Dish is a book by Jeannette Walls released in January 2001.
Promotional text for the book reads “Gossip. It’s more than just hearsay. society columns, and supermarket tabloids. It has, like it or not, become a mainstay of American pop culture. In Dish, industry insider Jeannette Walls gives this provocative subject its due, offering a comprehensive, serious exploration of gossip and its social, historical, and political significance. Examining the topic from the inside out, Walls looks at the players; the origins of gossip, from birth of People magazine to the death of Lady Di; and how technology including the Internet will continue to change the face gossip. As compelling and seductive as its subject matter, Dish brilliantly reveals the fascinating inner workings of a phenomenon that is definitely here to stay.”
This chapter – P.R. Muscle – primarily details how Michael Jackson and his advisers dealt with the 1993 molestation allegations and how Anthony Pellicano spun the story to “extortion”.
Items marked with an asterisk (*) are original footnotes from the book. I have added a few explanatory notes in the format (Note:)
I’ve also added a few links where things might have needed expanding or explaining.
Private Investigator Anthony Pellicano was on the Dangerous tour in Bangkok with Michael Jackson when he got the call: police had raided Neverland, the singer’s 2, 700-acre ranch; they had a search warrant; they brought in a locksmith; they seized videotapes and photographs. This is trouble, Pellicano knew, but then again, trouble was Pellicano’s business.
It was Sunday, August 22, 1993, still before dawn in California, but Pellicano telephoned criminal lawyer Howard Weitzman in Los Angeles anyway. “Wake up,” Pellicano told Weitzman. They had a lot of work to do.
Hard Copy correspondent Diane Dimond spent most of Monday, August 23, at her cubicle in the Mae West Building of Paramount Studios, tracking down the names in Heidi Fleiss’s little black book. Shortly before 4 P.M., Dimond’s boss, Executive Producer Linda Bell Blue, tapped her on the shoulder. “In about seven minutes, Channel 4 is going to run a story about Michael Jackson,” Blue said. “I don’t really know what it is, but come to my office. Let’s watch it.”
“The L.A.P.D just a few moments ago confirmed for us that entertainer Michael Jackson is the subject of a criminal investigation,” reported KNBC-TV’s Colan Nolan. This should be interesting, Dimond thought as she and Blue leaned forward, eager to find out why the police were investigating the world’s biggest pop star. They didn’t find out from KNBC-TV. “It was an odd story,” said Dimond. “They said police were looking for something, but they didn’t say what or why.”
Bell turned to Dimond: “You’re on the Michael Jackson story.”
Dimond elbowed her way through the crowd of other reporters, photographers, and camera crews that crowded into Howard Weitzman’s Century City office the following day for a press conference the lawyer had called in reaction to the mysterious investigation of Michael Jackson. Bert Fields, the smooth-talking, powerhouse attorney whose clients included Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Warren Beatty, David Geffen, and Tom Cruise, was also on the case, but the front man was the more combative Weitzman. ”I’m going to make a statement in a moment,” Weitzman told the crowd. “If you guys will act like humans, which is real difficult for you all … ”
Weitzman then introduced Jackson’s “security consultant,” Anthony Pellicano. A slight, well-groomed man with receding wavy hair and hound-dog eyes stepped up to the mike. There is no truth, Pellicano told the crowd, to the child molestation charges against Michael Jackson. A collective gasp came from the journalists. This was the first time anyone officially disclosed why police were investigating Jackson. Then Pellicano threw a curve ball: What the case was really about, the security consultant said, was blackmail. “A demand for twenty million dollars was presented and it was flatly refused,” Pellicano told the stunned reporters. “We had no intention to do anything with it. We wanted to see how far they went.” When Jackson’s people refused to pay, the accusers went to the authorities, Pellicano said. “I am actively engaged in investigating that extortion attempt.”
Dimond’s jaw dropped. She was stunned-not just by the charges of child molestation, and not just by the blackmail allegations- but because she believed she recognized Pellicano’s voice. After Dimond reported on the apparent ties between the Hollywood Madam and Columbia Pictures, an anonymous man with a Chicago accent began calling her, trying to persuade her that certain people were trying to frame Columbia executives.
“That’s him! ” Dimond whispered to her producer. ” That’s the guy who’s been trying to spin my Heidi Fleiss story.” Dimond wondered why the same person would be involved in the two biggest scandals in Hollywood. “This guy must be one slick operator,” she thought. She didn’t yet know the half of it.
By 1993, the culture of celebrity was so pervasive that movie stars and recording artists were among the richest, most powerful people in the country-and no one was bigger than Michael Jackson. Jackson wasn’t just a pop star; he was a multi billion-dollar conglomerate. He had signed a contract with Sony worth $1 billion, the biggest entertainment deal in history. He had an endorsement deal with Pepsi and was credited with the soft drink’s two point increase in market share; each point was worth $470 million, so Jackson was a very valuable commodity to Pepsi* (* Jackson privately said he didn’t like Pepsi. ” I don’t drink that crap,” he once confided.)
