The name “Michael Jackson” can be used interchangeably with “famous”. In a discussion on fame, there can never be a better example. He was the most recognisable man on planet Earth. So much so that the Guinness Book of World Records listed him as the most searched for celebrity.
Next to Jesus Christ, Mohammed, bread, sugar and salt, there is nowhere that you can go on this planet where you won’t find someone that knows, has heard f or can recognise Michael Jackson. And if there exists people that do not know him, they are few and far in between.
Michael Jackson started his career at the age of five back in Gary Indiana at their crowded house of eleven. He and his brothers rehearsed before and after school while the other neighbourhood children played teasing the brothers that they were not going anywhere with their music when they couldn’t come out and play.
By his 12th birthday, he was a globally recognised superstar sharing the stage with the who’s who in the entertainment industry.
Suzanne de Passe who worked at Motown and helped groom the Jackson 5 in the 60’s and 70’s while also helping them prepare for shows said in a 1993 interview regarding Jackson’s fame as a little boy, “When I met Michael Jackson he was 9 years old going on 10 and he was a little boy in many ways and then he’d go out on stage and be this dynamic superstar. He lost the ability to be a kid before his 12th Birthday. Michael Jackson really was never able to go anywhere without a bodyguard, without a limousine, without you know, people to protect him from his success. To just not ever be able to go out to the park and look up at the sky and to not be able to go to the movies, I just think that he has paid a tremendous price.”
In the same 1993 interview, when asked about his thoughts on being famous as a little boy Jackson said that it was “Lonely, sad, having to face popularity and all that. There were times when I had great times with my brothers, pillow fights and things, but I was, used to always cry from loneliness.”
15 minutes of fame
Andy Warhol predicted,
"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes".
He was alluding to the short-lived fame that many people have been experiencing through the years. And in various ways due to among other reasons, the advances in technology that allows news and other kinds of content to travel all over the globe in an instant allowing it to be consumed in the millions and in the process making its creator achieve some degree of fame.
Fame had always been centralised. To be famous several decades ago, you either were royalty, a leader, a movie star, a prolific singer or a television personality among other limited roles. There are many kinds of famous people in 2021. YouTubers, TikTok stars, social media influencers, models, podcasters, content creators etc each with their own following.
Most of us want to achieve some degree of fame one way or another. With the value that content holds in 2021, almost everyone is trying to create that viral video, that viral clip, that viral article, that viral story that will help propel them to making the big bucks.
Creating viral content is one way normal everyday people can achieve their 15 minutes of fame in our times. And while at it, hopefully, benefit financially from it.
Benefits of fame
Fame can bring along enormous wealth, great power and influence.
If well cultivated, it can help one set themselves up for life.
Even though the quality of Michael Jackson’s music and work spoke for itself, his enormous fame as a result of this great work is what helped him stay in the limelight even when he wasn’t producing any new music or touring across the globe.
His fame allowed and still allows his image to sell a wide range of merchandise from key holders to chocolate, to t-shirts, mugs, jackets, colouring books, stuffed animals, books, video games and many other accessories. There has yet to be another celebrity even in 2021 that can pull this.
Jackson’s estate is worth billions of dollars in 2021 and it will continue to generate income posthumously in the millions for many years to come. According to Forbes, he was the highest-earning dead celebrity of 2019, out-earning even the current top earning living celebrities. What’s most fascinating about this is that he is not creating any new content. It’s just the content that has already been out there for decades that gets consumed often, gets repackaged and then re-released and it still manages to make millions outselling everyone else!
Jackson’s fame allowed him to meet kings, queens, presidents, other world leaders and global movers and shakers through his travels. It also allowed him to experience love, adulation and adoration from the people he met from all over as he was accepted everywhere he went. His fame allowed him to influence global affairs and to push for the causes he believed in such as global peace, protection of the world’s children and protection of the planet and the environment.
Fame when well cultivated can give an individual access, respect and can open a wide range of opportunities.
Pitfalls of fame
But it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. Fame has its dark sides too.
