Michael Jackson’s tragic story is well-trodden territory, but Rolling Stone contributor Randall Sullivan brings the King of Pop’s rise and fall back to life. From the revelation that Michael was a “presexual” to his belief that leprechauns are real, Abby Haglage speed-reads Untouchable.
In Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson, Randall Sullivan more than tells the story of Michael Jackson—he relives it. Weaving through painful childhood memories, accusations of child molestation, and a deadly drug addiction, the nearly 800-page book is a journey through a life of hidden torture and pain. A longtime Rolling Stone contributor, Sullivan leaves few stones unturned, despite charges by other reviewers such as Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times that deem the book mostly recycled material. “Such accounts, will be highly familiar to even the casual follower of Jackson news,” he says. Roger Friedman quips that the book contains so much of his reported material that reading it is like “reencountering long lost friends.”
Still, recycled as it may be, Sullivan’s account is no less fascinating—or real. One of the world’s most celebrated performers, the “King of Pop” was cast as both a hero and a villain, at once all-powerful, and helplessly alone. From his father’s sadistic torture tactics to the “presexual” tendencies that drove him to befriend young boys, The Daily Beast rounds up 11 of the book's most telling scenes.
1. He took the brunt of the horrific blows from his abusive father Joe.
Working the 4-to-midnight shift as a crane operator in Gary, Ind., Joe Jackson was determined that his five boys be successful. Cutthroat, abusive, and—at times—barbaric, he picked on Michael for being effeminate, having a big nose, and “liver lips.” Jackson describes his father’s “discipline” at its worst as both ritualized and sadistic, forcing the boys to strip down naked then slathering them in baby oil before bringing the “cut-off cord” from the steam iron. Michael remembers the feeling of the whip against his thighs, “like an electric shock.” Sometimes, to humiliate Michael, he would make him stand in front of a line of girls that he had chosen from their concerts—while they laughed and pointed. If the then-14-year-old Michael so much as whispered, his father would slap him “hard in the face” until he cried. On multiple occasions, Michael vomited and fainted—simply from the presence of his father. It’s a period of time that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
2. Michael’s brothers and father locked 15-year-old Michael in a room with two adult hookers.
Michael turned 14 the same month that the album Ben was released—hitting puberty shortly after. As girls swooned over his dimpled smile, his father and brothers began ridiculing him about his sexuality—urging him to get out there and “do it.” According to his sister Rebbie an “intervention” of sorts occurred when Michael was just 15. Locked in a hotel room with two adult hookers—Michael was told to say goodbye to his virginity. Instead, he picked up the Bible on the nightstand and began “reading passages from Scripture aloud to them.” When finally released from the room, the hookers were allegedly more shaken than Michael himself, who had tears streaming down his face.
3. A paralyzing self-consciousness about his appearance was rooted in teenage acne.
The world wanted Michael Jackson to look like his 5-year-old self for eternity. It was an impossible expectation, and one that would catastrophically cloud his self-image. When puberty brought Michael an unfortunate case of acne, it humiliated him. “People actually shook their heads when they realized ‘cute little Michael’ had been replace by this awkward teenager with erupting skin,” he later told Los Angeles Times music writer Robert Hillburn. Michael’s mom claims that his severe acne, which “circled his face from forehead to chin,” changed him from an “outgoing, devilish boy” to a “loner.” It was during this embarrassing period for Michael that he first discovered the beauty of masks—while filming The Wiz in New York. The full makeup that he wore daily to play the scarecrow in the show gave him the freedom to “hide and hold his head high at the same time.” Sullivan says he “reveled in the discovery of how freeing it could be to meet people while wearing a mask.” He would continue wearing masks for the rest of his life.
How to tell the world that he wasn’t trying to be heterosexual or homosexual or even asexual, but rather presexual, was a problem he could never solve.
4. He first met the woman who would bear his first two children (Debbie Rowe) after spilling a “skin-bleaching” agent on his scrotum.
Michael met the future biological mother of his two kids, Prince and Paris, while in the final stages of his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. Described in the book as “quirky,” the 5-foot-10, 200-pound woman towered over Michael. Although extremely close in the latter part of his life, Michael and Debbie met in an extremely unconventional way, when Michael allegedly spilled a “skin-bleaching” agent on his scrotum and Debbie, formerly a dermatology nurse, stepped in to help treat him. In return for the assistance, Michael bought her a car. Voicing his concerns to Debbie about Lisa Presley’s resistance to have children, the self-declared “biker-chick” said she would be happy to help. Michael Joseph (Prince) Jackson was born a year later in February 1997.
5. He idolized Ireland and believed—wholeheartedly—in leprechauns.
“Be on the lookout for leprechauns,” he said to Prince, Paris, and Blanket when they arrived in Ireland for a vacation in 2006. Michael would, allegedly, admit to anyone that asked that he truly believed in the little fairies. “He loves the whole idea of leprechauns and the magic and myths of Ireland,” said an unidentified source. In 2009, his older brother Jermaine admitted that Ireland was his little brother’s “getaway” and his favorite place in the world to go and escape his worries.
6. His first meeting with Jordie Chandler—whose family would virtually ruin him with accusations of child molestation—was pure chance.
