I may be a little fella
But my heart’s
As big as Texas
If you are a journalist, and you are a journalist of a certain age, covering Michael Jackson meant reconciling your personal childhood feelings about the Gloved One at the same time you were covering what amounted to a freak show. Because, let’s face it, in the later years before his death yesterday at age 50, that’s what you did, reporting about the King of Pop. You were on Wacko Jacko watch: Would he show up to court in his pajamas? Was he really wearing lipstick? Do you think he did it? All that talent, all that genius, almost obscured by all that drama.
Such a tormented soul.
Such a tremendous talent.
I remember covering Michael in 2004 as an arts writer for the Washington Post. He was making a tour through Capitol Hill, making nice with the Congressional Black Caucus and talking about AIDS in Africa and philanthropy, etc., etc. Not that the public was privy to any of this. “Covering” Michael Jackson on the Hill amounted to standing around and waiting for hours, and hours, and hours on end, interviewing fans who used to love him but were no longer sure he was a good role model. Keeping an eye trained on the door, lest the Altered One jet before you could get next to him. Feeling just a little foolish.
And then Michael did just that—jet—and suddenly, I was in hot pursuit. I was at once intrepid journalist and infatuated third-grader, dashing through the marble halls of the Rayburn House Office Building, caught up in the excitement of it all, past the security guards running interference, past the other reporters. I ran right up to the elevator, where he stood in the very back, obscured by his entourage.
I remember calling out his name. How he looked around, peering over shoulders, and how he then looked right at me. Through all this, he seemed to want a connection of some kind. I’m sure that he thought I was a fan, and in a way, I was, though standing there with my notebook and my tape recorder. I took it all in, the uber-pale skin, the carefully arranged pageboy of glossy, prefab hair. The strangely mottled red hand that lifted to push aside that hair, the caked-on lipstick.
What do you say when you’re confronted with your childhood idol? And you’re supposed to be objective?
"When are you going to Africa?"
His response, right before the elevator doors slammed shut: "Hopefully soon."
Not one of my finer moments.
My good friend Regina Jones had a much earlier encounter. As publisher of Soul magazine and newspaper, she was the first journalist to give the Jackson 5 national coverage back in the early 1970s. “We knew they were going to be superstars,” she says. And she watched Michael grow up, from a shy kid who turned into a charismatic extrovert when he hit the stage to a shy man hellbent to recapture the childhood he never had. There was the time she showed up for an interview at which Michael announced that he would be speaking only through his interpreter—his sister Janet. Michael was 13; Janet even younger.
“I had children the same age, so for me, he was just being a child doing a make-believe, fun thing,” Jones remembers. “It was fine, it was kind of cute, and it was also kind of annoying. Later, he told me it wasn’t a game, it was real, he was afraid. He felt like if his little baby sister was there, the questions would be easier on him.”
Even at that age, Michael had a very complicated relationship with the press. Over the years, it would grow still more complicated, an often extravagant game of cat and mouse. He seemed to both court the attention—showing up for one of his many court appearances and standing on top of a car and doing one of his trademark dance moves—and run from it. There was that ill-advised interview with Martin Bashir, when he famously announced that he often had overnight sleepovers with young boys and that “the most loving thing is to share your bed with someone."
"I am Peter Pan," Michael told Bashir.
"But you're Michael Jackson."
"I'm Peter Pan in my heart."
And so he was. But in playing Peter Pan, Michael blunted the impact of his own genius, as if he couldn’t handle his own power. In his heyday, you couldn’t get bigger or better than Michael Jackson. You couldn’t sell more records, you couldn’t dance any better, you couldn’t make a more imaginative music video, you couldn’t inspire more slavish attention from fans. You might think you could sing better, but there was no way you could match the ache in his voice.
Which meant that in the press, in the later years, more often than not, he was treated as the idiot savant of pop music. Precious little was devoted to the man and his music. Then again, by that point, there wasn’t much music to write about. But there was a man in trouble, and for that, it’s sad to say, he provided plenty of copy.
Seven years ago, Michael agreed to do a rare cover interview for Vibe. At the time, he was in avoid-the-press mode; with the exception of Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer, he wasn’t talking to anybody. But for some reason, he said yes to Vibe—on one condition: Regina Jones had to do the interview. So Jones headed up to Neverland, which was, as she remembers it, one big fun house. Michael was very sweet and childlike, she says, joking about their shared past. Until, that is, she asked a question that bothered him. She asked him about his plastic surgery.
“His immediate, hostile response was, ‘That’s a stupid question,’” Jones remembers. “And then he kept talking. ‘We’re family, why would you ask that? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ I’ll never forget that. And I felt ashamed of myself, and I told him that. But I told him that I was there to do an interview.”
Toward the end of his life, Michael sought out the spotlight again, trying halfheartedly to recapture the glory days. He fired his old management and hired his one-time publicist, Raymone Bain—whom he’d fired during his 2005 child molestation trial—as his business manager. I profiled Bain for the Washington Post. Michael was in Ireland at the time—although he wasn’t saying that he was there—and through his personal assistant, he agreed to talk to me by phone. We set up a time. But then his assistant called to say that Michael preferred to talk by fax. Except that, as it turned out, the fax was broken. His assistant ended up e-mailing answers to my questions. Let’s just say that I don’t believe for a minute that Michael ever even looked at the questions.
Cat and mouse. Michael won.
So I never got to interview Michael, unless you count that quick minute in front of the elevator. Now, I never will. But as I write this, I’m taken back to my first real introduction to Michael, to my first real Michael Jackson story.
It was 1970, and I was a little brown girl living in Staten Island, N.Y., an integration baby struggling with a boatload of identity issues. I was a lone raisin in a sea of oatmeal. Until, that is, my parents brought home a record for me: The Jackson 5’s “ABC.” I held the album cover, staring at those cute brown boys with the fabulous ‘fros. I might even have kissed Michael’s picture, I loved him that much. And then I put “ABC” on the turntable, and shook, shook, shook my body down to the ground.
I’ve always found it ironic that the boy who helped me to really appreciate that black was indeed beautiful grew into a man who didn’t seem to see that in himself.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.
Read more King of Pop coverage on Newsweek.com .