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Children show me in their playful smiles the divine in everyone. This simple goodness shines straight from their hearts and only asks to be lived

Michael Jackson

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interviews michael in the mirror - usa today interview

The first words from Michael Jackson seem to portend a candid dialogue. "Excuse my skin," he says. "I just came from the dermatologist. So pretend you don't see it." That instruction is tough to obey when dealing with the most scrutinized figure in entertainment, especially one whose many eccentricities include donning disguises in public and heavy cosmetics for the camera. While Jackson is sporting little literal makeup today, figuratively the mask never drops completely.

What was billed as a no-holds-barred interview at times entails jousting with two fiercely protective handlers determined to keep the focus on Jackson's artistry, despite earlier assurances by an Epic Records publicist of unfettered access. All topics were declared fair game except "the pedophilia issue." The settlement of a 1993 suit against Jackson, alleging sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy, forbids parties to discuss details. Jackson vehemently denied allegations at the time and has not addressed it since.

The subject is never broached during this hour-long interview. Less scandalous matters; his ex-wives, his plastic surgery odyssey, even concerns he's discussed in the past are deemed off limits as they arise.

One roadblock is hit after Jackson waxes nostalgic about famous friends. "Frank Sinatra lived right above us. He'd see us playing basketball every day. And Fred Astaire lived around the bend. I would have a chance to talk to them and learn and listen. Those were golden moments. When I was 16, we were doing Las Vegas every night, and Elvis [Presley] and Sammy Davis Jr. would sit me and my brothers in a row and lecture us. 'Don't ever do drugs,' they told us. I never forgot it."

Reminded of his own painkiller habit, Jackson goes quiet. Manager Trudy Green, monitoring the interview with Epic executive Steve Einczig, forbids him to respond, even though he confessed the addiction and subsequent treatment in a TV statement nearly a decade ago.

She interrupts again when talk steers to Debbie Rowe, who bore Jackson two children during a marriage from 1996 to 1999. He appears to have sole custody of Prince, 4, and Paris, 3, his constant companions. Asked to comment on persistent rumors that the marriage was arranged to provide offspring, Jackson falls silent.

"No, no, no!" Green protests. "This isn't what we're here for."

A second stab: Do the kids spend time with their mother?

"He doesn't want to talk about that," Green interjects. "This is about Michael as an entertainer."

Granted, the entertainer often is overlooked in the cultural obsession with Jackson's offstage life. If he agrees to dwell on personal areas, Jackson laments, "that will become the whole story."

Fair enough. Jackson's professional accomplishments during his 38 years in show business merit notice, to say the least. He's sold 65 million albums in the USA, racked up 44 solo hit singles and still holds title to history's best-selling album, 1982's Thriller, the global champ with 26 million copies.

'Invincible', released Oct. 30 [2001], entered Billboard at No. 1 with sales of 366,000 copies, about 25,000 shy of 1995's 'HIStory'. The album spawned radio hits "You Rock My World" and "Butterflies" but fell out of the top 10 after four weeks despite a self-promotion flurry capped by the Nov. 13 airing of 'Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special'. The two-hour CBS special, culled from a pair of New York concerts toasting his three decades as a solo artist, reached 25.6 million viewers, proof aplenty that Jackson remains an object of fascination.

Today is no exception. Onlookers at the Beverly Hills Hotel strain to glimpse Jackson as a path is cleared and he's swiftly ushered into a bungalow, his face concealed under a hat, sunglasses and black surgical mask. He spends 40 minutes "settling in," as Green puts it.

Finally prepared for an audience, Jackson greets his visitor with a handshake, a shy smile and the odd comment about his complexion. The makeup seems confined to his cheeks and jaw line. His eyebrows are darkened and groomed; the deep brown eyelids could be eye shadow or vestiges of his original skin tone. Vitiligo, an auto-immune disorder characterized by loss of skin pigment, has left much of his face and hands pale. His tiny nose is bandaged. He offers no explanation, and questions later about his skin condition are summarily shot down by Green.

Tall and slender, Jackson wears a brown leather jacket, red shirt, pinstripe trousers and his signature white socks with black loafers. Prince, his dark hair bleached blond, is clad in similar footwear and a kiddie police uniform, complete with plastic handcuffs hanging from a belt loop."These keys work!" he announces before returning to his drawings at a nearby table.