Invasion of privacy
Famous people are well recognisable. And their recognisability extends to the invasion of their privacy, especially in public places. Normal people are fascinated by the famous. As they stand out amongst everyone else, we want to know everything we can about them. What they eat, where they sleep, what they like, whom they are dating, their childhoods, their children, what they wear etc.
When they go out in public, famous people can expect to be stopped, asked for pictures and autographs and asked invasive questions, especially by the paparazzi. Information about them especially the sensational kind is written, printed and shared to exploit it for idle gossip and financial gain.
Jackson was even asked in different interviews whether he was a virgin, how his children were conceived and whether he had sex to conceive them. All very personal, intrusive and invasive questions that would infuriate anyone.
“There’s so much garbage and so much trash that’s written about me that is so untrue, they’re complete lies, and those are some of the things I wanted to talk about. The press has made up so much ... God ... awful, horrifying stories it has made me realize the more often you hear a lie, I mean, you begin to believe it.” Michael Jackson said in a 1993 interview.
Michael Jackson noted that a press outlet once printed an entire itinerary of his day out in the eighties. When going out in with his children years later, he covered their faces with shawls or face masks to protect their identities and to allow them to have a normal life besides the one they had with him. This move was heavily criticised by the press and the general public.
Daughter Paris shared that years later, she appreciated wearing the masks as they allowed them to visit places anonymously without being bombarded by the fans, the press, and paparazzi as it happened when they went out with their famous father.
Withdrawal from society
To protect their privacy, famous people may be forced to lead lives that lean in and seemingly look like they are withdrawing from normal society.
After Michael Jackson’s fame led his fans and other people particularly the media to wait around his gate at his Mother’s Encino residence, to protect his privacy from the press, among other reasons, he moved to his 3000-acre Neverland estate in Santa Ynez.
At Neverland, he built an amusement park in his backyard. He also had a zoo that housed various exotic animals of different species and a train that ran across the estate complete with a train station and its different stops. His home was labelled as eccentric by both the media and the general public as not many people could identify with such a lifestyle.
In a 2001 radio interview, Jackson said this about his fame curtailing him from leading a normal life.
"I would like to be able to go out in public and just be normal sometime, without people recognizing who I am, and to get a little bit of a feeling of what it’s like to, you know, be of the regular norm. To see how things are done; to learn what people speak about when they’re just casually talking. Cause soon as they see it’s Michael Jackson, the conversation changes; it all becomes about me and not about the situation — the moment, that’s happening at the moment. That would… I would learn a lot from that. I don’t get to see that unless I disguise myself and put on a lot of things, and then they stare at me, then it’s even different; it’s not the same even then. So, it’s a difficult thing to pull off." - Michael Jackson
In another interview with Geraldo Rivera in 2005, Jackson made some poignant comments about his home.
"I don’t (get to have fun outside of my property). I go off property sometimes, but not all the time. I create my own world behind the gates because I can’t go to the local movie theatre down the street or the local park down the street or go pick up ice cream at the market down at the corner store. So you want to create that world behind the gates.”
Separation of self
Fame can lead many to be unable to separate the individual within from the public persona or any other persona that they may identify with. Sometimes it can prove to be hard to switch off the persona or to separate it from reality.
Jackson identified with Peter Pan the boy who never grew up from J. M Barrie’s novel. After spending a childhood being an adult, working, perfecting his craft and making millions for corporations, it is posited that in order to reclaim his lost childhood, he regressed into a child after he reached adulthood. He on many occasions cited and even immortalised it in his art on his song Childhood that his child-like manner was an attempt to compensate for his lost childhood.
He named his vast estate “Neverland” after the magical kingdom placing several Peter Pan artefacts in his house andin his compound. He told a reporter in 2003, “I am Peter Pan in my heart.” Biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli in his book Michael Jackson – The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story posits that perhaps therapy would have been a better solution for Jackson to deal with this particular issue of his lost childhood, but close associates had revealed to him that you could never go there with Jackson.
