By Manu Bezamat
“Does it get more bizarre than it’s been getting lately?” — asked journalist Maureen Orth in the opening lines of a 2003 Vanity Fair article, whose absurd jabs at Michael Jackson include accusing him of using voodoo to defeat his enemies and having a prosthetic nose tip.
Jackson, of course, neither used voodoo nor had a fake nose (the latter claim being a widespread gossip that was put to rest for good by his autopsy report). However, he had, at that point, been the victim of relentless bullying by the media for almost 20 years.
But how had Orth managed to make such ludicrous claims in a mainstream publication and get away with it? What were the set of circumstances that allowed a journalist to viciously attack the integrity of Jackson, once the most famous man in the planet, without any proof, and still be believed?
The birth of the image of “Michael Jackson, the child molester”
The attacks on Michael Jackson’s public image started decades before Orth’s article was published. As early as the 1970s, a young Jackson saw himself forced to address the never-ending rumors about his love life. Reporters wanted to know who/if he was dating; they speculated whether he was gay and even if he had a sex change.
As the years went by, the scrutiny of his personal life only grew worse. By the mid-1980s, the focus shifted from his love life to his alleged eccentricities. It was around that time that the tabloid media coined the term “Wacko Jacko”, one that Jackson hated and that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
From the mid-1980s onward, the stories spiraled out of control: he slept in an oxygen chamber, he’d bought the Elephant man’s bones, he’d bleached his skin. They were all proven lies, which had, nevertheless, found in the scandal-thirsty public a growing niche of consumers.
You see, Jackson was a complex figure, a man who was, in many ways, ahead of his time. His vision and his talents in song-writing, singing and dancing became the blueprint for generations to come; his use of his platform to promote social change made him one of the world’s biggest humanitarians.
But as larger than life as he appeared to be sometimes, he was only a man — a man who grew up under unique circumstances, that yearned to live a normal life, and who didn’t shy away from speaking publicly about his personal trials and tribulations. He owed the world nothing, yet, he spoke.
His critics weren’t having it. They were more invested in the freakish character created by the media; they longed for answers, just not the answers Jackson had gladly given them: that he’d never had a childhood, that his changing skin-tone was the product of an incurable disease. His words fell on deaf ears.
By 1993, the rumors had grown to such a proportion that they threatened to overshadow his work. Jackson and his team, realizing how successfully the media had dehumanized him, went on a PR offensive that included an interview to daytime TV host Oprah Winfrey, in which the singer spoke openly about various issues, including his vitiligo, for the first time.
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