Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame – by Michael Joseph Gross
Chapter 2 – Tin Soldiers
Journalist Michael Joseph Gross takes us deep into the world of celebrities and the people who love them.
Why are we so obsessed with fame? Even if we don’t read People, we all crane our necks to see the stars. As a teenager, Michael Joseph Gross amassed a collection of about four thousand autographs by writing letters to celebrities and world leaders. The collecting fever broke when he grew up, but his fascination with fandom remained.
In Starstruck, Gross travels from Hollywood to Dollywood, from Neverland to Middle Earth; he crashes a Kid Rock concert with a sixty-six-year-old fan, sprints after Mick Jagger with a professional autograph collector, gets the inside scoop from Mary Hart on covering Hollywood for Entertainment Tonight, visits the world’s largest comic book convention with the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, and discovers what fans look like from the perspective of celebrities-who, paradoxically, often seem to be among the most starstruck of us all. Sympathetic, funny, and endlessly curious about stars and fans alike, Gross gives us a winning portrait of how our dreams of fame shape our everyday lives.
I can highly recommend the book.
OUTSIDE THE COURTHOUSE IN Santa Ana, California, the screaming was so loud that Ben had to holler when he said, “This is as close as you’re ever going to get to seeing Jesus.” A minute later, Michael Jackson, who’d just been arraigned on charges of child molestation, hoisted himself onto the roof of his black SUV and started dancing, transporting fans to ecstasy: they were jumping, shaking, stretching out their arms, hoping what fans always hope when they get close to their idol-to be seen, to be a special person that stands out from the crowd.
Ben, the Beverly Hills-debeautifying autograph collector, had left that profession to become a paparazzi photographer, and he had been telling me for two years that Michael Jackson’s connection with his fans was “the freakiest shit you’ve ever seen, ’cause it almost seems normal.” Mike Wehrmann had called to tell me about them, too: “These girls, they follow him everywhere. They’re smart and pretty and cool, and wherever he goes, they just sit outside for weeks, waiting. And they’re not groupies. He’s almost like buddies with them.” Both Ben and Mike had sweetheart deals with Michael’s fans, passing tips around when they heard about the singer’s travel itinerary (e.g., Mike tells MJ fan where MJ’s going to be; MJ fan pays back Mike by getting autographs for him). So Ben hooked me up with a couple of key figures in. this group, and I got to know a society of fans who are amateurs, in the best sense of the word.
The professionalization of fandom that I’ve been describing hasn’t really sullied planet MJ-a place populated mostly by true believers. With Daniela Kameke, a twenty-five-year-old university student who traveled from Berlin to be at the arraignment, I sprinted away from the bedlam and jumped in Ben’s car. He tore down the road that Michael would be traveling, and we pulled over to watch the singer’s vehicle approach. A sea of fans filled the street surrounding Michael’s SUV, which crawled for a mile to keep from running people over. Policemen cleared the way, using billy clubs to beat back fans, who fell to the ground, clutching freshly bruised arms and legs, telling one another “I saw him!” and “He saw me!” When the way was clear for Michael’s car to hit the highway, Ben raced back to Neverland, hitting one hundred miles an hour a couple seconds off the on-ramp.
Midway there, he slammed on screeching brakes and swerved to keep from rear ending a line of cars, then barked at me, “What? The girl’s cool with this, and the guy is screaming?” By a nose, we beat Michael to his own house, and Daniela waved him down at the gate of the estate. Through the open back window of the car, I saw Michael’s pale face floating in the dark interior, and Daniela jumped up on the running board, stuck her head inside, and said, “I love you and I support you. I come from Germany and there are many more from Germany who would have come but they could not afford it. They love you, too.”
I couldn’t hear Michael’s response to her, and when I asked her what he’d said, she replied, “‘I love you, too, and something-something-something the media.’ I couldn’t hear it. He speaks so soft.” Her breath was heavy and her skin was flushed. I asked if he had called her by name, and she said no, but that it didn’t matter. “He saw me. He knew I was here. It made the whole trip worth it.”
The night before, Lisadawn Marble, a thirty-year-old charity worker from Santa Rosa, had burst into a motel room in Solvang, California, where about a dozen of her fellow fans had spent the evening making posters and signs in’ support of the singer (YOU ARE A LEGEND AND LEGENDS ARE INDESTRUCTIBLE). Brandishing a photo album, she asked, “Who wants to look at my pictures?”