Seated in an upholstered chair in the softly lighted suite, Jackson appears relaxed and poised, if a tad weary. He is generous in praising peers. He's flattered by copycats and loves Alien Ant Farm's cover of "Smooth Criminal", including the video send-up of Jackson's quirks. His eyes light up at talk of upcoming movie projects, especially plans to co-direct a film with director/actor Bryan Michael Stoller in May. He laughs about his earthquake phobia, turns glum when reflecting on a domineering father and gives weight to theories of his eternal boyhood in enthusiastic chatter about toys and theme parks.

Jackson radiates unshakable self-confidence about his musical skills and flashes irritation only when pressed about the press. A rare interview subject, he agreed to this encounter in hopes of emphasizing a message that's frequently obscured by gossip.

"All I'm saying is heal the world, save our children," he says.

Jackson aggressively courts media attention, yet remains frustrated by the level of scorn and speculation directed at him. It's a pet peeve that gets a rise out of the usually soft-spoken star.

"The guy who hits the most home runs is always the target," he complains. "It's human nature."

As he did in "Leave Me Alone" [1987] and "Tabloid Junkie" [1995], Jackson condemns the prying press in 'Invincible' track "Privacy": "You keep on stalking me, invading my privacy. ... Stop maliciously attacking my integrity."

Flanked by chaperones, Jackson faces interrogation with genial resignation and no hint of butterflies.

edna gundersen How do you respond to inaccurate articles about you?
michael jackson

I don't pay any attention. The fans know the tabloid garbage is crap. They always say to me, "Let's have a tabloid-burning." It's terrible to try to assassinate one's character. I've had people come to me, and after meeting me, they start crying. I say, "Why are you crying?" They say, "Because I thought you would be stuck up, but you're the nicest person." I say, "Who gave you this judgment?" They tell me they read it. I tell them, "Don't you believe what you read."

edna gundersen Do these rumors persist because you don't refute them?
michael jackson

No. I've done so much in the past. I did the most watched TV interview in history with Oprah Winfrey [in 1993]. But [the media] tend to want to twist what you say and judge you. I want to keep it on the music and the art. I think about some of my favorite people who ever lived. If I could stand face to face with Walt Disney or Michelangelo, would I care what they do in their private life? I want to know about their art. I'm a fan.

edna gundersen How do you shield yourself from being hurt by criticism?
michael jackson

Expecting it, knowing it's going to happen and being invincible, being what I was always taught to be. You stand strong with an iron fist, no matter what the situation."

edna gundersen Critics refer to you as the self-proclaimed King of Pop. Did you choose that title?
michael jackson

I never self-proclaimed myself to be anything. If I called up Elizabeth Taylor right now, she would tell you that she coined the phrase. She was introducing me, I think at the American Music Awards, and said in her own words - it wasn't in the script - "I'm a personal fan, and in my opinion he is the king of pop, rock and soul." Then the press started saying "King of Pop" and the fans started. This self-proclaimed garbage, I don't know who said that.

edna gundersen The New York concerts marked your first U.S. shows in 12 years. Were you nervous?
michael jackson

No. It was an honor to be back with my brothers again. The producer wanted a cavalcade of luminaries from different fields of endeavor. It was a great honor to have them salute me. It was heartwarming, a happy, fun occasion.

edna gundersen Would you consider another tour with your brothers?
michael jackson

I don't think so. I would definitely do an album with them, but not a tour. They would love to tour. But I want to move on to other things. Physically, touring takes a lot out of you. When I'm on stage, it's like a two-hour marathon. I weigh myself before and after each show, and I lose a good 10 pounds. Sweat is all over the stage. Then you get to your hotel and your adrenaline is at its zenith and you can't fall asleep. And you've got a show the next day. It's tough.

edna gundersen If you don't tour, how will you satisfy public demand as well as your need to perform?
michael jackson

I want to direct a special on myself and do songs that touch me. I want something more intimate, from the soul and heart, with just one spotlight.

edna gundersen How did you react when 'Invincible' topped the chart here and in a dozen countries?
michael jackson

It was a lovely feeling. I cried happy tears to see all the love.

edna gundersen 'Invincible' was several years in the making. Does your perfectionism slow the process?
michael jackson

It did take a while because I'm never happy with the songs. I'll write a bunch of songs, throw them out, write some more. People say, "Are you crazy? That's got to go on the album." But I'll say, "Is it better than this other one?" You only get 75 minutes on a CD, and we push it to the limit.

edna gundersen Did you approach 'Invincible' with a single theme in mind?
michael jackson

I never think about themes. I let the music create itself. I like it to be a potpourri of all kinds of sounds, all kinds of colors, something for everybody, from the farmer in Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem.

