’s house for 30 nights and picked him up each morning. Hearne also reportedly said he picked up a suitcase and briefcase from Jackson’s Century City condo just before the police searched the property for evidence.
Jackson must submit to a deposition by Jan. 31. If he does not show up, he could be held in contempt of court.
A Career in Limbo: Sony’s plan to release a greatest-hits album in November was postponed indefinitely. The given reason: Jackson has yet to record two new singles for the album. Equally in doubt is the release date for a ”home” video that includes footage from last January’s Super Bowl performance and the Dangerous tour, plus interviews — as well as the planned telecast of the Jackson Family Honors TV special. Originally scheduled for Dec. 11 in Atlantic City, the show will take place on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas and Jackson has recently assured his family he will perform, according to NBC.
Although a gag about Jackson and his Heal the World foundation is getting big (if cruel) laughs in Addams Family Values, Jackson’s real-life movie career remains moribund. A Hollywood studio chief says Jackson never had real film potential. ”He doesn’t have a distinct persona that translates into movies,” the exec says. ”I think he would have been a very good Peter Pan. Other than that, I don’t know what you do with him.” Two movies planned for Jackson at his Nation Films, Jack and the Beanstalk and Midknight, about a superhero who rescues kids, have been put in turnaround. ”No one calls [them],” says one production executive. ”It’s as if no one knows the company even exists.”
Jackson also stands to lose millions from the aborted Pepsi-sponsored Dangerous tour. Eleven dates were canceled, and Jackson must reimburse the promoters. Only Pepsi, which dumped Jackson shortly after he flew to Europe, escaped unscathed. ”No one at Pepsi panicked,” says an ad executive on the Pepsi account. ”They were concerned about it, no question, but there weren’t a lot of decisions that had to be made. They had a relationship with him for the duration of the tour, and when the tour ended, the relationship ended.”
But everyone agrees that whatever money Jackson loses as a result of the scandal will be just a fraction of his personal worth, which runs into the hundreds of millions. ”Can you imagine how much money this guy has? How can it have an impact?” says Karin Wolfe of Perspective Records. ”Even if everyone pulled out, he’s going to make money on his money. He’s made too many good investments.”
Indeed, Jackson’s financial empire is showing signs that it can continue — and flourish — even with its leader in exile. Jackson’s lucrative music-publishing deal with EMI came in late November, when the allegations against him were growing ever more sordid and when Jackson had already announced he was addicted to painkillers. At about the same time, the video version of Free Willy was released, complete with a filmed version of the theme song sung by Jackson — who performs while dancing with a group of young boys — and inserted before the start of the movie. So far, Warner Bros. executives say they’ve received no complaints from the public or distributors. ”We had to make a decision,” Free Willy producer Lauren Shuler-Donner says about the inclusion of the Jackson performance. ”We decided to back Michael.”
It’s more difficult to find out whether Jackson’s staff at Heal the World, his year-old children’s charity, is also continuing to back him. Repeated requests for interviews were ignored; instead, the foundation would only reissue a statement saying it felt ”deep sorrow” for Jackson.
His Friends: Jackson may find his once star-studded network of supporters in as much disarray as his career when he comes home. With the exception of Elizabeth Taylor, a number of Jackson friends and associates have been conspicuously silent. Calls to Brooke Shields, Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, Suzanne de Passe, and Macaulay Culkin, among others, elicited no comments.
But Jackson still has people pulling for him. Actor Alfonso Ribeiro, 21, who worked with the star in a Pepsi commercial 10 years ago, says he spent hours with Jackson and never saw anything odd. ”I was there, I went to Michael’s house and went on his tours and hung out with him after his concerts,” says Ribeiro. ”All I know is there was none of that going on when I worked with him, and I’ve talked to other children who hung out with him and none of them saw anything happen either.”
If criminal charges are not filed, and if he wins the civil suit, many believe Jackson could overcome what undoubtedly has been the worst year of his life. ”There’s no bigger star than Michael Jackson alive today,” says Wolfe. ”In the long run, people will forget the next day, like they do everything else.”
Jackson’s former manager Frank Dileo says he hopes Jackson is innocent and believes the star’s friendship with children stems from a difficult early life. ”Michael never really had a childhood, and I think he is trying to experience it in later life,” he says. ”I would tell him to keep the knowledge that he is innocent and hold his head up.”
In the end, though, can even the belief in his own innocence sustain Jackson in the tumultuous months ahead? How prophetic was Jackson last March, when he appeared with Michael Milken — fresh from 22 months in prison for securities violations — to support Milken’s proposed educational cable network? Milken, said Jackson, ”is my friend because he has been through the fire, as I have, and emerged better for the process. He’s been my friend because he has been misunderstood, as I have been, and harshly judged by those who had no right to assume they knew this man without ever spending an hour in his company.”
Additional reporting by Meredith Berkman, David Bock, Alan Carter, Gregg Kilday, Robert Seidenberg, Heidi Siegmund, B.J. Sigesmund, Frank Spotnitz, Anne Thompson, and Jaymes Trief