Someone raised a hand, and Lisadawn began to narrate the collection of snapshots in a rapid, high-pitched voice: “There’s my bedspread. I have a Michael Jackson bedspread, chocolate bars, everything. In my apartment I have a Michael Jackson museum. It’s my own private museum and I only let in the people I want to come … That’s my life-sized statue of Michael, but it’s bigger than life-sized. It’s six feet four and he’s five feet seven.”
Michael Jackson’s stature in the world outside Lisadawn’s apartment had been declining, along with his record sales, for quite a while. Stories of his plastic surgeries, his unusual relationships with children, and the garish whimsy of his home at Neverland Ranch had inspired widespread revulsion that, for many, was probably intensified by embarrassment for having once loved his music or his dancing. Still, many thousands of fans remain unabashedly in thrall to Michael Jackson, and their dedication has only deepened as his personal troubles have grown. The president of his fan club, Deborah Dannelly, a forty-eight-year old grandmother of two in Corpus Christi, Texas, told me that her Web site had ten million hits in the month preceding the arraignment. Since Michael’s arrest, the club had gained about sixteen hundred new members-and lost only one. Though Deborah helped organize a weekend of fan events surrounding the arraignment, she couldn’t be there. (She had to stay in Texas to take care of her father, who’d had a stroke on Christmas Day.) She promised me the gathering would attract “the biggest Michael fans in the world.”
Predictably, the rally also attracted lots of opportunists: Michael Jackson impersonators, aspiring singers belting out spirituals (“This is great exposure,” said one’s manager), and fringe activists such as Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope, who claimed that the rally was his idea and repeatedly said, ” l’m not a Jackson fan. I’m a fan of justice.” At one point, four reporters stood in line waiting their turn to interview the man in the Charlie Chaplin suit. And a number of African-Americans (many of whom rode to Santa Ana on “Caravan of Hope” buses donated by Jermaine Jackson) said they believed Michael was being treated unfairly because of his race.
The largest portion of the crowd, though, were the sort of fans that Ben and Mike had described to me: middle-class white women under the age of thirty-five, a crew of longtime supporters from around the world with a highly specific attachment to the man they still honor as the King of Pop. Pop music fandom, from Beatlemania to Madonna wannabes, has usually been about rebellion and pleasure. In contrast, Michael Jackson fans describe their passion for the star as a moral duty. They see themselves as intermediaries to a holy innocent, representing what they perceive to be his values-generosity, humility, and love in a world where goodness is persecuted.
Many describe their admiration for him as a kind of vocation. Jacqui Scott, a slender, stylish beauty consultant who flew in from England, said, “To be a fan is to see his goodness. I think some people, it’s almost like they’re chosen to see goodness in him. In history, [the majority of] people have always been scared of people who were good … Michael used to say, ‘If it wasn’t for the children of the world, I would throw in the towel.’ When Michael was arrested, I understood what he meant. In a world where this can happen, if it wasn’t for the innocents-the children and animals-there wouldn’t be any hope.”
For most, there was never any question of their coming to the rally. “He has given me so much, I just wanted him to see one more face in the crowd to support him in his being innocent,” said a woman from Oregon, who skipped probation on a criminal offense that she declined to identify, to “be here for Michael.” Their attachment is not only to the singer, but also to their fellow fans. They are in constant touch via instant messages and on Internet message boards, where they organize local social gatherings and vigils. A student from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette said he was too embarrassed to tell his college friends where he was going that weekend. “I say I have a family gathering. But this is a family gathering. These are the people who are there for you.”
A jolly woman from Texas interrupted with an earnest explanation that gradually crescendoed to a rallying cry: “This is my brother, this is my sister. That’s what Michael pretty much teaches. And I pump everybody up. I say, ‘You don’t have to be ashamed to be a fan.'” Emboldened by her call, other fans responded: “He’s like a father or brother or uncle to me.”
“He’s not Jesus Christ or anything. But he is an angel.”
“His music has saved people from suicide.”
They were unanimous in believing that Michael was innocent of the crimes with which he had been charged. Diana D’ Alo, a thirty-year-old Italian fan who works for a French film -distribution company in Santa Monica, made a general defense of his goodness (“Michael loves children. He would never hurt a child”) supported by personal observation (“I was at Neverland with Michael and the boy that’s accusing him after the things were supposed to have taken place. And everything was normal. Nothing seemed wrong” ).
