The Man in the Mirror 
Michael Jackson's tabloid reflections & racial rejections
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly May/June 2000


Many celebrities rally for personal strife or illness, such as Christopher Reeve for spinal injury or Bob Dole for penile dysfunction. Michael Jackson does the same, only his sickness is called "Michael Jackson: the strange pain and suffering of being The King of Pop."

He is the celebrity we at once feel farthest from and closest to—although he's an unfathomable weirdo—he's so real, so flesh and blood, so fragilely human, that it seems no matter how famous he gets anyone could harm him.

On February 10, 1993, ABC ran Oprah Winfrey's exclusive interview with Michael. Ninety million people watched, making it the fourth most-watched entertainment show in history. Michael was riveting—he sang, laughed, debunked and dodged, giving few real insights but appearing to struggle himself to make sense out of his life.

After the show aired, Jay Leno joked, "You gotta admit, Michael looked a little strange. The Elephant Man called and he wanted to buy Michael's bones." Radio host Howard Stern added, "Take away all his money and he'd be in [a mental hospital]." And Entertainment Weekly shrugged, "It's impossible to deny the creepy subtext of a 34-year-old, crotch-grabbing, 'Dangerous' guy who says he most likes to hang out with 'animals and children'."

As tender, earnest and friendly as Michael had come off, he was still weirding the pants off America.

According to interviewer J. Randy Taraborrelli, the Jackson Five were once in a record store where so many fans pushed against the window that it shattered inward. One girl's throat was slit by the glass, but her bleeding was ignored by the stampeding crowd. The scene was similar at any airport, where thousands of fans toppled barricades and attacked the young performers. "There are a thousand hands grabbing at you," Michael recalled in his 1988 memoir, Moonwalk. "One girl is twisting your wrist this way while another girl is pulling your watch off. They grab your hair and pull it hard, and it hurts like fire. I still wear the scars, and I can remember in which city I got each of them."

But Michael learned early that the "pain" of being a celebrity made great theater. During a 1979 "American Bandstand" performance of "Blame it on the Boogie," the Jackson Five staged a cop attempting to drag away the boogying dancers. It's a trick Michael would repeat at the 1995 "MTV Video Music Awards," when a supposed MTV official attempted to remove Michael's guest guitarist Slash off the stage to—surprise—no avail.

At 5-years-old, Michael became the lead singer of Joe Jackson's mellifluous family. Before he graduated grade school, Michael had four number one Motown records and an entertainment attendance record of 18,675 at the L.A. Forum. By age 11, he had six gold records and was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Michael learned to perfect complex song and dance routines while other kids his age learned to perfect walking.

And so, he grew up critiquing his own TV performances, his costumes, his afro and his magazine pictorials. Troubles as minor as acne drove him into a deep depression. "I felt I didn't have anything to be proud of and I didn't even want to go out," recalled Michael. And by a 1971 performance on the "Flip Wilson Show," cute little 4 feet 10 inch Michael disappointed fans by being gangly 5 feet 10 inch Michael, all the while being forced to succumb his post-puberty voice to his pre-puberty soprano.

The Jackson Five never allowed Michael to be a little boy and would now not allow him to become a man.

Away from the domain of music executives, reporters, lawyers, adults and even other Jackson family members, there is a yellow-brick road. Follow it through flowerbeds and grass so green it makes your eyes hurt; idyllic sycamore trees embedded with hidden speakers softly playing Disney tunes; an impossibly quaint pond equipped with a swan boat, canoe, and dinghy. Follow the yellow-brick road through the zoo and its 200 animals, among them, elephants, giraffes, buffalo, the famous chimp Bubbles and even a zebra/donkey half-breed called a Zonkey.

This yellow-brick road does indeed lead to an Oz, a land where adult responsibility is lost among the wide-eyed awe of childhood. This Oz is called the Neverland Ranch.

Michael's 2,700-acre, $28 million mecca is run by 70 employees and includes an Indian Village, a two-story fort, an amusement park, a Ferris Wheel, a steam engine, two floors of arcade games, a giant outdoor Jacuzzi and rooms brimming with dolls and toy trains. The $2 million Neverland Cinema is not only stocked with every candy and snack imaginable (embossed with the Neverland logo, of course), but also features two glassed-in viewing rooms for bed-ridden children.

This is where Michael entertains his young guests. But as the widespread images of Peter Pan hint, this is where he entertains himself as well. As Peter Pan always said, in Neverland, you'll never grow up. However, Michael is now 41.

