Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Under a Microscope

In 1986, Michael was at the height of his fame and a superstar of epic proportions. He had set artistic standards few others could ever hope to attain to, and had risen from the cute, multi-talented child fronting the Jackson 5, to become a worldwide phenomenon. He had broken ground, broken rules, broken down barriers, and gained the love and support of millions of fans. He had also attracted a great deal of attention from the media.

The shift from extolling Michael’s talents and achievements in the music industry, to scrutinizing his personal life wasn’t exactly subtle. His philanthropy and humanitarianism was greatly ignored by the press, in favor of examining his changing appearance and lifestyle. Under the watchful eyes of the world, Michael was put under a microscope to be analyzed, discussed, questioned, speculated on and ridiculed. A lot that was written about him was based on only the smallest grain of truth, but it made headlines.

When National Enquirer published pictures of Michael sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, along with the report that he was using it to help keep him alive until he was 150, the consensus was and still is by the tabloids, that he had deliberately staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt. If this is correct then it worked, because it caused sensational headlines around the world and drew even closer scrutiny from the media and public alike.

Did Michael leak this story and others that followed? In an interview with Will Doig of Nerve, which was published  December 5, 2006, Iain Calder, who was editor for the National Enquirer when the story of the hyperbaric chamber was run, gives us his version of how it all unfolded.

Doig: Most people assume that celebrities hate the National Enquirer, but actually they've often worked in concert with the magazine to put together certain stories.

Calder: Sure. They'd work with us behind the scenes; get their faces on the cover, then go to their cocktail parties and say, "I don't know how that rotten rag got that story." We ran a front-page picture of Michael Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. We got sent the picture by one of his representatives. He said, "He sleeps in there because he thinks he's going to live past one hundred." I looked at the picture, and I said, "That looks like Michael Jackson, but I can't tell if it's really Michael Jackson. This guy is probably sending us a phony picture." Sometimes people would try to catch us on various things so they could say, "Look, the Enquirer is false!" So I said, "Send me another picture where I can really see its Michael Jackson." Well, a few days later I get another picture of Michael. He'd climbed back into that box and got his picture taken again.

Doig: And you ran it.

Calder: We ran it, under two conditions from Michael's people: it had to be front page, and we had to use the word "bizarre." Because that was his shtick at the time: Michael is bizarre. So we ran it with the story. We said "bizarre." The whole bit. And it sold very well. Then Michael went on television and said, "How did they get that picture? Yes, I was in there, but I don't sleep in it, blah blah blah . . .
The Enquirer also reported Michael as saying, “I've taken several long naps in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and when I awoke I felt like a new person - I've never felt better. I definitely want one for my home so I can sleep in it at night. I plan to get one immediately. I want to live to see world peace, a world without hunger, a world where children and all mankind know no suffering.
I believe if I treat my body properly I'll live to be at least 150."

Interestingly, the Enquirer failed to mention that Michael first became aware of hyperbaric chambers and oxygen therapy, that helps to  speed the healing process for burn victims, after he himself received horrific burns during the filming of the Pepsi commercial in 1984. But sources seem to differ here.  It is said that he saw the chamber at Brotman Memorial Hospital and with the $1.2 million settlement he received from Pepsi, donated the money to the Michael Jackson Burn Center. One of the machines that was purchased was a hyperbaric chamber and it was suggested that he try it out for himself. He climbed inside it and pictures were taken. Other sources claim that he actually underwent oxygen therapy to help heal his burns.

In The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, Randy Taraborrelli writes that it was Michael’s idea to promote this story, not only as a gimmick to promote the film Captain EO, but also to see what sort of a reaction he would get from it. Taraborrelli also writes that Michael had been angered by other untrue stories written about him by the media, and that with this story he could get the satisfaction of knowing he had tricked them into believing it.

In the time that directly followed the hyperbaric chamber hoopla, other stories printed by the media were also said to have been leaked, notably the one concerning Michael’s offer to buy the bones of Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man). Although this was found to be untrue, it caused another round of sensational headlines and high ratings for publications, proving that people in general were prepared to believe anything they read. As the gossip spread and tabloid media began making up their own stories, Michael was eventually dubbedWacko Jacko by British tabloids, a title he came to detest.