The power of celebrities, however, extended way beyond their financial clout. They were modern society’s most sacred icons. Celebrities had a cultural significance and an emotional impact on Americans that they didn’t find in religious or political leaders. In the early 1990s, no performer personified the celebrity as demigod syndrome more than Michael Jackson. It was an image Jackson worked hard to cultivate. Although his actual philanthropic work was limited mostly to singing songs about the underprivileged and hugging children in hospitals, Jackson was seen as one of the world’s great humanitarians. Presidents wanted to be photographed with him; he was honored by Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared a Michael Jackson Day.
The entire scandal industry, however, was built on bashing such icons. By the time the Michael Jackson story broke, the scandal industry was very big business. In addition to the supermarket tabloids, there were twelve news magazines on television in 1993-up from three five years earlier-each one trying to come up with revelations more shocking than the other. The scandal business, according to one estimate, was a $28.3-billion dollar industry.
With so much at stake, both sides became very aggressive. As tabloid reporters increasingly resorted to tactics like paying sources and going undercover to get the goods on celebrities, an equally combative industry evolved that specialized in suppressing scandal. When a salacious bit of information threatened to wreck a star’s career, when police reports and criminal charges were involved, traditional public relations – even gatekeepers like Pat Kingsley (note: Pat Kingsley was Tom Cruise’s former publicist credited with making him into a star) – were useless. At times like those, celebrities turned to a breed of aggressive private detectives usually billed as “security consultants.
The best-known of these operators worked in and around Hollywood. Pellicano’s key competitor was probably Gavin de Becker, who for years was on the William Morris payroll and whose clients included Michael J. Fox, Cher, and Bill Cosby. Fox hired de Becker when he married actress Tracy Pollan in 1988. At first, Fox thought de Becker was going overboard on the job. When the actor showed up at the quiet Vermont inn where he was to be married, he was startled to see what he later described as ” half a dozen Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alikes in business suits and mirrored shades in Adirondack chairs scanning the woods with binoculars and searchlights.” To execute Operation Fox, de Becker had prepared a thirty-six page manual, referring to Michael Fox as Coyote 1 and Tracy Pollan as Coyote 2. “The National Enquirer and its ilk have the whole industry more or less wired,” the young and attractive de Becker warned a startled Fox. “You’ve got two-bit publicists, chauffeurs, and secretaries all over Hollywood selling information to the junk press. Whenever you go to a restaurant frequented by celebrities, you can assume that the guy who parks your car is working with a paparazzo. He’s got a slip of paper in his pocket with the name of a photographer on it.” Fox came to the conclusion that de Becker wasn’t overreacting after the detective sent Fox’s publicist, Nanci Ryder, undercover answering phones at the National Enquirer’s makeshift headquarters at a nearby hotel. Not only did Ryder discover the Enquirer’s plans-including an idea to rent a llama suit to cross a meadow-but she also got her hands on a copy of the Enquirer’s confidential source list, including some people on Fox’s payroll.
“When you arrive at the scene of a story and a bunch of guys are talking into their cufflinks, you know de Becker is on the job,” said a tabloid reporter.
Pellicano couldn’t stand de Becker. He referred to his biggest competitor as a “fucking wimp.” Pellicano was of the tough-talking Philip Marlowe gumshoe school of private detectives. Also known as “The Private Investigator to the Stars,” “The Publicist of Last Resort,” or “The Celebrities’ Thug,” Pellicano was born in 1944 in the working-class Chicago suburb of Cicero. ”I’m a kid from the streets,” he admitted. “I could have been a criminal just as easily.” (Note: Pellicano has since been convicted of crimes). A high school drop-out raised by a single mother, he earned a GED in the army signal corps and went to work at the Spiegel catalogue company “skip tracing” customers who didn’t pay their bills. From there, Pellicano joined a private detective agency he found in the back of the Yellow Pages. In 1969, he set up his own shop, solving several highly publicized missing persons cases, working for the government, and becoming a minor celebrity around Chicago. He loved publicity, drove a huge Lincoln Continental, hung samurai swords in his office, and sealed his letters with monogrammed wax. In 1974, however, Pellicano declared bankruptcy and in the filing revealed that he had borrowed $30,000 from Paul “The Waiter” de Lucia, the son of a reputed mobster. “Paul de Lucia is my daughter’s godfather,” Pellicano protested. “He’s just like any other guy in the neighborhood.” Nevertheless, the scandal forced Pellicano to resign his prestigious position on the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission. His business and his reputation were in shambles, and he needed a high profile case to restore his reputation. It came in the form of Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1977, the body of the actress’s third husband, Mike Todd, was stolen from its grave in a Chicago area cemetery. After police searched and found nothing, Pellicano showed up at the cemetery with the camera crew from a local news station, went to a spot seventy-five yards south of the excavated grave, reached under some scattered branches and leaves, and produced a plastic bag containing Todd’s remains. Pellicano insisted that “underworld sources” had told him the body’s whereabouts, but rivals snickered that the private detective had staged the entire escapade for publicity. If so, it worked. The recovery of Todd’s body made headlines, and a grateful Elizabeth Taylor introduced Pellicano to her Hollywood friends. Los Angeles criminal attorney Howard Weitzman hired Pellicano to work with him, and the pair successfully defended auto executive John DeLorean in a cocaine-trafficking case–even though the FBI caught DeLorean on videotape selling cocaine to an undercover agent.* (* There were later charges, denied by Pellicano, that he had intimidated potential government witnesses.) In 1983, Pellicano left Chicago and opened an office on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. There, sources say, he was coached by the notorious Fred Otash, the private investigator for Confidential (Note: Confidential was the 1950’s scandal rag, predecessor to every tabloid published since). In Hollywood, Pellicano quickly became what he calls ” the ultimate problem solver.”
