Michael Jackson: What Went Wrong

Over the past 20 years, Michael Jackson went from being the biggest star in the world to a reclusive broken man. The inside story of his downfall

Michael Jackson performs in New York City.
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
July 30, 2009 2:34 PM ET

As Michael Jackson hit his mid-40s, he was addicted to prescription painkillers, running out of cash, facing fading career prospects – and a television special was about to ruin what was left of his life. Jackson had agreed to cooperate on an all-access documentary with British journalist Martin Bashir, believing that a candid look at his life – complete with quotes such as "If there were no children on this earth, I would jump off the balcony immediately" – would make the world finally understand him, and help him launch a Thriller-level comeback.

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Just before the documentary's 2003 airing, one of Jackson's then-associates, Marc Schaffel, got word of its contents and had the unpleasant job of telling Jackson that Bashir's film was a complete disaster, the worst thing to happen since Jackson settled child-molestation charges a decade earlier. Jackson — who was during this time taking a mix of OxyContin, Demerol and Xanax ("whatever he could get his hands on," Schaffel says) — was shattered. "He went nuts," Schaffel says. It was the first in a series of tantrums that would culminate in him tearing a room apart in Las Vegas. Around this time, Jackson went into hiding. Fellow child star Donny Osmond, an old friend, remembers getting a call from Jackson. "I said to him, 'Mike, where are you?'" Osmond recalls. "He said, 'Please don't tell anybody. I rented a touring bus, and I took my kids, and we're somewhere in Arizona.' I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I don't want anyone to see me. I don't want anybody to know where I'm at.'"

But he couldn't hide forever. Before long, the boy seen holding Jackson's hand and leaning lovingly on his shoulder in the documentary – a recovered cancer patient – told investigators that Jackson had molested him. The police raided the Neverland Ranch on November 18th, 2003, confiscating pornography and other evidence, and when Jackson found out, he went "berserko," according to Schaffel. While out on bail, Jackson did another interview, this time with 60 Minutes, in which he again defended his relationships with young boys. The night it aired, December 28th, 2003, Jackson reportedly took a near-fatal overdose of morphine.

Jackson was ultimately acquitted in a tragicomic criminal trial that featured Jay Leno taking the stand and jurors scoffing at the loopy testimony of the alleged victim's mother, who had gotten a full body wax at Jackson's expense. But the prosecution succeeded in tarnishing what remained of Jackson's image, with lurid though inconclusive testimony of Jackson getting a young boy drunk before molesting him in his bedroom.

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After the trial, Jackson never returned to Neverland, his 2,700-acre ranch with a zoo, a movie theater, two railroads and an amusement park with a Ferris wheel, go-karts, bumper cars and cotton-candy stands. He bought the place in 1988, and admitted it was his way of claiming the childhood he never had. "I'm just putting behind the gates everything I never got to do as a kid," said Jackson. He became a man in exile, traveling with his three children to various foreign countries, including Dubai, where he enjoyed the support of wealthy patrons. The dreamland that had mirrored his inner life – grandiose yet stunted – had in his mind been violated, and he was through with it.

Within three years of Jackson's departure, Neverland was empty, silent and "in shambles," according to a court declaration filed by Darren Julien, founder of Julien's Auctions, the company hired to sell off pieces of the property. "Buildings, amusement rides, industrial equipment, personal automobiles and Jackson's personal zoo and Tipi village were falling apart," he said.

Jackson's own decline and fall happened much more slowly. His childhood was marked both by massive fame and boundless torment. Jackson often recounted horror stories of the mental and physical abuse he suffered from his father, Joe Jackson. "He practiced us with a belt in his hand," Michael recalled. ("They all got whippins', but they didn't get no beatings, you know?" Joe Jackson said in his defense.) There were also hints over the years that Michael was a victim of childhood sexual abuse by some unknown party, though he never addressed the issue. Jackson developed an aversion to adult sexuality early on, after being horrified by his brothers' encounters with groupies (sometimes while he was in the room) and his father's casual adultery. Outside of the young boys who accused Jackson of abuse, the only person who has claimed to have had a sexual relationship with him was his first wife, Lisa Marie Presley, who stayed with him for less than two years. In any case, Jackson decided that he was literally Peter Pan, that he could will himself to remain a child even as he hit middle age.

Over the past 20 years, Jackson, one of the world's richest and most talented people, slowly lost his grip: financially, artistically and emotionally. It would be comforting to say he merely squandered his gifts, but looking back on his slow-motion deterioration, the last two decades of Jackson's life seem like pop music's greatest act of self-destruction. There were signs that Jackson was deeply uncomfortable in his own skin even before Thriller came out. In his teenage years, Jackson became obsessed with his appearance – he was no longer the adorable kid he'd been in his "ABC" and "I Want You Back" days, and for a while, many fans didn't even recognize him. Worse, he had acne, and his brothers began calling him "Big Nose." He claimed to have only two cosmetic surgeries after that, but photographic evidence suggests there were many more. (One plastic surgeon estimated that he could have had up to 50 surgeries.)

By 1995, Jackson was literally falling apart. Under hot, bright lights on the set of the video for "Scream" that year, Jackson was practicing dance moves when his hand brushed his heavily altered nose. The tip of it – actually a prosthetic – flew across the floor, and Jackson began screaming hysterically. Crew members ran after it. "There was a hole, man, a little hole right where the tip of the nose should be, a perfectly circular opening," says a source who was in the room that day. "It was kind of disgusting. I felt bad for the guy."

Another source says that Jackson would sometimes abandon the prosthesis altogether, showing up at meetings with a bandage over the hole. He had clearly had at least one nose job too many. Despite his denials, he also had his skin bleached, though friends say he did it as a means of dealing with the skin disease vitiligo, which would have otherwise left his skin blotchy.

There was no one in Jackson's life who could tell him that he had gone too far with his procedures, and by the beginning of this decade, he had begun to look not just androgynous or racially ambiguous but hardly human.

"When Michael proudly showed me the results of his first experiments with bleaching his skin white (his chest looked like he was wearing a pale white vest), I was horrified and told him that the doctor who did this was a criminal and that he should go no further," recalls John Landis, who directed "Thriller." "He did not speak to me for almost two years after that. And when I did see him again, his plastic surgeries had progressed to the grotesque."

Though Jackson would say that he was proud of being black, he took pains to keep his skin looking as pale as possible. At an inaugural concert for Bill Clinton in 1993, Stevie Nicks remembers, one of Jackson's aides asked to borrow some makeup from her. "I was using a light Chanel foundation," she says. "Michael sent back a note to say thanks, but the shade wasn't light enough for him."

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