The fans don’t exactly embrace Michael Jackson’s eccentricities; they simply deny that he’s strange. A sixteen year-old from Gilroy, California, thought it was fine for Michael Jackson to share his bed with prepubescent boys: “If a child loves you, they want to have everything to do with you, even sleep with you. I know that from babysitting.” When I asked fan club president Deborah Dannelly if she was troubled by the news clips of Michael Jackson dangling his baby from a high balcony at a Berlin hotel, I got an earful of jesuitical precision: “Dangle, if you look it up in the dictionary, means ‘to hold out for an extended period of time.’ That was a second and a half. I timed it. That is not a dangle. I’m not saying that it was the smartest thing or the right thing to do. But it wasn’t so different from any of us throwing our babies up and catching them in our arms.”
Most surprising, though, were their responses when asked about his plastic surgeries. Many fans, like Micah Campbell, a twenty-three-year-old grocery store manager from Baxley, Georgia, believe the press has exaggerated the singer’s transformation: “Sure, he doesn’t look the same as he did twenty years ago. But you don’t, I don’t. Nobody does.” Many more fans called his transformation insignificant. “It is not the appearance of a person that makes them who they are,” said Deborah Dannelly. “If there’s one person that’s taught us that, it’s Michael. If Michael or anybody chooses to change their appearance, it doesn’t make him a different person. The fans don’t see that as an issue.”
Fans pooh-pooh the plastic surgeries because they believe they know the “real” Michael, a character whose essence has not changed since he sang “ABC” with the Jackson Five. The more the media points to Michael Jackson’s nose as proof that he’s gone off the deep end, the more entrenched grow the fans’ belief that he hasn’t really changed at all. This seems even more amazing when you consider that they have been the most avid consumers of Michael’s image through the many stages of the metamorphosis that they deny or discount. Maybe, I suggested to one fan, she couldn’t see the changes precisely because she had been watching her idol so closely: “Maybe it’s like seeing your own face in the mirror?”
No, she said, I didn’t understand at all. “The press sees what it wants to see. Michael fans see the actual person underneath.” At first I thought her claim of special knowledge was just a moony adolescent fantasy. I heard so many versions of this remark from so many fans that for a long time, I couldn’t hear its texture. Now I think that it’s the key to understanding the moral dimension of their devotion, the pleasure they derive from defending him, and the way that pleasure helps define their own identities. The world maintains a morbid interest in Michael Jackson because he seems to have ceased to be an “actual person” such as the fans claim to know. Psychobabble about the singer’s lost childhood can only superficially account for his eccentricities; beyond that, the man appears to be pure entropy. It is impossible to imagine his peculiarities and alleged crimes adding up to anything coherent enough to be called character.
That makes him n magnet for the media, who rush into the blankness and build a monster for the rest of us to cringe at. As Michael Jackson’s public story grows more gruesome, his fans believe they have a moral duty to assert his essential goodness all the more. Their righteous pleasure in defending him is compounded by a sense of exclusivity: the world may see them as fools, but they know they are the faithful remnant. The fans’ claims to know Michael’s secret self are, at the same time, and perhaps more fundamentally, claims to have secret selves of their own. I think that’s what they tried to tell me, and why they seemed so satisfied by pushing me away every time they said, “You can’t understand me.” To be a Michael Jackson fan is to be someone special: a person so extraordinary that you cannot be explained-and at the same time, so unusual as to command outsiders’ attention.
The queen of the fans is probably Diana D’Alo, a voluptuous brunette whose blue eyes are often shaded by Chanel sunglasses that she keeps in a Gucci purse, and who sometimes appears at Jackson family press conferences to represent the fans’ perspective. When Michael is in trouble, she is in such demand for media interviews that giving them is practically “another full time job.” She says she hates being interviewed because reporters always get things wrong, but she consents because “Michael needs the world to know the truth.”
Her one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica is simply and sparsely furnished, and the only photograph I saw displayed there was a small color snapshot of her riding a bus with Michael. She looks straight into the camera; he appears in profile, gazing out the window, the details of his face dissolving into glaring light. Diana first saw Michael Jackson’s photograph on a magazine cover at a newsstand in Italy when she was fifteen. It stopped her cold. “I had never seen a person like that before. He looked so strange and beautiful.” Recalling the moment, she paused before each adjective, savoring her own words as if they were food. She passed through an early phase of teenybopper infatuation and memorabilia collecting, and then, when she began to meet the singer with some frequency about ten years ago, sold her collection to other fans so she could travel to see his concerts. Their first meeting, at her tenth concert (in Madrid), took place when she rushed the stage while he sang “She’s Out of My Life.”