Pellicano didn’t tackle the problem, he went after the accuser. He has, foes say, boasted of his underworld contacts and threatened people with violence. He insists he didn’t, however, carry a gun. “That’s a physical solution to a mental problem,” says Pellicano, a proud member of Mensa, the organization whose members all have genius-level I.Q.s. Pellicano used “Sherlock Holmes-type stuff,” he explained, by digging up the dirt on the people who were maligning his clients. And there always was dirt. When a woman sold a story to a British tabloid that she had an eleven-year affair with Kevin Costner, the actor called Pellicano, who fed damaging facts about her to the tabloids. ” She was trying to extort Kevin Costner,” said Pellicano. “We exposed her for what she was.” (Note: Sound familiar?) In cases of blackmail, Pellicano said, he starts by ” appealing to their sense of values, ” he said. “If they don’t have any, then I have to counter black ’em.”
Before 0. J. Simpson was accused of murdering his wife Nicole and Ron Goldman, the ex-football star hired Pellicano to silence a secretary who accused him of abusive behavior. The accusations went away after Pellicano found potentially embarrassing information on the secretary. When James Woods was going through a messy breakup with Sean Young- a split so acrimonious it was said to have involved mutilated dolls, threatening letters, and bizarre tales of Woods’s penis stuck to his thigh with Krazy Glue – Woods hired Pellicano. The private detective also worked on the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. He is said to be the one who dug up information about accuser Patricia Bowman’s personal life that appeared in the New York Times and the supermarket tabloid The Globe.
One of Pellicano’s mandates was to track down Spy magazine’s aggressive but pseudonymous Hollywood reporter Celia Brady. ” It’s a secret society,” Pellicano said. “If somebody wants to investigate a member of the group, they have to be willing to take the heat themselves.”
Don Simpson had used Pellicano’s services before. When a former receptionist sued Simpson for $5 million, claiming the producer of Top Gun and Days of Thunder made her schedule hookers for him and that he used cocaine and watched pornographic videos in front of her, Pellicano produced evidence that the accuser herself had used drugs, rented porn movies, and had stolen letters from Simpson’s wastebasket. “He goes in like a junkyard dog to find dirt,” said the receptionist’s lawyer. One witness who testified against the receptionist got a $4,500 ” loan” from Pellicano, which, the detective said, didn’t have to be paid back. “Anthony is one of those people who is, shall we say, a lion at the gate,” Simpson gleefully said after the case was dismissed. “He is not a man to be on the wrong side of.”
So when a doctor named Stephen Ammerman, who was said to be treating Don Simpson for drug addiction, died of a drug overdose at Simpson’s Bel Aire estate, the producer immediately called Pellicano. Later, Ammerman’s family filed a wrongful death suit, alleging that the doctor hadn’t willingly taken the drugs that killed him and that Pellicano and others destroyed evidence before police arrived on the scene. The charges against Pellicano were dismissed after Simpson himself died the following year of a drug overdose.
Not everyone was always impressed with Pellicano’s tactics. After Heidi Fleiss was arrested, Pellicano publicly denied that Columbia executive Michael Nathanson was one of her clients. The problem was, until the denial, Nathanson hadn’t been publicly linked to Fleiss. The denial prompted Variety to give Pellicano the PR Boner Award.
Then there was the Roseanne case. The comedienne paid Pellicano $25,000 to locate a daughter she’d given up for adoption seventeen years earlier. The story appeared in the National Enquirer, and Roseanne claimed that Pellicano-whom she called “a low-life scumbag”-split the fee with reporters from the tabloid who then tracked down her daughter and ran the story. Pellicano denied giving the story to the National Enquirer; he blamed the leak on Roseanne’s husband Tom Arnold, who did, in fact, sell stories about Roseanne to the Enquirer to support his drug habit. (Pellicano and Roseanne have “resolved their differences,” according to a spokeswoman.).
