In September of 1997, just a few weeks after the tragic death of Princess Diana, Michael sat down with Barbara Walters at the George V Hotel in Paris, France. He talked about dealing with the press, fatherhood, what life was like from inside the fishbowl that had made up his world since childhood-and about his own premonition of death.
I had been thinking about this interview for awhile, and with all the negative stuff that has been in the news lately, it seemed a good time to revisit and reflect on Michael’s words. I have seen a lot of his interviews, but there is something about the raw vulnaerability of this one that always gets to me. So I thought I would go back and look at some of the highlights from this interview. You can read the entire interview transcript at:
The interview kicks off, interestingly and eerily enough, with a reminder from Walters who says that with the passing of Princess Diana, there is only one celebrity left who can possibly understand what that level of fame is like:
Barbara: Up until last week the most photographed people in the world were Princess Diana and Michael Jackson. Now only one remains to talk about what it means to live under that kind of scrutiny…
Re-reading those words now, I couldn’t help but reflect on the truth and sadness of them. Yes, only one remained who could talk about “what it means to live under that kind of scrutiny” but in the end, it all caught up with him and killed him, too. I remember someone (I am fairly certain it was Diana’s brother, but don’t quote me on that-it’s been too long ago) saying that Diana was like a deer chased down by hunters. Michael, too, was a hunted animal. If you watch his body language in the interview, his whole demeanor is that of a hunted deer caught in the headlights, cornered; perhaps even wounded, but still fighting; still running; still trying with everything he had to lash back. He even uses the animal metaphor to apply to himself and his relation with the press:
“You should not say, “He’s an animal…he’s a…” You should not say, “He’s Jacko.” I’m not a ‘Jacko’. I’m Jackson.”-Michael Jackson, to Barabara Walters.
In one of the interview’s most revealing moments, Michael confessed that he thought he would be the next one to die. Just as with the oft-quoted statement he allegedly made to Lisa Marie, that he would end up like her dad, it seemed Michael had been living for quite some time-at least since the mid 90′s-with the shadow hanging over his head. Contrary to what some of the tabloids will say, I don’t buy for a minute that he was suicidal or had a “death wish” or anything of the sort. But I think he had, for many years, lived with an uneasy premonition that his death WOULD occur young, that it WOULD be under tragic circumstances, and that, for him, there WOULD be need for concern as to how his legacy and relationship with the press would affect the lives of his children once he was gone. (At the time, Prince was still an only child, but Paris was on the way).
Barbara: How did you hear of her death?
Michael: Um…I woke up (in a quiet and reflective voice) and my doctor gave me the news. And I fell back down in grief, and I started to cry. The pain…I felt inner pain, in my stomach, and in my chest. (his voice starts to break slightly) So, I said, “I can’t handle this…it’s too much.” Just the message and the fact that I knew her personally. Then on top of that one I said, “There’s another one…real soon…I feel it coming…there’s another one….it’s another one coming and I pray it’s not me…please don’t let it be me.” And then Mother Theresa came…
Barbara: Are you psychic…is that what you’re saying?
Michael: I don’t want to say that, but I’ve done it before.
Barbara: And you thought it might be you?
Michael: Yes. (looks down at his folded hands) I’ve been living that kind of life all my life. The tabloid press…that kind of press…not the press…the tabloids, the paparazzi, that type. I’ve been running for my life like that, hiding, getting away. You can’t go that way ’cause they’re over there…well lets go this way and pretend we’re going that way…and we’ll go that way. Someone should say, “Hold on! Stop! This person deserves their privacy. You’re not allowed to go in there!” I go around the world dealing with running and hiding. You can’t…I can’t take a walk in the park…I can’t go in the store…you can’t…I have to hide in the room. You feel like you’re in prison.
In the past months, I’ve often seen criticisms of Michael for selling Prince’s baby photos to the tabloids. These “critics” will say, If he was always so concerned about his childrens’ privacy, and so against the tabloids as he claimed, why did he do it? Well, there is an old saying among my people that you can’t judge a man (or woman, either) until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. Few of us really have an inkling of what it’s like to live with that level of fame, nor the things it can drive you to do just to buy a little peace.
Barbara: You have said, “I grew up in a fishbowl. I will not allow that to happen to my son.” Yet, when your son was born, you sold pictures to the National Enquirer and to other European papers, tabloids. Why did you do that?
Michael: Because there was a race. There were some illegal pictures out. Illegally, somebody had taken pictures of a baby…millions of dollars…said, “Here’s Michael’s son.”
Barbara: And it wasn’t, as I recall.
Michael: And it wasn’t. So, I took pictures of the baby. I said, “They’re forcing me to get his pictures.” There’s helocopters flying above us…flying over my house…flying over the hospital, um, machines and satellites all over. Even the hospital said, “Michael, we’ve had every kind of celebrity here…but we’ve never had it like this. This is unbelievable.” And so I said, “Here, take it.” And I gave the money to charity
Barbara: So, rather than…what you’re saying is…what you did was to get them off your back.
Michael: Yeah…and now they want to do it again…and I don’t want..maybe I don’t want to show him to the world like that. I want him to have some space…where he can go to school. I don’t want him to be called “Wacko Jacko” that’s not nice. They call the father that. That isn’t nice…right?
Barbara: You said you don’t want your child to be called “wacko jacko’s son”. How are you going to prevent it, so they don’t do it to him?
Michael: That’s the thing…that’s the idea. Maybe you should come up with a plan to help me.
Barbara: You’re his daddy.
Michael: There you go. They created that. Did they ever think I would have a child one day…that I have a heart? It’s hurting my heart. Why pass it on to him?
One has to wonder, did Michael, in fact, spend the last decade of his life with these thoughts always in the back of his mind: What’s going to happen if I have to leave my kids? What kind of legacy will they inherit as the children of Michael Jackson (or “Wacko Jacko” as he must have thought bitterly at least a million times). I’m sure he didn’t plan on leaving them at age 50. But like most parents who start their families late in life, there must have always been the nagging fear of “What if I can’t stick around long enough to see this through?” As a single parent, it had to have been an even more heavy burden on his mind and heart. In most family units, you can pretty much bank on at least one parent still being there, should something happen to one of them.
But Michael didn’t exactly have that option. True, it was by his own choice. But it was what it was.
Every time I see this interview, I come away feeling sad for him on the one hand, yet also with renewed admiration for his tender spirit and the love he expresses for his son and children-to-be.
One of my favorite answers he gives is when Barbara asks him what he would say if his son wanted to be a performer.
Barbara: Michael, if this little boy says, “Daddy, I want to go on stage.”
Michael: (laughs and slaps his leg)
Barbara: After what you’ve been through?
Michael: I’d say, “Hold on, now. Hold on. If you do go that way, expect this…expect this…expext that.” (counts on his fingers)
Barbara: You’d lay it all out?
Michael: I’d lay it all out. I’d say, “See you’re gonna get all this, (points to one of the cameras) and all this (points to another camera) and all this (points to a third camera) You ready to do that?” “Yeah, I can’t wait.” Then I would say, “Go…and do it better than I did.”
The interview can be seen in two parts: