NBC News
updated 2/17/2003 12:37:42 AM ET 2003-02-17T05:37:42

It was 1988, and Michael Jackson was probably the biggest and perhaps the richest star in the music world. He had it all: fame, money and success. So you might find it odd that at age 30, Jackson was just doing something that most people do at a much younger age: He moved out of his parents’ home in suburban Los Angeles, out of the bedroom he’d had since he was a child.

FOR $17 MILLION, he bought a ranch outside Santa Barbara and re-named it Neverland, after the mythical home of the forever-young Peter Pan.

“By going to Neverland, no matter how serious a person is you feel like a kid,” says Brian Stoller, a Jackson friend who has spent time at what became Michael Jackson’s fixer-upper. “And you love it, you know, because you can just play. And there’s like games. And there’s trains. And there’s films and there’s the amusement park and all that. And what Michael is doing, is he’s living his childhood in a sense.”

But if Neverland provided the very private Jackson with solitude, it was also the perfect place to indulge his passion for children.

“Neverland is part and parcel of his fascination with everything childish,” says Maier.

And as a backyard video shows, Jackson has set out to prove that if you have money, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood — and to make sure a lot of other kids are able to enjoy theirs.

He regularly opens his doors and his checkbook to all manner of children, some of them sick, all of them apparently delighted to visit this mansion-turned-amusement park, presided over by the world’s most famous man-child.

“No one writes about the generosity, for instance, the millions that he probably gave away to charities,” according to Uri Geller, who says he’s been friends with Michael Jackson for five years. The singer was best man as Geller renewed his wedding vows. Geller said we could identify him as an author-paranormalist.

But you’ll remember Geller as the guy who could bend spoons and keys with his mind back in the 1970’s and who lately has been bending America’s ear about how his pal Michael Jackson is getting the shaft.

“There is almost some kind of a vendetta against Michael Jackson by the press,” says Geller. “Have you seen a positive story about him in the last 15 years? I haven’t. I write stories about him for newspapers and they are positive. But you won’t find them on the front page of the New York Post or the Daily News or the Observer here in England or the Times.”

And as for the idea that Jackson cultivated his oddball image and is now paying for it...

“A lot of people will say that he’s driving the negative press, but that’s not true,” says Geller. “Because every time they report something new about Michael Jackson they bring in the child molestation lines. He is— he was never convicted of a crime, for goodness sake. But they bring that up. They sting him again.”

He’s talking about reporters like Nick Maier.

“Here’s someone that’s put children above all else,” says Maier. “No one helps children like Michael Jackson. And maybe that fascination with children has a dark side. That’s what the public has seen and that’s what he’s never been able to shake. Maybe this guy has a unnatural fascination with children.”

Was there more to Michael Jackson’s interest in children than just the actions of a big kid with a big heart? His best friends seemed to be 13-year-old boys. They accompanied the singer on tour, often traveling around the world. Were the rest of us too suspicious, or were we not suspicious enough?

“Why does he have little boys around him all the time?” says Toure. “Like this was already making America uncomfortable.”

Music writer Toure points to Jackson’s surrounding himself with other people’s children, which began in the mid-80’s, as one of the first signs that the singer, who had always seemed to know exactly what his audience wanted, either no longer did, or no longer cared.

“This is a person who has lived in a bubble for most of his life,” says Toure. “You know, I mean he lives on a gigantic ranch. Barely anybody comes to see him.

“You know he’s pretty much estranged from the world. So you start to lose sense of what is going to be acceptable and what is appropriate. I mean, just the entire relationships with children, this is inappropriate. Why is a 30-year-old having a sleepover with a six-year-old? What could you possibly be talking about?”

As the 90’s dawned, he couldn’t have been more popular. But his fall would be every bit as startling as his rise.

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