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.
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.
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."
Jackson was oblivious to how his appearance came off. When he showed up in 1991 with ghostly-pale skin in the video for "Black or White," he had absolutely no sense that listeners might apply the title to his own life.
"Look at the guy's face, and I mean that in a very sad way," says a music-industry source who worked with Jackson. "If he didn't see that, why would he see the irony in that title?"
For one of Jackson's final music videos, 2001's Guys and Dolls-in-Cuba-style "You Rock My World," director Paul Hunter simply resorted to hiding the star's ravaged features as much as he possibly could – there's even an extended dance sequence where Jackson performs entirely in silhouette. "One of the tricks that we did was we said, 'We're in this gangster world, so let's come in with some swagger, get your hat brim pulled down, get a doo-rag going," Hunter says. "What I tried to do was not call too much attention to it."
By the early Nineties, Jackson was starting to be known more for his eccentricities than for his music. It didn't help that he had cultivated that image for a time before the release of 1987's Bad, reportedly planting false stories about buying the Elephant Man's bones and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. But in 1993, his world exploded when a 13-year-old boy who had spent many nights in Neverland accused Jackson of sexual molestation. As the public learned for the first time that Jackson routinely had sleepovers with young boys, the singer fell deep into a painkiller addiction, canceling a tour and entering rehab in London. When he returned to the U.S., he was forced to undergo a strip search – authorities wanted to examine his genitals to compare them to a description by his accuser. Jackson barely made it through the procedure, at one point hitting his own doctor, according to one report. Within a month, Jackson paid over $20 million to reach a civil settlement with his accuser's family. The alleged victim refused to testify against Jackson, and prosecutors never brought criminal charges.
True or not, the accusations warped the course of the rest of Jackson's life. "Some people can handle things being said about them, some people can't," says Stevie Wonder, who knew Michael since their Motown days. "When everything is said and done, some of the people were only doing it for the mockery, the self-aggrandizement. If there was pain Michael felt, they were part of it."
In May 1994, Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley, who acknowledged to Rolling Stone nearly a decade later that she had doubts about his innocence. "Did I ever worry?" she said. "Of course I fucking worried. Yeah. I did. But I could only come up with what he told me. The only two people that were in the room was him and that kid, so how the hell was I going to know? I could only go off what he told me."
Presley, who maintains to this day that her relationship with Jackson was both genuine and sexual, nonetheless told Rolling Stone that she wasn't sure if Jackson loved her: "As much as he can, possibly. I don't know how much he can access love, really. I think as much as he can love somebody, he might have loved me. It was always like a mind that was constantly working. It was a scary thing – somebody who's constantly at work, calculating, calculating, manipulating. And he scared me like that."
Presley wasn't Jackson's first choice as spouse – he initially proposed marriage to his friend Brooke Shields, suggesting that they could adopt children together. She sweetly declined. Though he had frequently described his Eighties relationship with Shields as romantic, the relationship was always platonic – the actress had simply given him permission to describe her as a girlfriend. "I told him, 'If you need me to do that for you, I'll be that person,'" Shields says. "'I will take that title, but no one will understand what that means to us.'"
Shields seems uncertain about the nature of Jackson's sexuality. In the Eighties, she says, he was both scared of and curious about sex – Shields was a teenager, and both she and Jackson were virgins at the time, she says. "But as he got older, to me, he just became more asexual," says Shields.
Outside of the world of show business – where he was savvy enough to become the world's biggest singer and make a business move as brilliant as buying the Beatles' publishing catalog – Jackson's self-image was pathologically distorted. "He saw himself as a child; he really, really did," says the music-industry source who worked with him. "It was dangerous. I don't think he had the appropriate boundaries that an adult would have with a child, because he didn't see himself as an adult. Was he having these sleepovers? Absolutely. He didn't deny it, he said there's nothing wrong with him sleeping with boys. In the course of that, might there have been fondling? Probably, I don't know, I wasn't there. But the point is his state of mind was really like a child, he was a peer to these kids. I know that disgusts a lot of people, and I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but I'm saying as a fact, that that really was his state of mind."
