Why Are Michael Jackson's Fans So Devoted?

ByABC News
February 2, 2005, 12:47 PM

Feb. 23, 2005 — -- Deborah Dannelly knows about the charges Michael Jackson faces and has read about media leaks in the case. But she doesn't care -- she still loves "The King of Pop."

Dannelly, 49, is the president of the Michael Jackson Fan Club, an international club based in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has been part of the fan club for 13 years and estimates that the club has between 12,000 and 14,000 members worldwide. And Dannelly is proud to say she has been a fan of the entertainer for 36 years.

"I think the media has painted a pretty dark picture of Michael," Dannelly said in a telephone interview, although she was initially reluctant to talk to ABCNEWS.com.

These are difficult days for Dannelly and fans like her as Jackson faces trial on charges he molested a now-15-year-old boy who spent time at his Neverland ranch. The boy is believed to be the cancer survivor who appeared with the singer in the 2003 British documentary "Living With Michael Jackson." Jackson, 46, has pleaded not guilty to 10 charges that include felony conspiracy with 28 overt acts involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.

Dannelly's faith in Jackson has not wavered. Media coverage of the case, she believes, has been biased, demonizing Jackson and jeopardizing his chances for a fair trial.

"I don't think they have been interested in finding the truth but rather in putting out whatever would make headlines," she said. "And I thought the media would have better principles and integrity in this important of a case."

Jackson's fans showed him that they were still in his corner when jury selection began on Jan. 31. They came in throngs from all over the world to gather outside the Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., holding signs that read, "Michael's Innocent, Leave Him Alone," "Save Michael Jackson," and "France Supports and Loves MJ." Some continued to show their support when Jackson was hospitalized last week with the flu, gathering outside the Marian Medical Center where he was staying and fainting and crying at the thought of his illness.

To a lesser extent, celebrity defendants such as Kobe Bryant and Martha Stewart saw similar fan support in their criminal cases. As Bryant faced trial for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at a Vail, Colo., ski resort, his supporters traveled to the courthouse just to catch a glimpse of the NBA star and scream his name. (Prosecutors dropped the criminal case against Bryant when the alleged victim said she would not testify at the trial. Bryant has maintained his innocence, but still faces a civil lawsuit from his accuser.)

Stewart's fans continued to insist on her innocence and argued she was unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors after she was convicted of conspiracy, making false statements and obstruction of justice for lying about a stock sale.

That fan support has made Stewart a hot product even as she serves her sentence. Publishers are reportedly vying for a memoir Stewart is said to be writing about her prison experiences. Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has survived, and NBC has announced plans for Stewart to host her own version of the hit show "The Apprentice."

Fans of Bryant, Stewart and Jackson are not just supporting idols and pop icons they believe have been wrongly accused of crimes, experts say. They consider them to be members of their family.

"This is a very widespread phenomenon where fans take a celebrity into their hearts, whether it be a pop star, a movie star or a TV star, and that celebrity becomes almost bulletproof to the fan," said Paul Levinson, professor and chair of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. "They bring the celebrity into their hearts and soul. It's almost like they've become part of their family."

Many celebrity fans may distrust -- or feel betrayed by -- the media because of the bad press a scandal generates, Levinson said. The way they see it, their idol, who was once a media darling, is now being torn down by the same reporters who sang his praises.

"When some government agency accuses a celebrity of doing something, it's hard for that celebrity's fans to believe that it's true and they believe he's being persecuted," Levinson continued. "Maybe the fan will believe it [the accusations] once the facts come out and celebrity is proven guilty, but it takes an enormous amount to do that."

Fans may be skeptical of the media because of the way news tends to be reported. Mere allegations, innuendo and leaks often provided by unidentified sources make front-page headlines, and the public may often confuse accusations and rumors with fact.

"There's a suspicion in the way in which allegations tend to be passed off as fact," said Seth Clark Silberman, lecturer on African-American studies and lesbian and gay studies at Yale University. "Then you have the stigma associated with intergenerational sex combined with the passion for the celebrity such as Michael Jackson, you see why some people think he is being persecuted. But I do think it [fan trust in media] depends on the type of evidence leaked to the press."

Since his "Thriller" and "Bad" album heydays, Jackson's sales have been disappointing. His last studio album, 2001's "Invincible," sold just more than 2 million albums (8 million worldwide) -- successful to most artists but a disappointment for the "King of Pop." Despite hitting the top of the music charts worldwide, Jackson hasn't had a No. 1 single in the United States since 1995's "You Are Not Alone."

So why do so many people continue to love Michael Jackson?

Older fans still remember the Jackson 5 lead singer who won legions of fans with songs such as "ABC" and "Ben." They may fondly recall how Jackson moonwalked for the first time across the stage at Motown's 25th anniversary special in 1983 and put MTV on the map with pioneering videos such as "Thriller," "Billie Jean" and "Beat It."

Younger fans mainly familiar with the post-1993, scandal-haunted Jackson may admire his past hit songs and see his influence in chart-topping artists such as Usher and Justin Timberlake, who have said they grew up idolizing "The King of Pop." This is the Jackson who generated headlines primarily for his talent and whose musical legacy cannot be denied.

"Michael has always been charismatic," Silberman said. "Michael Jackson was the first black artist to be played regularly across the board on radio stations, MTV; he was the first to have that kind of crossover appeal. Still, despite the scandals and bad press that he has had, he has always been fantastic as a performer. Michael's electrifying."

Fair or not, there has been an ongoing media fascination with Jackson's appearance and the multiple plastic surgeries he has allegedly undergone. It goes back to 1987, when, upon the release of "Bad," Jackson suddenly appeared to have much more feminine facial features. His complexion, once brown, was lighter. His once-flat nose was reshaped, his cheekbones were more defined and his hair -- once a Jeri Curled Afro -- had been straightened.

Today, he hardly resembles the boy who fronted the Jackson 5 or even the artist who made "Off The Wall" and "Thriller." He has denied having multiple surgeries and attributes his lightened complexion to the skin disease vitiligo.

Perhaps the media are partly to blame for Jackson's inability to escape the cloud of the 1993 molestation scandal, where a 12-year-old boy made allegations similar to the criminal charges he faces today. Jackson was never criminally charged for the 1993 allegations and he has always denied wrongdoing in that case. Santa Barbara County prosecutors decided not to pursue the case after they said the alleged victim refused to testify. But Jackson settled a civil suit filed by the boy's family for a reported $20 million, sparking questions that linger to this day.

However, in some ways, Jackson himself may be responsible for some of his bad press.

In 2002, he generated international headlines when he dangled one of his children, a then-infant Prince Michael II, over a balcony while greeting fans in Germany. And in "Living With Michael Jackson," he raised eyebrows when he talked about his fondness for having innocent sleepovers with children at Neverland. While holding hands with his accuser in his criminal case, he said, "Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone."

Arguably, Jackson could have been more public relations-savvy. But some Jackson fans say they have never cringed at some of Jackson's actions or comments. Jackson's words in "Living With Michael Jackson" were taken out of context, his supporters say, and the media focused on the more sexual, sinister innuendo of his statements.