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.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - This is an edited ex­tract from On Michael Jack­son by Margo Jef­fer­son (Granta, $22.99), out now.

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.

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