“I had seen him before, but he hadn’t seen me. That was the first time he really saw me,” she explained. She said they chatted briefly, but when I asked her to describe the exchange, she shot me a slightly pitying look: “That is personal. That is just for me.” No other celebrity has ever exerted such a pull on her, and when I asked why she cares so much for Michael, she answered with two questions of her own: “How do you explain emotion? How do you explain love?” Diana took me under her wing for the weekend, and I was grateful for her protection. The Michael Jackson message boards I’d been perusing on the Web roiled with warnings against talking to reporters: they will TWIST EVERY LITTLE THING U SAY and MAKE U LOOK LIKE A FANATIC instead of a REAL TRUE PERSON who LOVES Michael Jackson! They only care about THEMSELVES, THE LIES THEY MAKE UP, and THE NEXT BIG STORY! That’s what happens when you sell your soul to the DEVIL. (This gives a flavor of the caution; legal restrictions on the message board contents prevent direct quotation.)
Most fans began their conversations with me with a defensive insult (“You just want to say I’m crazy”) or a plea (“Please, just please don’t make me look stupid”). Diana, who was convinced by our first meeting (and, more crucially, by Ben’s endorsement) that I probably wasn’t out to get her, agreed to help. me get past their defenses by introducing me around. She told me I could follow her in my car to the weekend’s first fan gathering, a rally at the Santa Barbara courthouse. She did not tell me that her cruising speed was ninety. When we arrived, she strode serenely toward a noisy gathering of about sixty fans, who were surrounded by about eighty members of the press. Before plunging in, she paused to apply some lip gloss and scan the scene. “Ah,” she said coolly, “the French,” and nodded to a couple of fiercely elegant, bone-skinny, chain-smoking women in white T -shirts standing at opposite ends of a ratty French flag on whose bands of color they had sloppily written a few slogans. Blue implored the reader, “Before you judge him, try hard to love him.” White laid out the creed of reasons that one ought to try: “Michael Jackson is / Achieved Dream / A caring heart A new vision / A lesson of life / Hope for Tomorrow / A Philosophy / A Concept of Love.” Red wrapped things up with a disillusioned yelp: “When Michael Jackson is being arrested, you know the world has gone crazy.”
Diana cocked one impeccably plucked eyebrow and said, “They are a little strange.” When I asked why, she wrinkled her nose at their crude banner and sniffed, “If you are going to do a thing, you do it right.” Then she exclaimed, “The Spanish!” and waved to a group of petite, dark-haired women dressed in Billabong jerseys and sexy scoop-necked, striped blouses rocking out on the courthouse steps with a boom box that played “Tabloid Junkie,” Michael Jackson’s jeremiad against the media from the HIStory album. We made our way through an asteroid belt of cameramen and reporters and entered the mass of fans who were dancing and singing, and Diana’s lips began to move in sync with the whole crowd’s: “Just because you read it in a magazine / Or see it on the TV screen don’t make it factual.”
One of the Spanish nudged another and said, “This what we are doing-is what the lyrics are about. This is what this song is for.” A playlist of angry anthems chronicling the singer’s fury at the press and the police continued with “Scream,” “They Don’t Care About Us” .(“Beat me, bash me /You can never trash me”), and repeatedly-and with the greatest satisfaction-“D.S.,” a vilifying screed against a person identified in the lyrics as “Dom Sheldon.” When sung, the name sounds like “Tom Sneddon,” the Santa Barbara district attorney who is Michael’s legal nemesis. “You think he brother with the KKK? . . . / Dom Sheldon is a cold man … ”
The French, the Spanish, the Norwegians, the Swedish, the Japanese, the English, and the rest-almost all of them with smiles on their faces-danced and sang until somehow there emerged consensus that it was time to check in at their motels (where they would get ready for the candlelight vigil outside Ncverland that preceded the poster making sessions, which lasted so long that plans for a group expedition to a local multiplex, where Peter Pan was playing, had to be scrapped).
