Saturday, April 2, 2011

Interview with Stewart Backerman

Stuart Backerman is an award winning theatrical producer, national television correspondent, professional city planner, media-relations expert and an honors graduate of the State University of New York School of Business Management.

Stuart formed his own production company, B. E. L. Enterprises Ltd. in order to produce major arts and cultural projects on an international scale. He has promoted and produced a number of major international concerts, and his company was one of the producers for the Broadway musical I Love My Wife starring the Smothers Brothers on Broadway, the musical satire Six Women with Brain Death (which was awarded a coveted Sterling Award) and the national tour and Broadway production of Peter Pan, The Musical, which starred Cathy Rigby, and won a prestigious Tony Award in 1990 in New York, for the Broadway production. He also wrote and produced the King of Swing, a musical play on the life of Benny Goodman.
Stuart was introduced to Michael as a result of Peter Pan, The Musical, and became his worldwide official spokesperson, advisor and media relations representative during one of the most tumultuous periods of Michael’s life.

In this deeply personal and in-depth interview, Stuart shares with us his experiences of working with Michael.

Transcribed by Valmai Owens.

Valmai:  Stuart, you have a very impressive resume and list of credits to your name, but probably one of the things you are most noted for is your professional relationship with Michael Jackson. How did you get hired on as Michael’s publicist and spokesperson?

Stuart:  Well, when Michael hired Dieter Weisner, he also hired a fellow by the name of Ronald Konitzer, who lives in Vancouver, Canada. A colleague of mine told me that he would like me to have lunch with one of Michael Jackson’s new managers, which was Ronald.

So we had lunch in the spring of 2002, and we were talking about Michael and his new approach to his career which was reaching out and doing more business deals and less performing. He also wanted to perhaps; if he was going to perform again, do a Broadway Show. He had done The Whiz, and he had enjoyed that very much, but he hadn’t done anything theatrical on stage.

I happened to produce Peter Pan the Musical starring Cathy Rigby, in 1990. In fact, I introduced her as a professional performer to North America, and it was a very, very successful production that eventually went to Broadway, toured the United States and won a Tony award. Ronald Konitzer became very excited about that because Michael of course saw himself as Peter Pan, very much. Ronald asked my permission to talk to Michael about me coming onboard, and working with Michael to produce the musical with him in the lead role as Peter Pan. So that really started the ball rolling.

Ronald called me in due course after our brief lunch, from Neverland, and told me that Michael very much wanted to pursue the Broadway show with me being involved. Michael got on the phone and said that he was very excited about the possibility, and wanted me to come down to Neverland as quickly as I could to discuss the project and process. So, that’s what happened; that’s how we connected initially, with the thought that Michael would perform in a major Broadway production starring as Peter Pan. 

Valmai:  What was your first meeting like with Michael?

Stuart:  You know, you meet a lot of people in your life, and when you are introduced to them for the first time you get an initial impression of them. In the case of meeting Michael Jackson for the first time, there was just something very, very different about it. Obviously you don’t meet a star or celebrity or performer as great as Michael Jackson for no reason, but what I’m saying is that there is a presence about Michael. When you meet him it strikes you very, very quickly, and I really in a sense, was taken-aback by him being such a regular person. He was so empathetic and natural, and that automatically put me at ease.  

Of course, I’ve been very blessed and fortunate in my life to work with major politicians; the Premier of The Province of British Columbia, the Mayor of Vancouver and various other celebrities that I’ve worked with on theatrical projects, but like I said, Michael was natural and very accessible. I felt tremendously at ease; not-withstanding the fact I was meeting with another celebrity because I was a little nervous at first. I was brought down to Neverland and just that experience alone was very impactful. So I guess I entered the meeting with a little bit of trepidation, but Michael made me feel very much at ease. It was a very positive and open meeting.

Valmai:  Stuart did you get to spend a lot of time at Neverland?

Stuart:  I saw MJ a number of times at Neverland in different situations, but I’ll never forget a particular time in September of 2003. Michael convinced his team, including myself, that he wanted to make Neverland more accessible. So we devised a plan to have a major fund-raising charity event. It was a couple of weeks after his official birthday which was celebrated in Los Angeles. And that’s an interesting side story that I won’t get into other than to say, Michael never celebrated his birthday because he was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness.

