BEVERLY HILLS — The first words from Michael Jackson seem to portend a candid dialogue. "Excuse my skin," he says. "I just came from the dermatologist. So pretend you don't see it." That instruction is tough to obey when dealing with the most scrutinized figure in entertainment, especially one whose many eccentricities include donning disguises in public and heavy cosmetics for the camera. While Jackson is sporting little literal makeup today, figuratively the mask never drops completely.
What was billed as a no-holds-barred interview at times entails jousting with two fiercely protective handlers determined to keep the focus on Jackson's artistry, despite earlier assurances by an Epic Records publicist of unfettered access. All topics were declared fair game except "the pedophilia issue." The settlement of a 1993 suit against Jackson, alleging sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy, forbids parties to discuss details. Jackson vehemently denied allegations at the time and has not addressed it since.
The subject is never broached during this hour-long interview. Less scandalous matters — his ex-wives, his plastic surgery odyssey, even concerns he's discussed in the past — are deemed off limits as they arise.
One roadblock is hit after Jackson waxes nostalgic about famous friends. "Frank Sinatra lived right above us. He'd see us playing basketball every day. And Fred Astaire lived around the bend. I would have a chance to talk to them and learn and listen. Those were golden moments. When I was 16, we were doing Las Vegas every night, and Elvis (Presley) and Sammy Davis Jr. would sit me and my brothers in a row and lecture us. 'Don't ever do drugs,' they told us. I never forgot it."
Reminded of his own painkiller habit, Jackson goes quiet. Manager Trudy Green, monitoring the interview with Epic executive Steve Einczig, forbids him to respond, even though he confessed the addiction and subsequent treatment in a TV statement nearly a decade ago.
She interrupts again when talk steers to Debbie Rowe, who bore Jackson two children during a marriage from 1996 to 1999. He appears to have sole custody of Prince, 4, and Paris, 3, his constant companions. Asked to comment on persistent rumors that the marriage was arranged to provide offspring, Jackson falls silent.
"No, no, no!" Green protests. "This isn't what we're here for."
A second stab: Do the kids spend time with their mother?
"He doesn't want to talk about that," Green interjects. "This is about Michael as an entertainer."
Granted, the entertainer often is overlooked in the cultural obsession with Jackson's offstage life. If he agrees to dwell on personal areas, Jackson laments, "that will become the whole story."
Fair enough. Jackson's professional accomplishments during his 38 years in show business merit notice, to say the least. He's sold 65 million albums in the USA, racked up 44 solo hit singles and still holds title to history's best-selling album, 1982's Thriller, the global champ with 26 million copies.
Invincible, released Oct. 30, entered Billboard at No. 1 with sales of 366,000 copies, about 25,000 shy of 1995's HIStory. The album spawned radio hits You Rock My World and Butterflies but fell out of the top 10 after four weeks despite a self-promotion flurry capped by the Nov. 13 airing of Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special. The two-hour CBS special, culled from a pair of New York concerts toasting his three decades as a solo artist, reached 25.6 million viewers, proof aplenty that Jackson remains an object of fascination.
Today is no exception. Onlookers at the Beverly Hills Hotel strain to glimpse Jackson as a path is cleared and he's swiftly ushered into a bungalow, his face concealed under a hat, sunglasses and black surgical mask. He spends 40 minutes "settling in," as Green puts it.
Finally prepared for an audience, Jackson greets his visitor with a handshake, a shy smile and the odd comment about his complexion. The makeup seems confined to his cheeks and jaw line. His eyebrows are darkened and groomed; the deep brown eyelids could be eye shadow or vestiges of his original skin tone. Vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder characterized by loss of skin pigment, has left much of his face and hands pale. His tiny nose is bandaged. He offers no explanation, and questions later about his skin condition are summarily shot down by Green.
Tall and slender, Jackson wears a brown leather jacket, red shirt, pinstripe trousers and his signature white socks with black loafers. Prince, his dark hair bleached blond, is clad in similar footwear and a kiddie police uniform, complete with plastic handcuffs hanging from a belt loop.
"These keys work!" he announces before returning to his drawings at a nearby table.
Seated in an upholstered chair in the softly lighted suite, Jackson appears relaxed and poised, if a tad weary. He is generous in praising peers. He's flattered by copycats and loves Alien Ant Farm's cover of Smooth Criminal, including the video sendup of Jackson's quirks. His eyes light up at talk of upcoming movie projects, especially plans to co-direct a film with director/actor Bryan Michael Stoller in May. He laughs about his earthquake phobia, turns glum when reflecting on a domineering father and gives weight to theories of his eternal boyhood in enthusiastic chatter about toys and theme parks.