edna gundersen Has it become easier to write songs over time?
michael jackson

It's the most effortless thing in the world because you don't do anything. I hate to say it like that, but it's the truth. The heavens drop it right into your lap, in its totality. The real gems come that way. You can sit at the piano and say, "OK, I'm going to write the greatest song ever written," and nothing. But you can be walking down the street or showering or playing and, boom, it hits you in the head. I've written so many like that. I'm playing a pinball machine, and I have to run upstairs and get my little tape recorder and start dictating. I hear everything in its totality, what the strings are going to do, what the bass is going to do, the harpsichord, everything.

edna gundersen Is it difficult translating that sound to tape?
michael jackson

That's what's frustrating. In my head, it's completed, but I have to transplant that to tape. It's like (Alfred) Hitchcock said, "The movie's finished." But he still has to start directing it. The song is the same. You see it in its entirety and then you execute it.

edna gundersen After such a long absence, did you have doubts about your current relevance?
michael jackson

Never. I have confidence in my abilities. I have real perseverance. Nothing can stop me when I put my mind to it.

edna gundersen After Sept. 11, you wrote a benefit song, "What More Can I Give?" What's the status?
michael jackson

It's not finished. We're adding artists, and I'm getting myself satisfied with the instrumentation.

edna gundersen Is it your belief that music is a tool for healing?
michael jackson

It's a mantra that soothes the soul. It's therapeutic. It's something our body has to have, like food. It's very important to understand the power of music. Whether you're in an elevator or a department store, music affects the way you shop, the way you treat your neighbor. [Prince hands Jackson a drawing. "I appreciate it," Jackson says. "Do you have to go to the bathroom?" Prince: "No."]

edna gundersen 'Invincible' hasn't enjoyed record-breaking sales. Does 'Thriller' cast too big a shadow?
michael jackson

Absolutely. It is tough because you're competing against yourself. 'Invincible' is just as good or better than 'Thriller', in my true, humble opinion. It has more to offer. Music is what lives and lasts. 'Invincible' has been a great success. When The Nutcracker Suite was first introduced to the world, it totally bombed. What's important is how the story ends. [Prince surfaces again with another picture. "What did you promise me?" Jackson asks. "To be quiet?" Prince responds, then retreats.]

edna gundersen How has fatherhood changed you?
michael jackson

In a huge way. You have to value your time differently, no doubt about it. It's your responsibility to make sure they're taken care of and raised properly with good manners. But I refuse to let any of it get in the way of the music or the dance or the performing. I have to play two different roles. I always wanted to have a big family, ever since I was in school. I was always telling my father I would outdo him. He had 10 children. I would love to have like 11 or 12 myself.

edna gundersen What have you taught your children?
michael jackson

I try to make sure they're respectful and honorable and kind to everybody. I tell them, no matter what they do, work hard at it. What you want to do for a lifetime, be the best at it. [Prince is staring. "Stop looking at me," Jackson says, smiling.]

edna gundersen And what have your kids taught you?
michael jackson

A lot. [Parenthood] reminds you to do what the Bible has always told us. When the Apostles were arguing among themselves over who was the greatest in Jesus' eyes, he said, "None of you," and called over a little boy and said, "until you humble yourself like this child." It reminds you to be kind and humble and to see things through the eyes of children with a childlike wonderment. I still have that. I'm still fascinated by clouds and the sunset. I was making wishes on the rainbow yesterday. I saw the meteor shower. I made a wish every time I saw a shooting star.

edna gundersen What are your wishes?
michael jackson

Peace and love for the children. [Prince returns, gazing intently. "Stop that," says Jackson, gently turning the boy's head away. "Can you be still?"]

edna gundersen You've said you plan to home-school your kids. Given your fame, how can you provide a normal life for them?
michael jackson

You do the best you can. You don't isolate them from other children. There will be other kids at the school [on his property]. I let them go out in the world. But they can't always go with me. We get mobbed and attacked. When we were in Africa, Prince saw a mob attack in a huge shopping mall. People broke so much stuff, running and screaming. My biggest fear is that fans will hurt themselves, and they do. I've seen glass break, blood, ambulances.

edna gundersen Are you resentful that stardom stole your childhood?
michael jackson

Yeah. It's not anger, it's pain. People see me at an amusement park or with other kids having fun, and they don't stop and think, "He never had that chance when he was little." I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do: sleepovers, parties, trick-or-treat. There was no Christmas, no holiday celebrating. So now you try to compensate for some of that loss.

