Friday, November 21, 2003
I have a confession to make. I've met Michael Jackson. Twice.
Years ago, I worked at Capital Children's Museum in DC running the Media Arts program. Lots of celebrities make their way to children's museums.
I met Mr. Carlton from the Bob Newhart show. Cher. Raisa Gorbechev. Jane Curtain. Jeb and George Bush and all their kids. Harry Belafonte. And many others.
Michael Jackson first arrived on an official visit as part of a deal with a show company promoting some new expensive shoe to inner city kids. It was madness, unlike any other celebrity visit. We even held a meeting beforehand where our director asked if Mr. Jackson was a good person to have come to the museum. "What kind of music does he play?" She hadn't heard of him.
I was teaching animation at the time. MTV camera people stormed the room we were in as Michael approached our part of the building. They jumped up on the tables, standing on kids artwork, and aimed their cameras. I kicked them out and yelled at them for standing on the art.
I was under the impression that he would come, take a really quick look and move on.
First came my friend and co-worker, Pete, who was warning us that he'd be hear soon. Then came a mass of people, handlers, photographers, etc. It was almost scary. Big body guards were by his side, as was his manager and a number of other people.
The Animation Lab was one of the few rooms in the building that had a door that closed and locked. Michael and his handler ducked in, closed the door, and we all looked out through the big glass windows at the crowd. It was like being an animal in a zoo.
Seeing that they had a moment to themselves, Michael relaxed. We started talking about animation. He looked at our books and videos and kept saying "I have that." and "Do you have a copy of ...?" He told us about his screening room and I showed him the animation stand and how it worked. We talked about Bugs Bunny, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and other animation legends.
He spoke softly in a tone that made me think he was being protective of his vocal chords. He was rail thin, wearing jeans, and was very polite.
Much of that visit was a blur. I tired to act like myself and treat him like I'd treat anyone. Still, it was like meeting an international brand, like Coke or McDonalds, and makes your brain mush a bit.
He signed the wall for us and after a few more minutes, departed for other parts of the museum. Before he left he gave everyone there, including me, a pair of the shoes on behalf of the company.
Some kids in the museum questioned whether it was really him, or just an imposter.
My impression that he was very much a child in his own mind. He acted more like the children that came to the museum than the adults. Quiet, shy, then animated when something was interesting, like a cartoon collection.
That night, we watched our museum on Entertainment Tonight.
Fast forward a year or so. Our PR director gets a call that Michael is in the area and wants to stop by again. Not officially. After hours with no press. She calls us all and asks if we'll stay late. "Our old friend Michael? Sure!" we said.
The Jackson team is very careful about images, since the empire is built upon images and sounds that are highly staged and pre-arranged. They instructed us that we could have no cameras (Pete tried to set some up anyway, which didn't really work due to the angles he was at), and could not call the TV stations (our PR director did, as soon as his limo was safely locked within our grounds).
The limo arrived and out hops Michael and a young teenager he introduces as his cousin from New York. The limo is filled with toys, and Michael tells us they had just been shopping at a big toy store.
They tour around. Michael has a black silk mask this time over his face, which he says he wears to keep photographers from getting unauthorized photos. We're suspicious, of course, thinking that there must be some remnant of plastic surgery under there, but who knows?
This time in the Animation Lab, he tells me that this is his favorite part of the museum. His cousin was quiet and reserved, almost fading into the background. I tried to pay attention to both of them.
We decide to try a bit of animation and look for a book with big pictures to use as a background. The Star Wars book!
We open up the book and start going through. "How about these big walking machines on the snowy planet?" I ask.
At that point, Michael turned into a 12 year old before my eyes. "Those are the x-13 pod transporters from Endor. They are modeled after elephants. George Lucas told me all about them..." and off he went on a very detailed, child-like description of Star Wars trivia.
I had my own agenda, though. I was curious about the morphing special effect that was used in his brand new video, Black or White. I told him I liked the effect a lot, and asked if he got to watch while they did it.
"Yeah, I got to see some of that. Did you like the part where the ponytail pops out? That's my favorite part..." says Michael.
After a while, he had to go. They hopped back in their limo, this time with photographers at the museum gates vying for a good shot, and drove off.
I have no way of knowing what Michael does in his free time, or whether any allegations against him are true. I do know that my impression was that, due to his unusual fame and fortune at such a young age, the way he grew up was much different than most of us. At age six, he was the equivalent of the Beatles.
He had no real childhood. He was abused. And he's been "handled" every step of the way. He's never had to grow up in the traditional sense - go to school with people, graduate, get a job, stuggle to make ends meet, etc.
He does things that adults find freaky and kids seem to admire. Having a pet monkey, installing an amusement park in the backyard, and being able to afford ANYTHING when he walks into a store.
I have a sense that he's been trying to buy back a childhood that he was denied, and that he feels safest with children who are generally honest and trustworthy compared to older people he's met.
I also think he is naive.
He may be perfectly innocent, but our society doesn't have a place for adults who are children.
He may also be guilty. And we don't look kindly on child abuse.
I'm not going to jump to any conclusions about Michael, and I'm still going to enjoy Jackson family music when it is good. Time will tell what the truth is.
Photos: Capital Children's Museum ~ April 4, 1990