My Friend Michael, The Real ManChild Behind The Mask
This week a rabbi, a spoon bender and a superstar began a bizarre tour of Britain. Their friend JONATHAN MARGOLIS joined them: his unique report offers an extraordinary insight into the strange world of Michael Jackson - and he might have witnessed the moment the tortured singer made peace with his father.
By Jonathan Margolis, Mail On Sunday, March 2001
The call came at 2am.
They say the only thing worse than a wrong number in the middle of the night is a right number, because it invariably heralds tragedy. In this case, however, a right number in the small hours brought one of the most remarkable opportunities imaginable for a journalist.
'Would you like to come and meet Michael Jackson off the plane at Heathrow at 9am and spend some of the week with him?' asked a familiar American voice.
The caller was Shmuley Boteach, my hyperactive rabbi friend who, in one of showbusiness's more unpredictable couplings, has become pop legend Michael Jackson's guru, friend - and, last week, partner in founding a children's charity.
Naturally, I accepted Shmuley's offer and, hours later, would enter for the second time in a few months the maelstrom that is the life of the 42-year-old singer, once described by Bob Geldof as 'the most famous man on the planet, God help him'.
Behind the scenes of one of this most extraordinary of celebrity stories, I would find myself doing everything from listening to Michael in his pyjamas putting the finishing touches to his Oxford Union speech, to making him laugh with a joke in the back of his car, to hearing him make one of the most emotional phone calls of his life - while on the Hammersmith flyover in West London.
Michael Jackson was coming to England to launch his US-based charity Heal The Kids, in a speech at Oxford University, and to be best man at paranormalist Uri Geller's wedding, as thanks to Geller for having introduced Jackson to Shmuley over two years ago.
It had been a tense weekend for Shmuley. Jackson's long-planned trip was jeopardised at the last minute by his breaking two bones in his foot falling downstairs, then by an airline strike - and finally by a snowstorm in New York.
So it wasn't just cynics who doubted that the singer would ever make it to Oxford. The rabbi, too, was getting distinctly nervous. He had put almost a year's work into getting Michael to speak at Oxford, against advice that the controversial megastar might get a rough reception from the students.
But a few minutes before phoning me, Rabbi Shmuley had received confirmation from America. Michael Jackson was in plaster, in pain and on crutches - but he was also on a flight out of JFK airport.
In November, I had spent a week around Michael in New York for an American magazine article. Now Shmuley wanted me to witness further, by getting me still closer, how Jackson, who this month becomes a UN Special Ambassador for children at the behest of his friend Nelson Mandela among others, is morphing from entertainer into serious world figure - or so his influential supporters hope.
Shmuley has made it his mission to convince the world that the twice-divorced Michael may be unconventional in a host of ways, but is a good-hearted, fundamentally innocent innocent man whose desire to sensitise adults to the needs of children deserves to be heard.
So now here we were, travelling out to the airport in a minicab.
Michael's people, a tribe of burly blokes, were already there, of course.
There were the squat, silent, watchful American minders, and the drivers, all English and experienced at whisking celebrities around in convoys of blacked-out Mercedes and people-carriers. There was even a photographer employed to video and photograph Michael's every move for his personal archive.
Then the travelling party arrived - Jackson's young manager, his elderly Lebanese doctor, there to look after the star's bad foot, plus yet more watchful and burly men.
Normally, there would also have been Michael's children's nanny, a nice, sensible, middle-aged lady who fusses and cares for the Jackson Two, Prince and sister Paris. (There is, incidentally, no troop of 12 nannies as is often reported - just the one).
Michael's children (both by his second wife, nurse Debbie Rowe) are an impeccably behaved pair; unspoiled and scarily bright.
Their father had decided for once not to bring them on a trip, because he feared they might be photographed, something he dreads after a childhood of being constantly hunted by paparazzi.
As Michael and his men cleared Customs, the four-car entourage got into position in a public part of the airport, next to people getting out of cars to go on holiday.
To my amazement, Michael was wearing his black silk facemask, an item that hadn't made an appearance once, either in private or when we went out in New York, or for that matter when I met him in Japan years ago.
Indeed, I have always told people that the mask is another myth, along with the oxygen tent story and rumours of Michael having Prince and Paris's toys thrown away after one use for fear of germs, both of which I know to be untrue.
