Little boy lost
When Michael Jackson realised the true toll childhood stardom had taken, he started to unravel, as a new book about the singer reveals.
The 1970s were an interesting decade for child performers. The culture was clearly obsessed – let’s say “conflicted” – about children. Hardly surprising. Feminists and gays were upending the standardised vision of Man, Woman and Family. Children could hardly be left out. Little-girl movie stars made tattered childhoods attractively perverse. We got the manipulative pseudo-adult without a mother (Tatum O’neal in Paper Moon). The exquisitely decadent child prostitute without a mother (Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby). We got the jaded child with absent parents (Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and the cynical child who services johns (Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver). This may seem distant from The Jackson Five, but it is not distant from Michael Jackson. He was as much an object of sexual fantasies as any of these girls. The precocity intensified as he sang ballads like ‘I’ll Be There’ and ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’. Wherever they went, The Jackson Five were mobbed by fans and protected by guards. None of the boys had ever been protected from their father Joseph’s philandering, though. Michael and
Marlon weren’t protected by their older brothers, either: often they were in the hotel room when the guys brought back girls (some eager, some naïve) for bouts of star-prerogative sex. In 1971, Michael turned 13. What better advertisement of puberty’s approach than to be on the cover of Rolling Stone and appear on Diana Ross’s ABC special?
So Michael Jackson lived in extremis what other people have gone through – or fear or fantasise about. He began to talk publicly – almost compulsively – about his childhood. The childhood that had been stripped from him: no Christmases, no happy memories of fun and play; only endless work and sacrifice. So it is that child stars were his chosen people: mentors, siblings and parents who give nothing but love and support. Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr, Fred Astaire. Tatum O’neal and Brooke Shields – the only two women he ever suggested he was involved with romantically as an unmarried man. The damage suffered by child stars rarely shows by word or deed until they crash, leave the business or make their way to adult success. Then comes the anger, the grief, the cynicism and, hardest of all, the longing for a prime you’ve been past for most of your life.
In her autobiography Child Star, Shirley Temple Black writes, “It is not easy to be a Hollywood starlet. Starlets have to kiss a lot of people, including some unattractive ones. The hours are long. Like a Girl Scout, starlets must be cheerful and obliging, particularly to directors, producers and cameramen. Like a Boy Scout, starlets must always be prepared, whether to recite lines, give a benefit performance or become the butt of a joke.”
Celebrity demands a certain degree of hypocrisy from performers. The persona can’t possibly square with the private life. But it’s much freakier for kids. Some of their fans are old enough to be their parents or grandparents. s. Fans their age are remote te and frightening. They’re re not peers, they’re worshippers who can decide to reject you at any time and find another idol. When it comes to gender roles, child stars do double duty. They are the man of the family: the provider, the financial mainstay. And they are the woman, too: the aesthetic object who must remain young and charming. Author and former child star Dick Moore writes that when groups of child stars convene to share experiences, it can feel like a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
EVEN NEAR THE end of his life, Michael Jackson’s voice was of a sweet boy, a boy who never says anything ugly or unkind – a boy-angel child. Listen to his sister Janet’s “baby-of-the-family voice”, the whispery voice of the little thing who always got a big laugh when she sashayed out to do her Mae West imitation. Whenever they did something provocative – Janet’s breast baring, Michael’s ‘Thriller’ video – they disavowed all knowledge of their own actions. Then they apologised for offending anyone: that was not their intention.
We’ve all heard the explanation for why Michael Jackson was at ease only when he was with children. His reasons made a kind of psychological sense sense. Children are open and unpredictable. Children are creative and playful. Children are true innocents. Children give joy and want joy in return. Children ask nothing of you but love and protection. You can capture your lost childhood in the company of children.
Michael never admitted he was angry as well as lonely and sad. And yet, what better reproach to all grown-ups – family, siblings, fans – than to have nothing to do with them except as businesspeople you can hire and fire. Or as wives you can marry and divorce. Or as surrogate mothers you can pay and dismiss.
Sometimes when I think back on that infamous photograph of Michael Jackson holding his baby over the balcony of a hotel, I see it as a child star’s act of vengeance. Holding a baby over a balcony is furious, infantile acting-out; doing something outrageous when people are interfering with you. “You follow me, you hound me, you won’t leave me alone, you want to see me, you want to see my baby, fine. Here’s my baby. If I drop him, if he falls, it’s all your fault.”
We talk about how we think, believe, suspect Michael Jackson treated children. We don’t talk about how we treat child stars. Child stars are abused by the culture. And what’s more treacherous than when the rewards of child stardom issue from the abuse? Child stars are performers above all else. Whatever their triumphs, they are going to make sure we see every one of their scars. That’s the final price of admission.
“Holding his baby over the balcony was a child star’s revenge”
ARRESTED ARR DEVELOPMENT (from left) Michael Mic (centre) performing with The Jackson Jac Five in their own television special spe in 1971; holding his infant son Blanket Blan over a hotel balcony in Berlin in 22002; with his good friend Elizabeth Taylor Tay in London in 2000; and Brooke Shields Shie in 1984; (opposite) performing at half-htime during the 1993 Super Bowl.