His Peter Pan tendencies made him hang out with young children often and particularly young boys, going on trips and holidays around the world with them. This practice raised many eyebrows as not many people could understand why a grown man would have 9-year-old buddies. It eventually led to a huge backlash from the public when he was accused of child molestation twice and was eventually arraigned in court. It is good to note that Jackson has won all the accusations and court cases against all his accusers and these cases have been dismissed as extortion attempts.
The rich and famous will be plagued with others always expecting and demanding things from them. The fans want new products to be released, they want autographs, meetups, photographs etc. The critics want something more exciting, more riveting, more extraordinary. Their families expect support, attention and hope by extension, to benefit from their kin’s success.
Jackson chose to spend a lot of his time with children and animals on several occasions explaining why he did so.
“I find in animals the same thing I find so wonderful in children. That purity, that honesty, where they don’t judge you, they just want to be your friend. I think that is so sweet.”
“ People wonder why I always have children around because I find the thing that I never had through them, you know Disneyland, amusement parks, arcade games. I adore all that stuff because when I was little it was always work, work, work from one concert to the next, if it wasn’t a concert it was the recording studio, if it wasn’t that it was TV shows or interviews or picture sessions. There was always something to do.”
Keeping up with these expectations from people might also prove to be difficult. People expect the rich and famous to live a top-notch kind of lifestyle. A lot of famous people have indulged in expensive lifestyles that they could not sufficiently maintain in the long run and they keep on living these lives just to keep up with appearances.
According to Zack O’Malley Greenberg, in his book Michael Jackson Inc, Jackson maintained the same level of spending in the early 2000s when he was making about $8 million a year as he did in the early ’80s and '90s when he was making the tunes of $100 million a year.
Also not entirely his fault, his lifestyle that included expensive security details, and a team of professionals working in many parts of the world to meet his personal and business needs and the cost of maintaining his estate kept his expenditures high.
The pressure to meet personal, business, financial and other people’s expectations in many aspects can prove to be harmful. When asked in a 1993 interview about the physical changes he had undergone from childhood to teenager, he said it was very difficult adding, “ Because I think every child star suffers through this period because you’re not the cute and charming child that you were. You start to grow, and they want to keep you little forever.” ‘They’ implying the public.
We can only speculate on how much pressure he had to deal with on his changing appearance over the years.
Stars are gods that are not subject to the many natural changes that take place on the human body according to the thinking of normal people. We get surprised when we see or hear that stars have human flaws. When Jackson had to deal with lupus and vitiligo that caused his skin to change its texture and pigmentation, the general public found this information hard to accept creating and rehashing tabloid stories that he was deliberately changing the colour of his skin because he was not proud of his race.
In 2007 while out on a trip with his three children, a fan leans into his window and asks him whether he could still moonwalk.
“Why would I not be able to?” Jackson answers him. This shows the extent to which he had to deal with other people’s expectations throughout his life.
Success also attracts its fair share of attacks from others that may not be pleased with an individual’s accomplishments or would want to benefit from a piece of it in whatever way. Jealousy, ill intention and exploitation plague a lot of famous people.
Jackson was a popular topic among the tabloids who printed sensationalised stories about him in order to benefit financially from the attention his name gathered in the public. 11 years after his death, such stories still find their way on the covers of such magazines.
In his lifetime, Jackson went through several extortion attempts with the parents of the young boys he befriended accusing him of sexual molestation. Posthumously, two other such cases have surfaced but have been dismissed and thrown out of court already. His family, defence team and fans have posited that the accusers have been looking to benefit financially from Jackson’s wealthy estate.
When in 2002 Jackson invited a film crew to film him on an extended period of time so as to produce a positive documentary about his life, he was promised that it would portray him in good light and that it would help improve his image with the public and also, that some of the proceedings from it would be donated to charity, which was a cause Jackson truly cared about.
Turns out, the reporter was deceiving and manipulating Jackson right from the start. He did not allow him to see the final edit of the footage before it was released, and he ended up creating a sensational piece that ended with Jackson being arraigned in court for alleged child molestation.