We convinced him to celebrate his birthday in a very formidable way at the Orpheum Theater. Then, we also convinced him to carry that birthday feeling on at this charity event about two weeks later. This was done all on the basis that Michael wanted Neverland to be much more accessible to the public. He felt that Neverland was some sort of arcane place that very few people came to, except people he invited; his family and very close associates, but he wanted more people to be able to experience the beauty and peacefulness of Neverland.

So we had this incredible charity event; a lot of stars and celebrities showed up and Michael was so happy and so feeling the energy. That I remember very distinctly; that whole experience of seeing him at Neverland at that time kind of trumped all the other times I had seen him there, but all the other times had been mostly talking business. So, this time was different because Michael was the instigator of the event, and he really played the role of host very, very well. I will never forget the joy and happiness he exuded during that particular time at Neverland.

Valmai:  So you weren’t specifically hired to be his spokesperson?

Stuart:  I was originally hired to produce the Peter Pan musical on Broadway, with Michael as Peter Pan and maybe Alice Cooper as Captain Hook. That’s who we had talked about trying to get, but unfortunately, as things were starting to come together including a phone call to Alice Cooper and some other preparations, the baby dangling incident prior to the Bambi Awards in Berlin, occurred. Because of all the negative publicity and the world-wide screaming about Michael’s irresponsibility, which of course was foolish, we felt that to try and do Peter Pan with its theme about young children and lost boys, the timing wasn’t right. So, because Michael and I had gotten on so well up to that point, it was determined by Michael that I would be his spokesperson and publicist. He wanted to have one person that was able to speak for and represent him to the global media.

I think, to tell you the truth, and this is a heartfelt statement, Michael felt that I was the first person on his team that was reasonably normal. When I say normal, I’m as nutty as anyone else in this world, but normal in a sense that I’d been married  for 33 years at that time, I have a family that is very important to me, I’m reasonably well educated and I was not from Hollywood. He felt that a family guy like me who had a normal career outside of show business; for example I started out as an Urban Planner, I have a Masters Degree and I did a lot of things before I got involved in entertainment in a very entrepreneurial way. Michael felt that was exactly who he needed, and so it was kind of serendipitous not only because he liked Peter Pan, but he liked me because of my family background. So he asked me to become his global spokesman and we would do Peter Pan at a later date. So of course I accepted, and that’s how that came about.

Valmai:  I read somewhere that you were in the hotel room with Michael when he showed Blanket to the fans. Is this correct or just a rumor?

Stuart:  No, I was in Vancouver, but Dieter called me from Michael’s hotel room in Berlin.

Valmai:  Was part of your job was also to counteract the negative press Michael received? I’m referring to Bashir’s documentary, in which he deliberately and unethically attempted to cast Michael in the worst possible light. Did you take part in any of the counter measures?

Stuart:  Yes, and how we wanted to counteract negative publicity and negative image in some sections of the media, was to make him appear as he was. People unfortunately believe everything they read and see on television. Michael at that time, in 2002 and 2003, and before that of course, was portrayed almost as a lunatic.

I and his team certainly knew him to be very, very different because Michael was really on top of things. He knew where he wanted to go and he knew what he wanted to accomplish. What we were trying to accomplish as a team, really was segueing him from his performing years because he was approaching fifty at that time. He told me a number of times that he didn’t want to be an organ grinder’s monkey doing “Billie Jean” into his fifties. He wanted to elevate his game and be involved more at a professional and creative level; being involved in business at a managerial level and not necessarily having to do the stuff he did when he was in his twenties and thirties.

So we felt the best way to accomplish that was to really make him more accessible to the public. That sort of started off a chain of events where after we took care of the Bashir interview that got the world upset about Michael because of the scene with Gavin Arvizo, we were fortunate in locating footage that showed that Martin Bashir was duplicitous. Off-camera, what Martin Bashir was saying to Michael and to all of us, was that Michael was the greatest person in the world, children loved him so much, and he was impressed with how Michael conducted himself. Then of course with our camera, that interview was packaged in a very different way. We took steps very, very quickly to locate this footage that showed him being very duplicitous. Then we put together what it is now called the rebuttal documentary on Fox which Maury Povich hosted, and put to rest Martin Bashir’s insinuations about Michael.

