She has never been as enigmatic as her brother Michael, but Janet Jackson isn’t exactly predictable either. Just when many of her friends were convinced that she had found true love, Jackson, 32, and her longtime boyfriend, René Elizondo Jr., 36, announced on Feb. 12 that they were separating “amicably” after 13 years together. “I was surprised at the breakup,” says Jackson’s friend and producer, Jimmy Jam. “It’s weird to think of them as not part of each other’s lives.”
Jackson was just 16 when she met Elizondo, then 20 and an aspiring director. They stayed platonic friends through her brief, rocky 1984 marriage, at age 18, to singer James De-Barge. “When I needed a shoulder to cry on, [René] was there,” Jackson told Essence in 1996.
The marriage ended after less than a year. Soon afterward, she and Elizondo began dating—and collaborating. A co-lyricist on Jackson’s last three hit albums, he helped her work through the depression that inspired many of the emotionally charged songs—most of which the couple wrote—on her 1997 triple platinum CD, The Velvet Rope, including the single, “Got ’til It’s Gone.” Elizondo, who shared a $4.5 million Malibu home with Jackson, also directed some of her videos and advised her on her career (boosted by an $80 million record deal she signed in 1996). “Their bond was her career, and they fell in love in the course of that,” says author Randy Taraborrelli (Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness). “René had a big impact on Janet,” he adds. “But that’s not to say her life is going to change with him gone. She is still the Janet Jackson behind Janet Jackson.”