Back in October and November, a very interesting multi-part discussion of Michael’s HIStory teaser film on the Dancing With the Elephant blog led to an equally interesting discussion of Michael’s 1995 Diane Sawyer interview in the comments section.
The relevance of the Sawyer interview to that discussion was because Sawyer had played the clip of the HIStory teaser film during the interview, referencing the current controversy of the teaser as a pro-Nazi film modeled after Triumph Of The Will. Of course, Michael denied that accusation, but the resulting debate might have been a fascinating discussion of how Michael viewed his art-had there been more time in the interview,perhaps, but also, if he had he not been so snidely cut off by Sawyer before getting a word in about his art edgewise.
The discussion led me to go back and re-watch the interview in its entirety. A few things have always interested me about this interview, and I decided this was a good time to go back and review it again. Sure, Diane Sawyer was needlessly smug and condescending through the whole thing, but what’s interesting to me are Michael’s responses-not just the content of what he says here, but how he says it. In analyzing both the responses Michael and Lisa Marie gave, as well as their combined body language, a lot is revealed and/or can be reasonably surmised-about their relationship, their responses to the questions about the allegations, about Michael’s appearance, and how he operated as an artist. Whether directly spoken or insinuated through their body language and reactions, much can be read between the lines in this interview. In recent weeks, I have gone back to this interview time and again. Amazingly, this one interview could satisfactorily answer most of the world’s burning questions about Michael Jackson-if they would but watch and listen. And that has nothing-zero, nada, nilch-to do with Diane Sawyer’s skills as an interviewer, but everything to do with simply how her subjects responded.
One reason I think this interview is possibly a little more candid than many that Michael gave solo is, perhaps, because of the fact that Lisa Marie was with him. Michael had done interviews with others before, of course. Throughout much of his youth, he had given interviews with his siblings. And he had given interviews alongside friends, such as when Elizabeth Taylor sat in briefly during his Oprah interview, but such interviews had become rare during the period of his adult superstardom-in fact, any interviews at all had become a rarity by the mid 90’s, and the few he did grant were always greeted with much pomp and circumstance, in which it was expected he would be the sole center of the event. This occasion, therefore, was historic in that it marked the first time he had conducted a full interview sitting alongside someone whose acquaintance with him went beyond either blood relation or mere friendship-in other words, the first time he had ever sat down for an interview alomgside someone with whom he would also be going home with once the cameras stopped rolling. Yes, I’m talking about sitting down to talk about himself along with a partner; someone who knows whether or not he puts the seat back down on the toilet. In other words, a wife. Thus, there is a much more intimate vibe to this conversation than in many of Michael’s past interviews. It is only natural that we tend to lower our guard and our defenses a bit when in the company of someone who knows us intimately. And we can also observe how Michael and Lisa tend to bounce and, at times, deflect off each other. In cases where Michael might have normally dodged the question a bit, or given his stock answers, Lisa comes swooping in with answers that, at times, knocks the interview slightly off center. In fact, there are times in the interview when she seems more determined than Michael to set certain things straight (perhaps stemming from a desire to mitigate some of the harsh criticism that had been directed at her since the marriage) but we also see here a very animated Michael who, for the first time, seems to really want to speak out, even if often held in check by Sawyer who obviously is attempting to maintain control of the interview , to manipulate it and to steer it where she wants it to go. Many times throughout the interview, it’s obvious that Michael is chomping at the bit. He doesn’t want to be directed; he is wanting to have his say-and, frankly, there are times when a very obviously frustrated Sawyer has her hands full keeping him in check.
From the get-go, of course, this is the kind of dynamic that is intended to put Michael at an instant disadvantage-place him between two women who are going to be talking about him. It was the same discomfiting triangle that Oprah Winfrey created in her ’93 interview when she had Liz Taylor come out. Craig Baxter, a noted body language expert, did a very fascinating video analyzing Michael’s body language during that segment of the interview. Even though everything Liz had to say was very positive, of course, it wasn’t necessarily about the words spoken. It was the intentionally discomfiting situation of someone having to stand (literally, as he gave up his seat for Elizabeth) in a room while he’s being talked about by others. What’s more, he knows he is on national TV at this moment. What does one do? Where does one put their hands? What kind of facial expression to maintain? Craig Baxter is right. When you watch the video, you can see what a very awkward, uncomfortable moment it is for him. Imagine how uncomfortable most guys would feel if they had to sit stuck in a room with their wife and their mother-in-law, listening while they talked about him! Well, just imagine that scenario and you can pretty well surmise what Michael was feeling. Even if the comments are well intended, it doesn’t alleviate the awkward embarrassment of the moment. As Baxter noted, it seemed almost like an intentional setup to purposely put him at that disadvantage. He was supposed to be the subject of the interview, after all, not Taylor. Perhaps it was just poor planning (Oprah apparently wanted to surprise Michael with Taylor’s appearance) but you don’t ask a big star like Michael Jackson to sit for an interview and then force him to stand on the sidelines while everyone around him gabs about him.