The truth is that Pellicano did work for the National Enquirer from time to time. When Los Angeles magazine was preparing an expose of the tabloid, reporter Rod Lurie said the detective threatened him and tried to get the piece killed. “There was consistent cultlike phone intimidation from Pellicano,” said Lurie. “He would call my friends and family and editors I worked for at other magazines, saying I was through in this town.” According to Lurie, Pellicano paid the reporter’s research assistant to steal his notes. Enquirer sources, meanwhile, insist that Lurie’s biggest source on the story was actually working for tabloid foe Gavin de Becker.
“I can’t do everything by the book,” Pellicano once admitted. “I bend the law to death in gaining information.” Pellicano would sometimes remind people that he carries an aluminum baseball bat in the trunk of his black Nexus. “Guys who fuck with me get to meet my buddy over there,” he once told a reporter, gesturing toward the bat. Pellicano also tells people that he is an expert with a knife-“I can shred your face” he has said – and that he has a blackbelt in karate. “If I use martial arts, I might really maim somebody,” he said. “I have, and I don’t want to. I only use intimidation and fear when I absolutely have to.”
Anthony Pellicano had worked for Michael Jackson for four years. His services didn’t come cheap. The investigator’s usual fee was $500 an hour; Jackson paid Pellicano a retainer of $100,000 a month. The singer, according to Pellicano, was the victim of twenty-five to thirty extortion attempts every year. He also had family problems. When Jackson’s sister La Toya wrote a tell-all book that included allegations that Michael had been molested as a child, Pellicano launched a campaign to discredit La Toya and her husband, Jack Gordon. He succeeded. Before the book came out, newspaper articles appeared saying that Gordon was a convicted panderer who had owned massage parlors and had changed his name twice. Despite Pellicano’s efforts, the book was a bestseller. The detective, however, insists that Jackson was pleased with his work. “We finished that job,” Pellicano said. ” Michael is happy.”
During the child molestation allegations, Pellicano completely took over the function of public relations. Jackson’s usual publicist, Lee Solters, referred all calls-more then seven hundred in the first week-to Pellicano. ” I had to lay out the chessboard and say, what does the public think?” Pellicano said of the situation. “How will this affect Michael and all of the other deals that are in the works for him? And the sponsors involved?”
Even before the child abuse scandal broke, Jackson and his handlers were masters at manipulating the press. Actual interviews were minimal and were limited to journalists who were bona fide friends or allies. Although articles frequently appeared about Jackson’s bizarre behavior, most of them were amusing tales of Jackson’s wacky eccentricities or stories of his love for stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross. Almost all the stories were planted by the singer or at his direct orders. When Jackson and Madonna had a ” date” at the Los Angeles restaurant Ivy, paparazzi were waiting by the time they arrived. They had been tipped off by both Jackson’s people and Madonna’s. A similar scene occurred when he had a “date” with Brooke Shields-whose other highly publicized romances included George Michael, John Travolta, and Dodi Fayed.* (*After Jackson told Oprah Winfrey and her 90 million viewers that he and Shields were in love, the grateful Jackson gave Shields a $100,000 ring and a $200,000 necklace.) Some believed that Jackson’s friendship with Elizabeth Taylor was also largely for public consumption. They fed off each other’s fame: she gave him old Hollywood credibility, he gave her cutting-edge hipness. “They rarely saw each other privately,” according to writer Chris Anderson, who said the friendship was both a public relations ploy and a financial arrangement because Jackson was a big investor in Taylor’s various merchandising efforts.
“Jackson would leak stories to us all the time,” says the National Enquirer’s Mike Walker. “Then he’d do this whole ‘the tabloids lie’ routine.” Jackson regularly planted items that he was feuding with rival singer Prince; one of his favorite tabloid stories reported that Prince was using ESP to drive Jackson’s beloved chimp Bubbles crazy. “This is the final straw,” the story quoted Jackson as saying. “What kind of sicko would mess with a monkey?”
Jackson personally orchestrated the publication of stories that he wanted to buy the Elephant Man’s bones and that he slept in an hyperbaric oxygen chamber because he wanted to live to be 150. Jackson wanted the hyperbaric chamber story to run on the cover of the National Enquirer-the one condition was that the writer use the word “bizarre” at least three times. “He really liked the word bizarre,” according to Charles Montgomery, the reporter who did the piece. When Jackson was told that the Polaroid that showed him sleeping in the chamber wasn’t good enough quality to run as a cover, he posed for a second photograph. “I did more articles on Jackson than I did on anyone else,” said Montgomery. “Before I ran anything, I would always check with people close to Michael to see how accurate it was. I almost always had full cooperation from his camp.”* (*Among those who confirmed the hyperbaric chamber story for the Enquirer was Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Steven Hoefflin, whose other patients are said to include Liz Taylor, Ivana Trump, Tony Curtis, Don Johnson, Joan Rivers, Nancy Sinatra, and Sylvester Stallone (who denies he’s a patient). Dr. Hoefflin would later be involved in a scandal when some staffers accused him of sexual harassment. He was cleared of the charges.)