Jackson radiates unshakable self-confidence about his musical skills and flashes irritation only when pressed about the press. A rare interview subject, he agreed to this encounter in hopes of emphasizing a message that's frequently obscured by gossip.
"All I'm saying is heal the world, save our children," he says.
Jackson aggressively courts media attention, yet remains frustrated by the level of scorn and speculation directed at him. It's a pet peeve that gets a rise out of the usually soft-spoken star.
"The guy who hits the most home runs is always the target," he complains. "It's human nature."
As he did in Leave Me Alone and Tabloid Junkie, Jackson condemns the prying press in Invincible track Privacy: "You keep on stalking me, invading my privacy. ... Stop maliciously attacking my integrity."
Flanked by chaperones, Jackson faces interrogation with genial resignation and no hint of butterflies.
Q: How do you respond to inaccurate articles about you?
A: I don't pay any attention. The fans know the tabloid garbage is crap. They always say to me, "Let's have a tabloid-burning." It's terrible to try to assassinate one's character. I've had people come to me, and after meeting me, they start crying. I say, "Why are you crying?" They say, "Because I thought you would be stuck up, but you're the nicest person." I say, "Who gave you this judgment?" They tell me they read it. I tell them, "Don't you believe what you read."
Q: Do these rumors persist because you don't refute them?
A: No. I've done so much in the past. I did the most watched TV interview in history with Oprah Winfrey (in 1993). But (the media) tend to want to twist what you say and judge you. I want to keep it on the music and the art. I think about some of my favorite people who ever lived. If I could stand face to face with Walt Disney or Michelangelo, would I care what they do in their private life? I want to know about their art. I'm a fan.
Q: How do you shield yourself from being hurt by criticism?
A: Expecting it, knowing it's going to happen and being invincible, being what I was always taught to be. You stand strong with an iron fist, no matter what the situation."
Q: Critics refer to you as the self-proclaimed King of Pop. Did you choose that title?
A: I never self-proclaimed myself to be anything. If I called up Elizabeth Taylor right now, she would tell you that she coined the phrase. She was introducing me, I think at the American Music Awards, and said in her own words — it wasn't in the script — "I'm a personal fan, and in my opinion he is the king of pop, rock and soul." Then the press started saying "King of Pop" and the fans started. This self-proclaimed garbage, I don't know who said that.
Q: The New York concerts marked your first U.S. shows in 12 years. Were you nervous?
A: No. It was an honor to be back with my brothers again. The producer wanted a cavalcade of luminaries from different fields of endeavor. It was a great honor to have them salute me. It was heartwarming, a happy, fun occasion.
Q: Would you consider another tour with your brothers?
A: I don't think so. I would definitely do an album with them, but not a tour. They would love to tour. But I want to move on to other things. Physically, touring takes a lot out of you. When I'm on stage, it's like a two-hour marathon. I weigh myself before and after each show, and I lose a good 10 pounds. Sweat is all over the stage. Then you get to your hotel and your adrenaline is at its zenith and you can't fall asleep. And you've got a show the next day. It's tough.
Q: If you don't tour, how will you satisfy public demand as well as your need to perform?
A: I want to direct a special on myself and do songs that touch me. I want something more intimate, from the soul and heart, with just one spotlight.
Q: How did you react when Invincible topped the chart here and in a dozen countries?
A: It was a lovely feeling. I cried happy tears to see all the love.
Q: Invincible was several years in the making. Does your perfectionism slow the process?
A: It did take a while because I'm never happy with the songs. I'll write a bunch of songs, throw them out, write some more. People say, "Are you crazy? That's got to go on the album." But I'll say, "Is it better than this other one?" You only get 75 minutes on a CD, and we push it to the limit.
Q: Did you approach Invincible with a single theme in mind?
A: I never think about themes. I let the music create itself. I like it to be a potpourri of all kinds of sounds, all kinds of colors, something for everybody, from the farmer in Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem.
Q: Has it become easier to write songs over time?
A: It's the most effortless thing in the world because you don't do anything. I hate to say it like that, but it's the truth. The heavens drop it right into your lap, in its totality. The real gems come that way. You can sit at the piano and say, "OK, I'm going to write the greatest song ever written," and nothing. But you can be walking down the street or showering or playing and, boom, it hits you in the head. I've written so many like that. I'm playing a pinball machine, and I have to run upstairs and get my little tape recorder and start dictating. I hear everything in its totality, what the strings are going to do, what the bass is going to do, the harpsichord, everything.