The oxygen tent tale, Michael told me when we had Thanksgiving dinner at the Boteach home in New Jersey, stemmed from a joke he cracked to a photographer after he had crawled into one he bought for a children's hospital and emerged saying: 'Gee, if I had one of those, I could live to be 150.' The Sun took up the gauntlet and the 'Wacko Jacko' label, which he despises, was born.
Michael's physical distress at Heathrow, too, was palpable. He was stressed and exhausted, hobbling on crutches and putting every effort into staying upright.
He was too focused on merely walking to say hello to anyone apart from Rabbi Shmuley and, unfortunately for me, his crutches and outstretched leg took up what was going to be my place in his people-carrier.
So I followed the convoy to London's Lanesborough Hotel with a 67-year-old driver, Stan, who has been chauffeuring Michael since the singer was a teenager. Stan was illuminating on the subject of that facemask. 'It's for the fans and you lot in the Press, isn't it?' he chuckled.
'Putting it on guarantees pictures will appear in tomorrow's papers.
Never forget that Michael is a showman.
'The fans were out en masse at the back of Michael's hotel, dozens of them camping in plastic bags on the pavement for a glimpse of their idol.
As Michael settled into his suite, I watched his video man going around the crowd, who screamed and wept messages to Michael into his camcorder. It was both touching and disturbing.
Upstairs in the suite, Michael was seeing his doctor. I wondered when he emerged if he would have any idea who I was. However, he spotted me and greeted me with a funny military salute. I've no idea if he really recognised me, but he made a convincing job of making me feel he had.
Michael's makeup and quiet, shy manner make it seem as if he is detached and unaware of what is going on around him, but he has almost 360-degree vision and rarely misses anything.
Everybody, of course, wants to know what this mysterious man is really like. To me, he comes across as childlike, funny, generous spirited, considerate, if quite demanding, and unfailingly polite. He is also unexpectedly gossipy, though never really malevolent. He has, for instance, a pet snake jokily called Madonna - but is always anxious to say how he really thinks the world of his rival for the number one superstar spot.
His voice is light and has a distinct Western twang and, although he speaks quietly and dreamily, also laughs loudly and often, especially at any physical joke. People bumping into things and throwing food about crack him up. He hates even the mildest swearing and is always asking questions. He listens carefully, watches you with ever-so-slightly suspicious eyes and ensures by not saying much that he is listened to intently. As for his appearance, I don't pretend to fully understand why he cultivates the image he does, but I'm sure it has to do with shyness and wanting to hide. Up close, his cosmetic surgery is obvious and he now seems to be competing with the natural ageing process. I have no reason to disbelieve (and some reasons to believe) his claim that he suffers from a skin-lightening condition, and I know for certain that he is proud of his black heritage.
He told Jackie Onassis, who helped him with his autobiography, Moonwalker, that he used to wear masks to hide, and it is also known that his father, the famously harsh and demanding Joseph Jackson, told him repeatedly as a child that he was ugly - a pretty scarring inheritance.
Michael reminds me of an anorexic teenager who is never quite satisfied with the image they see in the mirror and has to keep changing it.
Michael wanted to sleep for a few hours and we agreed to see him later as Shmuley had a list of charity-related matters to discuss. I was to be allowed to tag along as an observer again.
There was a knock on the suite door as Michael and his mentor were deep in conversation that evening. Michael asked if I wouldn't mind going to the door. Outside was Macaulay Culkin, in London for his West End play and here to hang out with Michael. 'Hi, there, you big, fat monkey head,' Culkin said to his friend.
You either understand Michael Jackson's Peter Pan thing or not, but he is earnest about it and says that he is not fond of adults and not proud of being one - hence his fellow feeling with ex-child stars like Culkin who, like him, missed out on childhood.
We left Michael and Macaulay to do whatever they do, which according to one tabloid, was sit on Michael's bed and watch kids' films.
It's interesting that when it comes to Michael, people say that what puts them off is the (ultimately fruitless and unproven) accusations in the early Nineties of child molestation and how he made an £18million settlement to quell his accuser.
When I point out that the local District Attorney subsequently invited further accusations, and that none came despite there being so much money on the table, and how surprising that is considering that some 10,000 children a year visit Michael's home, Neverland, people shift their objection to the indisputable fact that he looks a bit odd - a lesser charge, I can't help feeling.