He's been married twice, divorced twice, both due to "irreconcilable differences." He has abandoned his childhood fantasy of adopting 13 children of different races; instead, he has two of his own, Prince and Paris, with names that sound like the royalty Michael often dresses as.

Michael has quietly withstood decades of embarrassing tabloid tales. He's been in rehab to battle an addiction to prescription painkillers and has collapsed while rehearsing for an HBO special. He's retracted suggestive dance segments from videos (1991's "Black or White") and anti-Semitic lyrics from songs (the line "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/kike me, Kike me, don't you black or white me" from 1995's "They Don't Care About Us"). For every child he helps live with his Heal the World Foundation, Michael seems to die a little more. He 's written open letters to magazines in which he said he has "been bleeding for a long time" and included a sketch in his HIStory album (1995) of a lonely little black boy curled in a corner with a microphone like an umbilical cord, the caption reading: "Before you judge me, try hard to love me, look within your heart and ask, have you seen my childhood."

In an interview several months ago, TV Guide asked, "You said that if it weren't for your desire to help the children of the world, you'd throw in the towel and kill yourself. Do you really feel that way?"

"I always have," responded Michael. "'Cause I would have nothing to live for. Everything I create is inspired by that kind of innocence." It's almost inevitable Michael's chief nemesis has been a child—a 13-year-old boy, with whom he traveled to Disney World, and who accused him of molestation. The event resulted in a media frenzy and an out-of-court settlement for a rumored $20 million. Recently, the father of the boy claimed Michael violated their agreement by talking publicly about the case, and is now demanding an additional $60 million.

Michael's face, however, shows none of this pain. It is more than youthful; it is without age. It is more than black or Caucasian; it is without race. A result of two decades of plastic surgery, it is an angelic mask and almost eerie in its porcelain flawlessness. Michael claims to have had several nose jobs and a cleft put in his chin, as well as suffering from the whitening effects of the skin disorder vitiligo. The other distinct changes—thin lips, cartoonish cheekbones, straight, girlish hair—go unaccounted for.

Michael used to joke about his skin. On the short-lived 1976 TV variety series The Jacksons, 17-year-old Michael quipped, "We're the Jacksons. All of you who were expecting the Osmonds, do not adjust the color of your set."

Now it is no joke.

The exact number of surgeries is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Michael's appearance keeps changing; and each new look is, for whatever reason, masterminded by the King of Pop himself. On page 173 of Moonwalk, Michael includes a 1979 photo from the Jackson's Destiny album, which he has doodled on. If you look closely, you can see Michael's pen could not resist reshaping not only his hair and eyebrows, but his brother Randy's as well.

A 1970 Ebony article refers to Jackie and Tito teasing Michael as "big nose," "liver lips," and "big head." Amid the trauma of watching his own body and sexuality transform on national TV, it would seem Michael took these insults to heart. And to knife.

Perhaps disastrously, Michael's first nose job coincided with his first hit solo album, 1979's Off the Wall (his previous solo effort, 1975's Michael Forever, topped out at 101 on the charts). With his new album, Thriller (1982), came another new nose, and along with the album's success, his obsession with his own image intensified.

For the $600,000 "Thriller" music video, Michael demanded to go through a werewolf transformation, even though it would be an uncomfortable—and narratively an unnecessary—process. In the video, Michael's identity is never certain; is he a wolf, a zombie, a man or some other combination? His full-length 1989 "Moonwalker" video continues this confusion. At any given moment, Michael is an adult, a child, a puppet, a rabbit, a car or a giant robot. "The press has made me out to be this monster," Michael would say in 1999, forgetting he kicked-off all the shape shifting.

More evidence: the racial/gender morphing of the "Black or White" video; the morphing of Michael into his sister Janet in "Scream" (an interesting thing to do, considering that only two years earlier, at the 1993 Grammy Awards, Michael used the opportunity of being on-stage with Janet to rebuke a rumor by saying, "Me and Janet really are two different people"). By the time he sang "Have You Seen My Childhood?" in 1995, you had to wonder "Mike, have you seen your nose?" It had almost washed into the white blur of his face.