Q: Is it difficult translating that sound to tape?
A: That's what's frustrating. In my head, it's completed, but I have to transplant that to tape. It's like (Alfred) Hitchcock said, "The movie's finished." But he still has to start directing it. The song is the same. You see it in its entirety and then you execute it.
Q: After such a long absence, did you have doubts about your current relevance?
A: Never. I have confidence in my abilities. I have real perseverance. Nothing can stop me when I put my mind to it.
Q: After Sept. 11, you wrote a benefit song, What More Can I Give? What's the status?
A: It's not finished. We're adding artists, and I'm getting myself satisfied with the instrumentation.
Q: Is it your belief that music is a tool for healing?
A: It's a mantra that soothes the soul. It's therapeutic. It's something our body has to have, like food. It's very important to understand the power of music. Whether you're in an elevator or a department store, music affects the way you shop, the way you treat your neighbor.
(Prince hands Jackson a drawing. "I appreciate it," Jackson says. "Do you have to go to the bathroom?" Prince: "No.")
Q: Invincible hasn't enjoyed record-breaking sales. Does Thriller cast too big a shadow?
A: Absolutely. It is tough because you're competing against yourself. Invincible is just as good or better than Thriller, in my true, humble opinion. It has more to offer. Music is what lives and lasts. Invincible has been a great success. When The Nutcracker Suite was first introduced to the world, it totally bombed. What's important is how the story ends.
(Prince surfaces again with another picture. "What did you promise me?" Jackson asks. "To be quiet?" Prince responds, then retreats.)
Q: How has fatherhood changed you?
A: In a huge way. You have to value your time differently, no doubt about it. It's your responsibility to make sure they're taken care of and raised properly with good manners. But I refuse to let any of it get in the way of the music or the dance or the performing. I have to play two different roles. I always wanted to have a big family, ever since I was in school. I was always telling my father I would outdo him. He had 10 children. I would love to have like 11 or 12 myself.
Q: What have you taught your children?
A: I try to make sure they're respectful and honorable and kind to everybody. I tell them, no matter what they do, work hard at it. What you want to do for a lifetime, be the best at it.
(Prince is staring. "Stop looking at me," Jackson says, smiling.)
Q: And what have your kids taught you?
A: A lot. (Parenthood) reminds you to do what the Bible has always told us. When the Apostles were arguing among themselves over who was the greatest in Jesus' eyes, he said, "None of you," and called over a little boy and said, "until you humble yourself like this child." It reminds you to be kind and humble and to see things through the eyes of children with a childlike wonderment. I still have that. I'm still fascinated by clouds and the sunset. I was making wishes on the rainbow yesterday. I saw the meteor shower. I made a wish every time I saw a shooting star.
Q: What are your wishes?
A: Peace and love for the children. (Prince returns, gazing intently. "Stop that," says Jackson, gently turning the boy's head away. "Can you be still?")
Q: You've said you plan to home-school your kids. Given your fame, how can you provide a normal life for them?
A: You do the best you can. You don't isolate them from other children. There will be other kids at the school (on his property). I let them go out in the world. But they can't always go with me. We get mobbed and attacked. When we were in Africa, Prince saw a mob attack in a huge shopping mall. People broke so much stuff, running and screaming. My biggest fear is that fans will hurt themselves, and they do. I've seen glass break, blood, ambulances.
Q: Are you resentful that stardom stole your childhood?
A: Yeah. It's not anger, it's pain. People see me at an amusement park or with other kids having fun, and they don't stop and think, "He never had that chance when he was little." I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do: sleepovers, parties, trick-or-treat. There was no Christmas, no holiday celebrating. So now you try to compensate for some of that loss.
Q: Have you made peace with your father?
A: It's much better. My father is a much nicer person now. I think he realizes his children are everything. Without your family, you have nothing. He's a nice human being. At one time, we'd be horrified if he just showed up. We were scared to death. He turned out really well. I wish it wasn't so late.
Q: Did music offer an escape from childhood worries?
A: Of course. We sang constantly in the house. We sang group harmony while washing dishes. We'd make up songs as we worked. That's what makes greatness. You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That's what makes a clown great. You can see he's hurting behind the masquerade. He's something else externally. Chaplin did that so beautifully, better than anyone. I can play off those moments, too. I've been through the fire many times.
