Uncovering Michael Jackson -- The King of Pop's interview with Oprah Winfrey reveals a painful childhood and helps to revive sagging album sales

By Ken Tucker
Updated June 25, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

How odd: Suddenly, Michael matters again.

Elusive, reclusive Michael Jackson began the New Year with a spate of high-profile reappearances. He chirped earnestly during Bill Clinton’s inaugural festivities; he picked up his umpteenth trophy at the Jan. 25 American Music Awards ceremony; he attempted to spark excitement at the Super Bowl by playing his this-is-my-zipper game on a stage smack-dab on the 50-yard line. At each sighting, he was the Michael we’d come to know and couldn’t care less about: frozen-faced, in control, performing impeccably, revealing nothing.

But when Jackson agreed to a live ABC television interview with Oprah Winfrey on Feb. 10, it was as if a pop-culture fire alarm had gone off all over the world. What was going through all our heads? That maybe Oprah, with her unique jolly-mommy/strict-mommy manner, would coax something significant out of him; that maybe, given the fact that this was live television, he’d do something even weirder than usual — announce that he’s actually the secret love child of Malcolm X and Judy Garland, something like that.

For whatever reasons, more than 90 million people tuned in — roughly 86 million more than have bought copies of his latest album, the safe-as-milk Dangerous — and it’s probably safe to say that the expectations of most viewers were exceeded. Oprah settled into a brown leather chair in Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., and then her pallid, fragile-looking, gamely smiling guest unloaded scoop after scoop.

Rumors were confirmed. Michael said his father, Joseph, beat him when he was young, worked him and his brothers too hard, and teased him cruelly, calling him ugly. Yes, he has had plastic surgery, but ”very little. You can count it on two fingers” (and see it in his nose and chin).

Rumors were denied. No, he doesn’t sleep in an oxygen chamber (”a complete lie”), and no, he didn’t try to buy the Elephant Man’s bones. ”Another stupid story,” he said, attributing it to his recurring nemesis, the tabloids. ”Where am I gonna put some bones, and why would I want them?”

”Who,” asked Oprah, ”do you date?”

”Right now, it’s Brooke Shields,” he responded, adding that he had also loved another woman he declined to identify. Winfrey, warming to her subject, asked if he was a virgin, at which point Jackson became as prim as Miss Manners in a crack den. ”I’m a gentleman,” he said, noting shyly that Winfrey had ”embarrassed” him.

And about the ivory luster of what used to be his ebony skin? He attributed this to a skin disease. ”It’s a problem for me — I can’t control it,” said Jackson. His dermatologist, Dr. Arnold Klein, later confirmed that he had diagnosed Jackson in 1986 as having vitiligo, which discolors the face and body.

In the days following the broadcast, some of these answers were disputed — the Elephant Man story was reportedly leaked to the media in 1987 by Jackson’s own press agent, and Shields declined to back up his dating claim. But the truth of Jackson’s statements was secondary to the spectacle of his uttering them, of his trying — sometimes poignantly — to make sense of the story of his life.

For 90 minutes, Michael Jackson was a one-man version of The Crying Game. He blinked back tears, he sang a little, he messed with our minds in matters of race and sex. Again and again, he described himself as ”lonely, sad… I used to always cry from loneliness. I cried every day (as a teenager).” He disavowed proclaiming himself the King of Pop but eagerly assumed the crown of the King of Pain: ”When people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me.”

Unlike Madonna, whose most recent nonmusical strategies proved grim and alienating (her dull book Sex, her duller movie Body of Evidence), Jackson engineered a meticulously staged media event that was a triumph: the cameo by Elizabeth Taylor, who seemed to be doing a Lainie Kazan impersonation; the ”world premiere” of a new music video, Dangerous‘ ”Give In to Me”; the concluding visit to his backyard amusement park.

At once shrewd, campy, and moving, Michael Jackson Talks to… Oprah was as significant a piece of product, as creative an achievement, as anything he has done in a decade — far more so than the Jacksons’ 1984 hollow Victory tour or Michael’s albums Bad (1987) and Dangerous. Why? Because the TV show was more entertaining and enlightening than any of those efforts, and because it is now once again possible to feel sympathy, affection, and admiration for this most eccentric and neurotic of superstars.

