Michael Jackson: The bizarre world of the boy who would never grow up

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IT WAS in an uncomfortable 2003 interview with Martin Bashir that Michael Jackson allowed, for a moment, the veil behind the troubled myth that surrounded him to be lifted.

Jackson, his oddly moulded face peppered with five o'clock shadow, lowered his high-pitched voice and told Bashir: "I am Peter Pan."

"No you're not, you're Michael Jackson," Bashir retorted.

"No," corrected Jackson. "I am Peter Pan in my heart."

Right until the end, Jackson was, in his own eyes at least, the boy who never grew up. To others he was merely an ageing freakshow: a child trapped in a man's body who harboured socially unacceptable notions about children and was forever seeking to regain his own lost childhood.

Yet whatever the public perception of Jackson – as the man who dangled babies from balconies, the epaulette-wearing legend who invented the Moonwalk, or the bankrupt has-been with too much plastic surgery – his life was undoubtedly an extraordinary one. A heady mix of myth, rumour and scandal, the truth of which may never be fully revealed, it captivated the world for more than 40 years.

Born Michael Joseph Jackson on 29 August, 1958, in the working-class town of Gary, Indiana, he was the seventh of nine children. He was a shy boy, yet displayed a talent for singing and dancing. By the age of six his domineering father, Joe Jackson, had placed him front and centre of the family group. It was a decision that would radically alter the rest of Jackson's life.

Joe was widely reported as being violent and abusive, often whipping his young, nervy son, taunting him about his supposed "ugliness" (something which has been attributed to causing Jackson's adult obsession with plastic surgery) and terrorising him into such submission that, as Jackson revealed in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, "there were times when he'd come to see me and I would start to be sick".

Joe worked the children hard, forcing them to rehearse late into the night and banning friends. When Jackson was ten years old the Jackson Five signed with Motown Records. Over the next six years they produced an eye-popping 13 albums. Years later, Jackson talked of being in the studio, looking out the window, seeing children playing and crying "from loneliness".

His fame had come at a high price: unable to walk the streets unrecognised, he was a prisoner of his own talents, deprived of a normal childhood and sparking a lifelong lust – perhaps most obviously manifested in his enormous Californian ranch, Neverland – to recapture that long-lost childhood innocence.

At 20 he met songwriter Quincy Jones and started down the long path to superstardom. Off The Wall, released in 1979, confirmed his place as one of the most exciting new artists of his generation, but it was the release of Thriller in 1982, the best-selling album of all time, that fixed the Jackson myth in the world's mind's eye: a black man who was acceptable listening for all races, whose quirky, military-inspired clothing could fuel a thousand fancy-dress parties, and who really could sing and dance.

As his fame exploded, Jackson appeared smiley and polite in public, always waving and talking about his love for his fans in a succession of increasingly eccentric, white-gloved get-ups.

But behind the scenes his insecurities were growing. In early 1984 he suffered second-degree burns to his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial. It was a massive blow to his already fragile self-image, and not long afterwards he is thought to have had the third in a long line of plastic surgery operations to his nose.

His skin appeared to be lightening. Although he has always blamed this on a disorder that affects skin pigmentation, many believe he was having surgical procedures.

It was around this time that he started sporting a surgical mask, while rumours abounded that he slept in an oxygen tent. An adoring public lapped up the gossip as if it were gospel.

Throughout the 1980s, love appeared to elude Jackson. Apart from patently "for the cameras only" romances with the likes of Madonna and Naomi Campbell, he appeared a curiously sexless pop star, more interested in spending time with pet chimp Bubbles – for a while an integral part of his image and often dressed in identical clothes – or one of the many animals he kept in his Neverland zoo.

Then there were his under-age companions. He often invited children to stay at Neverland and struck up a close friendship with the 12-year-old actor Macaulay Culkin. Murky rumours concerning secret rooms in the house and inappropriate relationships began to emerge and, in 1993, Jackson was publicly accused of child abuse by the father of 13-year-old Jordy Chandler. Although the case never came to court – Jackson is believed to have paid Chandler an out-of-court settlement of about 13 million – it tarnished Jackson's image forever.

A few months later he married Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis. The media viewed it as a cynical publicity stunt designed to boost an ailing Jackson's public persona, and few were convinced. The pair divorced less than two years later.

By 1996 he was married again, this time to Debbie Rowe, a nurse. Details on how the pair met were sketchy and they seemed an unlikely couple who spent little time together and were rarely seen in each other's company. Their son, Prince Michael, was born in 1997 and a daughter, Paris, in 1998.

Yet rather than play happy families, a year later Jackson divorced Rowe and she gave up all parental rights to her children. The exact provenance of the children, plus a third son, Prince Michael II, who was born in 2002 and whose mother is unknown, remains mysterious: although they are often seen in public with masks, they have been occasionally photographed without them. They bear little resemblance to Jackson.

In 2003 Jackson, by then having had few hits in recent years and thought to be struggling financially, made the ill-fated decision to be interviewed by Bashir, who was given access to the singer's inner sanctum.

"It's a beautiful thing (sharing a bed with a boy]," Jackson said on camera. "It's very right, it's very loving. Because what's wrong with sharing a love?"

Jackson was arrested in November 2003 and charged with seven counts of child abuse. His four-month trial, in early 2005, captured the US in a way no courtroom battle had since OJ Simpson had taken the stand. He was cleared in June 2005 of all charges and disappeared from public view – moving the family to various hideaways, before being forced into a sale of his beloved Neverland.

Jackson was an enigma, a walking contradiction. An extraordinarily talented singer and dancer whose early promise was exploited mercilessly; a curiously asexual man fted worldwide as a sex symbol; a man who loved children, yet seemed unable to know where to draw boundaries; who claimed to be a representative for black culture, yet whose skin seemed progressively whiter with each album. For many, his much-hyped London performances scheduled to begin in August seemed a last throw of the dice by a man desperate to recapture a youthful image that had long since crumbled to dust. Whether his gamble would have paid off will become yet another question in the Jackson pantheon that will never now be answered.

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