(Prince is back. He leans against the chair to gawk at the king of pops. "Stop looking at me," Jackson implores, clearly unnerved by the tyke's scrutiny. "You're not making this easy." Both of them chuckle, and Jackson warns teasingly, "You may not get that piece of candy.")
Q: Do your religious beliefs ever conflict with the sexy nature of your music or dancing?
A: No. I sing about things that are loving, and if people interpret it as sexy, that's up to them. I never use bad words like some of the rappers. I love and respect their work, but I think I have too much respect for parents and mothers and elderly people. If I did a song with bad words and saw an older lady in the audience, I'd cringe.
Q: But what about your trademark crotch-grabbing moves?
A: I started doing that with Bad. Martin Scorsese directed that short film in the subways of New York. I let the music tell me what to do. I remember him saying, "That was a great take! I want you to see it." So we pushed playback, and I went aaaah! I didn't realize I was doing that. But then everyone else started doing that, and Madonna, too. But it's not sexual at all.
Q: How are you spending your free time these days?
A: I like to do silly things — water-balloon fights, pie fights, egg fights. (Turning to Prince) You got a good one coming! I don't think I'll ever grow out of that. At my house, I built a water-balloon fort with two sides, a red team and a blue team. We have cannons that shoot water 60 feet and slingshots that shoot the balloons. We got bridges and places to hide. I just love it.
Q: After 38 years in show business, fans still mob you. Are you immune to adulation?
A: It's always a good feeling. I never take it for granted. I'm never puffed up with pride or think I'm better than the next-door neighbor. To be loved is a wonderful thing. That is the main reason I do this. I feel compelled to do it, to give people some sense of escapism, a treat to the eye and the ear. I think it's the reason I'm here.
Q: Why do you think people are jealous?
A: If you look back in history, it's the same with anybody who's achieved wonderful things. I know the Disney family well, and Walt's daughters used to tell me it was difficult when they were in school. Kids would say, "I hate Walt Disney. He's not even funny. We don't watch him." Charlie Chaplin's kids, who I know well, had to take their children out of school. They were being teased: "You're grandfather is stupid. He's not funny. We don't like him." He was a genius! So you have to deal with this jealousy. They think they're hurting you. Nothing could hurt me. The bigger the star, the larger the target. At least they're talking. When they stop talking, you have to worry.
Q: How did you gear up for the physical demands of your special concerts (which aired as a two-hour CBS special)? Do you exercise?
A: I hate exercise. I hate it so much. The only think I do is dance. That's an exercise. That's why I like some of the karate stuff or kung fu. It's all a dance. But sit-ups? I hate it.
Q: Were you intimidated by any of the other superstars on the bill?
A: No. I enjoy watching performers. It's all school for me. I never stop learning. It was really inspiring.
Q: Are you more enamored with modern music or vintage stuff?
A: I like the earlier stuff. It's more melodically conscious. Today people rely on a beat or a rhythm, which is nice, but I said this time and time again, melody will always be king. You have to hum it.
Q: You've teamed with a huge variety of musicians. What attracts you to a particular collaborator?
A: If I see some potential in their ability as an artist or musician, I'll give them a hook or a line or a phrase and see how they play it or execute it. Sometimes we go all day and it's still not right.
Q: Did you learn that lesson from your parents?
A: Our parents taught us to always be respectful and, no matter what you do, to give it everything you have. Be the best, not the second best.
Q: You are often purused by mobs of fans. Are you ever scared for your own safety?
A: Never ever. I know exactly what to do when it gets really rough, how to just play them. As long as they can see you, they're crazy, but you can put yourself in the eye of the hurricane. If you duck and they can't see you, they calm down.
Q: Your inner circle seems to consist of very young friends or much older ones. What connects you to people like Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor?
A: We've had the same lives. They grew up in show business. We look at each other, and it's like looking in a mirror. Elizabeth has this little girl inside of her who never had a childhood. She was on the set every day. She loves playing with a new gadget or toy, and she's totally awe-inspired by it. She's a wonderful human being. So is Brando.
Q: What happened to your plans to build theme parks in Europe and Africa?
A: We're still working on a couple projects. I can't say right now where. I love theme parks. I love seeing children coming together, having a good time with their parents. It's not like it used to be, when you put your kids on the merry-go-round and sat on the bench eating peanuts. Now you enjoy it with them. It builds a unity to the family.