This has been a tough two weeks for Michael Jackson, the L.A. talk-show host. The source of his distress is Michael Jackson, the singer. Allegations that the latter sexually abused a 13-year-old boy have resulted in more calls to the former than anything since the Gulf War. ”People are pained,” says KABC’s Jackson, who reports that while some callers are critical of the accused performer, most have expressed wounded disbelief. ”It’s almost as if Peter Pan has lost his power to take us to never-never land,” he says. ”I know this sounds like a childish analogy, but how can he touch a child anymore? And if he’s innocent, how he must be hurting.”
One thing is certain about the accusations against Michael Jackson: Guilty or innocent, the self-styled King of Pop is hurting. Postponing two out of four shows on the Asian leg of his Dangerous tour, suffering from ailments that reportedly range from dehydration to migraines, Jackson, 35, is living through the worst period of his life. After spending 30 years in the glare of publicity, often manipulating the media with eerie genius, Jackson’s carefully crafted image as a child-god is suddenly turning on him with a sick, sad vengeance. The police have reportedly questioned four other boys in connection with the case, and detectives have searched Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, his Century City condo, and his suite in Las Vegas.
While a Gallup poll conducted for Entertainment Weekly was overwhelmingly supportive of Jackson, 54 percent of Americans believe that his reputation and career will be damaged even if the allegations are false. The world is left with the implicit question: Is the King dead?
A Hollywood studio chief who has known Jackson for years says the media-savvy star had a blind side. ”Michael has had kids around him for years, staying at his place without chaperones — he made a mistake about that. That’s where he’s going to get killed. I don’t know how [(Jackson)] is ever going to get out of this. This may be the end of his career.”
Jorge Hinojosa, who manages controversial rap star Ice-T, is filled with caution: ”Now Michael’s records and videos are going to be scrutinized. Next time he wants to put a kid in his video, they’re gonna be like, ‘Look, is that such a good idea?’ It’s constantly going to plague his career.”
The cost of the plague could amount to millions of dollars. At risk are Jackson’s reported $65 million Sony contract, tens of millions in revenues from concerts, merchandising, and endorsements, plus his plans for a children’s educational TV network, a possible movie, and contributions to the children’s and AIDS charities he supports. Pepsi, his sponsor of 10 years, is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Asked about a future relationship with Jackson, Ken Ross, a Pepsi vice president of PR, says, ”Who knows? Once this tour ends there will be nothing to sponsor.”
Meanwhile, plans are proceeding to launch TV ads for Jackson’s fragrance line on Sept. 13. ”Michael’s fans are among the most loyal,” says Paul Rogers, who is marketing the colognes, one for each sex. ”People feel he’s a victim.”
How people feel about Michael is the problem facing the Jackson camp. Jackson’s publicist Lee Solters has received close to 800 media calls, and there are many in Hollywood who can empathize with his embattled state. Between Heidi Fleiss, Burt and Loni, and Michael Jackson, this is the summer of Hollywood scandal, and since Hollywood is in the business of promoting and maintaining images, how it handles a scandal is almost as critical as the truth. And of the three controversies, the accusations against Jackson are by far the most serious and difficult to contain.
”My policy is, as soon as I can, I take the offense,” says Pat Kingsley, the publicist who guided Rob Lowe through his 1989 videotape scandal. ”It’s really reprehensible that stuff like this can be blown up. You never recover from that.”
The Jackson faction has gone on the offense — sometimes effectively, sometimes questionably — and as they battle to prove that the King is still kicking, their actions provide a fascinating case of how to handle a Hollywood scandal. Or not.
Jackson first met his 13-year-old accuser last fall, when the singer’s limo broke down in Los Angeles and he went to the nearby Rent-A-Wreck. The boy, whose mother, June, is now married to Rent-A-Wreck founder David Schwartz, happened to be in the office that day. His subsequent friendship with the singer — including trips to Disney World, and to the World Music Awards in Monaco — seemed no more suspicious than Jackson’s relationships with child star Macaulay Culkin, the late Ryan White, who died of AIDS, Emmanuel Lewis of TV’s Webster, and dozens of others. Such friendships might have raised occasional eyebrows, but they were usually explained as a harmless way for Michael to re-create a childhood lost to hard work and an allegedly abusive father. A source who was close to the Jackson family for years says Michael developed many friendships with children. ”He has a thing for young, blond boys. They would be on tour with him and share rooms with him.” The source says once the kids ”get to a certain age, he’s over it.” But the source doesn’t believe the allegations. ”He’s pretty innocent and has no clue as to why he’s fascinated [with the children]. Still, no matter what he says, nobody is going to believe him. The damage is done.”
In any case, the boy’s mother and father — Beverly Hills dentist Dr. Evan Chandler, whose patients reportedly include producer Sherry Lansing, and actors Christian Slater and Valeria Golino — seemed to approve. ”I kid him about being Michael Jackson’s girlfriend,” Chandler told one patient last year. Beginning in May, gossip columnists got wind of Jackson’s relationship with the boy and his mother. ”Jackson’s New Love: A Model-Family Affair” was the headline of a New York Daily News column. Photos of the child with Jackson appeared in People magazine. In June, the boy and his father became a footnote to the story on Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Chandler cowrote the script and credited his son with the idea for the parody.
By early July, things went sour. For reasons that remain unclear, Chandler underwent a change of heart about Jackson. As part of an ongoing custody battle over the boy, he had his ex-wife sign a stipulation on July 12 forbidding her to allow the child any contact with Jackson. At the same time, Jackson’s camp maintains that Chandler tried to extort $20 million from the singer. Through his private investigator, Ernie Rizzo, Chandler has denied making such an attempt. However, it was during this period that the Jackson family made a move that seemed practical at the moment, but might be questioned in retrospect. They brought Anthony Pellicano into the case.