Face to Face
Probably only the President of the United States is as tightly protected as Michael Jackson—and even the President isn’t quite so hard to meet. To most these days, Jackson appears only sporadically, if at all—a wonderful mirage visible onstage for a few hours in that flashing, high-tech Oz: the Victory tour. But every so often an elevator operator, an adoring fan or a security agent has snared Michael, and sometimes lives change as a result. Leslie Robinette of Greenville, Tenn. credits her recovery from aplastic anemia to Michael’s visit in a Seattle hospital 11 years ago, when she was 6. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “I just perked up right afterward and the medication started working.” Most encounters are less dramatic—a cop has his picture taken, a Dallas Cowboy gets a $50 bill autographed—but meeting Michael has a way of delighting almost anyone.
Like millions of fans, 14-year-old David Smithee’s most fervent wish was to meet Michael Jackson. He didn’t have much time: David was dying of cystic fibrosis. Last April the boy’s wish was answered. Through the Brass Ring Society, a Tulsa group dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of terminally ill children, Michael invited David to the Jackson family home in Encino.
At 2 p.m. on April 9, Karen Smithee, a divorcée, drove her only child past the fans at the singer’s gate. “We smiled and waved just like celebrities,” she says. Michael met them in the living room, “so shy he couldn’t look at us.” Then Karen left them alone. Michael took the boy to the kitchen for lunch (David had a roast beef sandwich), then to the backyard to meet Mr. Tibbs, the ram, and Louis, the Ilama, after which Michael’s staff videotaped an interview with David. “Michael made David feel like a star in his own right,” Karen says. Jackson and his young visitor played video games (David won twice) and watched a movie in the private theater. “There David was, sitting in Michael’s jacket, looking happier than I had ever seen him,” Karen recalls. Michael gave her son his red leather jacket from the Beat It video and the black-sequined glove he had worn to the American Music Awards. “He said the glove had special magic, that I should never let anyone else wear it,” David proudly told his mother.
Seven weeks later David Smithee died. In July Karen learned that the dedications on the Victory album included Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother, the late Marvin Gaye—and David.
At 2:30 early one morning in May, Hector Carmona, 26, was working the night shift as an elevator operator at New York’s elegant Helmsley Palace Hotel when a guest—one Michael Jackson—appeared asking for a tour. Hector squired Jackson around for three hours and “he was especially impressed with the Gold Room, a music room with a beautiful harp.” He was also impressed with Carmona’s uniform. “He said, ‘Oh, what a nice jacket. But you ought to wear one glove. Two is too much.’ He said he’d like to have a jacket for his concerts. We’re about the same size, 36 small.” Carmona retrieved one of his spares the next morning. “It had just come from the cleaners. I fixed it nice, with the captain’s braid on the shoulders. He liked it very much. He wore it to the White House.” Now Hector Carmona is a celebrity too. “I showed a picture of me with Mr. Jackson to a couple of girls. They screamed, ‘This is the closest we’ll get to Michael. Let’s kiss him!’ Michael Jackson fever. It’s crazy, huh?”
A typical morning finds Mani Khalsa in a local store shopping for asparagus, watermelon, peas, red peppers, cabbage, avocado, spaghetti, unsalted cheese and corn. As personal chef to Michael, Khalsa, 25, a Michigan-bred Sikh, spends five hours a day cooking for the slim vegetarian (the brothers have their own chef). “It’s impossible to cook for one,” Khalsa grumbles. “Even a pepper is too big.” His efforts are appreciated, though. “Sweet-potato pie is the hit of this tour,” he beams. “Everywhere you turn they ask for it.” And Michael’s favorite? “Enchiladas with cheese, tortillas and hot sauce. Every day his mother asks, ‘You still eatin’ those enchiladas?’ ”
Ben Brown was 23 and president of Steeltown Records in Gary, Ind. when he heard a tape by a local group called the Jackson 5 in late 1967. In 1968 (six months before they moved to Motown) Brown produced and released their first record, Big Boy—”Michael did falsetto, a 9-year-old singing ‘I’m a big boy now, looking for a girl to love’ “—and watched the kids when Joe Jackson was away. “Michael was so small he would stand up on the seat of the car to look out,” Brown recalls. “People would throw money on to the stage at concerts. Sometimes he had so much money in his pockets he could hardly hold his pants up.”
Mike Hirsh has a different perspective on Michael Jackson. During every show he is underneath the huge stage, cranking hydraulic lifts, firing up smoke machines and raising the lid that enables Michael to ascend into view. “My title is stage manager. I am like the fixer,” says the 32-year-old Hirsh, who at 6’10”, 240 pounds goes by the nickname “Lurch.” “If I have a problem I go in the dressing room and say, ‘Michael, let’s have a chitchat.’ The kid wants perfection.” Even so, Hirsh’s crew has fun. “Every night Michael looks down through the drum riser on Shake Your Body. We’re down there dancing, doing the same thing they’re doing onstage. I’ve seen him have to run to the microphone because he was so into watching us that he forgot to go back and sing.”