Adds John Landis, "He was a deeply troubled guy who had a miserable childhood with brutal parents who was trying to remain a child. His fantasy life and superstardom combined to isolate him from reality and ended up in tragedy. He was a good kid driven mad by circumstance. I will always be fond of him and sad for him."
But Jackson's true self could be as hard to pin down as his facial features – even his high speaking voice was apparently an affectation that came and went. "I was always saying [to Michael], 'People wouldn't think I was so crazy if they saw who the hell you really are: that you sit around and you drink and you curse and you're fucking funny,'" said Presley. "'And you have a bad mouth, and you don't have that high voice all the time. I don't know why you think that works for you, because it doesn't anymore.'"
In an anguished blog entry after Jackson's death, Presley recalled a conversation with Jackson about her father, who died isolated and addicted to drugs. "At some point [Michael] paused," Presley wrote. "He stared at me very intensely and he stated with an almost calm certainty, 'I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did.'"
In the wake of the 1993 charges, Jackson's music turned claustrophobic and paranoid, as did his life. He retreated to Neverland. "He didn't want to go out into the outside world, which was so cruel and too much to handle," says Shields. Execs at his record label, Epic, tried to push him to record and released 1997's remix-heavy Blood on the Dance Floor as a compromise when they couldn't get a full album out of him. "That was one time, I guess, when I started to see just how haphazard the whole sort of Michael Jackson empire was," says guitarist Slash, who played on that record. When he showed up, sessions were going on in two studios at once, Jackson was nowhere to be found, and it was unclear who was in charge.
"There was a noticeable change in his behavior," says the music-industry source, adding that most people attributed the change to his addiction. "He'd leave messages at odd times of the night, there was paranoia, some slurred speech. He started spending time in other parts of the world where he was revered, and you would see him always being the guest in some Saudi sheik's palace or in some place in Korea, because he was so huge in other parts of the world, where he could still sell out stadiums." He repeatedly announced plans for theme parks and other ambitious ventures in various countries – none of them happened. He signed a deal to play two turn-of-the-millennium concerts – they never happened either.
By 2000, Jackson was deep in debt, facing multiple lawsuits and reportedly participating in voodoo rituals against his perceived enemies – a lengthy list. And if there was any doubt that Jackson's judgment was severely off, he proved it with a bizarre crusade against his record label, which he blamed for the disappointing sales of his 2001 album Invincible (which may have cost as much as $30 million to record). He even paraded around New York with signs proclaiming Tommy Mottola, then-head of Sony Records, to be a racist devil. The attack was so extreme that the Rev. Al Sharpton – who had initially signed on to assist Jackson's crusade – ended up condemning it.
Earlier this year, Jackson announced 50 shows at London's O2 arena – an ambitious comeback plan for someone who hadn't performed a concert since 2001. The London dates would have grossed $70 million, and industry insiders say it was Jackson's last chance to salvage his finances. Whatever his motivations, witnesses to Jackson's final rehearsal at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on June 23rd say he seemed in great shape – beaming and energetic as he danced his way through "Smooth Criminal," "Black or White," a Jackson 5 medley and more. "It was the same old Michael that I'd photographed through the years," says veteran photographer Kevin Mazur, who was employed by the tour's promoter, AEG.
Many close to Jackson, however, are convinced he never could have mustered the physical and mental stamina to make it through all 50 shows. "I believe he was going to do the first show, and it would have been good – one of the incentives he had was that his kids had never actually seen him perform," Schaffel says. "Maybe two weeks later, he would have done another show, but that would have been it."
Still, Jackson had been working on new music over the past few years with producers including Will.i.am and Akon. His plans were as over-the-top as ever: "He wanted to use the music to be able to change the world," says Akon. "That was his goal." He was delighted by the news that he sold out the 50 O2 shows in only three days. Maybe the comeback he always dreamed of was finally around the corner. "Isn't it great?" Jackson said to Will.i.am in their final conversation. "Isn't it amazing? A million tickets!"
Additional reporting by Andy Greene, Steve Knopper and David Wild