Before his onstage crotch grabbing, his plastic surgeries, his rumored addictions, and, at the lowest point, his child-molestation accusations, Michael Jackson was known for his talent, not his troubles. And for years, Vanity Fair’s Lisa Robinson followed his career, getting to know a singer she describes as “one of the most talented, adorable, enthusiastic, sweet, ebullient performers I’d ever interviewed.”
In her article “The Boy Who Would Be King,” one of two cover stories in the September 2009 issue (to read about the other one, on Farrah Fawcett, click here), Robinson recounts numerous interviews with Jackson, beginning with their first meeting at his family’s home in Encino, California, in 1972, when Michael was 14.
L.R.: So what do you like to do in your spare time?
M.J.: Swim … play pool … We don’t go much out of the gate because we have [everything] here. When we lived in the other house, we would go to the park to play basketball, but now we have it here.
(Michael asks me more questions than I ask him; there are discussions about my maroon nail polish, buying antiques on Portobello Road, the Apollo Theater, Madison Square Garden.)
L.R.: Do you ever get scared onstage?
M.J.: No. If you know what you’re doing, you’re not scared onstage.
Jackson was always electric onstage, but over the years Robinson continued to press him about his offstage life. In 1977, she interviewed him over the phone.L.R.: Do you go out with girls? Any dates?In another phone interview the following year, she asked about his relationship with fans.
M.J.: No, I don’t date, no. I’m not really interested right now. I like girls and everything but [laughs] ... Oh, you think I’m one of those? No! I’m just not that interested right now.L.R.: As for reality, do you still enjoy meeting your fans?
M.J.: I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude, like “I made you who you are.” That may be true—but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn't have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you.
In the ensuing years, Jackson would take control of his career to a degree readers may find surprising. Even more surprising, perhaps, was his declaration in 1984 that the original mix of Thriller, his hit 1982 album, had “sounded like crap.”L.R.: What?
M.J.: Oh, it was terrible. And I cried at the listening party. I said, “I’m sorry—we can’t release this.” I called a meeting with Quincy [Jones], and everybody at the [record] company was screaming that we had to have it out and there was a deadline, and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not releasing it.” I said, “It’s terrible.” So we re-did a mix a day. Like a mix a day. And we rested two days, then we did a mixing. We were overworked, but it all came out O.K.
To read “The Boy Who Would Be King,” pick up a copy of the September 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, available on newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on August 5 and nationwide on August 11.
Photographs by Annie Leibovitz.