I think Michael appeals to the child in all of us, and I think he has the quality of innocence that we would all like to obtain or have kept.
— Elizabeth Taylor, 1988
If you want to see the boy next door, open up the door to your kitchen and look at the boy next door, because he ain’t the boy next door.
— Sammy Davis Jr., 1988
I was born to never die.
— Michael Jackson, “Ecstasy” (1992)
Reporter Martin Bashir’s 1995 interview with Princess Diana was revelatory. He demonstrated compassion for his subject, and she said her marriage to Prince Charles was a sham, alluding to Charles’s longstanding affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles and her own unfaithfulness. Diana’s confessions not only alerted the public to the inadequacies in reports coming from inside the Palace, but they also allowed the world to see Diana’s pain and lapses.
With this coup behind him, Bashir seemed the perfect person to get Michael Jackson to open up about his eccentric life. And indeed, Living With Michael Jackson, his contentious interview filmed for Britain’s ITV network, featured ramblings from the tainted star, and showcased his unconventional streak with shots of the enormous Neverland Ranch. Still, there was not a lot the singer told Bashir that he hadn’t previously said before — numerous times.
Bashir’s interview was conducted over an eight-month period, during which time the journalist was given “complete access.” He observed Jackson at home, met his children, and was assured no topic was off limits. Troublingly, Bashir used his access to take advantage whenever an opportunity presented itself — and even when it didn’t. If Jackson didn’t say what Bashir wanted him to say, the reporter himself said it, forcing the singer to face accusations.
Bashir’s effort to catch Jackson out, to expose even the slightest craziness, was evident from the outset, when Jackson “revealed” he enjoyed climbing trees. “Having water balloon fights and climbing trees, I think that those two are my favorite [things to do],” he said. Not content, Bashir asked Jackson to clarify: “Don’t you prefer making love or going to a concert or, you prefer — you really mean that — that you prefer climbing trees and having a balloon fight?”
This technique of putting words into Jackson’s mouth was evident again during the interview’s most confrontational moments, when Bashir asked Jackson to explain how he, a 44-year-old man, could justify having sleepovers with children, in his bed. If Bashir’s intention was to get a rise out of Jackson, he succeeded, but only for a moment. Jackson finally pulled Bashir’s card, saying, “You’re trying to make it sound sexual, it’s not.” But there was little point in Jackson lashing out or attempting to clarify his statements, as Bashir was unwilling to accept any answers other than those he apparently wanted, often asking, “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
Bashir tried to expose Jackson as loony, filming him spending millions of dollars on unnecessary items, hanging out with a variety of children (not just prepubescent boys), and sitting in his inspirational “Giving Tree.” Yet, all he managed to do was tread familiar ground, while revealing his own underhanded devices, frequently driving Jackson into corners he should never have had to go.
Such cajoling seems especially unnecessary when your subject is Michael Jackson. With a bizarrely altered face (making him look more and more like Disney’s version of his idol, Peter Pan), a zoo and amusement park in his own backyard, and rumors that have plagued him since childhood, he’s already fascinating and disturbing. Images of Neverland tell us we’re dealing with a man so removed from the everyday, so unable to ever grasp the concept of “real life,” that he will never offer any straight-down-the-line sense.
And so, Bashir really didn’t need to press when the singer revealed some glaring contradictions entirely on his own. When he asked about the mother of Jackson’s youngest son, Prince Michael II, the answer was that she is a woman with whom he had “had a relationship,” and who didn’t want to be in the spotlight. Later on, however, when he was questioned about Debbie Rowe, the mother of his older children, Prince Michael I and Paris, in order to make Rowe’s surrogacy sound like the most normal thing in the world, Jackson brought up the mother of his youngest child again, stating that she was someone he had never met, knowing only that she was intelligent and her “vision’s good.”
Right here is when Bashir might have paused. This was a big deal, perhaps the principal disclosure in the entire interview, something nobody knew. Moreover, why Bashir did not ask the singer to explain why he had earlier lied to him is a conundrum.
This was not the only lie Jackson told Bashir, highlighting another flaw in the reporter’s presentation, his embarrassing lack of research into his subject. Jackson scoffed at Bashir’s claim that he had had several plastic surgeries to alter his face — thinning of the nose and lips, implants in his cheeks, a cleft put in his chin. Jackson said he only had two nose jobs, and they were done to help with breathing. The door for Bashir was swinging right open to reveal Jackson either a liar or confused. In Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, he states, “I’d like to set the record straight right now… I have had my nose altered twice and I recently added a cleft to my chin. It’s my face, I know.”
But research is not one of Bashir’s strong points. He questioned Jackson about his severe upbringing and the abuse he and his brothers and sisters suffered at the hands of their father, Joe. This is no secret, having already been revealed in J. Randy Taraborelli’s Jackson bio, The Magic and the Madness, La Toya’s 1991 self-titled autobiography, as well as by Jackson in Moonwalk. “If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt,” Jackson writes, repeating almost verbatim to Bashir something he had told the world 15 years ago.
He also wrote about his father’s relentless teasing of him and his big nose, something he previously told Taraborelli and Oprah. No surprises there. Even Jackson’s story about having slept in the same room as his brothers while they were having sex was something that had already been revealed in articles and books. As for the Tatum O’Neal “incident” (Bashir: “So she rings you and says, Michael come to my house, I’m going to make love to you”), both Jackson and Taraborelli told the same story in their books.
If Bashir had, in fact, done his homework, he would have learned about the strip clubs Jackson frequented with his father as a child, the prostitutes he was “given” as an adolescent, his illegitimate sister Joh’Vonnie Jackson, the apparent Anti-Semitism in his childhood home, his obsession with human anatomy, and his interview with Melody Maker in the early ’80s, when he revealed he wished never to procreate. All of these are more interesting than the same old “Dad hit me” and “Tatum seduced me” blather.
In the end, though, this lack of news didn’t matter. Bashir said during the interview he wasn’t “satisfied with Jackson’s explanations,” but nobody ever is. Otherwise, interviews such as this would be unnecessary. Bashir “revealed” Michael Jackson as the freakish result of years of torment and adulation, as a man who has never had a “normal” relationship with a woman, and who hates his father and loves his children (who came across as bright and unaffected in Bashir’s documentary). He was also revealed as a shop-aholic, a star so immersed in his fantasy life that he doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, and a man obsessed with the “innocence” of children, and who wants to live forever. But we already knew this, didn’t we?