Hold those e-mails. We know Michael Jackson is not an athlete. But watching and trying to analyze the Gloved One is certainly a spectator sport.

Before she agreed to slum for the Writers' Bloc, Gerri Hirshey was the world's foremost observer of MJ -- 20 years ago, she was given unprecedented access, before or since, for her classic Rolling Stone profile. As much of the world screams for Jacko's head, today in the WB, Hirshey considers the perils of Tablife, and offers some clues about someone who has never really been adequately explained.

By Gerri Hirshey
The Writers' Bloc

Some 20 years before Thursday's globally beamed perp walk, I was thoroughly enjoying a night out in L.A. with the Moonwalker, Michael Jackson -- sweet, handsome and still brown. The famously disappearing nose had only been lightly chiseled and sanded. As a Rolling Stone reporter, I was a fair connoisseur of eccentricity, so I wasn't fazed by the fact that Mike wore more lip gloss than me. Nor was I surprised when we stopped to pick up MJ's blond, teenaged Jehovah Witness pal and his giggly little brother. In the limo, we all watched Tweety Bird cartoons. On our way to a Queen concert.

Michael Jackson
What happened to the sweet young boy who sang for the Jackson Five?
So was I clueless? Nope. If you've really spent time with the guy, most normal perspectives are suspended. Looking back at a journalistic odyssey that subsequently found me discussing revolution in a darkened room with James Brown, Al Sharpton and Muhammad Ali, that Jackson adventure still stands as my defining Strangest Encounter.

I liked the guy. I had great fun. Yet it was the only assignment that genuinely made me fear for my safety. It wasn't the live, 8-foot boa constrictor Michael draped a foot from my head during that first interview session. Nor was it his Mr. Magoo driving style as he chauffeured me, in a bitchin' gold Camaro, to his first fantasy retreat under construction in Encino.

I was spooked -- even then -- by the bloom of Toxic Love outside the petting zoo gate. Wherever we went, there were voices in the bushes, screaming mouths, lacquered nails clawing. Fans. And freaks. Ambushed outside his condo one night, we ran for the car; girls beat on it, rocked it, thrust grasping hands through the sunroof. Michael's mother told me they'd been tearing at him since he was 6. She could hardly remember when she didn't fear for his life and confirmed his description of "the real Billie Jean" -- he'd shown me the girl's photo -- and her deranged plot to kill him. Michael's brothers told me that "strange energies" had always crackled around him.

But the late Freddy Mercury, Queen's front man, said it best when Michael and I were visiting his dressing room. As security rousted more Michael maniacs from the backstage corridor, Freddy said quietly, "Little brother, you've got some weird s--- following you."

Michael was scared, too, for other reasons. He had never, before or since, granted an "all-access" print interview like those days we spent in the studio, his homes, and shakily cruising the town (he had just learned to drive). He was so terrified at the prospect of talking, he shook when he first opened his door to me. It was dark inside. What I saw at the center of the living room in that rented Encino condo could serve as the leitmotif for all MJ's current troubles. The icky thing might well serve as his tombstone. But we'll get to that monument of Weird S--- (hereinafter WS) later.

Michael Jackson
Jackson's children have appeared in public only as Junior Freaks.
Shortly after I took leave of him, Michael loosed "Thriller" and moonwalked to another planet. Covering the ensuing madness -- from the launch of the surreal, overwrought "Victory Tour" in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium to its tail end at Dodger Stadium, where I sobbed with relief -- I knew it was going plenty bad, plenty fast. Given what I knew -- and didn't -- about the WS surrounding the initial child molesting scandal a decade ago, I couldn't make a call on innocence or guilt. But two years ago, having been trampled by fans at Carnegie Hall during MJ's baffling, creepy "parenting seminar" (panelists included Johnny Cochran and the host of TV's reality cheat-a-thon, "Temptation Island") -- I knew for sure that Mike was permanently out where the buses don't run.

So how did it all come to this unthinkably tawdry moment? Maybe Brian Oxman, quoted as "Jackson family attorney," capsulized MJ's current state of siege best: "We have the same accusations that we had 10 years ago. It's like playing the playoffs all over again."

Say amen and pass the nachos. With Thursday's airport hangar "live surrender" covered by massive air and ground forces, celebrity bear-baiting -- the most popular and profitable American blood sport of all -- has hit the big casino. Should there be a Court TV broadcast of the Jackson trial, sponsoring 60 seconds could cost more than a six pack of those Bud Light Super Bowl spots. Savagery and sex -- from Iron Mike Tyson's ear chomping to Marv Albert's pathetic backbiting and Bill Clinton's stogie-shtupping -- have long been drawing sound trucks like crows to road kill. The more bodily fluids the better; I had to dive for the remote last month to spare my kids the prime-time panty forensics of the Kobe Bryant mess.

But that's all minor league when you can poke a sharp stick -- and a galaxy of satellite dishes -- at a multi-platinum global superstar accused of a truly heinous crime. In WWE parlance, it's the ultimate smackdown. Better still when the official mug shot would spook Roy's misunderstood tiger Montecore. Sure, O.J. was big. But in these ramped-up Tabloid Times of cassocked pedophiles and Limbaugh's wallow in "hillbilly heroin," even the Santa Barbara prosecutors have seen fit to supersize the show -- with stadium seating.