Jackson was shocked that the mainstream press, including Time, Newsweek, the AP, and UPI, picked up the oxygen chamber story. “It’s like I can tell the press anything about me and they’ll buy it,” Jackson said. “We can actually control the press. I think this is an important breakthrough for us.”
By the time Jackson did his highly rated interview with Oprah Winfrey in February 1993, his handlers told him he had gone too far with the “bizarre” front; he had to distance himself from the “Wacko Jacko” stories.
“I have been in this house looking for that oxygen chamber,” Oprah said to Jackson. “I cannot find the oxygen chamber anywhere in the house.”
“That story is so crazy,” Jackson dolefully said. “I mean, it’s one of those tabloid things. It was completely made up. It’s a complete lie.”
For the first few days after the Pellicano press conference, the Michael Jackson story was reported largely as the private detective had spun it: an extortion attempt gone awry. “Michael Jackson Tells Fans He Did No Wrong: Complaint Linked to Extortion,” read one typical headline. “Don’t Believe the Dirt!” advised another. “This Is a Guy Who Doesn’t Even Swear!”
While Hard Copy correspondent Dimond was working the phones on the story, she got a call from someone who started reading from a police report on the Jackson investigation. It was filled with phrases like “masturbation” and “oral copulation.”
“I’ve got to meet with you now,” Dimond said. That evening, at a small Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, the informant showed Dimond a confidential report from the Los Angeles Department of Children’s Services. “I saw an extremely graphic, detailed narrative from this child,” said Dimond, “right down to the sexual acts.” Dimond knew a big story when she saw one. “[The informant] was upset by the way the whole story was being reported as a botched extortion,” said Dimond. “He said, ‘You’ve got to promise me this story won’t get buried.’ ” He needn’t have worried. “It was either going to be a superstar being falsely accused or it was going to be a superstar perhaps guilty of one of the most heinous crimes we know,” said Dimond. “Either way, I couldn’t lose.” The report was stolen property so Dimond’s producer forbade her to take it or pay money for it; she spent three hours transcribing the twenty-five-page report in longhand.
“Tonight, on HARD COPY!” a teaser blared the next day. “Diane Dimond reveals the exclusive details behind the Michael Jackson child abuse allegations!”
The story became the biggest sexual scandal in decades. Competition for scoops was furious-and was often fueled by money. Within hours of Dimond’s broadcast, a news agency called Splash was selling copies of the Child Services report for $750 each. ABC, CBS, and NBC all got copies. The National Enquirer assigned a team of twenty reporters who canvassed Los Angeles, knocking on 500 doors in the neighborhood where the accuser lived. Even Nightline and 60 Minutes sent letters to participants, begging them to appear. “First let me say that I am sure this week has been overwhelming to you,” Ted Koppel wrote to the accuser’s father. “You have had a first-hand crash course in dealing with the media. I’m sure it has not been easy .. . . Anthony Pellicano and the Jackson people have been trying to tip the balance of the media coverage in their favor by making allegations that you were the perpetrator of an extortion attempt . . .. Therefore, I am offering you and/or your attorney the opportunity to be my sole guest on ‘Nightline’ tomorrow evening.” The father turned down the offer, but Koppel devoted an entire segment of Nightline to the scandal on the evening of the State of the Union address.
Jackson’s long-running antagonism toward the press actually worked in his favor during the child abuse scandal. His advisers cast the story as a media vendetta against the singer. One of Pellicano’s strategies was to hire dozens of Michael Jackson lookalikes to show up in various locations around the world. “Michael Jackson spotted in London]” a news report would declare. His handlers would then prove that Jackson wasn’t near London, adding, “This is yet another example of the media’s sloppy, irresponsible coverage of Michael Jackson. How can you believe anything they say?”
Pellicano also produced young boys who insisted that their intimate friendships with the singer were entirely chaste, although some thought that strategy backfired when one of the kids volunteered information that he shared a bed with Jackson. “It’s a very big bed,” Pellicano explained. (Note: As did Brett Barnes)
The detective had more success persuading people not to talk to the media and discrediting those who did. Reporters who tracked down potential sources were constantly told, “Mr. Pellicano has told us not to say anything.” Four former security guards who filed suit against Jackson, alleging that they were fired because they “knew too much,” sold their story to Hard Copy for $100,000. They accused Pellicano of threatening them. When two ex-employees, Mark and Faye Quindoy, sold their story, Pellicano immediately called their credibility into question, pointing out that they were involved in a back-pay dispute. He also called them “cockroaches” and “failed extortionists.”