Now fast forward to 1995, and again, Michael has agreed to a situation that is going to place him squarely at somewhat of a disadvantage, as a man sitting between two women-his wife and a very aggressive interviewer. He has to know going in that he is going to be the subject of most of the questions. Diane Sawyer’s interest isn’t in Lisa Marie, other than indirectly as the partner in this marriage. Every question is going to be centered on aspects of his life-Did he or didn’t he molest a child? Does he or doesn’t he bleach his skin? Has he or hasn’t he slept with his own wife? He has to know already that very little of this is actually going to focus on what he really wants to discuss-his art and his new album. But with every interview is a fresh opportunity; a chance to say his piece; a chance to set some things straight. So he goes willingly into that lion’s den. Again.
The interview begins innocuously enough with Sawyer asking Michael and Lisa about the beginnings of the relationship. I would say that was a fair question because, for many of us, the relationship did seem to come suddenly, from out of nowhere (hence, much of the suspicion that also surrounded it). As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. In this segment, Michael is very animated and open, gushing about an attraction that, for him, had been ongoing for twenty years.
Lisa had made a lasting impression on him at the tender age of seven. He was seventeen when they first met, backstage in Las Vegas. His body language throughout this segment of the interview is open and direct, indicating that the feelings he is expressing are indeed genuine. His demeanor is every bit that of a man still on his honeymoon high. He is still thinking of himself as the luckiest guy in the world to have finally “won” her. The spontaneity of his gestures; his smiles as he recalls their beginnings are the earmark of honest emotion. In fact, he is so caught up and bubbling about his twenty-year-long attraction to her that he almost forgets, just for a moment, that it might seem a bit creepy to some that he was seventeen and she only seven when they first met, so he’s quick to add that he didn’t start asking Branca to contact her until she was eighteen. It’s actually a very cute moment in the interview when he realizes he had best clarify that there was no romantic interest until then. It is cute in the sense that he simply can’t hide his adoration of her, and for him, it’s hard to go back in time and imagine a time when he didn’t feel this way about her.
During this segment of the interview, he is much more open than Lisa, who remains fairly quiet and closed off, allowing him to take the lead here. I don’t think too much needs to be read into this. She is allowing him to take the lead because, after all, he was seventeen then; at seven, her memories of those times aren’t going to be nearly as sharp as his. Also, she is recognizing the importance of letting him have his opportunity to express his feelings for her on a world platform. At this stage, it was something the world needed to hear-how did Michael truly feel about Lisa Marie Presley? Thank goodness, he didn’t do anything so foolish as jumping up and down on a couch! He doesn’t even say “I love this woman” but he doesn’t have to. Again, his body language here has all the earmarks of genuine honesty, especially for anyone familiar with his base line expressions and gestures. When he says he was “torn up” seeing the announcement of her marriage to someone else on a magazine cover, it seems very much an honest statement.
There are times when both of their memories seem strangely fuzzy about details of their courtship. But these are the normal lapses that can come from such a whirlwind courtship as theirs. The relationship had not been an overnight one,but things had indeed moved at a tizzying pace when they became reacquainted as adults in late 1992. Some of the little lapses, such as one having to refresh the other’s memory about the details of their proposal, are perfectly normal and natural under the circumstances of which they became engaged. And being in an interview situation creates added pressure. The increased adrenalin levels that come with doing an interview are the same that propel the “fight or flee” instincts. You feel cornered; acutely aware that every word and gesture is going to be scrutinized. The fear of giving the “wrong” answer, even when there is nothing to hide, can create anxiety levels that will cause lapses in memory. The fact that Michael and Lisa have to occasionally jog each other’s recall is typical of many married couples, and it is amusing to watch the interplay between them. They sometimes become a bit like bickering kids-another surefire sign of real chemistry.
At this stage of the interview, they are both very much at ease. The questions aren’t producing tension. It’s an atmosphere that changes abruptly as soon as Sawyer begins to grill them about the allegations. Watch Michael’s and Lisa’s faces from about 3:18 when she steers the conversation to the idea of their marriage as being “too convenient.” You can visibly see them both steeling themselves for what’s about to come.
However, one should note here that they certainly didn’t go blindly into this interview expecting that these questions wouldn’t arise. It’s easy to sometimes bash the reporter in these situations, but Michael and Lisa had apparently signed an agreement in advance that no questions would be off limits, so it’s not exactly as if they were being ambushed out of the blue. The best interpretation of their expressions at this point is that they are both gathering their mental guns for what they know is going to be the most unpleasant segment of the interview. They know already the questions are going to be invasive, personal, and emotionally difficult to navigate-and that, in Michael’s case, an answer not well thought out could result in more problems with the Chandlers due to the legalities of the settlement (which inevitably did happen as a direct result of this interview).