Perhaps Michael alters his physicality to avoid looking like his father, who allegedly beat his children severely. (In typical understatement, Michael only writes, "My dad made a few mistakes along the way.") Or perhaps he's simply attempting to control his own image. As a Motown property, Michael was told how to dress, how to talk, how to smile. Michael loathed the 1976 "The Jacksons" TV series, complaining, "We had to dress in ridiculous outfits and perform stupid comedy routines to canned laughter. One week you're Santa Claus, the next week you're Prince Charming, another week you're a rabbit." Or, in light of his constant protests he missed his childhood, it may be Michael fears he will age physically without getting to live out those seminal childhood experiences vicariously. "[As a child]," recalled Michael, "I'd just stare at [other children] in wonder—I couldn't imagine such freedom, such a carefree life—and wish more than anything that I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away and be like them."

However, Michael's view of "traditional" childhood is a clumsy one constructed of loud symbols, like roller coasters and zoos. This is why Neverland is really an unsettling place—when the children go home, it has the haunting look of a ghost town, an empty playpen. Neverland is a re-creation of Disneyland, which Michael proclaims is his "favorite place." He has tried to emulate Disneyland by attempting to purchase the Tivoli theme park in Denmark for $200 million as well as a theme park/casino in Detroit called Majestic Kingdom.

But anyone can tell you Disneyland is not childhood. Childhood is as much fear, sadness and confusion as it is happiness and innocence; it is as much playing in the dirt alone as it is riding Magic Mountain or The Pirates of the Caribbean.

The message Michael wants us to take from children is a noble one. In his 1993 acceptance speech for the Grammy Legend award, Michael said, "What we need to learn from children isn't childish. Being with them connects us to the deeper wisdom of life which is ever-present and only asks to be lived. They know the solutions that lie waiting to be recognized in our own hearts."

Michael's world of peace and joy may be delusional ("It's a nice place Michael comes from," said Steven Spielberg, "I wish we could all spend some time [there]."), but it is undoubtedly sincere. His Heal the World Foundation has given millions of dollars to children's charities and hospitals, sponsoring immunizations, earthquake relief and airdropping food and medical supplies to Bosnia and Sarajevo. In addition, his sympathy for burn victims is real—when his hair caught fire during a 1984 Pepsi commercial shoot, he was placed in a room next to patients he had visited only weeks earlier.

Of course, Michael's beloved children posit no global solutions per se, but they do live life without pretension. Michael intently clings to this disregard of adult trivialities and egotism.

Michael's desire to "heal the world" is a vague, sweeping concern that is childlike simplicity. He tosses around images of the Klu Klux Klan, Ghandi, Chernobyl and Martin Luther King, Jr., too effortlessly. His editing pattern for the "Heal the World" music video is almost insultingly blunt: skinhead, child, gun, child, tank, Sudan, explosion, child. The details of why there are, say, starving kids in Ethiopia (where the proceeds of the Michael-penned "We Are the World," the best-selling single of all time, were sent) doesn't matter—it couldbe infertile farmland or Martian attack. What does matter is sending those poor children love. Michael's oversimplified tear-jerking should come off as cheap and manipulative, yet it doesn't; he obviously believes in it with all his heart.

Michael has never cared much for the news details. In Taraborrellis' book Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, the author recounts his 1978 interview with a then 19-year-old Michael. He asked, "[Do you follow] current events?"

"Current events?" Michael responded blankly.

"Do you read the paper?"

Michael shook his head no.

"See, I like show business."

Michael's persona can be split into several parts: feminine shyness/masculine aggression; soft speech/commanding singing voice; childlike actions off-stage/violent dance on-stage.

The show biz limelight is where Michael is allowed to turn from a man-child into a man.

Although always a good dancer, it wasn't until May 16, 1983 that his moves shook America. That night, during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever TV special, Michael's performance of "Billie Jean" became a legend. The Michael Jackson of our collective memory was there that night—white socks, black fedora, sparkling glove and black sequined jacket.

Michael blew viewers away—an estimated 50 million—many of them strangers to his music. After the performance, Fred Astaire rang Michael and said, "You're a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night. You're an angry dancer. I'm the same way."

The dance was angry. From the opening bass notes, Michael kicked, slapped his knee, and spun his wrist, pirouetted, buckled to one side, the other side, then kicked out again and pretended to preen. His torso stood in place while his feet sprung to their toes and spun. His veins pulsed music and his tendons snapped to the beat. In the gap between verses, where most singers gasp for a breath, Michael did a double kick, head turn, and spin, while his fingers and hips shot off with military precision. "Sometimes I don't even know what I'm doing," said Michael about his dancing in 1970, and the same still held true in 1983. Although surely rehearsed, it felt like breathtaking, improvisational genius.