Diana kept busy racing around greeting everyone, and talking to a few reporters. She would check in on me every so often, each time raising her voice above the angry songs to ask some version of the same question: “It is fun, yes?” The next morning I arrived at the Santa Ana courthouse well before the sun came up. It was freezing in the dark, but Diana had dressed warmly. “Yes,” she said, “leather pants are warm.” Though she was unlucky in the lottery for seats to watch the arraignment in the courtroom that morning, Diana was determined to find a way in. I followed her, highstepping inconspicuously across the wires and cables that snaked among the TV satellite trucks alongside the courthouse, and falling into line with the lottery winners as they prepared to enter the building. Diana made the most of her eyelashes when it came time to sweet-talk the guards who asked for our tickets. Though rebuffed, she was not the least bit angry or hostile. When I opened my mouth to ask a question, she laid her hand on my shoulder: “Let me think. There must be some way.” This challenge seemed small-time to Diana, who has crashed the Romanian parliament, pretty much every major concert venue in the world, and “a dentist’s office in Mexico” in order to see Michael. We poked around and tried some doors, all of which were locked. I thought she might get frustrated after a while, but after exhausting all visible options of entry, she said, “Don’t you have fun with me?” and I laughed. I actually did.
We ducked into a building behind the courthouse to warm up, and Diana asked, “I am maybe not so crazy as you thought?” Well, I said, what we were doing was a little odd, and illegal, but it was still fun. She clutched the collar of her fur-lined toggle coat and pressed for reassurance: “So we are not crazy.” “No,” I said. “I do think you are a little crazy. I think that all the best parts of us-all of our talents, and all of our enthusiasms-they’re always partly sane, and, they’re always partly crazy. Don’t you?” Warily she said, “Okay,” broke eye contact for a moment, and then surprised me with a sudden confidence: “The fans, many of them come from broken homes. Many have lost a parent. Many of the girls have eating disorders. Yes, with all of them following Michael around, they are trying to fill up some lack. But that is true of everybody, with what they are enthusiastic about.”
I tried to take advantage of the opening: “For you, what is the lack?”
She shook her head and chuckled. “No, no. That is not what I am going to talk about.” Pushing, I got nowhere, and finally I said, “Even if you won’t tell me what it is, do you know what lack you’re trying to fill ?” “I am not sure,” she said, and I couldn’t tell whether she meant it, so I just kept looking at her until she talked some more. “Another thing about all Michael fans is that they’re childlike. Look at us. We’re thirty years old. And the way we’re dressed, the way we act, how old would you think we are? At least ten years younger. We’re people who don’t want our childhood to end. But I can’t psychoanalyze Michael Jackson fans for you.” Her expression went opaque: that was enough of that. “I should go back,” she said, meaning back to the front
of the courthouse. “The TV people, I think they need fans to interview.” “Diana, sometimes I think you like being interviewed.” “Oh, no”-she hid all but a shadow of a smile-“I only do it for Michael.”
Diana is a central figure in a core group of several dozen Michael Jackson fans whose lives are largely ordered by their desire to see the singer in person at every possible opportunity. Most of these fans are unusually attractive, fashionably dressed, and well-spoken European women over twenty-one and under forty who refer to themselves as “girls.” Dulce Iglesias, a twenty-nine-year-old Spanish fan who helps run a family-owned restaurant in London, estimated that in the previous year she had taken eight “Michael trips,” lasting “anywhere from five days to a month.” The women often travel in packs of four to six, usually with others from their home countries. Sometimes they follow the singer’s concert tours; sometimes they simply wait outside the gates of Neverland Ranch for weeks at a time, in hopes that he will notice them on his way in or out of the property.
Stuart Backerman, Michael’s former publicist who served as a liaison to the fans, explained the phenomenon to me this way: “They’re not sitting outside of Neverland for three weeks because he’s a great singer. They’re sitting there because he’s a great person, with a message-that we should erase the color lines, that we should look at people not for what they are outwardly, but for what they are inwardly, and that if we do that together, we can heal the world-that all of us need to hear.” This is an exaggeration, but it is not just talk. Many of the fans I met do volunteer work for children’s charities as a way of showing their devotion to Michael.
Quite a few of them have been following him for a decade or more, and he rewards and stokes their loyalty. Bea Arizna, twenty-four, who owns a nightclub in Oviedo, Spain, said, “If we are standing outside his hotel or his house, he will always come out. He recognizes us and says, ‘Are you okay? Why are you here?'” He has never insulted them, the way the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Madonna, and many other performers have at times snubbed and offended their admirers.