Interestingly, both Michael and Lisa Marie had been public figures long enough that their base line gestures for almost any emotion or circumstance have become quite well known. They both react to the coming questions in each of their typical styles of dealing with difficult interview questions. Lisa’s baseline gesture, for example, is the tendency to duck her head and glance upward at the interviewer, the drooped eyelids (that physical trait so reminiscent of her father) becoming more pronounced. Her blinking increases dramatically. The gesture looks a bit shifty, but can actually be read as an unconscious defense mechanism. Michael’s gaze is steely and straightforward, almost non blinking, and he visibly swallows hard. The typical reaction of people who are not very well versed in body language would interpret that as a sign of nervousness or fear, equated to guilt. In reality, swallowing hard is a natural reflective reaction to a stressful situation, but not necessarily equated to guilt. It means, simply enough, that the subject is feeling stress. He clearly doesn’t welcome the prospect of having to address these issues publicly because the very subject is stressful and distasteful to him, and puts him beneath a glare of scrutiny that he would prefer not to be under. He knew the question was going to come up; he just didn’t necessarily like “going there.” But note that his gaze remains straightforward, open, steady, and firm. He isn’t dodging the question, but rather, steeling himself for it. In their own way, each of them are digesting the questions carefully and formulating their strategies for response. It is also interesting that they both adopt similar defensive poses here. If you pause the clip at 4:33, you can see that Lisa is sitting with her legs tightly crossed. Both she and Michael have clasped their hands in front of them. As any body language expert will tell you, this is a gesture intended (unconsciously, of course) to create a barrier between themselves and the other person.
Even though Sawyer tries hard to steer the interview, both Michael and Lisa Marie turn out to be difficult subjects to “steer.” I’ve rarely seen an interview where the reporter is interrupted as often as Sawyer becomes during this segment! But we have to remember the underlying motivation of both of these people. They have obviously been led to believe this is an attempt to go on record to set some misconceptions straight-about the charges; about the status of their marriage. For both Michael and Lisa, there seems to be a lot of frustration with being cut-off in mid thought or manipulated to go in a direction other than the course they are upon.
The first such interruption occurs when Sawyer asks Lisa whether she ever asked him if the charges were true. Lisa emphatically says no; she didn’t. With that being said, the unspoken assumption is that she has taken his innocence purely on faith. Remember, this was the very thing for which she was roundly criticized in her later Oprah interview where she said as far as she knew, she never saw any wrongdoing but that she couldn’t vouch for “what went on behind closed doors.” For that remark, she got a lot of heat from fans who felt that she should have unequivocally defended him, rather than leaving a small chink open for doubters. But here it is the opposite: She leaves the impression of a woman who never doubted him, even enough to question him. It is only after Sawyer starts to speak again that she must have had some second thoughts about that answer, and interrupts to say, “I didn’t have to.” Apparently, she didn’t have to ask because Michael was being very open in supplying all the information she needed to make a judgement. That’s what she means when she says on the phone it was all, “Ahhhhhh!” Michael was using her to vent about every aspect of the case, so there was no need to ever raise the question. She had heard every detail of it.
Sawyer next turns the spotlight back on Michael. His demeanor hasn’t changed. He remains as stoic as stone during this segment, yet we can see him inwardly steeling himself for what is about to feel like being grilled on a witness stand. Even if it had been agreed in advance that they would not be afraid to answer any questions, I have to say I think it was the height of absurdity for Diane Sawyer to ask him if he had ever sexually fondled a child. Likewise, I think it is an absurd question that interviewers even to this day continue to put to Michael’s family and closest friends when they agree to do these interviews (Oprah is notorious for it). I mean, really, what are the friends and relatives supposed to say in response to such a question? What was Michael supposed to say here? Even if Michael was guilty as sin, it’s not like he’s going to sit there on national TV and admit to it. So why do they do it? What is the MO behind the strategy of such questions? From the interviewer’s perspective, the question serves a number of functions. One, of course, is that they can justify that they are giving the subject an opportunity to “set the record straight.” But more often, what they’re really hoping for is, perhaps, to trip them up in some way-not so much with an outright confession (which they know they won’t get) but by forcing them into some kind of unintentional blunder, or in some cases, simply seeing if they squirm. This, in turn, plays into the sensationalism aspect of it; the “hook” that is guaranteed to draw ratings. The truth is that most journalists could really care less whether the crime took place or not. But in feigning interest, they can ask the questions that they know will wet viewer appetites by putting the subject in a vulnerable position. People will not only be judging their response, but how they