From there, we were in a free position; a more open and flexible position to begin the strategy of segueing Michael from performing into business. That included him going back to Gary, Indiana, which was very successful in showing that he really cares about his roots; he cares about his family, he cares about where he came from, and we felt that that was a very important base point to show the public that he’s a sensitive, caring person. And he is, very, very much. Sometimes he cared too deeply about people and sacrificed himself; a lot of times got caught unawares by people he thought he could trust who in the end screwed him in a sense.

We felt it was important to bring him out to the public showing him to be the kind of person he really is. So, we went to Gary, Indiana; we had this charity event and we brought him to Las Vegas where he got the key to the city from Mayor Goodman, and a number of activities in the following months after the Bashir interview, as a way to show the world that Michael is not some kind of crazy hermit who is stranger or whatever. We wanted the public to really know him like we knew him, and that’s sort of the background.

Valmai:  So, all these things you are talking about was part of planning Michael’s comeback in a way. He also wanted to move forward into Motion Pictures didn’t he?

Stuart:  Yes, and he was particularly interested in animation. We connected with an animation company in Montreal, who had done an animated film called Pinocchio 5000. Michael met with the owner of the company called Cine Works. This company was very interested in helping Michael either purchase the firm and taking what was already in the works and pursuing them, or to work for them as sort of like a President of the company. He’d be involved in doing some of the voice-over work, some singing, some choreographic moves, be involved in some of the script writing, and have both a creative and managerial role in seeing major animated films come to Hollywood.

That’s an example of the kind of thing he was beginning to look at beyond straight performing. This was pursued very aggressively, and it would have happened if it wasn’t for, of course, the raid at Neverland by Tom Sneddon. That ended everything at that time. It’s very unfortunate, because we were all close to signing a major deal with City Works when the raid occurred. So that sort of ended that very quickly.

Like I said, that’s kind of an example of the things he wanted to get into as part of his comeback, but let me be clear, the comeback didn’t include a sort of O2 series of concerts. He only did that at the end because of a financial need, and most of us believe that never in a millions years would he have been able to do fifty concerts, even if they were spread out over a period of time. Honestly Valmai, he never really had his heart in performing again. He felt like that he was a father now; he had a responsibility to be with his family and that was a priority.

He wanted to package his life very differently where he would be in a more executive or managerial role, creative nonetheless, but not performing all over the place and touring and the kind of lifestyle that incurs. Michael didn’t think that would be a wholesome way to raise his family. So for anybody out there that doesn't believe Michael Jackson loved his family, and didn’t have them as his number one priority, even before his career; his family was more important than his so-called performing career, and he was willing to for emotional and family reasons, to change in his mid-forties from a performer to a business man. That’s what he really wanted. 

Valmai:  Right, right, but then he lost that opportunity when, like you said, Sneddon raided Neverland.

Stuart:  That is the saddest thing in the world. He and his team had actually accomplished all that was set out before, during and after the Bashir debacle. That strategy I was talking about before really had come into play. The Gary, Indiana trip was tremendously successful and the charity event was unbelievable; everybody in North America was writing about Neverland and what was happening there, the Las Vegas Radio Music Award Show as a humanitarian, and his birthday at The Orpheum Theater which he had never done before, and where he allowed his adoring fans from all over the world to enjoy that with him. All those things were tremendously successful, and they were culminating right at the time when Tom Sneddon and the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office decided they wanted to get Michael again. And they really did in a sense, kybosh these tremendous plans and strategy that was just about ready to be put into play. Very sad, very, very sad.

Valmai:  Yes, it was very sad for Michael. Now Dieter Weisner was the one who broke the news to Michael, and he spoke of Michael’s reaction and shock. Did you witness any reaction yourself in the days that followed after the raid?

