The year was 1987. The album was “Bad,” and sales were pretty good. But how do you follow “Thriller”? Even Michael Jackson couldn’t do that.
“I REMEMBER with ‘Bad’ it started to turn because suddenly he did not produce a perfect album, which he’d been doing,” says Toure. “‘Off the Wall’ is a perfect album, and ‘Thriller’ was unbelievable. But ‘Bad’ was the first time that he was not King Midas. So that was the beginning of, ‘Oh, okay. He’s not infallible.’
Jackson, clad in leather and snarling at the camera, and sporting what appeared to be still an after-market cleft on his chin, seemed to be reaching for a new image.
But he was reaching for something else, too. That was also the year Jackson began, well, touching himself, for lack of a better phrase.
And for a while, he seemed dedicated to setting new standards for public weirdness. One year, he arrived for the Grammys with not one, but two stars on his arm, six-foot-tall Brooke Shields and three-foot-four Emmanuel Lewis, star of the television show “Webster.”
“He was already, what mid-20s, and there was no sexual energy whatsoever,” says Toure. “It was totally unclear. Is he straight or gay?”
In that odd threesome, music writer Toure sees signs of a confused sexual identity. But was Jackson himself confused, or was he just trying to confuse us?
Toure: “And to this day, the evidence seems asexual, really. So, you know, what are you doing? Like what, I mean, you gotta have sexual urges. Everybody has sexual urges.”
Mankiewicz: “And eventually that asexuality, as you put it, would have caught up with him?”
Toure: “I think people would continue to go, ‘Well, you know, what’s the deal?’ I mean, show up with somebody, you know? But we know you’re not touching Brooke Shields. And then there’s Emmanuel Lewis on the other side. Now you’re making us really nervous but like, you know, who are you with?”
“Around that time, 1983, at the peak of his fame, some strange things started to happen,” says Nick Maier, the editor of “Freak: Inside the Twisted World of Michael Jackson,” published by the creative team behind the National Enquirer. “I like Bubbles.”
Bubbles is a chimp, the pet with whom Jackson spent so much quality time.
“I think that’s my favorite,” says Maier. “I think that him dressing the chimp up to look exactly like him, holding his hand, serving Bubbles high tea, changing its diapers, loving it, cuddling it, that’s probably my favorite.”
Talk to Michael Jackson’s defenders and you hear accusations that the press, particularly the tabloid press, has gone to war against him, that stories about him are made up because they sell newspapers.
His video “Leave Me Alone” is a plea for privacy. But was he being honest with us?
It turns out that Michael Jackson’s strange image wasn’t something that was done to him. It was something he did to himself. A performer with a keen sense of showmanship, Jackson decided to craft his own tabloid image, feeding the stories about him, like a fire fed by pure oxygen.
On Sept. 19, 1986, the National Enquirer carried this story: Michael Jackson had begun sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber that might allow him to live to the age of 150. The mainstream press picked it up because it was such a great story. The only problem was that it never really happened.
“Well, the true story behind the 1986 photo of Michael Jackson sleeping in the hyperbaric chamber is Michael Jackson’s press representative called the National Enquirer, asked us to meet him, and gave us a Polaroid of Michael Jackson laying in a hyperbaric chamber,” says Maier.
Jackson had planted the story, and Jackson’s public-relations team insisted that the Enquirer use the word ‘bizarre’ to describe Jackson. But that was truly a double-edged sword. It gave Jackson the edgy image he craved, but it also whet the appetite of a tabloid press that needed a weekly dose of something lurid.
Mankiewicz: “How much damage did he do to himself by deliberately putting out stories about how eccentric he was?”
Toure: “It was working fine for him in the ’80s when there was great music and great videos to go along with it. It heightened the perception that, ‘Here’s a genius artist.’ You know, he’s weird, geniuses are supposed to be weird. So that’s fine. In the ’90s, when the music’s not so good—”
Mankiewicz: “All that was left was the eccentricity.”
Toure: “Yeah. Yeah. And then, you know, you let it go, ‘cause he was so good. You know that thing that we do as Americans, that quality sort of washes away, you know the badness, the wack stuff that you do. So I don’t think we were that concerned when we first heard about the llama. ‘Okay, well you know he’s a genius.’ So, thus you get to be eccentric.”
Jackson had read a biography of P.T. Barnum and had decided that he wanted to be known as a showman without peer. It worked, but it was also the beginning of a regular practice of deceiving his public by manipulating the press.
“Many celebrities try to create a buzz around themselves,” says Maier. “And Michael Jackson did exactly that. In the end, that backfired; his bizarre behavior became less of a joke and something much more serious once the pedophilia crisis hit.”