respond. Do they seem forthright and honest, or shifty and dodgy? Viewers look not so much at what is said, but how it is said and, in some cases, what is not said. These questions are posed as an attempt to read “between the lines” of their responses. They may not be as intense as police interrogations, but they are somewhat designed with the same purpose in mind-that an innocent subject should have nothing to hide; however, a guilty one just might crumble under pressure. If a reporter can succeed in scoring such a blunder, they consider it a major coup. We can rest assured that Martin Bashir’s wet dream was when he got Michael to talk about bed sharing with children. But it was a response that Michael was very craftily coerced into, and this becomes obvious on repeated viewings of the footage. I’m not trying to argue that Bashir put words in Michael’s mouth, but it was the overall combatant and manipulative nature of the questioning, which was designed to put Michael on the defensive. A subject who is being made to feel on the defensive is a subject under duress-a situation that is sure to work out to the reporter’s advantage, and not to the subject’s. The more cornered and under duress a subject feels, the more the guard comes down. But this can be true regardless of the subject’s guilt or innocence. Just as most anyone will eventually break under an intense interrogation, regardless of whether they committed any crime, so, too, can a subject break and lash out if too many buttons are pushed during an interview. The sheer sensory overload of being put on the defense can drive one to become irritable and testy. Michael was often pushed to this brink in many interviews (we see it hear; we saw it in the Oprah interview, and we saw it in the Martin Bashir interview). I think his irritation arose from being asked what he perceived as invasive and irrelevant questions. Even when he agreed to these sort of “no holds barred” interviews (because he recognized their necessity and because people who had his ear were always telling him they were a good idea) he didn’t like doing them. As Lisa Marie would later say, the rebel in him often lashed out in surprising ways. And if he felt strongly about something, he wasn’t going to back down from it even if others perceived those beliefs as “odd” or “eccentric” at best. Again, if we look at the Bashir doc, it isn’t the line of questioning of whether he sexually abused children that puts him on edge; rather, it is when Bashir badgers him on how he feels about adults sharing their bed with children. In this sense, Bashir has adverted direct accusation by, instead, focusing on what might be construed as a philosophical question directly related to Michael’s personal values. Is this a practice that is morally right or wrong? The problem with this tactic is that it is adverting from the person’s actions to the much grayer and more subjective area of personal opinion, which can be rooted quite deeply in the individual’s belief system and the values of their culture or how they were raised For Michael, who had grown up in a tiny house sharing his bed with his brothers and many cousins, it was normal for people to share beds. It is an intimacy that has nothing to do with sex; thus, his genuine belief that the practice itself constituted no moral wrongdoing. In Michael’s eyes, it only became morally wrong if a certain line was crossed-i.e., if it became sexual. This might go far in explaining what seemed to many an apparent disconnect on Michael’s part between the idea of bed sharing and actual, sexual abuse of a child. In America today, and in many cultures around the world, the bed is automatically equated as a place where sex occurs, due to the assumed intimacy of two people sharing such a small space. The bedroom has become synonymous with sex; when we say a couple has problems “in the bedroom” it is automatically assumed we are talking about their sex life; we use the phrase “sleeping together” as a cultural euphemism for having sex. In Michael’s personal schema, however, he didn’t automatically equate the bed with sex, and didn’t particularly seem to care if society wished to scapegoat him for holding an eccentric view on the subject. In this respect, some might view him as incredibly foolish or incredibly brave. But however we feel about his responses, the oft-held belief that Michael was his own worst PR enemy in interviews is slowly beginning to give way to a new school of thought, as more and more body language experts like Craig Baxter have begun to analyze Michael’s interviews and to publicly acknowledge that, far from being the lying manipulator that detractors love to portray him as, he is actually an interview subject that is, more often than not, quite candid and brutal in his honesty. Perhaps, sometimes, too brutally honest for his own good. And this makes perfect sense when we consider his stubborn insistence on defending even behavior that he knows most would consider questionable, at best. Michael, in fact, is so honest that he can’t help being honest even when he knows his honesty is bound to be misconstrued; even detrimental. Indeed, this is not the hallmark of someone with something to hide, but rather, a metaphorical equivalent of someone bleeding his heart onto his sleeve. Instead of playing it safe with all the “safe” and “correct” answers, he literally lays it all out on the table for us, as if to say, “This is Michael Jackson. Take him or leave him.”
One really, then, must ponder the question: Would a guilty person do this? Or would they, in fact, be more apt to play safe and give all the “correct” answers, as if reading from a script? That Michael was all too “real” is, perhaps, one of the most endearing traits of his interviews.
