We may never have evidence that Michael Jackson sexually abused Wade Robson and James Safechuck at Neverland Ranch when they were boys, as the two convincingly allege in HBO’s new four-hour documentary “Leaving Neverland.” But the question speaks to Jackson’s secretive personal life, in which he deliberately left many of his choices unexplained to the public, allowing millions of fans to guess, speculate, and spread rumors and myths. These five come up again and again.
Myth No. 1
Michael Jackson’s father sexually abused him as a child.
Jackson again stands accused of sexual misconduct with children. He settled with a boy for a reported $20 million to $25 million in the early ’90s, was found not guilty in a 2005 jury trial on charges that he abused another boy and is now the subject of the posthumous “Leaving Neverland.” Is it possible he was repeating a cycle of abuse? Biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 1991 bestseller, “Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness,” reported that rumors of family patriarch Joseph Jackson’s sexual abuse had been “circulating for many years within the music industry.” That same year, Michael’s sister La Toya Jackson wrote a memoir, “Growing Up in the Jackson Family,” that accused her father of sexually abusing her and sister Rebbie.
But La Toya later recanted her claims, and nobody in the Jackson family ever confirmed any of these rumors. The King of Pop was open about his father’s corporal punishment. He wept during a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey as he accused his father of physical abuse. (Joseph Jackson recalled it this way: “I whipped him with a switch and a belt. I never beat him — you beat someone with a stick.”) But Michael had many opportunities to blame his father for sexual mistreatment, and he never did. There is no known evidence to support the claim.
Myth No. 2
Michael Jackson was gay or asexual.
The singer insisted he was not gay, but some reporters and biographers suggest he was not exactly leveling with the public. Ian Halperin, author of 2009’s “Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson,” reports that Jackson was gay; Taraborrelli suggests he had a romantic male companion; and Randall Sullivan, author of 2012’s “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” calls him “presexual.” Sullivan claims, without any real evidence, that he was a “50-year-old virgin” when he died.
The problem with such theories is that women who were in a position to know contradict them. Jackson’s ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, said the couple’s sex life was “very hot.” And other women have pointed to romantic relationships with him, including Ola Ray, co-star of the “Thriller” video, who said they’d made out. Theresa Gonsalves, who says she was Jackson’s girlfriend while he was filming “The Wiz” in New York in the ’70s, claims they had sex more than once.
Myth No. 3
Michael Jackson wanted to be white.
In 1987, after “Thriller” made Jackson the biggest star in the world, he put out his smash follow-up, “Bad” — and was all over MTV with its hit singles. But he looked whiter than he had appeared in “Thriller.” Many fans assumed that Jackson, who had become a star through Motown Records in the early ’70s, was turning his back on his race to continue his quest for crossover success and adoration from a white audience. Greg Tate, an African American cultural critic for the Village Voice and other publications, called him “another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.” Steven Shaviro, a white author and academic, said, “In a white supremacist society he wanted to become white.”
But Jackson insisted otherwise, and there has never been any evidence to contradict him. He told Winfrey in the 1993 interview that he lightened his skin with makeup because of vitiligo, a disease that gave him blotchy, light-and-dark patches, and an autopsy verified the diagnosis after he died in June 2009. His brother Jermaine Jackson also acknowledged the condition as vitiligo and wrote, “He looks like a white man splashed with coffee.” As for Michael Jackson himself, he told Winfrey: “I’m a black American, I’m proud to be a black American, I am proud of my race. . . . I have a lot of pride in who I am, and dignity.”
Myth No. 4
Michael Jackson did not invent the moonwalk.
Jackson famously debuted this step, to gasps, during his performance of “Billie Jean” on the 1983 “Motown 25” anniversary TV special. Was this an act of artistic genius? Michael’s sister La Toya said in 2004 that a “Soul Train” regular taught him the move, originally called the backslide: “There was this dancer Geoffrey, who was always doing the moonwalk on that show. He taught Michael how to do it.” She was referring to Jeffrey Daniel, Casper Candidate and Cooley Jaxson, who had appeared on the dance show a few years earlier to perform a dance called the boogaloo . Jaxson himself later complained that the King of Pop avoided giving full credit to his teachers: “We kind of ended up being invisible, but we never said anything about it.”
It’s true that Jackson seemed to draw on many different sources for the moonwalk. A YouTube video posted after his death shows variations of the move from Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Fred Astaire and numerous others. And in his 1988 memoir “Moonwalk ,” Jackson mentions “three kids” who taught him the basics of the street dance.
But Jackson had a completely new vision for this step: “I was going to walk backward and forward at the same time, like walking on the moon,” he wrote. The night before the “Motown 25” performance, Jackson worked the move endlessly in the kitchen of his parents’ house. “I kind of let the dance create itself,” he wrote. He combined a number of different elements to form something nobody had ever seen before — a cohesive dance that was all his own, and with which he will forever be identified.
Myth No. 5
Michael Jackson died without a nose.
After Jackson’s death, a Rolling Stone story declared of his body: “The prosthesis he normally attached to his damaged nose was missing, revealing bits of cartilage surrounding a small, dark hole.” An Allure analysis of his facial surgery over the years recalled that by 2002, “many people think Jackson’s nose is falling off, or that he is wearing a prosthetic. The raggedness at the tip is actually paper tape, used by plastic surgeons to control swelling.”
Jackson’s autopsy did show that he’d tattooed his lips pink, his scalp black (possibly to make his hairline more seamless when connected to his wigs) and his eyebrows darker. But a Los Angeles County coroner, Ed Winter, said the nose rumors were “absolutely false.” As he put it, “People make it sound like he had this wax nose that he’d take off at night and put on the morning, and it’s like, ‘No.’ ”