The day after the Michael-Oprah special, was there anyone who didn’t have a take on the event, a strong opinion about the performances of both interviewer and interviewee? The talk-show hosts poked predictable fun (Jay Leno cracked: ”You gotta admit, Michael looked a little strange. The Elephant Man called and he wanted to buy Michael‘s bones.”). But even within the jaded precincts of the music business, some sensed that Jackson’s interview transcended hype. Bob Merlis, senior VP of publicity at Warner Bros. Records, says: ”Hard-boiled media-ites think, ‘Hey, from nothing to apparent oversaturation,’ but real people are transfixed by this guy. I think it made him a sympathetic figure instead of just a total inscrutable weirdo.”

Exactly. In a single evening of TV, the Genius Weirdo had repositioned himself as the Genius Victim — abused and melancholy, yet strengthened and redeemed by extraordinary talent.

For an artist like Jackson, numbers — mass outreach, the measurement of pop commerce — are every bit as important as music or aesthetics. And when the ratings were totted up, it became clear that Michael Jackson Talks to… Oprah had made more impact than anything the singer has done since his 1982 mega-album Thriller. ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert told Entertainment Weekly shortly before the broadcast that he’d ”be real happy with a 48 (share). I’m battling a cold right now, and if we get a 48, I’ll feel a lot better.” Since the show ended up getting a whopping 56 share, Harbert must have suddenly felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger on a vitamin high.

As the star attraction of the fourth-most-watched entertainment show in TV history, Jackson supplanted the previous holder of that position, 1977’s Roots, by asserting his own: ”I’m a black American; I’m proud to be a black American,” he told Winfrey heatedly. ”I’m proud of my race.” Coming from any other African-American, this would have merited a shrug; coming from Michael Jackson, it amounted to a proclamation of emancipation.

He sometimes seemed liberated, exhilarated, by his own sudden gabbiness. When Winfrey said she had a list of the strange rumors about him, Jackson grinned and said in the vehement cadence of a Baptist minister in mid-sermon, ”Go down the list, Oprah!” Her best scoop of all was probably this: Michael has a sense of humor. Call the tabs.

To be sure, there were missed opportunities and evasions. Winfrey wanted to know if he believed in God (”I do, very much”) but didn’t ask the more interesting follow-up: whether he’s still a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, the faith his mother raised him in. (When he talked about visiting with his family, Jackson said, ”We’ll (have) fellowship,” a Witness-inspired turn of phrase.) When Oprah raised one discomfiting issue, she attributed it not to her own curiosity but to that of the ”mothers in my audience”: ”Why do you always grab your crotch?” Giggling, Jackson said: ”It happens subliminally. It’s the music that compels me to do it.” In a choice of words at once unfortunate and revealing, he concluded: ”I’m slave to the rhythm.”

Winfrey shied away from the obvious observation: The reason it’s the ”mothers” who find the singer’s crotch-grabbing disturbing is that Jackson, more than any other rock star, has sought to attract children — to his records, to his concerts, to his home. The special itself described his generous work with terminally ill children, showing us the theater he has built on his ranch, equipped with beds for severely sick young people.

However — and sorry, but as Oprah suggested, this is the way pop culture operates — it’s also impossible to deny the creepy subtext of a 34-year-old, crotch-grabbing, Dangerous guy who says he most likes to hang out with ”animals and children.” In one of his milder remarks about the Jackson psyche, radio comedian Howard Stern said the day after the TV show: ”I tell ya, take away all his money and he’d be in (a mental hospital).”

In the days preceding the interview, it was easy to dismiss Jackson’s media blitz as a shameless attempt to revive the sagging sales of Dangerous, to justify the $65 million contract he has signed with Sony. And sure enough: ”People came in asking for it all day,” said Mary Beth Power, CD buyer for a Long Island Tower Records store, the day after the TV show, and Dangerous has leapt back up to No. 12 on the Billboard pop chart. It’s hard to believe this will continue, though, given the boring dreadfulness of his new hard-rock video, complete with guest appearance by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash (”We both love animals,” said Michael, in a head-scratching non sequitur aimed at explaining Slash’s presence).

So what should Jackson do next to capitalize on the fresh interest he has generated with this remarkable coup? Maybe he’ll disappear again. It’s not unusual for a pop star to hide from his public at the height of his fame: Elvis Presley did it, and John Lennon opted out of the music biz in favor of househusbandry at a crucial point in his career. Even more than those two, Jackson has been trained since his days in the Jackson 5 to believe that the press is something to be controlled, not trusted — always the Motown attitude toward journalism.