Michael’s relationship with Jordie Chandler—which later prompted his irreparable fall from grace—began on a sunny Santa Monica day in May 1992. After getting a call that Michael Jackson was stranded on Wilshire Boulevard, a stunned Dave Schwartz—who worked at Rent-A-Wreck—sped to the scene, his wife June and stepson Jordan (Jordie) Chandler in tow. In the book, Jordie is described as a “beautiful kid” with “caramel-colored skin, dark eyes, and perfect white teeth.” But it’s Jordie’s mom, June, who seems to have first initiated his relationship with the pop phenomenon. June apparently told Michael that Jordie was a “big fan” and had “sent him a drawing in 1984, after his hair caught fire filming that Pepsi commercial.”
7. Michael never recovered from the emotional anguish caused by the Jordie Chandler case.
Although the book confirms that Michael took a liking to Jordie and began calling him, “as he had called many other boys over the years,” it insists that Jordie was pressured into lying about his relationship with Michael by his manipulative, bipolar father Evan Chandler (who would ultimately commit suicide). Beginning with the raid of Jackson's Neverland Ranch in August 1993, his life would never be the same. Sullivan is clear to offer his view, that he “doesn’t believe Michael was a child molester.” But doesn’t deny the disturbing nature of Jordie’s testimony to police: “he masturbated me.”
Sullivan says a large part of the pop sensation’s adult life was spent trying to get back to the “Michael” he was before the Jordie Chandler case. “It would never happen,” writes Sullivan, “it had all been taken from him.” He would later call his decision to settle the case—paying the Chandler family a massive $18 million—the “worst decision of his life.”
8. Rather than homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual, Michael Jackson was “presexual,” and likely died a “50-year-old virgin.”
What many didn’t understand about Michael’s relationship with boys like Jordie, says Sullivan, is the reason he sought their company. It wasn’t an attraction that he felt for these prepubescent young boys, but a yearning to “be one himself.” His Neverland Ranch was an attempt to live in this childhood world—a place of innocence and pure imagination. Tabloids mocked his childlike tendencies (he once hired the little people who played the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland to his estate at Hayvenhurst) as creepy, calling him “Wacko Jacko.” What they were missing, he says, was that—devoid of a childhood—Michael was still a child himself. “How to tell the world that he wasn’t trying to be heterosexual or homosexual or even asexual, but rather presexual, was a problem he could never solve.” Rather than a sexual predator, Sullivan writes, Michael likely died “a 50-year-old virgin, never having had sexual intercourse with any man, woman or child, in a special state of loneliness that was a large part of what made him unique as an artist and so unhappy as a human being.”
9. His first wife, Lisa Marie Presley, never really knew the real Michael—and never saw him without makeup.
Less than two weeks after announcing her separation from Danny Keough, Elvis’s famed daughter exchanged vows with another legend—Michael Jackson. Rumors swirled early on that the marriage was purely a publicity stunt, meant to repair Michael’s image. Barely a year later, Diane Sawyer’s interview with the couple showed the two were severely at odds (Michael held two fingers in the shape of devil horns above her head mid-interview). A friend of Presley’s, Monica Pastelle, explained how frustrated she was with the “hours and hours her husband spent in the bathroom applying and removing various cosmetics.” Presley, though his bedmate for more than a year, had never seen him without makeup. She complained that she would “find his pillow smeared with [makeup] in the morning.”
10. His autopsy revealed a lot about his body—most shocking, that he was perfectly healthy.
Taken to the morgue at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office in Lincoln Heights after his controversial death from a drug overdose, Michael’s body was extremely thin—but not enough to be called emaciated. At just under 5 feet 10, he weighed a meager 136 pounds. Nearly bald at his death, he was donning a black wig stitched into the “fuzzy strands of his closely cropped white hair.” On his face—the subject of much ridicule over the years—doctors found two dark tattoos under his eyebrows and around his eyelids and one pink tattoo where his lips were. What little remained of his nose without its prosthetic was “a pair of slightly ridged nostrils.” But the most interesting part of his autopsy wasn’t the cosmetic discoveries—which tabloids had been touting for years—but the determination that he was, physically (despite his gaunt, sickly appearance), in nearly perfect health. With a strong heart and “excellent” muscle tone it was only a slight case of arthritis and allergies that doctors found. All of this is to say, had Michael Jackson not overdosed, he could have easily lived another 30 years.
11. Within hours of his death, Michael’s family and friends began vying for his million—suspected to turn billion—dollar estate. The battle continues today.
Sullivan says it was the Jackson women who began what would turn into a weeklong occupation of Michael’s estate. The vulturelike aspect of their greed was nothing new—the Jackson family had been living off of Michael for years in what Sullivan calls the “decaying orbit of Michael Jackson.” It was his sister LaToya who was allegedly the first to ransack Michael’s house following his death, loading up black duffel bags of cash and other goods with her boyfriend (a claim she denies). Katherine Jackson, his mother, apparently arrived several hours later with the same intentions, even calling Michael’s longtime nanny. “Grace, you remember Michael used to hide cash at the house? Where can it be?” she asked. In one particularly jarring passage, Sullivan claims that Michael’s sister Janet delayed his burial by three months—reportedly the Forest Lawn Cemetery, where he was to be buried, owed her $40,000. The Jacksons have vehemently denied nearly all of Sullivan’s claims.