It was the same story over on MTV, with "Beat It." No one had ever grooved like that before. Heck, no one had ever touched a pool table like that before. The table not only seemed to be electrified, but his own flesh as well.

In 1987, the video for "Bad" came out, and it was no surprise to find out that Michael's body made noises; it was, after all, Michael's only instrument. SNAP!—he yanked his cuff. WHOOSH!—he brushed his shoulder. Michael could focus every iota of energy into one jabbing finger—POW!—while his other hand clawed desperately to his shirt as if to keep something, anything inside.

For the King of Pale to release a song entitled "Black or White" was, at this point, rather ballsy. It was the first cut off of Dangerous, an album whose videos found Michael grabbing his crotch and humping the air a whole lot. If he was asserting his masculinity, it didn't work—the masturbatory way he fingered his crotch, moaned and pinched his nipples anatomized his body as female. Still, the dancing was powerful, and even a standard video entry like "Keep it in the Closet"—starring supermodel Naomi Campbell's white panties and co-starring supermodel Naomi Campbell's big breasts—found room to dangle an amazingly marionette—like Michael in a dancing silhouette.

Michael tried again to be manly with "You Are Not Alone," frolicking nude with then-wife Lisa Marie Presley. But his face, his hairless, baby-fat body and his outy belly button continued to be discomfiting. Michael was a creature that was, in many ways, still a child. As he had shown with several videos, his idea of toughness was laughable. In "Bad" he was horribly overdressed for the ghetto, wearing studded black leather with seemingly dozens of zippers and buckles. "There's one buckle no one will ever detect," wrote a viewer in the Los Angles Times, "and it's located at the back of his head."

Actress Sophia Loren has said of Michael, "It was love at first sight." This comment is entirely safe, for Michael is to be "adored," not "lusted after." During the Thriller years, it wasn't another woman that played the annoying "third wheel" during Michael's dates with Brooke Shields or Tatum O'Neal. It was tiny, 12-year-old actor Emmanuel Lewis, who Michael toted around on his hip like an infant.

So, when Lisa Marie answered the question of whether she was having sex with her husband with a "Yes, yes, yes!" during a 1995 Prime-Time Live interview, it sent chills down our spines. Michael and sex seems somehow wrong, for he is, and has always been, our child. He might've grown up with the Jacksons some of the time, but he grew up with us—on our TV's and radios—all of the time.

It didn't help that, when Michael was young, he was surrounded by his brothers' and father's sexual indiscretions. Although Michael is maddeningly vague on this topic, he does write that "Jermaine and I would be sleeping, exhausted after a show, and my father would bring a bunch of girls into the room; we'd wake up and they'd be standing there, looking at us, giggling." This seems to coincide with Joe's alleged affairs and the undoubted romances of the other brothers, some of which allegedly continued post-1975, after which all four brothers had been married.

In his autobiography Moonwalk, Michael recounts an early stage routine orchestrated by Joe that had him scurrying under tables, looking up women's skirts for laughs. No sexual threat was evident—it was just little Michael. For Michael, however, it was surely a confusing, "child-sleeping-in-the-grown-up-bed" point-of-view of sex. In an otherwise unspecific autobiography, Michael makes two very specific statements that practically beg to be deconstructed. He recalls watching a stripper peel away all of her clothes, only to find She was a He. "I was blown away," writes Michael. Thirty pages later, he calls Diana Ross "my mother, my lover, and my sister all combined in one amazing person."

Michael's unaffected prose has no hidden subtext; everything is on the surface. Whether Michael knows it or not, it is through these simple, confused comments that he cries out for sympathy the loudest.

The idea of him staying a child is laughable, but the idea of him becoming an adult is distasteful to us. This is because we know so little about him. His interviews are frugal and his autobiography useless. No wonder since 1978's Oz update The Wiz and 1986's Disney attraction Captain EO (which, at 17 minutes and $20 million is, minute-by-minute, the most expensive film ever made), Michael was attached to star in numerous films, including Peter Pan and The Phantom of the Opera, before finally committing to the title role in next year's The Nightmare of Edgar Allen Poe. Michael hasn't the accessible humor or humanity of other music superstars, such as Springsteen, Dylan or Elvis, and the extreme close-up of a 30-foot movie screen tends to conjure up exactly such intimacy between actor and audience.