This unwavering generosity helps to explain why the fans’ feelings for him seem to be entirely affirmative: what they describe as their “love” for Michael Jackson strikingly (and, in my experience with fans, almost uniquely) has no apparent undertones of hate. He sometimes invites them to have supper or watch movies with him at Neverland, although they declined to discuss these experiences in detail because they sign nondisclosure agreements upon entering the house. “I love the popcorn at Neverland,” said Daniela Kameke. “It tastes better than any popcorn in the world.” When some fans who attended Michael’s Madison Square Garden concerts on September 7 and 10, 2001, were stranded in New York when air traffic halted after 9/11, Michael assigned them a bodyguard, paid for several of them to stay in the Helmsley Palace Hotel, chartered a bus to take them shopping, and covered all of their expenses until they could return home. “The Spanish embassy said they couldn’t help me,” Dulce remembered, “but Michael did.”
Usually, though, their devotion doesn’t come cheap. Some have run up massive credit card bills. Jacqui Scott said, “My family worries because of the debt. But they know that I just need to see Michael at times.” Daniela Kameke, shivering slightly in a thin wool coat, said that she works “several jobs” to afford her trips. “I don’t spend any money on anything anymore. No clothes. I never go out. Every single Euro I spend, I think, ‘I could spend it on the trips.’ It’s only on Christmas or birthdays that I get new clothes.”
The Sacrifices they make for Michael’s sake are not just financial. They are also emotional. At the courthouse rally, Jacqui Scott expressed some bewilderment at the persistence of her ardor: “Some people let go of the things that helped them through their childhood. With Michael, it’s kind of like he’s this lost child. And a lot of his fans are like lost children. Please don’t make me sound crazy. Because I am not crazy. I am trusting you. I have been like this since I was twelve.”
Jacqui said she was the only black girl in the English village where she grew up. She was teased and put down by other children. “I hated my childhood. But as a child, I always felt that Michael loved me. You feel someone like that can never hurt you, because you’re never close with them. So you can never be hurt by them. You go to people who can’t hurt you.”
She followed the entire Bad tour, the Dangerous tour, and “ninety percent of the HIStory tour.” She said that she has met Michael “dozens of times. He’s only said my name once. It was in New York the year before last, at a Democratic Party fund-raiser. I think he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
I was having trouble understanding: “He’s only said your name once. You’re not friends. You know that. And yet you’re telling me that he is one of the nicest people you’ve ever met. What am I missing?” ·”It sounds weird, but it’s spiritual.” She paused to scowl at a fundamentalist Christian doing some bullhorn evangelism: “Quit being deceived by this phony celebrity stuff! If you get cancer tomorrow, who’s gonna be there for you? Is Michael Jackson gonna be there for you?” “I was just drawn to him, from when I very first saw a video. A few weeks after that, I’m like I am now, and I’ve been like that for more than twenty years.”
Her interest in Michael Jackson, like most of these fans’, is almost completely nonsexual. When they occasionally allow that he’s “hot,” the adjective is uttered with blushing and embarrassment. It’s a curious discomfort. Sex appeal is usually a core element of pop fandom: admirers of Elvis and the Beatles, for instance, viewed their idols as objects of sexual fantasy or as models of sexual liberation. The majority of Michael Jackson fans I talked with, by contrast, seemed embarrassed about sex, perhaps because Michael’s own sexuality appears to be so confused. More likely, their embarrassment has little to do with Michael. The first thing you notice about most of these women is their beauty. Ben said, “It’s not like fans of other rock stars. Go to a U2 concert, and they’re all butt ugly. These girls are hot. They could have boyfriends in a second, if they wanted.” Beauty takes work, and these women clearly devote considerable time and resources to looking their best; but almost all of them are unable to take compliments on their appearance. Most of them are also single, and sensitive about the topic: “That is a personal question. That has nothing to do with anything. Why would you ask about that?” said Daniela Kameke when I asked if she had a boyfriend. She had been friendly until then, and she barely talked· to me afterward. Their own sexuality was the only topic, aside from media misrepresentation of Michael Jackson, that seemed to upset these fans.