Jackson’s supporters, including his own family, were hardly more honorable. “Every single person I’ve contacted on Jackson’s side or in his family has wanted money,” said Dimond. “People would say, ‘Michael’s a lovely well-balanced young man and if you give me $5,000 I’ll go on the record with that.’ ” The singer’s father, Joseph Jackson, wanted $150,000 to appear on talk shows to defend his son. He negotiated with Hard Copy, but talks fell apart because the show wanted Michael’s mother to appear too, and Joe couldn’t deliver her.* (*In late 1993, Katherine and Michael’s brother Jermaine appeared on CNN and Hard Copy to speak in Michael’s defense, but Joseph refused to appear. He was still holding out for payment.) When PBS did an expose on how checkbook journalism fueled the Jackson controversy, Jackson’s
parents said they’d be willing to speak out against it-for $100,000.
Pellicano’s most successful tactic, however, was taping the accuser’s father apparently negotiating the terms of a screen deal or settlement. The detective had been dealing with the father for four months and had been recording the calls. He gave reporters twenty-five-minute tapes of the conversations, and although the evidence from the recordings was far from conclusive, the fact that anyone would have financial discussions with someone who supposedly molested his son was enough to turn the tide in Jackson’s favor. After Pellicano released the recording, a poll showed that only 12 percent of those questioned believed the allegations against Jackson; most believed that he was the victim of extortion.
It wasn’t from his biological family that Jackson would find his most effective supporters. It was from his Hollywood family, particularly Elizabeth Taylor. Chen Sam, Taylor’s spokeswoman, had urged the star to disassociate herself from the messy controversy. On August 29, Sam got a call from the New York Post’s
Richard Johnson, checking out a story that Taylor was on her way to Singapore to publicly support Jackson. Sam convinced the columnist that the story wasn’t true. Later that day, Johnson called back. He’d heard the story again. He had details. Chen angrily denied the story, threatening to sue Johnson if he printed anything. Soon after she hung up the phone, Sam got a call from Liz Taylor. The star was on the plane heading to Singapore.
“You can’t do this!” Sam screamed at Taylor. Sam slammed down the phone. “Goddamn her!” Sam said. “She thinks she’s going to get another bauble from Cartier!”
“What do you mean?” an assistant asked.
Sam explained that once, to thank Taylor for her public support, Michael Jackson gave the star a $250,000 canary diamond necklace. “Now every time he’s in trouble, she rushes to his side hoping for another little gift.” Whatever Taylor’s motives, the former screen goddess’s trip to Singapore turned into a minor media event in itself. Taylor and two members of her entourage took three of the seats in the first class cabin; the other twelve were all filled with tabloid reporters. Chen Sam’s office suspected Jackson’s people had tipped off the reporters.
“Michael is one of my best friends in the whole world, and I can’t think of anything worse that a human being could go through than what he’s going through now,” Taylor told one reporter during the flight. “He’s a very sensitive, very vulnerable, very shy person. I believe totally that Michael will be vindicated.”
Asked about the motive for the allegations, Taylor said, “Well, I think all of that is becoming quite clear-extortion.”
Sam watched furiously as the woman whose image she had spent much of her adult life shaping appeared on A Current Affair, defending Jackson. “She looked like Elvis on a bad day,” said a member of Sam’s staff. “She was wearing an unflattering Hawaiian shirt and Chen was furious because her hair and makeup hadn’t been done. The lighting was terrible.”
“How could she do this to me?” wailed Sam.
But with Elizabeth Taylor’s support, others were more willing to defend Jackson. Sharon Stone spoke in his defense. Donald Trump stood up for the singer, at one point putting Jackson up in his Plaza Hotel. ” If anyone wants to mess with Michael,” said Trump, “they have to come through me first.” Liz Smith weighed in, urging Pepsi not to drop his sponsorship on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.* (*Pepsi and other corporate sponsors were understandably noncommittal.) Smith attacked Diane Dimond and Hard Copy for so aggressively exploiting the scandal. When Dimond reported a Jackson biographer’s unsubstantiated and apparently untrue claims that a video existed of the star having sex with a minor, Smith wrote, “Diane Dimond glowed as she hasn’t in months, squeezing out every scintilla of innuendo from what appears to be a totally baseless rumor.” Jackson filed a $100 million lawsuit against Hard Copy and Dimond.
The reaction to Dimond’s coverage was, she said, “swift and threatening and violent.” Her phones were tapped, she believed, her car was followed, her past investigated, her friends and family called and harassed. Some of it came from irate Michael Jackson fans-a gang of them once physically attacked her. More often, she said, it was from Pellicano and his team.
“For months, the Michael Jackson story consumed every waking moment of my life. At every turn, Anthony Pellicano kept popping up,” said Dimond. “I started hearing from friends that Anthony Pellicano had called, asking questions like where does she live? Where did she come from? Does she have any kids?”
Other reporters would pass along veiled threats, she said, from Pellicano- which he denied making. ” He’d say, ‘Tell Diane Dimond I’m watching her.’ or ‘Tell her I hope her health is good.’ ” Dimond became convinced that her phone was tapped. ” Paramount was pretty convinced too, ” she said. “They got a security expert to come to my house. . . . They found evidence of some weird tampering.” Dimond also believed that her phones at Hard Copy were tapped. She decided to do her own detective work and devised a plot with her husband.