But I realize this has been a rather long digression from the interview itself, so let’s rewind to where I left off. Anyway, Diane Sawyer had just listened to Lisa Marie’s response, and now had turned on Michael to get his take on the allegations. Despite what I said above, there is something positive to be said for Sawyer’s very specific and direct line of questioning here. Michael often said in interviews that he would never “harm a child” just as he does here. A problem with that response, however, and one that his detractors have always been quick to pounce on, is that pedophiles very seldom do believe they are “hurting” or “harming” a child when they commit sexual acts with them. The typical pedophile generally has a disconnect in which they genuinely believe that they are performing loving acts that are in no way harmful to the child. They equate the idea of “hurting” a child to physical abuse such as hitting and beating, or neglecting them. Both haters and doubters have raised this question in regard to Michael’s responses. Was this, in fact, just more of the typical pedophile disconnect? I can somewhat understand these concerns. But here, the line of questioning is very, very direct and specific, and perhaps there was, after all, a justifiable reason for it even though the questions may seem ludicrous on first listen. Sawyer asks him directly and specifically, “Did you EVER sexually engage, fondle, have sexual contact with this child or any other child?” Thus, there was absolutely no ambiguity in what was meant by “harming” the child, and no ambiguity as to whether Michael understood exactly what he was being asked. In the face of such specific and direct questioning, he still maintains, forthrightly and bluntly, that he has never committed such acts. Both his words and his gestures are forceful and emphatic here-the strong emphasis on the word “Not” when he says, ‘It’s NOT who I am,” the shaking of the head (which Baxter has noted as one of his base lines of honesty). His phrasing and gestures here are very similar to his 1993 telecast in which he first spoke out against the allegations-the same emphatic gestures; the same forceful emphasis on negating words such as “not” and “never.” As any body language expert will tell you, this is not how a person who is lying reacts. Rather, they are the words and actions of someone who is feeling a lot of outrage and frustration-exactly the kind of emotions that an unjustly accused person would be expected to have. People who are lying will unconsciously attempt to draw back as a way of deflection; there is usually very little animation or emphasis because their unconscious desire is to shift the subject and to draw as little attention to themselves and their responses as possible. Thus, instead of being very forceful and animated in their responses, as Michael was during his ’93 telecast and is here during the Diane Sawyer interview, they tend to be very flatlined in their responses. Notice, for example, the marked difference between Michael’s responses and those of Jerry Sandusky here, especially around 2:18. Sandusky’s voice is a monotone; he tends to glance away a lot, and he avoids any emphatic gestures. Compare that again to how Michael responds here.
Another interesting question was when Sawyer asks him what he thinks should be done with “someone who does that.” Since the line of questioning has been so specific, there is no doubt what is meant by “someone who does that.” You can tell the question takes Michael somewhat aback, simply because no one had ever put that question to him before. It seemed to come from out of left field and he wasn’t prepared in how to respond to it. His response here thus seems genuinely off the cuff, and we can see the wheels spinning here because he’s trying to think how to best respond to such an unexpected question. It’s obvious he hasn’t really given the matter much thought before, but his answer is very telling: “I think they need help, in some kind of way, you know.” It isn’t the stereotypical, over the top “they should be strung up” kind of remark, but rather, one that reveals some compassionate insight into the fact that a pedophile is a sick person who needs help. This is a small but important piece of commentary from Michael, and should eradicate any belief that he suffered from some delusional disconnect about the lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, or of what differentiates “normal” from “abnormal.” He doesn’t say here that child molestors are monsters, necessarily, but he does make it very clear where he stands on the issue of people who perform sexual acts upon children. This, in his estimation, is not normal and certainly not condonable behavior. It is the actions of a sick person who needs psychiatric help. With all ambiguity removed, there is no doubt here exactly where he stands on the issue.
The line of questioning next turns to the police photographs. There is another emotion that crosses his face, briefly ( all easy to see since the camera maintained a tight close up on his face and reactions throughout much of the interview). That expression is pure, intense sadness and humiliation-and anger, too. It had been almost two years since the day he had stood naked with detectives and police photographers surrounding him, examining and photographing his genitalia, but all of those emotions wrought by the incident were still raw and fresh in his mind. This is a painful moment for him; Sawyer has tapped into a trigger. Compare this line of questioning to asking a rape victim to go back and recount what happened. It can’t be done without causing those PTS triggers to be ignited, and this is what we are seeing during this segment of the interview. There is a sense of underlying rage as Michael addresses this particular line of questioning. I don’t think it is rage directed at Sawyer personally, but with the overall frustration of the entire situation; of being forced to “go there” and relive that moment again. It is an anger that has no true, specific target other than the injustice of the entire situation, and at this point he is getting visibly shaken and really wants the matter to be dropped. He is being earnest when he keeps insisting there was “nothing” to connect him with those charges, but his repeated, “That’s why I’m sitting here talking to you now” can be read two ways: On the one hand, it’s true, of course. If there had been an identifiable smoking gun; a piece of evidence that actually linked him to the sexual molestation of Jordan Chandler, the criminal investigation would have proceeded (settlement or no settlement); he would have been convicted and thrown in jail. This was Michael’s way of saying, “Look, if there had been any evidence-if those photos had matched his description-I wouldn’t be a free man today and I wouldn’t be sitting here doing TV interviews.” Yet his repeated insistence on this response is also a way of deflecting; an unconscious (perhaps) way of saying, “That’s all that needs to be said about it, can we move on please?’ I don’t think it is fear of the line of questioning. I think it has more to do with the distress and distaste in general of the whole subject. The line of questioning has put him mentally and emotionally back to December of 1993 and all that transpired at that time, and now he just wants out of it. But again, this is very telling of how Michael dealt with stressful situations generally in his life (the settlement, for example, is a topic that is going to come up very shortly). At this point in the interview, he’s feeling very cornered and has become somewhat passive-aggressive in his responses. The fact that Michael did indeed suffer post traumatic stress from these events is very important and I, think, too often is something overlooked when people attempt to read into his interview responses. The natural human reaction to pain is to avoid it; the natural human reaction to trauma is to not wish to “go there” (precisely why therapy sessions are often so painful and can sometimes actually make a person feel worse rather than better, at least in the beginning). As Michael is responding to this particular line of questioning, it seems he is fighting two battles within himself: He wants to fight and he wants to flee. He has never dealt well with allowing himself to become too publicly vulnerable, and that is what he senses is happening here. Although his answers remain emphatic, forthright, and earnest, he seems to be emotionally drawing back. It is not avoidance. For example, his aggressive repetition of the word “Never” (to the point that he interrupts Sawyer with it several times) is an emphatic reinforcer. He wants very forcefully to get his point across. But also, the response is akin to the erecting of a wall, one intended to block all further questioning on the matter.