In 1993, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michael at his Neverland Ranch, and during its course he finally dispelled some of the myths and rumors that had surrounded his life for so long. He freely admitted that he had bought the hyperbaric chamber and had donated it to the Brotman Medical Center, but refuted claims that he had purchased it for himself and slept in it to slow down  the aging process, stating that he was not afraid to grow old.

Michael: It's crazy. Why would I want to sleep in a chamber?

Oprah: The rumor was that you were sleeping in the chamber because you didn't want to grow old.

Michael: That's stupid. It's completely made up. I'm embarrassed. I'm willing to forgive the press, or forgive anybody, I was taught to love and forgive, which I do have in my heart, but please don't believe these crazy, horrifying things.

Michael further denied any knowledge of how the National Enquirer came to print the story and emphatically denied claims he had leaked the story himself as a publicity stunt. The photographs were easily explained. He had simply climbed in the chamber to check it out and with most things Michael did, there was always a photographer close buy to capture the moment.

As far as buying the bones of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man?

Oprah: Did you buy the Elephant man's bones? Were you trying to get them for...

Michael: No. That's another stupid story. I love the story of the Elephant Man, he reminds me of me a lot, and I could relate to it, it made me cry because I saw myself in the story, but no I never asked for the...where am I going to put some bones?...

Michael: ....and why would I want some bones?

Oprah: I don't know. So where did that story come from?

Michael: Someone makes it up, and everybody believes it. If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.

Unfortunately most publications discounted Michael's explanations as lies, a practice the media would continue until the day he died. As he remarked to Taraborelli:

Why not just tell people I'm an alien from Mars. Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They'll believe anything you say, because you're a reporter. But if I, Michael Jackson, were to say, "I'm an alien from Mars and I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight," people would say, "Oh, man, that Michael Jackson is nuts. He's cracked up. You can't believe a single word that comes out of his mouth."

Michael refers to the attention given him by the press several times in his book, Moonwalk:

The media write weird stuff about me all the time. The distortion of the truth bothers me. I usually don’t read a lot of what is printed, although I often hear about it.
I don’t understand why they feel the need to make up things about me. I suppose if there’s nothing scandalous to report, it’s necessary to make things interesting.

….Gradually, as I lost weight, my face took on its present shape and the press started accusing me of surgically altering my appearance, beyond on the nose job I freely admitted I had, like many performers and film stars. They would take an old picture from adolescence or high school, and compare it to a current photograph……It’s really not fair to make comparisons. They have said I had bone surgery done on my face. It seems strange to me people would jump to that conclusion and it was very unfair.

I can’t help but pick up on some of the criticism leveled at me at times. Journalists seem willing to say anything to sell a paper. They say I’ve had my eyes widened, that I want to look more white. More white? What kind of statement is that? I didn’t invent plastic surgery. It’s been around for a long time. A lot of very fine, very nice people have had plastic surgery. No one writes about their surgery and levies such criticism at them. It’s not fair. Most of what they print is a fabrication. It’s enough to make you want to ask, "What happened to truth? Did it go out of style?"

It is clear that Michael was more than just a little bothered by the criticism and distortion of truth printed by the media. With his privacy invaded at every turn and innuendos and allegations running rampant, who can blame him?

When you look at photographs of Michael taken during his 2005 trial, you see a man  broken, beaten and tortured. You get a sense of him physically and spiritually shrinking before our very eyes. His eyes are haunting and speak of his disappointment, pain, disbelief and agony of soul. I don't believe Michael would have wished this on himself for anything, anymore than I believe he was aware of just how hungry the tabloids were go to get sensational headlines, even if they had to bend a few truths to get them. If anything, Michael might have under-estimated the power of words and how they could be used and twisted to destroy a life. 

Did Michael leak stories to the media, and in doing so help to set a trend for what was to follow? Assuming he did, do you think that if he hadn’t leaked these stories would there have been the same focus on his personal life? Would the press still have diligently and persistently tried to destroy his character and tear him down?  I’m inclined to believe they would, but that’s just my personal opinion based on what I have read and come to understand from watching the tabloids ply their trade. It really comes down to the individual’s viewpoint and perspective, and at the end of the day, it's only a matter of opinion.









Moonwalk, Michael Jackson, 1988.

The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, J. Randy Taraborrelli, 1991.

© Valmai Owens, 2011.
All Rights Reserved. No re-production withour permission from author.

Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive

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