Stuart:  Not really. It was such an emotionally wrenching time. The day that the raid took place, I spoke to Dieter in Las Vegas. I was back in Vancouver and I had left Las Vegas a couple of nights before the raid. Michael, his family, myself and a few other aides, were going to go to Europe for about six or seven weeks, on to Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela, and then over to South America to do about a three month publicity tour for his Number Ones album, and to continue this process of making himself more accessible to his fans and the public. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

When Michael woke up; Dieter let him sleep that morning, he told Michael the news and it was obviously very, very difficult for Michael. He felt that he had gotten passed the 1993 Jordy Chandler furor, and he was very, very, very upset. I happened to call Dieter, who was in Michael’s hotel suite at The Mirage, and he asked Michael whether or not he wanted me to do or say anything specific to the media. At that point, they were calling me from all over the world asking me for comments about the issue that had already been leaked about a child molestation situation. Obviously it turned out to be the whole Gavin Arvizo charge.

I heard Michael over the phone saying, “No, I trust Stuart to say the right things and represent me as positively as possible.” So I didn’t talk to Michael directly in those moments, but in a way I really did because he basically put his trust in me to act the spokesman, and give off the most positive reflection of who Michael Jackson really is.

Valmai:  Right, and now we have a new trial coming up. I have heard this said, and I have asked others their opinion on this, Dr. Murray maybe the one sitting in the courtroom accused of Involuntary Manslaughter, but in reality it will be Michael who will once again be put on trial. Do you agree with this?

Stuart:  I do agree with that statement to a certain degree. Even though Dr. Murray is the one who has been charged and has to defend himself, it will be Michael to a certain degree that will be on trial. The defense will try and show or indicate that Michael hurt himself and that Dr. Murray was there to assist.
I’m afraid that the defense will try and make Michael look like a drug addict, and a sad person who had a natural need in a sense. That’s very troubling to me that Michael will be put on trial again, and I feel that’s very unfortunate.

Valmai:  Well the defense has already started moving in that direction; on the premise that Michael was an addict, and that he injected himself. Stuart, what was your strategy during the 2005 trial?

Stuart:  The strategy was to tell the truth, and let Janet Arvizo “hang herself” with her lies.

Valmai:  What would you say was the most outrageous or challenging thing that came across your desk before or during the trial?

Stuart:  The co-conspirator charges against Michael etc. were absolutely laughable. The Arvizo family was hucksters from the beginning, and Michael paid the price for his generosity and his foolishness. By that I mean, he shouldn’t have let Martin Bashir film Gavin…It was a bad mistake.

Valmai:  Stuart, you resigned from Michael publically on CNN after working for him for 20 months. Are you able to share your reasons why?

Stuart:  Yes, I NEVER would have left Michael’s employ if it wasn’t for the infiltration, and covert takeover by The Nation of Islam. The NOI had only one familiar agenda, and that was to soak Michael out of his monies because as soon as they gained control, they started making business deals on the side that were amateurish at best, and not in Michael’s interest. In fact, in my opinion Mark Geragos and the NOI hurt Michael’s legal defense strategy by their tasteless PR antics…That’s why Tom Messereau was appointed after Geragos/NOI were fired, and rightly so!

Valmai:  Did you have any contact with Michael at all after you resigned?

Stuart:  Yes, I had two brief conversations with Michael and his brother Randy, about me coming back to work for him, but it was too late. Raymone Bain was already screwing up any chance to represent Michael in a dignified way befitting an innocent man.

Valmai:  Stuart, in 2008 you did an interview with the MJFC in which you spoke of Michael in a very positive and loving way, but in another interview you did immediately after Michael's death with The Vancouver Sun, you talk about him quite differently. There is just a huge difference between these two interviews and what you are saying. It begs the question, why?

Stuart:  Could be a little more specific? What did I say that was different?

