He prefers to be recognized as the "King of Pop," but it seems that Michael Jackson will be remembered either as a misunderstood and unfairly maligned music legend or a child molester.
Jackson's arrest on child molestation allegations involving a 12-year-old boy — and the media spectacle surrounding his surrender and booking with California authorities — illustrate how tragic his life has become and how far his career has fallen. He has denied the allegations, calling them a "big lie," as he awaits formal charges and arraignment, scheduled for Jan. 9.
But his fall from a beloved entertainer who first rocketed to fame as a member of the The Jackson Five with his brothers and then moonwalked into legendary stardom with solo albums such as Thriller, Bad and Dangerous is undeniable.
A Life in the Spotlight
In his videos, Jackson, 45, has often portrayed himself as an adored international star swarmed and trailed by thousands of screaming fans. He first became a star as the lead singer of The Jackson Five, and grew into a teen idol. Jackson has never really known a life without music and celebrity.
Born Michael Joseph Jackson in Gary, Ind., in 1958, he is the fifth of nine children of Joe and Katherine Jackson. Both parents instilled a love of music early in their children's lives: Katherine taught them folk music while Joe, a budding guitarist, managed them and molded their musical work ethic. Michael was only 4 when he started singing with his older brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon and formed the original Jackson Five. (Younger brother Randy joined the group in 1976 when Jermaine left.)
The brothers were discovered by Motown singers Diana Ross and Gladys Knight and pianist Billy Taylor after a performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy would soon sign them to a contract.
Gordy's investment paid off: The Jackson Five broke through to national stardom in 1969-70 with four consecutive hit songs. They were a group of five but energetic, dancing prepubescent Michael was the standout.
"I saw so much of myself in as a child in Michael," Ross told a reporter in 1970. "He was performing all the time. That's the way I was. He could be my son."
Moonwalking to Stardom — and ‘Weirdom’
While still a member of The Jackson Five, Jackson made his first solo album, Got to Be There, in 1972. He began to really define himself as a solo artist with the 1979 release of Off the Wall. However, he became an international phenomenon when Thriller — propelled by songs such as "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," as well as his unique "moonwalking" dance in music videos — sold 16 million copies worldwide in 1983. It is the second-greatest selling album of all time.
However, after Thriller, Jackson's physical appearance began to change drastically. The headlines didn't focus too much on it at the time, but when Jackson released Bad in 1987, he appeared to have much more feminine facial features. His complexion, once brown, was lightened. His once-flat nose was reshaped, his cheekbones were more defined and his hair — once a Jeri Curled Afro — was straightened.
Then his behavior appeared to become increasingly odd, with reports that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber and tried to buy the Elephant Man's bones. However, he was still recognized primarily for his talent and perhaps perceived as benevolently eccentric.
Ghosts of Scandal Past
But Jackson's career took a darker turn in 1993 when a 13-year-old boy accused him of molestation. No charges were ever filed, and Jackson ultimately reached a financial settlement with the alleged victim's family — reportedly for millions of dollars.
Jackson has always denied the allegations and said he reached a settlement with the boy's family because he did not want a drawn-out legal battle.
However, Jackson has never really been able to escape the 1993 scandal. His record sales on subsequent albums have dwindled. His last studio album, 2001's Invincible, sold approximately 2 million copies — successful to most artists but a disappointment for the "King of Pop."
In the past decade, he has generated more headlines with his bizarre behavior and alleged cosmetic surgery than with his music as his hair has become completely straight and his skin has morphed into a pasty white. (Jackson has denied having extensive plastic surgery and blames his change in skin tone on vitiligo, a pigment disorder.)
Jackson was married briefly to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis. A three-year marriage to his dermatology nurse, Debbie Rowe, followed, and she bore him a son and a daughter, Prince Michael I and Paris. Jackson had a third child, Prince Michael II, by another, unidentified woman in 2002.
‘Why Can’t You Share Your Bed?’
Jackson stirred outrage when he dangled the baby from the balcony of a Berlin hotel last November. He denied purposely endangering his child, and authorities decided not to pursue charges.
All three children live with Jackson. They all appeared in British journalist Martin Bashir's documentary Living With Michael Jackson, but wore veils and masks to conceal their faces.
Jackson raised eyebrows during that documentary earlier this year when he told Bashir that he has allowed visiting children to sleep in his bed at Neverland Ranch.
"Why can't you share your bed?" Jackson said in the documentary, which aired in February on ABCNEWS' 20/20. "The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone."
He insisted the practice was innocent and involved nothing of a sexual nature. "I give them hot milk, you know, we have cookies. It's very charming. It's very sweet. It's what the whole world should do."
Will the Public Still Be Adoring?
Jackson's latest legal turmoil came as Epic Records released Number Ones, a greatest-hits collection featuring Jackson's No. 1 hit songs and his new single, "One More Chance."
So what does Michael Jackson see when he looks at the man in the mirror? He has referred to himself as Peter Pan, a man who never grew up because he never had a childhood. His brother Jermaine believes he is the victim of a "modern-day lynching." Groups of fans flocked toward Jackson's vehicle as it sat idle in traffic following his return to Nevada after being booked on the child molestation allegations in California.
Still, in the wake of his latest legal troubles and the residual baggage of the 1993 scandal, it remains to be seen whether the public and Jackson's fans are willing to stand by the fallen icon and give him one more chance.