The following interview took place on Dec. 14, 2001.
The first words from Michael Jackson seem to portend a candid dialogue.
"Excuse my skin," he says. "I just came from the dermatologist. So pretend you don't see it."
That instruction is tough to obey when dealing with the most scrutinized figure in entertainment, especially one whose many eccentricities include donning disguises in public and heavy cosmetics for the camera. While Jackson is sporting little literal makeup today, figuratively the mask never drops completely.
What was billed as a no-holds-barred interview at times entails jousting with two fiercely protective handlers determined to keep the focus on Jackson's artistry, despite earlier assurances by an Epic Records publicist of unfettered access. All topics were declared fair game except "the pedophilia issue." The settlement of a 1993 suit against Jackson, alleging sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy, forbids parties to discuss details. Jackson vehemently denied allegations at the time and has not addressed it since.
The subject is never broached during this hour-long interview. Less scandalous matters — his ex-wives, his plastic surgery odyssey, even concerns he's discussed in the past — are deemed off limits as they arise.
One roadblock is hit after Jackson waxes nostalgic about famous friends. "Frank Sinatra lived right above us. He'd see us playing basketball every day. And Fred Astaire lived around the bend. I would have a chance to talk to them and learn and listen. Those were golden moments. When I was 16, we were doing Las Vegas every night, and Elvis (Presley) and Sammy Davis Jr. would sit me and my brothers in a row and lecture us. 'Don't ever do drugs,' they told us. I never forgot it."
Reminded of his own painkiller habit, Jackson goes quiet. Manager Trudy Green, monitoring the interview with Epic executive Steve Einczig, forbids him to respond, even though he confessed the addiction and subsequent treatment in a TV statement nearly a decade ago.
She interrupts again when talk steers to Debbie Rowe, who bore Jackson two children during a marriage from 1996 to 1999. He appears to have sole custody of Prince, 4, and Paris, 3, his constant companions. Asked to comment on persistent rumors that the marriage was arranged to provide offspring, Jackson falls silent.
"No, no, no!" Green protests. "This isn't what we're here for."
A second stab: Do the kids spend time with their mother?
"He doesn't want to talk about that," Green interjects. "This is about Michael as an entertainer."
Granted, the entertainer often is overlooked in the cultural obsession with Jackson's offstage life. If he agrees to dwell on personal areas, Jackson laments, "that will become the whole story."
Fair enough. Jackson's professional accomplishments during his 38 years in show business merit notice, to say the least. He's sold 65 million albums in the USA, racked up 44 solo hit singles and still holds title to history's best-selling album, 1982's Thriller, the global champ with 26 million copies.