July 7, 2009 -- Thousands of Michael Jackson's friends, fans and family members attended a memorial for the pop icon Tuesday in Los Angeles, but one person who was conspicuously absent from the ceremony was a woman to whom he had once been married and who bore his two oldest children -- Debbie Rowe.
For nearly a decade, Rowe had almost no contact with those children -- an estrangement, she told a court in 2001, of her own choosing. But increasingly, it looks as though Rowe will seek custody of Jackson's children, defying the singer's will and wishes that his two sons and daughter, ages 7 to 12, be cared for by his mother, Katherine Jackson.
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As with the death of any monarch, the passing of the King of Pop has caused chaos in his empire. But of all the rumors whispered and speculation spread, of all the questions left unanswered surrounding the death and life of Michael Jackson, perhaps most intriguing of all is how the most famous man in the world married and started a family with a cipher who worked in his dermatologist's office.
It was 30 years ago that Rowe, a nursing assistant in the office of Dr. Arnold Klein, a Beverly Hills, Calif., dermatologist, first met one of his famed clients -- Michael Jackson.
"I go 'Hi'. And he goes 'Hi,' and I said, 'You know what? Nobody does what you do better, and nobody does what I do better. Let's get this over with.' And he laughed, and we just became friends. It was just right away," said Rowe in a 2003 interview. The interview, much of which had never been aired before, was obtained exclusively by ABC News from F. Marc Schaffel Productions. Schaffel is a friend of Rowe and former associate of Jackson.
The interview, like many of her statements in the first few years after her marriage and amicable divorce from Jackson, painted the singer as a loving father, to whom she was happy to turn over her children.
Not long after the 2003 interview, however, Rowe would take Jackson to court to have her parental rights reinstated. That legal maneuver, some say, may prove critical if she chooses to fight for custody of Jackson's children.
Before their chance meeting, the closest Rowe, a Washington state native whose father was in the Air Force, had come to celebrity by being on the swim team at Hollywood High. Now, there were invitations from one of the biggest stars in the world.
"He'd call and say, 'Hi what are you doing? Do you want to get a video?' We'd sneak out without security. We got caught. I thought, 'Oh my God! This is like a Beatles film. We're getting chased by people.'"
Rowe and Jackson: The Early Years
Rowe says that her early relationship with Jackson was fun and friendly but basically frivolous. She had recently come out of a first marriage and Jackson was about to wed Lisa Marie Presley.
There was plenty of talk suggesting Michael's 1994 marriage to Lisa Marie Presley was merely an attempt to boost an image that had been tarnished by accusations of child molestation and a general perception of weirdness. But some who knew the couple together said it was the real thing.
Michael and Lisa Marie talked about having children together, and Lisa Marie's recent blog speaks of true love. During their marriage, Michael had a musical rejuvenation, releasing "HIStory," a best- selling CD that included the ballad "You Are Not Alone."
But loving as it may have been, after 19 months, the marriage to Lisa Marie crumbled. Rowe said that left her friend Jackson devastated.
"I was trying to console him, because he was really upset. He was upset because he really wanted to be a dad. I said,'So be a dad.' He looked at me puzzled. That is when I looked at him and said. 'Let me do this. I want to do this. You have been so good to me. You are such a great friend. Please let me do this. You need to be a dad, and I want you to be.'"
It was an offer friends said had a built-in appeal to the King of Pop, who told them he wanted children with blond hair and blue eyes; Debbie Rowe fit the bill.
At some point the bill would come due. But Rowe said initially hers was a heartfelt offer to a generous and loving man she thought should be a father.
"I believe there are people who should be parents, and he's one of them. And he is such a fabulous man, and such a good friend, and he's always been there for me, always, from the day I met him," Rowe said.
Although she has consistently refused to discuss the couple's sex life, in this 2003 interview Rowe did say she was pregnant well before she and Michael were wed.
"There were people following me, there were people in front of my apartment, and it's scary. I mean, yeah they want a picture, but why? Why? I found out at one point that a picture of me pregnant was worth half a million dollars."
Among those making money on the pregnancy, it's been repeatedly suggested that Debbie Rowe was paid to breed Michael's children. She's repeatedly denied this -- but admitted there were certain natural benefits to being Mrs. Michael Jackson, a title she said she assumed for only one reason.
"To prevent some of the taboo of a child out of wedlock. The kids were going to have it hard enough as it was, and they didn't need to have that label upon them like their father has had so many placed upon him, they shouldn't."
While Jackson was on tour for the "HIStory" release in Australia in 1996, Rowe and Jackson wed in a private ceremony.
'Michael Was Definitely More Excited Than I Was,' Rowe Said in 2003
Their first child was a gift, said Rowe, that she wanted to give her husband Michael Jackson. The package was delivered Feb. 13, 1997, at L.A.'s Cedars Sinai Hospital.
"We were very excited. Michael was definitely more excited than I was. He was so excited when we had a contraction, and he was there. We had videos and music," Rowe said of the 23-hour labor. "But he was there the whole time. Held my hand, stroked my head."
"I had a very 'colorful' language, and every time I went to say something, Michael would cut me off with words like 'shoot' and 'fudge.' He didn't like curses. He didn't think it was necessary when other words would do," she said.
With the birth of their first child, Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., whom they called Prince, Rowe said that she never saw Jackson so happy.
"And that's what made it wonderful for me was to see the look on his face," she said.
Within three years of Prince's birth, Jackson and Rowe would divorce. According to court documents, Rowe gladly relinquished custody of the children.