Valmai:  Well, like I said, the 2008 interview with the MJFC was very positive toward Michael. In the 2009 interview however, you say Michael was a class contradiction; too much money; too much material focus, and too much of the prescription drug situation following the unfortunate scalding of his head. You mention that you saw him being disloyal to people, that he was not all there at times, that he wasn’t so swift on the business side, he wore wigs that made him look strange, that he was an idiot with the Bashir documentary, “That was the stupidest thing in the world, and he was warned about it, but Michael does what Michael wants.” And, “I’d like to think that Michael Jackson had innocent relationships with these boys, similar to what a lot of 12 and 11 and 13-year-old boys might experiment with, in a sense. Kind of innocently. ‘I’ll show you mine, you show me yours’ kind of situation, at the most.” Etc…

Stuart:  I can’t compare what I said in that article to another time and place because I am not sure how they are set against each other. I will say this, the interview I did with The Vancouver Sun was the day after Michael passed away. Number one, I don’t know if you know this, but I had knee surgery the day Michael died and I did this interview the next day. I think I revealed some things that I wouldn’t normally reveal if it wasn’t for the fact that I was still a little “punchy” from the surgery.

Number two is, clearly I was feeling very upset. A lot of things sort of came up and I think it’s important to understand that. Like I said before, Michael and I were about to go on a huge trip that he very much wanted to do. When that didn’t happen because of the raid and the charges, I think I was still feeling a little upset about the disappointment that we weren’t still working together. That was a function of Michael allowing, being quite honest with you because he was in a very vulnerable state of mind, I’ll say that, but nonetheless, allowing the Nation of Islam and their followers so to speak, to basically take over his affairs was very upsetting to me.

So I think when I heard that he had passed away, and again, right after the surgery, I said some things that were probably more revealing that I normally would have said about him. I guess I was sort of ruminating about the whole sadness of the situation in that Michael had insomnia; he couldn’t sleep, he really couldn’t, and because of that situation he did take sleeping medication. That clearly had an impact on his life.
We didn’t see him during the day because he stayed up all night and slept in so to speak. Obviously that stuff affects you. It affected his ability to gain weight, it affected how he felt about himself, it affected how he acted in a general way, and normally I wouldn’t have went there at all. Because he died suddenly, and I was in surgery that day and did this interview, I wasn’t as guarded as what I normally would have been. I probably said way too much that I would normally say in an interview.

That’s the best I think I can explain. After I read the interview, I was a little upset about how I was quoted, but it’s not the reporters fault. I said those things, but my excuse so to speak, is that I was a little foggy and I was depressed about Michael’s death. It brought up a lot of old feelings about still being a bit resentful about the fact that our relationship ended so abruptly with the Nation of Islam; a group that is so anti-love, so anti-Michael Jackson philosophy that it always disturbed me.

I haven’t done all that many interviews frankly, after I left Michael’s employ, and I guess a lot of things kind of coalesced in my head the day after The Vancouver Sun called me, which was the day after he died. That I think is the best way I can explain it; why and what I said during that interview. I hope that explains it.

Valmai:  It does explain some things. Stuart, you wrote a book titled, In the Court of the King. Has this book ever been published?

Stuart:  No. I decided that I didn’t want to publish the book in respect for Michael. By the way, the book was a very positive reflection of my experiences with Michael. Some fans thought that it might be negative, but I wrote this long before he died; a couple of years before he died and I was frankly in the process of publishing the book at the time. But I decided when Michael died that I just didn’t want to get involved with looking like a blood-sucker so to speak, or taking advantage of his death.

I just felt that I had talked to the media and said enough about Michael that it didn’t really require for me to publish a book about him. But let me be very clear, if I ever do publish this book, it’s a positive story about Michael Jackson. It is not a dig; it’s not a tell-all in sense that makes Michael look bad at all. I love Michael. My experience in working with him was one of the most dynamic, exciting and most loving experiences in my life.

I consider myself a reasonably honest and straightforward person, but this is very, very important to me; when you love somebody, whether it be a family member, a spouse, a close friend, even if they are in trouble so to speak, you support them and love them. That’s the way I always felt with Michael Jackson. Even though I saw some things in Michael that were troubling which he himself saw; his anxiousness, his lack of sleep, sometimes some very knee-jerk reactions and decisions because of the state of mind he was in etc, wasn’t important to me in terms of the way I judged Michael. I did not judge him, and so like a family member you love the person, but you’re honest enough to see some of their weaknesses and of course their strengths.