(I have run across only one other fan group that is so notably asexual. The television series Beauty and the Beast has a large following among people who have been physically disfigured, and those who have been victims of sexual abuse. These fans idealize the purity of the love affair between the show’s main characters-a love that is passionate but can never be sexual. None of the Michael Jackson fans made any comments to me indicating that they were victims of sexual abuse. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about parallels to Beauty and the Beast. Quite possibly, people who have been abused and have chosen never to reveal it might be drawn to idealize a man who symbolizes childhood innocence and absolute goodness. The attachment of such people to such a character might be forcefully asexual and avowedly pure; and they would jump to his defense if he were accused of the kind of crimes that they would prefer not to confront.)
Though they say their interest in Michael isn’t romantic, a number of these fans do share at least one habit with love-struck schoolgirls: they regularly write letters to Michael, which they hand-deliver at his public appearances in distinctively designed envelopes. Myra Juliette, a poised, raven-haired twenty-nine-year-old from Amsterdam, described the envelopes as “insurance that he’ll know you.” Her envelope bears a black-and-white line drawing of a child holding a ball of fire in his hands; another woman’s bears three identical images of Charlie Chaplin’s body with Michael’s face. When I asked the woman with the Charlie Chaplin envelope (she refused to give her name, for fear that colleagues at her fancy European media job would disapprove) if Michael ever wrote her back, she said, “No, and I don’t expect him to. I don’t write to get an answer. I write so that I can give him encouragement and praise.”
Myra is committed to a constant search for moments of personal contact with Michael Jackson, but she, like the other fans I’ve described, does not seem to suffer any delusion of personal closeness to the singer. “Being a fan is completely different from the world that Michael is in,” Myra said. “But you’re part of something special. We see Michael the way he is.” The inner circle of Michael Jackson fans are willing to accept a relationship that is less than intimate at the center of their lives because of the sense of adventure that it provides-and the special knowledge of his true self, or of their own selves, that it seems to impart. I wanted to know, as precisely as I could, what part of themselves these fans were defending, by defending Michael Jackson. They dismissed that kind of question because they rejected its premise. Pop psychology is so often used as a weapon for discrediting their happiness that they’ve trained themselves not to think or talk a bout the psychological roots of their fascination.
Hanging out with these fans, I felt like I was in a time warp. I hadn’t listened to Michael’s music since I was a kid because I’d been put off by his bizarre publicity. But when I spent time with the fans, I started revisiting his greatest hits, and I remembered the thrill of hearing these songs for the first time. Michael Jackson was to the early eighties what the Beatles were to the early sixties: a sound and style that seemed entirely new, and ours.
At a candlelight vigil the night before the arraignment, standing in the driveway of Neverland, I asked Myra, what causes one fan to leave her sequined glove in a drawer, with other outgrown mementos, and another to leave home to follow him around the world? Down the road, a car stereo was playing songs from 1983, and Michael Jackson’s high-pitched cries and crowing filled the pauses as she answered, “Maybe there are two people who love dancing. Maybe one of those two people becomes a professional dancer, and the other doesn’t. Maybe they both have the same amount of talent, and all the same choices, but maybe one person prefers to follow their dream and the other prefers to accept that they’re a great dancer, and that’s it. Maybe we’re the people who followed our dream. “I’ve been to places most people will never go,” she said. “Estonia, Korea. Because of Michael, I have friends in Angola. I could go to Japan and I have twenty friends there. I’ve been on the floor of parliament in Romania. And Britain. And yet, in the end, he’s a stranger to me.”
Lights from the television stand-up crews behind her flashed on and off, and the features of her face flashed from detail to silhouette. “But if it makes me happy, why not follow him? Years from now, think of the stories I’ll have to tell.”
At the end of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Wendy, Michael, John, and the lost boys return from Neverland to the real world. When the boys grow up, the narrator makes the melancholy judgment that “it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them. You may see the twins Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and umbrella . . . The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”
Sometimes I have a strong urge to wish little bags and umbrellas and offices on Michael Jackson’s lost girls. Years from now, Myra may have great stories to tell. And yet, if she and Diana and Dulce and Bea and Jacqui and the rest never stop flying around the world chasing Michael Jackson, who will they have to tell their stories to? It’s an important question, but the more I think about it, the less I understand the point of asking it. Someday, many of the rest of us, with our jobs and marriages and mortgages, may begin to wish we could see Estonia or Angola or Japan. We’ll probably wait until we’re seventy to start our trips around the world, at which point we might decide that Cancun would be a little easier, because who knows when that hip might go out again? Enchantment keeps its own hours.