Rowe and Jackson: Untraditional Parents, Family
For several years in interviews and court testimony, Rowe spoke highly of Jackson as a father and said that she had given birth to Jackson as a gift.
"I didn't do it to be a mother. I didn't change diapers. I didn't get up in the middle of the night, even when I was there, Michael did it all," she said.
"We had a boom box, you know, we had the music on, and conversation, wow, here comes another one, Michael was so excited! And he brought Prince, and I said, 'Are you sure he needs to be here?' So, this is like, you know. And he said, 'but this is so beautiful'.
In 2003, Rowe said that following the birth of their second child, a daughter, Paris, now 11, Jackson took the children and sent Rowe to live in a Beverly Hills mansion.
"You know what Michael did? He got me the most fabulous place to live. If you read the tabloids, it's the enclave of the enclave, Beverly Hills, which I have no idea what an enclave is, if it's chic-chic it's cool. I don't know. It's wonderful, beautiful yard, a place for my dogs to run and safe. And I went home. I recovered in my new home," Rowe said.
In the 2000 divorce, Rowe relinquished custody. In another hearing in 2001, she relinquished parental rights. In testimony before the court, Rowe said she had little contact with the children and wanted to remain out of their lives.
"I did it for him to become a father, not for me to become a mother. You earn the title parent. I have done absolutely nothing to earn that title," she told the court.
It now seems eerie, but when lawyers asked if she had "ever considered the possibility if Michael should die, what would happen to the children," Rowe said she trusted Jackson to pick an appropriate guardian.
"I'm sure he has a wonderful person in mind to take care of them," she told the court.
Rowe vs. Media
Perfect as Debbie Rowe said their personal arrangement turned out to be, there would be something their marriage couldn't survive -- the media attention surrounding Jackson. In death, and in life, Rowe said Michael Jackson was hounded, misunderstood and abused by the media.
Earlier this week, Rowe hurled expletives at the media, who lambasted her outside an L.A. restaurant. She felt that way when she gave this interview six years ago.
"You can only take lies for so long, and I have reached my limit, and that is why I'm doing this. I am tired of the lies, and I'm tired of the b***sh*it. He's -- the sad thing is that you guys won't get to see my Michael. And I feel sorry for you guys, because he is a very special human being. The personal Michael is indescribable. He's magnanimous. He truly is in every way."
"Had it not been for all the media stuff, I would have stayed married to him forever unless he finally got tired of me."
Minimal as her involvement with the children had been during their marriage, after the divorce Debbie Rowe said it was her idea to keep the children's public faces hidden with scarves and masks.
"That was my request, not his. Michael is very proud of his children. I am the one who is terrified someone is going to take his children. I said, 'You know what, I wear scarves, and it's no big deal. I said to pretend its Halloween,'" Rowe said in 2003.
In 2002, Jackson had a third child with another surrogate, whose name has never been made public.
That child, Prince Michael II -- also known as Blanket -- who is now 7, made headlines when Jackson dangled him over a Berlin balcony before hundreds of screaming fans.
In 2003, Rowe defended Jackson and his actions, saying, "I thought, 'Oh wow, look at the new baby.' He had a death grip on that child. That child wasn't going anywhere except right back in the room with him," Rowe said of the accident. "There's nothing inappropriate. It may not have been the best thing he's ever done in his life, but certainly I think it was made too big a deal of."
She says the media "took it and ran. ... They blew it up into something it's not."
Rowe Called 'Star Witness' in Child Molestation Case
A 2003 accusation of child molestation led to a 2005 trial. Rowe was called by the prosecution, on the theory that a bitter divorce would make her a good character witness against Jackson.
"The ones that were stunned were the prosecutors and the sheriffs, because they thought she was going to be a star witness for them, but she was a star witness for us," said Tom Mesereau, Jackson's lawyer.
"I think they hoped she would say that Michael was not a good father because they were in the middle of a contentious divorce. ... She said in effect that Michael was a loving father, that people were taking advantage of him, and she really helped us humanize him for the jury," Mesereau said.
When Jackson was acquitted of all charges, Rowe was seen as someone still firmly in the Jackson camp. But after his death, a bitter split became obvious.
Custody Battle Looms for Jackson Children
Those close to the Jackson family now say this woman who seemed so willing to pass on the job of motherhood wants custody of the children she all but ignored.
On June 29, four days after Jackson, 50, suffered apparent cardiac arrest in his Los Angeles rental home, a court granted temporary guardianship of Jackson's three children, ages 7 to 12, to their grandmother Katherine Jackson, 79.
Another hearing will be held July 13 to reconsider the guardianship. Sources close to Rowe's lawyers have said her legal team plans to attend that hearing.
Rowe's lawyers have not formally said she will ask a court to grant her custody, but Rowe last week gave an interview to a Los Angeles television station in which she said, "I want my children."
Rowe has had little contact with her children, son Prince Michael, now 12, and daughter Paris, now 11, since she divorced Jackson in 2000.
Despite her absence in the children's lives, Rowe retained parental rights and legal experts said her biological relationship to the children gsve her a valid claim to seek custody.
"Biology is very, very important," Judge Stephen Lachs -- the judge who restored Rowe's parental rights in 2003 -- told ABCNews.com.
"It's a very important factor when considering custody. But it's only one thing. When a judge looks at the best interest of children, you have to look at all the factors," he said.
"A judge is going to look at everything, including if there were settlements and how much they were for," said Lachs.
ABC News' Russell Goldman contributed to this report.