"I guess I want to bring them to life. I like to imagine talking to them. You know what I think it is? Yeah, I think I'll say it. I think I'm accompanying myself with friends I never had. I probably have two friends. And I just got them. Being an entertainer, you just can't tell who is your friend. And they see you so differently. A star instead of a next-door neighbor."
He pauses, staring down at the living-room statues.
"That's what it is. I surround myself with people I want to be my friends. And I can do that with manikins. I'll talk to them."
All of this is not to say that Michael is friendless. On the contrary, people are clamoring to be his friend. That's just the trouble: with such staggering numbers knocking at the gate, it becomes necessary to sort and categorize. Michael never had a school chum. Or a playmate. Or a steady girlfriend. The two mystery friends he mentioned are his first civilians. As for the rest . . . .
"I know people in show business."
Foremost is Diana Ross, with whom he shares his "deepest, darkest secrets" and problems. But even when they are alone together, their world is circumscribed. And there's Quincy Jones, "who I think is wonderful. But to get out of the realm of show business, to become like everybody else . . . ."
To forget. To get out of the performing self.
"Me and Liza, say. Now, I would consider her a great friend, but a show-business friend. And we're sitting there talking about this movie, and she'll tell me all about Judy Garland. And then she'll go, 'Show me that stuff you did at rehearsal.'" He feints a dance move. "And I'll go, 'Show me yours.' We're totally into each other's performance."
This Michael does not find odd, or unacceptable. It's when celebrity makes every gesture a performance that he runs for cover. Some stars simply make up their minds to get on with things, no matter what. Diana Ross marched bravely into a Manhattan shoe store with her three daughters and had them fitted for running shoes, despite the crowd of 200 that convened on the sidewalk. Michael, who's been a boy in a bubble since the age of reason, would find that intolerable. He will go to only one L.A. restaurant, a health-food place where the owners know him. As for shopping, Michael avoids it by having a secretary or aide pick out clothes for him. "You don't get peace in a shop. If they don't know your name, they know your voice. And you can't hide."
He won't say love stinks. But sometimes it smarts.
"Being mobbed hurts. You feel like you're spaghetti among thousands of hands. They're just ripping you and pulling your hair. And you feel that any moment you're gonna just break."
Thus, Michael must travel with the veiled secrecy of a pasha's prized daughter. Any tourism is attempted from behind shades, tinted limo glass and a bodyguard's somber serge. Even in a hotel room, he hears females squeal and scurry like so many mice in the walls.
"Girls in the lobby, coming up the stairway. You hear guards getting them out of elevators. But you stay in your room and write a song. And when you get tired of that, you talk to yourself. Then let it all out onstage. That's what it's like."
No argument – it ain't natural. But about those store dummies? Won't it be just as eerie to wake up in the middle of the night to all those polystyrene grins?
"Oh, I'll give them names. Like the statues you see down there." He motions to the living-room crowd. "They've got names. I feel as if I know them. I'll go down there and talk to them."
A restless rhythm is jiggling his foot, and the newspaper clipping has long been destroyed. Michael is apologetic, explaining that he can sit still for just so long. On an impulse, he decides to drive us to the house under construction. Though his parents forced him to learn two years ago, Michael rarely drives. When he does, he refuses to travel freeways, taking hour-long detours to avoid them. He has learned the way to only a few "safe" zones – his brothers' homes, the health-food restaurant and the Kingdom Hall.
First, Muscles must be put away. "He's real sweet," Michael says as he unwinds the serpent from the banister. "I'd like you to wrap him around you before you go."
This is not meant as a prank, and Michael will not force the issue. But fear of interviews can be just as deep-rooted as fear of snakes, and in consenting to talk, Michael was told the same thing he's telling me now: Trust me. It won't hurt you.
We compromise. Muscles cakewalks across an ankle. His tongue is dry. It just tickles. Block out the primal dread, and it could be a kitten whisker. "You truly believe," says Michael, "with the power of reason, that this animal won't harm you now, right? But there's this fear, built in by the world, by what people say, that makes you shy away like that."
Having politely made their point, Michael and Muscles disappear upstairs.
A few such girlish messages are scratched into the paint of a somber security sign on the steel driveway gate at his house. There is a fence, dogs and guards, but girls still will loiter outside, in cars and in bushes.
As Michael conducts the tour of the two-story Tudor-style house, it's clear that the room he will sleep in is almost monkish compared to those he has had designed for his pleasures and the ones reserved for his sisters Janet and LaToya, who pored over every detail of their wallpapered suites. "Girls are fussy," he explains, stepping over a power saw in his bedroom. "I just don't care. I wanted room to dance and have my books."
The rooms Michael inspects most carefully are those marked for recreation. "I'm putting all this stuff in," he says, "so I will never have to leave and go out there." The "stuff" includes a screening room with two professional projectors and a giant speaker. And then an exercise room, one for videogames and another with a giant-screen video system. In addition, there is a huge chamber off the backyard patio, which has been designated the Pirate Room. It will be not so much decorated as populated. More dummies. But this set will talk back. Michael has been consulting with a Disney technician, the very man who designed the Audio-Animatronics figures for the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean. If all goes well, he will install several scowling, scabbard-waving buccaneers, wenches and sea dogs right here. "There won't be any rides," Michael says. "But there will be a pirate shootout, cannons and guns. They'll just scream at one another and I'll have the lights, sounds, everything."
Pirates is one of his favorite rides in the Magic Kingdom. And Disneyland is one of the few public spots even he cannot stay away from. Sometimes Michael stops at a magic booth and buys one of those Groucho Masks – fake glasses with nose attached. But it's better when the staff leads him through back doors and tunnels. It's murder to cross the Court of Sleeping Beauty's Castle in daylight. "I tried to go just last night, but it was closed," he says with some disbelief. "So was Knott's Berry Farm."
If you live in the funhouse, you usually don't have to worry about such things. Michael has sung it himself:
Life ain't so bad at all, if you live it off the wall.
WHEN WE ARRIVE BACK AT THE condo, Michael finds that a test pressing of "The Girl Is Mine" has been delivered. This is business. He must check it before release, he explains, as he heads for a listen on the stereo in the den. Before the record is finished, he is punching at phone buttons. In between calls to accountants and managers, he says that he makes all his own decisions, right down to the last sequin on his stage suits – the only clothes he cares about. He says he can be a merciless interviewer when it comes to choosing management, musicians and concert promoters. He assesses their performances with the rigor of an investigative reporter, questioning his brothers, fellow artists and even reporters for observations. Though he truly believes his talent comes from God, he is acutely aware of its value on the open market. He is never pushy or overbearing, but he does appreciate respect. Do not ask him, for instance, how long he has been with a particular show-business firm. "Ask me," he corrects, "how long they've been with me."
Those who have worked with him do not doubt his capability. Even those to whom he is a star child. "He's in full control," says Spielberg. "Sometimes he appears to other people to be sort of wavering on the fringes of twilight, but there is great conscious forethought behind everything he does. He's very smart about his career and the choices he makes. I think he is definitely a man of two personalities."
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