edna gundersen Have you made peace with your father?
michael jackson

It's much better. My father is a much nicer person now. I think he realizes his children are everything. Without your family, you have nothing. He's a nice human being. At one time, we'd be horrified if he just showed up. We were scared to death. He turned out really well. I wish it wasn't so late.

edna gundersen Did music offer an escape from childhood worries?
michael jackson

Of course. We sang constantly in the house. We sang group harmony while washing dishes. We'd make up songs as we worked. That's what makes greatness. You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That's what makes a clown great. You can see he's hurting behind the masquerade. He's something else externally. Chaplin did that so beautifully, better than anyone. I can play off those moments, too. I've been through the fire many times. [Prince is back. He leans against the chair to gawk at the king of pops. "Stop looking at me," Jackson implores, clearly unnerved by the tyke's scrutiny. "You're not making this easy." Both of them chuckle, and Jackson warns teasingly, "You may not get that piece of candy."]

edna gundersen Do your religious beliefs ever conflict with the sexy nature of your music or dancing?
michael jackson

No. I sing about things that are loving, and if people interpret it as sexy, that's up to them. I never use bad words like some of the rappers. I love and respect their work, but I think I have too much respect for parents and mothers and elderly people. If I did a song with bad words and saw an older lady in the audience, I'd cringe.

edna gundersen But what about your trademark crotch-grabbing moves?
michael jackson

I started doing that with "Bad". Martin Scorsese directed that short film in the subways of New York. I let the music tell me what to do. I remember him saying, "That was a great take! I want you to see it." So we pushed playback, and I went 'aaaah!' I didn't realize I was doing that. But then everyone else started doing that, and Madonna, too. But it's not sexual at all.

edna gundersen How are you spending your free time these days?
michael jackson

I like to do silly things; water-balloon fights, pie fights, egg fights. [Turning to Prince] You got a good one coming! I don't think I'll ever grow out of that. At my house, I built a water-balloon fort with two sides, a red team and a blue team. We have cannons that shoot water 60 feet and slingshots that shoot the balloons. We got bridges and places to hide. I just love it.

edna gundersen After 38 years in show business, fans still mob you. Are you immune to adulation?
michael jackson

It's always a good feeling. I never take it for granted. I'm never puffed up with pride or think I'm better than the next-door neighbor. To be loved is a wonderful thing. That is the main reason I do this. I feel compelled to do it, to give people some sense of escapism, a treat to the eye and the ear. I think it's the reason I'm here.

edna gundersen Why do you think people are jealous?
michael jackson

If you look back in history, it's the same with anybody who's achieved wonderful things. I know the Disney family well, and Walt's daughters used to tell me it was difficult when they were in school. Kids would say, "I hate Walt Disney. He's not even funny. We don't watch him." Charlie Chaplin's kids, who I know well, had to take their children out of school. They were being teased: "You're grandfather is stupid. He's not funny. We don't like him." He was a genius! So you have to deal with this jealousy. They think they're hurting you. Nothing could hurt me. The bigger the star, the larger the target. At least they're talking. When they stop talking, you have to worry.

edna gundersen How did you gear up for the physical demands of your special concerts [which aired as a two-hour CBS special]? Do you exercise?
michael jackson

I hate exercise. I hate it so much. The only think I do is dance. That's an exercise. That's why I like some of the karate stuff or kung fu. It's all a dance. But sit-ups? I hate it.

edna gundersen Were you intimidated by any of the other superstars on the bill?
michael jackson

No. I enjoy watching performers. It's all school for me. I never stop learning. It was really inspiring.

edna gundersen Are you more enamored with modern music or vintage stuff?
michael jackson

I like the earlier stuff. It's more melodically conscious. Today people rely on a beat or a rhythm, which is nice, but I said this time and time again, melody will always be king. You have to hum it.

edna gundersen You've teamed with a huge variety of musicians. What attracts you to a particular collaborator?
michael jackson

If I see some potential in their ability as an artist or musician, I'll give them a hook or a line or a phrase and see how they play it or execute it. Sometimes we go all day and it's still not right.

edna gundersen Did you learn that lesson from your parents?
michael jackson

Our parents taught us to always be respectful and, no matter what you do, to give it everything you have. Be the best, not the second best.

edna gundersen You are often pursued by mobs of fans. Are you ever scared for your own safety?
michael jackson

Never ever. I know exactly what to do when it gets really rough, how to just play them. As long as they can see you, they're crazy, but you can put yourself in the eye of the hurricane. If you duck and they can't see you, they calm down.

edna gundersen Your inner circle seems to consist of very young friends or much older ones. What connects you to people like Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor?
michael jackson