Think about it: Law enforcement officials digging up real dead bodies in John Wayne Gacy's Chicago backyard didn't get the kind of coverage lavished on Tuesday's televised motorcade of forensics teams raiding Jackson's Neverland Ranch. When these deputy dawgs bayed, "Let's roll!" they moved out prepared -- with their own catering truck! If this standard holds, I hope that former O.J. prosecutor Marcia Clark, already doing standup Jacko handicapping for "Entertainment Tonight," demands a location trailer befitting Julia or Demi.

Yep, this is entertainment, today. And despite Santa Barbara DA Thomas Sneddon's press conference pieties, the roar and spectacle has already upstaged the victim -- an allegedly hurt child already violated by cancer -- as it did back in the day of that ultimate Coliseum entertainer, Nero. Either way, this kid will suffer horribly. And the rest of us are condemned to more carnage for the next year or so, playing out in the home theater coliseums of American family rooms.

Michael Jackson, Lisa Marie Presley
Lisa Marie Presley, left, is no stranger to the eccentric narcissis.
Which brings us back to Michael's condo hideout, and that thing I saw in his living room. There was no furniture, just ... yes, WS. Most of it was stone garden statuary: frozen fawns and toadstools, fairies and the like. And one identifiable figure: the beautiful boy Narcissus, gazing at his reflection in the pool. It was the only one he had named: "That's Michael," he told me. He said he talked to his cement doppelganger often.

Even then, he embraced his affliction. Self love can be the most toxic of all. The pathologies of celebrity narcissism, while fascinating to watch, can be as scary as Brando's bloated soliloquies or Joan Rivers' facelifts. Self-absorption, stoked by global adoration, morphed Michael into Wacko Jacko. It demanded the mutilating surgeries, the self-annointing as King of Pop. It stuffed him into military duds as over-the-top as Idi Amin's. But I didn't understand the level of toxicity until I talked to a real expert a few months ago: Priscilla Presley, ex-wife of the True King and mother of Michael Jackson's former wife, Lisa Marie.

At 58, Priscilla is a smart, funny, healthy woman who has seen her own fingernail parings sold in clip joints outside Graceland. Toxic Love and its Emperor's New Clothes delusions rendered the zaftig Big E apoplectic when Priscilla sweetly suggested, "You really shouldn't be wearing those jumpsuits anymore." And Toxic Love, in the form of paparazzi and reporters, hounded Priscilla and Lisa Marie when they fled to Europe to try to mourn Elvis privately. So when her baby girl started acting up, Priscilla had a special Sweet Sixteen gift for Lisa Marie: "I gave her all the tabloids I had kept, everything that was written about her. And me."

Priscilla figured that if properly digested, that brittle, yellowing packet of Toxic Love might serve as a vaccination against further tab-behavior outbreaks. No such luck -- not when Lisa came within the force field of Narcissus Colossus, alias MJ. But Mother was savvy enough to sniff out the dysfunction early on. "Michael had an agenda," Priscilla told me. Back when Lisa was still married to her first husband, Michael called Priscilla, asking to meet her daughter: "It was just when he was getting Neverland together. I was a bit suspicious. This fit into his big scheme. I mean, Graceland ... Neverland? King of Rock? King of Pop?" Happily, the pop royalty marriage ended before any offspring could be born under a bad sign.

Elvis' sad end, toppled from the porcelain throne, could look positively Olympian next to what might be in store for Michael, if convicted. Did he defile a child -- rob him of the childhood he says he never had himself? I'd like to think the guy I spent time with incapable of this, but I have no idea. If the perennially hunted MJ I met has turned to predation, he should spend the rest of his days in another kind of gated estate with swell orange jumpsuits -- but no epaulets.

Innocent or guilty, Wacko Jacko is now fated to hang forever in the Freakazoid Hall of Fame, along with all-star kinksters like Pamela and Tommy Lee, Liberace, Jerry Lee "So What If She's Only 13 and My Cousin" Lewis, Wilt "I've Boinked 20 Thousand Babes" Chamberlain. Far worse, there will be a lifetime of WS informing the lives of Michael's three children. Already, the two Princes and young Paris Jackson have appeared in public only as Junior Freaks, swathed in gauze, trotted before cameras in Halloween masks and infamously dangled. I'm sure, like their dad, they already have the preternatural ability to sniff out paparazzi at 50 paces. But in this nano-quick Information Age, I doubt any of them can outrun their tabloid legacy. I wish these hapless innocents well as they toddle into the Coliseum.

And I caution each of them with the advice that Priscilla Presley gave Lisa Marie when she was married to their father: "Look for the red flags. Just be careful, honey."


Writer's Bloc: Conspiracy Theory 101

Writer's Bloc: Most Overrated NFL player

Writer's Bloc: A-Rod's MVP

Writer's Bloc: Muscle up

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index