Michael's album sales are down. From beneath the behemoth of the best-selling album of all time, Thriller, and the first album to have six number one singles, Bad, has limped Dangerous and HIStory, both disappointing musically and financially—HIStory has sold only 14 million albums, even less than 1979's Off the Wall.

"[My] albums should be for all races, all tastes in music," Michael has said. And in a 1995 statement in the New York Times: "I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man,I am the white man." His hideous misconception of music's place is an extension of his own racial homogenization—when you try to be every one, you become no one.

The backlash, which began around 1988, was severe. Michael came in first in several categories of Rolling Stone's "Worst of 1988" list and then he lost all four of his Grammy nominations. By the time the release of 1995's HIStory album—a double album of greatest hits and new tracks—approached, Michael had fully realized a new perception of himself, one that was truly larger than life.

HIStory was hyped with a four-minute teaser video. This extravagant production begins with a colossal army goose-stepping through a European city in crisp, tan uniforms, waving red flags and sporting red-and-black insignias. Military music pounds. Crowds swell at the sidelines, screaming and crying. The implication seems to be these men represent Nazis.

But then, their leader is revealed to be Michael, marching right up front. When peasant workers break free to touch Michael, they are immediately swallowed by soldiers. Suddenly, it is night, and a tarp-covered, skyscraper-sized structure looms over the poor nation as choppers spray spotlights across it. Brainwashed fans scream, salute with one arm and light candles with religious zeal. Signs proclaiming "King of Pop," a title Michael disavowed to Oprah only two years earlier, are everywhere, emphasizing the word "King." Finally, the tarp drops, and it is, of course, a gargantuan, bronze statue of Michael, fists clenched defiantly, his star insignia prominent, yet his face still somehow child-like and unthreatening.

The video is a highly disturbing piece of work. His bloated sense of importance is not only chilling, it is threatening. Suddenly, Michael's perfect world of Oz/Neverland is forced to be compared with an Aryan Nation, one that substitutes children for Hitler's master race. The implications of this, naturally, are horrifying—what happens when someone grows too old for Neverland? Are they cast aside, or merely grafted a new, ageless face that erases all of their adult sins?

More evidence: the video for "Liberian Girl" features a cast of over 30 superstars, everyone from Jackie Collins to John Travolta to David Copperfield, all waiting for Michael to show up to shoot a music video. At the end, Michael swoops down on a camera crane, grinning—he's been filming the whole thing. The message is clear: it takes 30 superstars to equal one Michael.

In the video for HIStory's "They Don't Care About Us" (directed, oddly, by Spike Lee, an artist much more grounded in reality), Michael cavorts with a Brazilian percussion orchestra of over 250 children. He steals a security guard's baton and makes fun of the guard, aligning himself, as always, with children—if "they don't care about us," then, by extension, Michael does.

Only, these guards are just like the guards in the Nazi-tinged "HIStory" teaser, again assisting Michael with overzealous fans. Michael has apparently decided both fans and authorities are necessary, and for him to fully function as "The King of Pop" for his audience/children, he must remain untouchable, lest he lose his magical aura. Since Michael would never intentionally do something to harm us, he must think we want/need him to maintain this megalomaniac image. For, in his child-centric universe, the "good" are always weak, and we therefore need his omnipotent protection from the powerful and the "bad."

By 1996, Michael was dressing like Jesus onstage and pretending to heal legions of "homeless children."

Finally, then, it seemed Michael had given in to his strange media disease, and decided it essential to his survival.

The extensive liner notes he leaves us with in the HIStory feature rather forced "Mike's a great guy" testimonials from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie O and Steven Spielberg; classified ad-style "thank yous" to everyone from Diana Ross to Shaquille O'Neal to Thomas Edison; an exhaustive, five-page account of the over 250 awards (music, humanitarian, or otherwise) accumulated by Michael; finally, almost 20 pages of full-color photos. These photos are of untouchable solitude, proving Michael still knows celebrity pain is great theater: Michael, alone, yet surrounded by dozens of guards in riot gear. Michael, alone, yet crowded by thousands of fans. Michael, alone, yet encircled by a million stage lights. Also, Michael accepting awards from presidents and kissing babies, always adorned in sparkling regalia like a strange diplomat from the mysterious country of Neverland.

Michael Jackson did not fall in love with his image. Instead, his image—so huge, so powerful, and so ultimately unbearable—finally overtook him.