We also have to consider that Michael was legally gagged insofar as how much he was allowed to discuss. Both Michael and Lisa Marie have to remind Sawyer (who surely knew!) that the conditions of the settlement stipulated that details of the case could not be discussed. It was unfair, of course, because these were the very questions that every interviewer from this point forward, from Sawyer to Bashir, were going to ask. Imagine the frustration of being accused; of knowing that many people think you’re guilty, and yet being able to say nothing publicly in your own defense without risk of a lawsuit (and indeed, just based on the little information Michael gave here, he was slapped with a $60 million lawsuit from Evan Chandler!).
At the 5:55 mark Lisa interjects some much needed comic relief into the interview when she giggles and says, “You’re not going to ask me that, are you? About the markings?” The question seemed very naughtily spontaneous. Michael wasn’t the only one who could be a “rebel” in these interviews! Her playful remark both eases the tensions and also allows an opening for her to interject a vitally important piece of information-how the media downplayed the news that the photos did not match the description. This is a classic example of why two heads can often be better than one in interviews. Michael probably would not have thought on his own to interject that important piece of information, but thank goodness Lisa did! This was probably the first, official word that many viewers had that the photos had been officially declared a non-match, and if anyone was wondering why they hadn’t heard that until then, Lisa gave a very specific answer that detailed exactly why. Score one in her corner on this one!
From there, the conversation turns to the settlement and the big question so many wanted to know: If Michael didn’t do it, why did he pay out? I think Michael’s response here is very interesting, and is also corroborated by what he would say, again, eight years later in his Martin Bashir interview. I think it is interesting because there remains, to this day, so much confusion as to whether Michael willingly agreed to this settlement or if he was “forced” into it by his insurance company. Both here and in the later Bashir interview, Michael never denied his own part in this decision. He does state here that he was acting on what his advisors had told him, but is very, very emphatic when he states it was a hands on, “unanimous” decision because he could not be guaranteed that “justice would prevail” and that this was something that could drag on “for seven years.” This has also been somewhat confirmed by Thomas Mesereau who has said many times that Michael “regretted” his decision to settle the case-“decision” being the key word here. In other words, Michael never wavered on his stance that he made the decision to settle; it was all up front and nothing was done without his consent, nor was he forced into anything (though there could have definitely been a fine line between “forced” and “pressured” and I do think Michael was intensely pressured to settle, so perhaps in the end the terminology is really just splitting hairs). However, this interview really should have laid to rest the myth that poor, naive Michael was somehow hoodwinked into the settlement. From what I know, he was willing to go to court and fight it initially, but after hearing repeatedly how many years it could drag on; how much money could be lost; how much bad publicity would be generated (and the constant threat of the psychotic Evan Chandler ever on his back) and on and on, he finally agreed that settling seemed the best option. It was, in hindsight, a short-term solution to end the nightmare, but a short-term solution that would end up casting a very long shadow-one that his legacy is still struggling to come out from under. Perhaps the drawn out fight would have been the better alternative, but it seemed everyone in the game was thinking only of the short term. The settlement was essentially Michael’s way of saying, as he did with most of the major conflicts of his life, I don’t want to deal with this. “Let’s get it behind us,” he says, with an emphatic thumb gesture pointing over his shoulder.