One morning at 9 A.M., Dimond’s husband called her at her office: ” How’s that special on Anthony Pellicano coming?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s great, ” Dimond replied. “We’ve got all sorts of things on him. We’re going to expose everything, including the whole story about Elizabeth Taylor’s husband’s grave.”
At 9:28 A.M ., Dimond got a call. “What kind of story are you doing on Anthony Pellicano?” someone from Paramount’s legal department wanted to know. Dimond said she wasn’t doing any story on the detective. “I just got a call from Weitzman’s office,” the caller told Dimond. “They were quite sure you are doing a story on Pellicano.”
“After that,” said Dimond. ” I never used my desk phone.”
By late 1993, some of Pellicano’s tactics started to backfire. For one thing, the tabloid media had realized that if celebrities like Jackson could hire private investigators to dig up the dirt, so could they. Private investigator Don Crutchfield, another of Pellicano’s Los Angeles area competitors, was uncovering unsettling information about Jackson’s relationships with children and was appearing on Hard Copy with it.
Some people close to Jackson were persuading the singer that his lawyers and Pellicano were making mistakes and talking to the press too much. ” If it were in my camp, I would get rid of everyone,” said the singer’s brother Jermaine Jackson. ” His representatives are just plain stupid.” By then, Jackson was said to have been spending $100,000 a week on his legal defense. Faced with these expenses and with four months of uninterrupted tabloid hysteria, Jackson switched tactics, parting company with Pellicano in December 1993 . ” I swear on my children [he has nine of them] this decision was not Michael Jackson’s, ” said the detective. “If I wanted to, I could be working on this case today.” Pellicano also continued to maintain that Jackson was innocent. (Note: In an interview with Newsweek in 2001 Pellicano revealed revealed why he allegedly dropped Michael Jackson as a client, who hired him to investigate one of the families accusing him in his 2003 child molestation case. He detailed that he told Jackson he would only work for him if he wasn’t guilty. “I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about cops or lawyers. If I find out anything, I will f–k you over. … I quit because I found out some truths…He did something far worse to young boys than molest them.” Pellicano did not elaborate.) Weitzman stayed on the case but Bert Fields also quit and was replaced by Johnnie Cochran, the flamboyant attorney who would later defend 0. J. Simpson. The following month, the case was settled for a reported $27 million.
Pellicano claimed he was dead set against paying any money. “There was no way that Bert Fields and I would have settled that case,” Pellicano said. “No chance, no way.” And indeed the settlement, which was publicly viewed as a tacit admission of guilt, effectively crippled Jackson’s career.
Part of the problem was that he could no longer afford his high-priced help . ” Michael Jackson is teetering on the edge of financial ruin,” according to John Connolly, the reporter who exposed Donald Trump’s dire financial straits in 1990. “The payoffs, the lawyers, the protectors cost him a fortune.”
Jackson quietly tried to sell tainted Neverland, but no one was willing to pay $26 million for the spot where the alleged child molestation had taken place. The lucrative product endorsements were gone. The audiences no longer filled up stadiums. In 1997, paychecks issued to employees of Jackson’s company, MJJ, bounced. No more $100,000 a month retainer fees. No more $250,000 canary diamond necklaces.
Jackson’s Hollywood defenders began disappearing from the picture. Eventually, even Elizabeth Taylor reportedly started avoiding Jackson’s phone calls. Liz Smith also stopped defending him, and one day repeated a comment attributed to the singer’s ex-manager, Sandy Gallin, suggesting that Jackson was, indeed, a pedophile*. (*”Does Michael Jackson like boys?” Gallin allegedly said to E! columnist Bruce Bibby. “Does a bear shit in the woods? ” Gallin denied he ever said any such thing, but Bibby stood by the story. “The remark came out of the woods,” Bibby said. “I certainly didn’t ask him.”) “Why is Liz always picking on me?” Jackson complained. “Liz is always nice to Lisa Marie, and Lisa Marie is much weirder than I am!”
“Michael’s problems with the media are mostly of his own making,” Smith responded. “Too much spin control and not enough common sense.”
One by one, Jackson lost the circle of high-powered, high priced Hollywood heavyweights who had for years protected him from public scrutiny. They were replaced by figures from New Age religions or the Third World. A number of cult watchers claim that his marriage to devout Scientologist Lisa Marie Presley was arranged by the controversial religion. Jackson, who proposed to Elvis’s daughter over the telephone, was such a tarnished star that some wondered why the Scientologists wanted him among its members, but Presley effectively used Jackson to do public relations for the church*. (*When MTV was working on an expose on alternative religions, for example, Lisa Marie called the president of the music network and told them that if they were tough on Scientology, they would lose access to Jackson’s music.) Deepak Chopra, according to one source, took up Michael Jackson’s cause and orchestrated an extraordinary Life magazine cover story, photographed by Harry Benson, that showed Jackson playing with his son, Prince. In 1997, a Saudi prince named Waleed bin Talal-who is also a big investor in EuroDisney, Donald Trump’s properties, Steven Seagal films, and Planet Hollywood-took over much of Jackson’s financial empire.