The book I wrote about Michael was a very positive, very loving story about my experiences with Michael. In terms of publishing it, to tell you the truth, I just didn’t feel that it was a good time to kind of pile on, in a sense, with everybody else publishing books about Michael. It just didn’t feel right and it wouldn’t have looked right. But even if I did publish the book, the fans shouldn’t have been concerned that it would have been a negative book or that I would have been another Ian Halperin or some of those other dirty dogs who wrote books that don’t make Michael look good. The book I wrote would have made Michael look the way he is; loving, beautiful, sensitive, caring, but also a little nutty and complicated just like me and you, you know?

Michael had his stuff too. He wasn’t a God, he wasn’t a Jesus incarnate, he wasn’t Buddha, he was Michael Jackson; a tremendous, incredible, dynamic performer, a loving father, generous and good to his friends, but he had his things, you know? He was eccentric, he did have sleeping problems, and he did try and address his sleeping problems in a kind of negative way in a sense, and that impacted his life. So, you are either honest about somebody or you put them on a pedestal, and look the other way about the things that maybe or should be addressed; that maybe or should be mitigated in some fashion. When you talk about someone, it doesn’t make sense to be anything else but totally honest, but in conclusion, while Michael had some weaknesses and stuff he desperately needed to work on, overall, he was one of the most amazing people that I ever, ever met in my entire life.

Valmai:  Do you think that this description for your book might have led the fans to believe it was negative and a tell-all?

“Backerman gives the reader Michael without his make-up in his riveting depiction of what happens when celebrity cracks up and damage control starts. Packed with anecdotes and fascinating inside information, In The Court Of The King is a unique and stylishly-written memoir, engaging and profound, a highly personal portrait of Jackson and his world that is unflinching in its honesty and disquieting in its implications.”

Stuart:  Yes, but that’s just titillating headlines. The book itself was a positive reflection of my memories.

Valmai:  How did working for Michael Jackson change your life and career?

Stuart:  Working for Michael did change my life. I want to answer this question in a very focused way.  Michael’s propensity to give of himself taught me that giving, not so much in monetary terms, but giving of yourself as a person, is the most important thing you can do in your life. The way he treated me and treated the people around me with such dignity and respect, and given that he was such a huge celebrity; many celebrities treat their friends, hired help, colleagues and even family, terribly, but Michael was just the opposite. Michael gave of himself and treated people with respect and dignity because that was who he really was as a person, even though he had his share of issues.

That helped me, because when you see a celebrity of such magnitude like him being a humble person with tremendous humility, and like I said, giving of himself and sometimes sacrificing himself to his own detriment, made me feel that if somebody like him could do that then I have to begin to really to look at my own life, and act that way more and more to the people that are around me. He had a tremendous influence on my life because of just who he was as a person, and that helped me to become a better person.

Valmai:  I have heard so many people who worked with Michael say the exact same thing; how he affected their lives.

Stuart:  It’s true! I could tell you other things; how he affected my life. Obviously I got a much higher profile; people thought that if I was working with Michael Jackson I was the greatest, and that kind of stuff, but I’m telling you that that kind of stuff didn’t make a difference. The most important thing that changed my life from working with Michael was what I told you. ..The spiritual dimension...

Valmai:  Stuart, what do you think the public and fans still don’t know or understand about Michael?

Stuart:  He was very, very funny.

Valmai:  What do you miss the most about your days with Michael?


Valmai:  Stuart, can I ask what your opinion is of the MJTP; the whole concept of it and what we are trying do on the site?

Stuart:  I think it’s brilliant! It’s the one opportunity for fans to really join in as one; to participate together in a project would be something that I think Michael would cherish. The Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait is the most accessible way for fans in general from all over the world, to have the opportunity to work together, basically. I think that is critically important because no matter what else you think of Michael Jackson, his mission in life was to create peaceful love in this world.

There were numerous examples of that including the song “Heal the World,” the Heal the World Foundation and various other things he did; quiet things he did in a charitable way. So, to have an opportunity for of all his fans to work together; to preserve his legacy and his image, would be something that he would be tremendously emotional about.

If you would like to ask your own questions of Stuart, please send them to

© Valmai Owens, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This article appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive, and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.

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