But perhaps I had already become too understanding of Michael after our time in New York.
I saw him there working tirelessly on planning Heal The Kids, which will 'campaign globally for parents to spend quality time with their children'.
He did this despite being under pressure from his record company to get on with recording his album, his first new music in nearly a decade.
I saw him in conversation and holding his own with child psychiatrists, bankers, writers and society bigwigs, and assured and informal on a conference call with actor Denzel Washington and Nelson Mandela, whom he asked to join the Heal The Kids board. ('I'll do whatever you want, Michael,' Mandela said. 'You know how I respect you.') I also listened to Jackson in business meetings, where a different man still emerged - focused, numerate, business-savvy and imaginative.
He has a host of plans for his future from property acquisitions to publishing ventures and leisure businesses.
And I witnessed the extent of what I think is Jackson's real commitment to children. Rabbi Shmuley's eldest daughter, Mushki, had complained tearfully to Michael on one of his frequent visits to the Boteaches' home that she was being bullied by a boy at school.
Michael proposed hosting a peace conference, chaired by him, with the boy's parents to sort it out. This was no idle promise, either.
For a week, Michael phoned Shmuley and Mushki daily demanding to know how arrangements for the summit were going. When the day of the meeting came, Michael discovered it clashed with the photographic session for his new CD cover.
So rather than change the date, he began the session at 5am to get it over with. In the event, ironically, the boy and his family failed to turn up.
Shmuley also told me, from the hundreds of hours of interviews he has recorded with Michael for a book they are writing together, about Michael's torment over the Jamie Bulger murder on Merseyside, which he surprised his Oxford audience by mentioning last Tuesday.
The reference was dismissed by some as an attempt to inject local colour into the speech, but in fact Michael's concern over the case goes back to his first marriage, to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis.
They ended up arguing about Jamie Bulger on a trip to London, when Michael outraged his wife by saying that, devastated as he was for Jamie and his parents, he was also concerned for Jamie's killers because he was sure they must have had a bad childhood - as indeed was the case.
Michael refuses to believe on principle that any child can be fundamentally evil.
As late as last autumn, Michael was asking what had happened to Jamie's killers and saying how he would love to have written to them, but wouldn't dream of doing so because his fame would make them think they were being rewarded, which he knew would be unacceptable.
He was, says Shmuley, quite downcast when he realised how his celebrity status could occasionally be a handicap in his mission to help children.
I joined Michael again on Tuesday afternoon in his suite, as he did a dry run of his Oxford speech, which he had been working on with Shmuley for a week.
They were already behind schedule, thanks to Michael's foot. He was insisting on delivering the speech standing up, and even reading through it as he would at Oxford, apart, that is, from the stripy grey pyjamas with Mickey Mouse on the breast pocket.
His focus and attention to detail were remarkable. The speech was to climax with Michael forgiving his father. There was a line where he said if the Jackson Five did a great show, Joseph would say it was OK, and if they did an OK show, he would say it was lousy.
'You know,' Michael said, 'I'm wrong there. He never said it was lousy, he just said nothing. This has got to be honest.' He went quiet and sat for a while, holding a tulip from a vase and seemingly lost in thought.
He changed the line, and that bleak'nothing' was the very word where, that night, he broke down and sobbed for nearly a minute. Some thought this was theatre; I am certain it was genuine, as were most of the Oxford students around me.
While Michael was getting dressed and seeing the doctor again, the hours were ticking worryingly away, I had a nose around the suite. Everywhere were the results of Michael's reported £2,000 after-hours shopping spree at HMV with Macaulay and a pretty, blonde, 20-year-old student daughter of a family friend in London, whom Michael has known since she was young.
Scattered around the suite were DVDs of various children's films, the David Attenborough wildlife video collection (down from £59.99 to £49.99) and dozens of CDs, including the Beatles' album 1, to which Michael of course owns the rights, and so by buying, was paying himself royalties.
It struck me that it's not correct that Michael Jackson only enjoys the company of children, as is often said. What he likes is to surround himself with people in their twenties whom he has known since they were young - and can, therefore, trust, such as the lovely student.