After the arraignment, Michael Jackson threw a party at Neverland. The line of cars to get into the ranch was more than two miles long. At the gate, some of the fans asked me to come inside with them. I told them I couldn’t because reporters were barred unless we agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbade us to describe anything we saw there. “But you owe it to yourself. There is no place like Neverland,” Dulce said. “Just stop being a reporter for a while,” Diana said. “You would have so much fun.”
I told them I was going to sit this one out. If I went to Neverland, I wouldn’t be doing my job, and I was there to do a job. I stayed outside the gate watching fans stream in until I got bored. I drove to my motel, where I watched TV until I got restless, and got back in my car and drove again to the ranch. I remembered what Daniela had said about the popcorn, and thought about how much I like Ferris wheels. Why was I scrupling? This could be Michael Jackson’s last hurrah, and I was missing it because I feared my integrity would be marred by what would be, in the scheme of things, a trivial compromise that might bring me a lot of pleasure? I caught sight of a reporter I knew inside the estate and wondered if the rules about press coverage had changed, or if I had misunderstood. I began to think that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I did not see the inside of Neverland. So I started making phone calls, pretty frantically, trying to find someone who could get me into the party, but to no avail.
After the party was over, I stopped by the motel room where the Spanish women were staying, where Diana and Daniela were also hanging out. They were all flung across the bedspreads, eating pizza and cheese curls and drinking Pepsi, watching the day’s news on TV. Switching channels, they came upon a rerun of a documentary about Michael Jackson. “This is when we were in Las Vegas waiting for Michael for a month!” one said. On-screen, Michael was shopping in a tacky Las Vegas store, buying thousands of dollars’ worth of enameled, gilt, and ormolu vases, clocks, and knickknacks. Wide-eyed, Dulce turned to me and said, “Everything in Neverland is like that, all bright colors and gold.”
Tentatively Diana said, “Today I didn’t like it, for the first time.” “What?” another woman asked, still looking at the TV-and suddenly the Spanish were all talking over one another, furious over some lapse of continuity in the show. The scene shifted to a sidewalk in Vegas, and two of the women in the motel room appeared on-screen. Michael gestured to them and softly told the documentary’s host, “The Spanish fans are so sweet. They’re beautiful people. Stunning to look at.” In the motel room, they giggled and repeated his words to one another, and Dulce turned back to Diana: “What were you saying?” Diana said, “Nothing.” Then: “I was looking around the house for two hours. I was looking at all the details. And it all seemed so tacky. It was weird. I didn’t like it.”
No one answered her. The scene had shifted again and some of the women were recognizing themselves among a crowd sprinting down a street in Berlin. They pointed fingers at blurry figures on the screen and someone cried out, “That’s me in the green coat!” “That’s me running!” “This is me! ”
If there is an anti-Michael Jackson, it might be Dolly Parton. Where he is a singular American tragedy, she is a rousing American success story. His life is a warning: if you radically transform yourself, you may lose yourself completely, and the world will revile you. Her life is an inspiration: by transforming, you can become more essentially yourself, and everyone will love you for it. Still, the two inspire devotion that’s quite similar. Fans of every entertainer believe they have special knowledge of their stars, but none I’ve met state this belief so assuredly as Dolly’s and Michael’s. Initially I found these claims confounding because they refer to such synthetic human beings. Dolly, who has said, “I look at myself like a show horse,” and who sometimes refers to her “fixed-up” breasts as “little soldiers,” is just as open about her surgeries as Michael is secretive about his. Her candor makes her a paradox of artifice and authenticity: no star is more fake, and no star is more real.
For fans of both, the ultimate expression of commitment is a pilgrimage, a visit to their star’s amusement park. There’s one big difference between these destinations, reflecting the contrast of their characters. Neverland is also Michael’s home, a private place where entry is by invitation only; and Dollywood (in her hometown of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee) is a business, a public place that’s open to anyone who can afford a ticket. Consequently, Michael’s fans can’t complete their journey unless he becomes involved with them, choosing them to come inside. Dolly’s fans make pilgrimage on their own steam.
This difference also complicates the contrast. Michael, the more reclusive, is more personally available to fans; and Dolly, though more open, is less accessible. A sixteen-year-old fan told me that when she met Michael Jackson, “He said, ‘I love you’ to me. I almost died. He tried to find a way to hold my hand, but he couldn’t because my hand was clenched so tight. I could feel his nails struggling to find a way to open my hand so he could hold it.” If Dolly tried to do that, her nails could snap right off.