It’s the same tactic that drives Michael at this point in the interview to fall back on the reminder that nothing was found to connect him to this crime, repeating aggressively, “Nothing was found…nothing, nothing, nothing.” If it comes across as if Michael is being a little irritating here, or intentionally trying to nettle Sawyer, I don’t think they would be too far off the mark. Michael wants to get his point across, and doesn’t seem to care if he has to be outright rude or annoying to do so. He cuts Sawyer off here in the same way that she often cuts both him and Lisa off, and his intent is very purposeful (we can sense Sawyer’s feathers ruffling; it’s a moment where she visibly fears losing control of the interview).
Sawyer goes on to grill him about alleged “evidence” found. Of course, there was no hardcore “smoking gun” evidence. All that had ever been found were a few photos and art books that prosecutors tried hard to enter as “evidence.” I have heard the argument from the hater camp over and over of how these art books are often the very kind of material kept by pedophiles, in order to somehow circumvent the legality issue of possessing actual child porn. However, while there no doubt may be some truth to those claims, the possession of legal art books can only at best be deemed the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Those who wish to spread the propaganda of Michael’s guilt often highlight these books while downplaying and ignoring the much more telling fact that the raids of his home yielded thousands of pornographic images of women (one source has credited as many as 1,800 images found of nude women). Common sense would tell us that if we wish to judge someone’s sexual preference based on the bulwark of explicit material found in their home, that over a thousand images of nude women should outweigh the content of a few art books.
Michael’s explanation here-of how he is often bombarded with all kinds of gifts from fans-seems plausible enough, but it is nevertheless an explanation that doubters have tried to shoot down. Their best line of defense is that Michael obviously had people who screened his mail-gatekeepers who would have opened packages, read letters, and screened all content before he ever saw them. And that, obviously, only special “gifts” that they knew Michael would have an interest in would go beyond to the next level.
That, too, seems a plausible argument-until you consider we are talking about Michael Jackson here, who, let’s just say, never exactly did things in the typical celebrity way. An excerpt from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard’s book Remember The Time confirms that Michael was always hands-on with both his fan mail-and his gifts:
Mr. Jackson would sit in the back, classical music playing, the curtain drawn. You could hear him opening envelopes, going letter by letter. Sometimes he’d say, ‘Hey, listen to this, guys. This is so sweet.’ And he’d read us something somebody had written. People would write about their children dying of illnesses and how much his music had meant to them. Some of it made him very emotional. You could hear him getting choked up. He’d say, ‘You guys may not understand, but this is where I get a lot of my inspiration to write my songs.’
By the time we got back to the house, he’d have two separate piles of letters. He’d keep one, hand us the other and say, ‘These you can get rid of.’
Bill: People would send gifts, too-teddy bears, balloons, flowers, photos, personal keepsakes. A lot of this stuff was handmade. He liked that. Sometimes he’d get a package and it seemed suspicious to him or he just didn’t feel right about it. He’d give it to us to check it first. There was never anything dangerous, no bombs or anything like that, but a lot of teddy bears and music boxes wound up drowning in the pool for us to find that out.
There was so much of it that one of the bedrooms had to be designated as the fan mail room. The walls in there were plastered with handmade cards and letters, and the floor was covered with big stacks. And that was just what accumulated in Las Vegas over a few months’ time.
Granted, one might argue that Michael’s staff had been considerably down sized by the time Whitfield and Beard entered the picture. Nevertheless, I know from many sources that this had always been Michael’s manner of dealing with fan mail and gifts. His policy, then, was directly opposite of most celebrities. Michael, it seemed, acted as his own gatekeeper, only resorting to handlers after the fact, to deal with mail he wished discarded or felt suspicious about. Gifts were never tossed out unless inadvertently due to suspicious packaging.
So…score another one for Michael in this department. He answers the question forthrightly with an honest answer that would make perfect sense to anyone who had spent time around him.
However, he follows this up by an immediate dodge. Nevertheless, it may be an understandable dodge-even a necessary one, as I am fairly certain that the other settlement Sawyer is alluding to here is the Francia settlement, in which Michael ended up paying 2.2 million to the Francia family over an alleged tickling incident. This was a case built on the flimsiest of circumstances-that Michael had supposedly (and most likely accidentally) brushed his hand against Jason Francia’s crotch during a roughhouse tickling game. This was a case that would never have happened had it not been for the Chandler settlement first, which had opened the doors for these kinds of trivial civil suits against Michael by practically everyone who came in contact with him. As trivial as this case was, however, we can’t deny that the settlement was paid. So how does that reflect upon Michael’s honesty here when he flat out tells Diane Sawyer that “no, that’s not true” and “I’ve heard that everything is fine and there are no others”? Unlike the rest of the interview, where his body language and responses have been very honest and forthright, here he seems to visibly draw back. His posture is not leaning toward Sawyer, as in his past responses; there is no emphatic gesturing. His tone and demeanor is one of deflection, an attempt to divert that particular line of questioning. However, there could be a number of very plausible reasons for this, all of which must be considered before jumping to conclusions. It is very possible, at the time, that what he was saying was true insofar as he knew (but judging by his body language here I don’t believe it). The more likely reason is that he was not in a position to discuss it, and any answer he gave-considering he would have had, at best, a few seconds in which to respond-would have only been to his detriment. To address the question in a way that would have made his position understandable would have involved going into far more detail, and far more history, than he knew he would have had either time or liberty to get into. It would have involved, for example, going into the entire history of Jason’s mother Blanca Francia; her history of stealing from him and subsequent firing. It was all more than he could have adequately explained in a five second sound bite, and thus, it was wisest to say nothing at all. Certainly it was a far preferable alternative to the risk of creating the wrong impression by not having time to adequately explain himself or the case.