Before we left, getting ever later, Michael gathered up fruit for the journey to Oxford (two apples, a banana, two plums and an orange) and frantically hobbled around on his crutches looking for reading material - a pile of upmarket magazines plus a copy of the Royal Academy's £25 catalogue for their current exhibition, The Genius Of Rome, 1592-1623 - a present from his student friend.
We piled into the people-carrier with the manager, the doctor, a bodyguard and Shmuley an hour before we were due in Oxford for dinner. Michael cradled the art book on his lap in the back, where he sat with me and the doctor and discussed Renaissance art. He explained that Diana Ross had taught him a lot about art, but that his father was also a talented painter.
It was Rabbi Shmuley who suggested when we were on the Cromwell Road that Michael phone his father in Las Vegas. 'You're making a speech forgiving him.'
'I think now's the time, Michael.' Michael considered the idea silently all the way to Hammersmith, when he suddenly asked for the nearest mobile phone and dialled. 'Joseph,' he said, as we crawled through the London rush hour. 'It's me, Michael. I'm in London. I'm OK, I've broken my foot and it hurts a lot, but I wanted you to know I'm on my way to Oxford University to make a speech, and you're mentioned in it ...no, no, don't worry, it's very positive. . sure...how are you keeping? Uh-huh. . .sure, of course I will. I love you, Dad, bye.' After saying this, he stared out of the window for a long time. 'You know,' he said to all of us, beaming, 'that's the first time I've ever, ever said that. I can't believe it.' Shmuley gave him a bear hug and congratulated him. Michael continued reading.
It was a happy journey, apart from the traffic. Michael complained that all the CDs his manager had chosen for the drive were too loud. At one stage on the M40 there was a silence and I cracked one of those jokes you wish you hadn't. 'It's getting boring now,' I said, 'I think we should have a singsong. Can anyone here sing?' Normally, making jokes around celebrities is unwise, but the atmosphere was so jolly and excited that I couldn't help it. To my delight, Michael had the generosity to laugh loudly.
Michael began to panic as we got later and later. He wanted to phone everyone he had inconvenienced by being late. For a star who doesn't need to give a damn, it's hard not to be struck by his solicitousness.
Michael's speech was amazing.
We know the students and the newspapers and TV were bowled over by it, but I wondered what the reaction would be of Trevor Beattie, the advertising creative guru, who was in the packed Victorian debating chamber, with its statues of Asquith and Gladstone.
Beattie is probably Britain's most renowned ad man, and has worked on commercials for UNICEF recently with Mandela, and with everyone from Muhammad Ali to Tony Blair, whose TV commercials for the forthcoming Election campaign he has just made.
Beattie, in other words, knows a bit about presentation. 'What I've seen tonight confirms what I've always believed about Michael,' he said. 'All these theories about him trying to become white miss the point. I believe his great thing is not to be anything like his father and that tonight, he has finally laid the ghost of Joseph and can start again.
'That's why I find it sad that until now, everyone's concentrated on things like his appearance and his eccentricities and overlooked his personal turmoil. He did it brilliantly with obvious sincerity. I couldn't admire the man more.' We went on to an incredibly grand, starry, late dinner for 40 at Blenheim Palace, where I was amused to watch Richard E. Grant, a Hollywood star himself, fretting over how to approach Michael.
'I mean, what does one do? Do you pretend you know him and say, hi, [and] introduce yourself. I'm just not quite sure.' And the next day came the glitzy Geller wedding. Michael was late again (more trouble with that foot, exacerbated when he slipped on it - believe it or not - in a fish and chip shop in Marylebone.) People were sorry, especially for Uri's wife, Hanna, but then Michael also had to cancel a helicopter trip from the Gellers' out to George Harrison's home. Harrison, he told me, is the Beatle he is closest to.
My 11-year-old daughter shook hands with Michael and pronounced him, 'Not as scary as in photos, actually really nice looking.' And I was asked to dance under the wedding canopy with Uri, Shmuley and David Blaine, the American magician - and with the world's number one song-and-dance man, Michael Jackson, sitting in a chair three feet away, clapping along.
Noting my hippopotamus-like attempts at rhythm, the King Of Pop winked at me. I do not expect to be signed up for his next video any time soon.
He, on the other hand, seemed happy, as if some sort of weight had been lifted from his shoulders.