March 28, 1988 12:00 PM

Last September, Los Angeles correspondent Todd Gold flew to Japan to cover Michael Jackson’s Bad tour—and the frenzy the singer touched off everywhere. Although Gold had interviewed a dozen of the singer’s associates over the years, he had never met the reclusive Gloved One. Opportunity finally knocked in Yokohama when Jackson invited him backstage. “I was surprised at how normal he was after all the stories I’d heard,” says Gold. “He took my list of questions, and after the show, about 1 in the morning, I was given a handwritten note from Michael answering the toughest one: What misconceptions does the public have about you? His answer—that the rumors were painful to him—was honest and heartfelt.” The story became a cover (PEOPLE, Oct. 12, 1987), Gold’s seventh since he began reporting for the magazine in 1984. This week Gold was again on the Jackson beat, reporting on a United Negro College Fund dinner (page 36) hosted by the singer and featuring a guest list that included Liz Taylor, Whitney Houston and Liza Minnelli. “He keeps himself at a distance, but you’ve got to appreciate the dedication to his work,” says Gold, who continues to monitor Michael. “The challenge is to gain insight into what fuels the guy’s art.” One thing that surprised Gold when he met Jackson: “Because he started so young, people still think of him as a kid. When you stand next to him, you realize he’s grown up. He’s a man.”

First impressions to the contrary, Gold, 29, can and does report non-Michael stories. Later this month, for example, he will interview LaToya Jackson, Michael’s sister. As for non-Jackson stories, PEOPLE subjects who’ve felt the touch of Gold include Phil Collins, Mel Brooks, Nelson Riddle, Howie Mandel, Lionel Richie, Barry Manilow and many, many more stars. Gold has learned much from his brushes with greatness. “Heather Locklear is even lighter than she looks,” says Gold, who hefted her during a photo session. “Rod Stewart makes a fine tuna sandwich.”

Away from reporting, Gold, who grew up in L.A. and studied history at nearby Occidental College, strives for greatness with brushes. “I paint to relax,” he says. “I couldn’t afford the art I like, and since I could always draw, I started painting acrylics, mostly portraits and scenes from the Southwest. They’re all over my home.” Luckily, Todd’s wife, Beth, 28, a high school history teacher, and daughter, Abby, 7 months, like Nouveau Buffalo decor.

As for riding the rock-and-roll range, “I love it,” says Gold. “I get to step into the fantasy of every guy who’s wondered what goes on backstage. I got to jump off a drum riser holding Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. Lionel Richie recorded my phone machine message for me. Hey—is this a cool world, or what?”

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