Jackson’s fame attracted a lot of negative attention with many such as the reporter in question exploiting it for personal financial gain.
Jackson was also on the receiving end of various frivolous lawsuits in his life beginning from paternity suits to alleged copyright infringements.
Friend Mark Lester shared that Jackson told him that he refrained from suing those that wronged him because if he did so, he would be in court every day.
Fame and success can prove to be hard to maintain in the long run, especially with the constant changes in styles, tastes and preferences from consumers and the general public. Failure may be hard to deal with especially after years of being greatly successful for any individual.
Jackson’s humongous success was hard to keep up with even for a talent and star such as himself.
He always sought to have his subsequent albums outsell his previous ones, a fete he never got around to achieve. No other album in the history of music has outsold Thriller which at 106 million copies sold, holds the Guinness World Record for biggest-selling album of all time.
“ It makes it harder each time to follow up. You try to be as original as you can be without thinking about statistics, you just go from the soul and from the heart.”
Jackson said in 1993 speaking about attempting to make his subsequent work meet the greatness of the previous work.
When his 2001 album Invincible failed to attract the attention he had hoped for various reasons, Jackson publicly accused his record company Sony and its boss Tony Mottola for sabotaging it.
To deal with several issues in his life, Jackson resulted to using pain killers leaving friend and associate Frank Cascio in his book My Friend Michael, to wonder whether he used it to attempt to heal just physical or to also attempt to heal his emotional pain.
Anxiety and depression
A lot of famous people have opened up about dealing with bouts of anxiety and depression as a result of the ups and downs of their fame.
Their successes are celebrated with great vigour over the years. And in the same spirit, their failures are also witnessed and talked about by millions and that can be very hard to deal with.
It is a well-known fact that Jackson suffered an addiction to prescription medication. Starting with the medicine he was prescribed by his doctors for dealing with the physical injuries he suffered while on the job such as the Pepsi commercial shooting where he suffered serious head burns and the Berlin concert where he fell from a bridge mid-show. After his death, a lot of information on this came to light with the medicine being used as evidence in the wrongful death court case against the doctor responsible for his homicide.
His daughter Paris also opened up about her depression sighting that she shared this similarity with her father.
Jackson suffered from anxiety that caused him sleepless nights leading him to use the dangerous anaesthetic drug propofol to help him get some sleep which eventually caused his death as his doctor was using it dangerously and outside a hospital setting.
Anxiety and depression have led various stars to alcohol and drug abuse among other pitfalls driving some to the extent of ending their own lives. Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Avicii are examples.
Marilyn Monroe said this about being famous,
"Fame is fickle and I know it. It has its compensations, but it also has its drawbacks and I’ve experienced them both."
"The highest form of vanity is love of fame."
George Santayana is quoted to have said.
Beyoncé one of the world’s most famous people and who’s stardom can be compared to Jackson’s has shared that she feels that the concept of the tragic star is a myth. She posits that not all huge stars have to end up with tragic stories. She is the best example of great stardom that manages to maintain a huge degree of balance and sanity.
This could be because she has over the years maintained a solid support system of love and family that begins with her mother, husband, and close friends that offer honest, heartfelt advice and keeps her grounded when the stage lights go off.
Famous people gain a degree of immortality. Michael Jackson’s name is passed from generation to generation and his work is greatly venerated and emulated throughout the world. The glory of being loved, being known and being praised by the masses will ensure that he will be remembered and celebrated in high intensities for hundreds of years to come.
“ It was wonderful, Jackson answered a question in 1993 about being famous. “There is a lot of wonderment in being famous. I mean you travel the world, you meet people, you go places, it’s great. But then there’s the other side, which I’m not complaining about. There is lots of rehearsal and you have to put in a lot of your time, give of yourself a lot.”
We all associate fame with great fortune and excess but this doesn’t always have to be so. Some people who are in the public eye choose not to court fame. Others do great work without being associated famously with it. It is important to be well informed on what one is up for and against when they decide to court fame.
Fame has its ups and downs. As some people can cope with it better than others, only an individual can decide for themselves whether their fame is worth the while.