We've had the same lives. They grew up in show business. We look at each other, and it's like looking in a mirror. Elizabeth has this little girl inside of her who never had a childhood. She was on the set every day. She loves playing with a new gadget or toy, and she's totally awe-inspired by it. She's a wonderful human being. So is Brando.

edna gundersen What happened to your plans to build theme parks in Europe and Africa?
michael jackson

We're still working on a couple projects. I can't say right now where. I love theme parks. I love seeing children coming together, having a good time with their parents. It's not like it used to be, when you put your kids on the merry-go-round and sat on the bench eating peanuts. Now you enjoy it with them. It builds a unity to the family.

michael jackson

In truth, I really don't like being interviewed; I feel it's such an intrusion. Every interview I've ever done I've been forced into it. And you guys [the fans] have been so nice to me and that's the only reason I agreed to do this.

fan What are some of the things that make you angry?
michael jackson

I believe in perfection, and I try to create that in everything we do. We never seem to totally get there, but I believe in perfect execution. And when we don't get at least 99.9%, I get really upset, so, that gets me upset.

fan Are you going to be doing any more videos off your HIStory album?
michael jackson

There's a lot more releases from HIStory. We have the Ghosts [short film] coming up, which is a big one, and Stranger in Moscow, and it's just gonna go on and on. I mean, we're at 28 million albums right now, other than what the press continue to lie about--the tabloid press - they're terrible. Don't read the tabloids--that's something you [the fans] can play. Don't read stories that aren't true. They write these stories to mislead you and you're just making them rich. It's not true, don't read it, it's garbage, it's junk food. Believe what I tell you.

fan Why are you wearing a silk mask in your latest appearances?
michael jackson

Because with time my skin condition has gotten worse, I hate to say it. I have vitiligo, and I'm totally completely allergic to the sun. I'm not even suppose to be outside actually. Even if I'm in the shade the sun rays can destroy my skin.

fan Are there any songs you released that you wished you didn't?
michael jackson

Not that I can think of. Some of the Motown songs, the early songs, I remember getting upset with the songwriters cause I wanted to sing them one way and they wanted me to sing it another way. And I would call Barry Gordy, who is the chairman/owner of the company. He would say, "Look, let Michael do what he wants, I'm sure he's right

fan Was the atmosphere between the Motown stars competitive or friendly?
michael jackson

Very friendly. Marvin Gaye used to come to my house at least twice a week to play basketball with my brothers. Stevie Wonder would come by for gatherings and parties, and I would go to the Supreme's house and Diana Ross would invite the other girls over and it was really sincerely one happy family. We would have a baseball team where we played against one another, and I was just really little but they let me bat, and it was really a happy family and I do miss all of them - even the Temptations, they would come over to my house all the time.

fan Are you going to retape the HBO special you cancelled last year, and if so, when?
michael jackson

Yes, we're planning on doing that in South Africa.

fan Have you ever been scared to go on stage?" Michael Jackson: "No, I don't remember ever being afraid to go on stage. I'm more comfortable on stage than giving this interview right now!" Question: "Are you going to be doing any concerts here in the United States?
michael jackson

I'd like to - we're planning on it next year.

fan Do you ever plan on working with Quincy Jones again?
michael jackson

I would love to work with Quincy again. The doors are always open. We're very friendly with each other. But I just like challenging and going different things and experimenting. He's a very endearing person and I do love him very much.

fan If you could spend one day in complete anonymity, where would you go and what would you do?
michael jackson

Probably go to Neverland, or an island isolated somewhere. What would I do - probably write music or kind of create some music or stage play or something - something creative. I never stop working.

fan Does the real Billie Jean know about the song and if she did what was her reaction?
michael jackson

There is a girl named Billie Jean, but it's not about that Billie Jean. Billie Jean is kinda anonymous. It represents a lot of girls who used to - they used to call them groupies in the 60's - they would hang around backstage doors and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with. And I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There was a lot of Billie Jean's out there. Every girl claimed that they're song was related to one of my brothers.

fan Which songs of yours are autobiographical?
michael jackson

Stranger in Moscow, Heal the World, We Are the World, I'll Be There. Those type of songs.

fan What inspired the song 'Stranger in Moscow'?
michael jackson

I wrote that in Moscow. The lyrics are totally autobiographical. When you hear lines like 'Here abandoned in my fame / Armageddon of the brain'--at the time, on the last tour when we were in Moscow--that's really how I felt. It kinda created itself; it fell into my lap, because that's how I was feeling at the time. Just all alone in my hotel and it was raining and I just started writing it.

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