Michael Jackson hasn’t entirely disappeared, however. Stories regularly appear in the tabloids about Jackson’s sexual prowess and about the ” love triangle” between him, Lisa Marie, and his second wife, Debbie Rowe. “Jacko’s Wacko Plan to Have 2 Wives” read the National Enquirer. ” Michael Jackson has hatched a bizarre plan to have two wives-and his pregnant wife Debbie couldn’t be happier.”
He also sold pictures of his newborn son to the tabloid OK!, reportedly for $1.3 million*. (* Jackson has said that he was giving the proceeds to charity, but at least one of his charities reportedly has been under investigation for not giving any money to the needy.)
Although no formal charges were ever brought against Michael Jackson, the scandal effectively ruined his career. Anthony Pellicano loudly and repeatedly said that he was opposed to settling, and the perception in some Hollywood circles was that if the singer had stuck with the private detective and Fields, he would have never gone down in flames . The collapse of Michael Jackson’s career showed Pellicano and the rest of Hollywood that in the face of scandal, the best strategy was to fight back-and fight dirty if necessary. Ever since the Michael Jackson scandal, Pellicano has never been busier.
When Cheryl Shuman, Hollywood’s “optician to the stars,” went on a tabloid TV show and claimed that she had evidence that Steven Seagal beat his wife, Seagal hired Anthony Pellicano. Shuman claimed she was harassed and followed and once was beaten so badly that she ended up in the emergency room of a hospital, though she could never prove who was behind the attacks. When Time magazine writer Richard Zoglin looked into her allegations in early 1995, he got a seven-page threatening letter from Seagal’s attorney, including dirt that had been dug up by Pellicano. ” It included everything down to Shuman’s exact prescription for Prozac,” said Zoglin. They had effectively undermined Shuman’s credibility as a source. Time dropped the story. “I don’t blame them,” said Zoglin. ” On the one hand, it’s a story that deserved to be told, on the other hand, it just wasn’t worth the hassle.”
Reporter John Connolly also experienced Pellicano’s hardball P.R. when he wrote an article on Seagal. Connolly claimed that he had evidence that Seagal was linked to the mob, had lied about his CIA experience, and had paid to have someone killed. Seagal turned Pellicano loose on Connolly. The reporter, a former cop, didn’t back down, but the experience was harrowing. ” Most journalism schools don’t teach reporters how to respond to a Louisville Slugger, ” said Connolly. “His tactics have a real chilling effect.”
Pellicano’s star continued to rise. He was hired as a technical consultant in the films Ransom and The Finn. He butted heads again with Diane Dimond when Hard Copy reported on the Jerry Springer scandals and the controversial talk show host hired Pellicano. “I really think I am the best in the world, ” Pellicano said shortly before the Jackson scandal. “I would say that in the next ten years, I’m going to make millions of dollars.”
The lesson for the media was equally bottom-line oriented: If they’d ever doubted it before, the Michael Jackson episode showed that scandal sells. That was hardly a new insight- the media feeding frenzy during the Trump divorce was still fresh in everyone’s minds- but that was a soap opera; the Jackson story was a tragedy. The public said they were disgusted by it, but the ratings indicated otherwise. Thanks to Dimond’s series of scoops, Hard Copy’s ratings were up 24 percent during the Michael Jackson coverage. Ratings were also up at A Current Affair-which at one point hired a professional actor to play the part of the young accuser as he gave his deposition describing Jackson’s alleged molestation.
By the early 1990s, even the networks were poised to embrace tabloid journalism. ABC News executives told World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings and his producer Paul Friedman to do more “R & P” stories-rape and pillage stories. Network news looked to the tabloid news magazines for direction. When ABC’s PrimeTime Live broadcast Diane Sawyer’s interview with Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, the struggling show got a huge ratings boost-60 million Americans watched, more than twice as many viewers as watched anything else on television that week*. (* The interview was especially embarrassing given the set of Jackson’s demands that ABC agreed to, including letting the singer see the taped portions of the interview before broadcast and altering them when Jackson thought that the lighting was unflattering, keeping the air conditioning on high so that his pancake makeup wouldn’t melt, showing his entire four minute, forty five second video from HIStory, and agreeing to air ten promotional spots from HIStory. ABC didn’t concede to one of Jackson’s requests, however, which was to have Princess Diana introduce him.) If the celebrities and the media learned anything from the Michael
Jackson episode, it was to up the stakes on both sides. Yet nothing, people thought, would ever compare with the Michael Jackson saga. A story could not possibly be more sordid, more disturbing-or more of a ratings bonanza-than a worldwide superstar brought down because of his alleged fondness for young boys.
That was before the O. J. Simpson story.