Ladonna Jones, 11, knew her father’s $6.75-an-hour job as a produce worker wouldn’t swing the $30 price of a ticket to the Dallas concert. So she started saving her money, babysitting and doing chores, only to discover that tickets had to be purchased in blocks of four. A disappointed Ladonna wrote an open letter to Jackson and it was printed in the Dallas Morning News. A few weeks later the policy had been changed—partly, Michael explained over the airwaves, due to a letter from “a girl in Texas named Ladonna Jones.” An overjoyed Ladonna was sent two free tickets by the tour sponsor, Pepsi, and invited to meet her hero. “He told me he really liked my shirt. It had his picture on it. He asked me if I had good seats. They didn’t turn out to be very good, but it was fun anyway.”
If anyone knows Jackson musically, it is guitarist David Williams, who has accompanied him for five years. “I can play exactly the way he hears something,” boasts Williams, 34, a top L.A. session musician who has played with the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. After Jackson heard him in 1979, Williams spent many hours in Michael’s home studio on Off the Wall, then toured with him in 1981 and still finds his talent “unbelievable.” Says Williams, “Michael’s ideas are fresh. He hears things, sounds, that are coming from someplace else.”
Tough guys like Michael Jackson too. In July, several members of the Dallas Cowboys asked Chris Arnold, sports director of radio station K 104 FM, to arrange a meeting with the singer. So Arnold took Robert Newhouse, Tony Hill, Dennis Thurman and Dextor Clinkscale to a concert. When the jocks joined Michael backstage, Jackson recognized safety Clinkscale, 25, who had posed for a local paper dressed as Michael on the Thriller album (left) a year earlier. “Hey, that was you,” Michael said, grinning. “I thought it was me at first. Where did you get the clothes?” Near the end of the half-hour meeting, Arnold, lacking any other paper, pulled out a dollar for Jackson to autograph. Clinkscale had the same problem, but Cowboy salaries being what they are, he got Michael to sign a $50 bill.
It was sheer curiosity that drew Alice Heap, 83, and her kid sister, Elizabeth, 77, to a Jackson concert in Knoxville, Tenn. A schoolteacher for 45 years, Alice is interested in the young. When reporter Marti Levary told Jackson security agents that two elderly ladies were in the audience, the women were invited backstage. “I see you have your earplugs in,” a costumed man impishly told Alice. “Who are you?” Alice Heap asked, understandably confused by the scene. “I’m Michael Jackson,” her bemused host said, squeezing her hand, which she later used to applaud enthusiastically.
Back in 1969, when Michael was 10, Motown sent security agent Bill Bray, a 30-year veteran of the LAPD, to Richmond, Calif. to guard the Jackson 5 during a promotional trip. Bray has been the family’s security chief ever since and has seen to the mammoth protection necessitated by the Victory tour, even going undercover occasionally to follow a lead. During these 16 years, Bray has seen Michael grow from child star to superstar, at a price. “He had to be sheltered and he sacrificed what a youth of his age would normally do,” says Bray with the kind of emotion you’d expect from a family member. “The things he missed along the line he’s seen that others behind him won’t miss. But the Jacksons got what they wanted—”They always had the idea that they would become superstars”—and it hasn’t been all work. “We’ve had fun,” Bray says. “My God, we’ve had fun. I love ’em, you understand. In a way, I grew up with ’em.”
Police officer Allan Booze, 37, was doing paperwork at the stationhouse in Pontiac, Mich. last August when an officer yelled that Michael Jackson had arrived in the garage. Jackson was there to make “a small home video” with about 30 officers, and Booze, who had seen the Detroit concert on duty, grabbed his Polaroid and ran downstairs. “There he was, sitting in the back of a van looking like a scared little weasel,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This can’t be the same guy that does all that crap up on the stage!’ He looked like he might start crying. Some people might say he looks like a fag, but I would never say that. He looked frail, almost sickly. But he had a real big hand—I’m a big guy, but when we shook hands his went all the way around mine.
After they chatted a bit, Jackson seemed to single out Booze as an ally, and a bodyguard told him that Michael had a phobia about getting killed. “He said once Michael was mobbed by fans,” Booze recalls. “The police got him out. Now he goes out of his way for them.” Before the filming Booze asked if he and some others could have their pictures taken with Jackson. “The more we took, the more he seemed to loosen up,” says Booze. “It was like me and him are old buddies. At the end he motioned me over with a big, long finger. ‘Thank the guys for me’, he said. ‘I enjoyed myself.’ ”