The next part of the interview, conversely, is one of the most truthful and revealing. Sawyer attempts a line of questioning that is intended to put Michael on the defensive about the so-called practice of having sleepovers. It is always interesting to me when I go back to both this interview and the Bashir interview and look at how Michael actually answered these questions, as opposed to how the interviewers were trying to slant them and how much of the media chose to interpret them. Sawyer, as Bashir would also do later, tries desperately to make the line of questioning all about boys; thus Michael’s slight irritation when he comes back and says, “I never invited just boys to come into my bedroom, that’s ridiculous.” Likewise, in the Bashir interview, he makes the case that it was never just boys. And the “sleepovers” were not so much “sleepovers” as simply cases of large, mixed company (usually consisting of parents, siblings, cousins, etc) all crashing and falling asleep wherever sleep overtook them at Neverland.
Michael’s quick trigger defense against the accusations of “just boys” is also interesting because these are the hallmark protestations of someone who is not only angry about being unjustly accused, but also angry at the sheer ignorance and gullibility of the public in believing that this was where his attractions lay.
Interestingly, in both interviews Michael does not-contrary to the popular notion propagated by the media-“defend” the practice of sleeping with kids. He does state that, according to his values and beliefs, he does not equate the practice to something automatically perverted or evil. But in both interviews, he is not so much defending the practice as trying to explain how these misconceptions about him have arisen. Here, in fact, he states outright that he has never invited anyone into his bed-period. Interestingly, he had always maintained that he never invited kids to sleep with him, and often, in fact, slept on the floor while kids took the bed-or vice versa. In Frank Cascio’s book, Frank spoke of how he and his brother Eddie shared a sleeping bag on the floor in front of the fireplace-obviously, then, they were in Michael’s bedroom, but not in the bed. Big difference.
And, just when it may seem improbable to the average viewer that Michael is such a Pied Piper figure that kids would willingly follow him wherever he goes, score another one for Lisa Marie, whose statement that “I’ve seen these children…they don’t let him go to the bathroom without running in there; they won’t let him out of their sight, so when he jumps in the bed I’m even out…” remains for me one of the highlights of the interview.
However, this invites a couple of tense seconds when Sawyer starts to grill Lisa as to whether she would allow her own son to behave this way when he’s twelve years old. Lisa’s response is that if she didn’t know Michael and who he is, the answer would be no way but “I know who he is.” There is a brief moment, however, when the camera cuts to Michael’s reaction and it is an interesting expression, to say the least. It’s hard to tell if what he is feeling is anger or hurt, or a mixture of both. To understand Michael’s reaction, one has to appreciate what Sawyer is basically insinuating here. that he is someone that should not be trusted with his own stepson!Regardless of the intention of the question, that seems to be how he is taking it. This is a direct throwback to the discomfiture of his Oprah interview, when he was forced to stand by as two women discussed him as if he weren’t in the room. Now he is being forced to sit back in silence while two women debate his “trustworthiness.” One can only guess that, for Michael, who had spent most of his adult career totally in control of all interview situations, such scenarios were never easy.
This irritation raises its head again in the next line of questioning, when Sawyer asks if this is going to put an end to these situations “where people have to wonder.” Notice here his posture has changed. He is now on full alert; sitting on the edge of his seat and leaning forward. “Watch out for what?” he asks (with obvious, underlying anger at the question; remember, he has just sat there while she attacked his trustworthiness as a stepfather). His body language during this line of question is interesting. It suggests direct openness and honesty, as well as genuine puzzlement over the line of questioning. Regardless of how one wishes to interpret his remarks, one thing is clear and obvious: Michael sincerely feels here that he has nothing to hide, and is laying his honest feelings-for better or worse-on the table, Again, what is always most interesting about Michael’s answers is his outright refusal to give the “correct” or “stock” answers that one might normally expect under these circumstances, Most accused persons would be quick to say, “Absolutely not, I will never allow myself to be put in such a vulnerable position again” and one can clearly see here that this was the kind of answer Sawyer was expecting, so his refusal to “buckle under” so to speak, with all the correct responses, is somewhat baffling to her (and frustrating because, again, it steers the interview beyond her control).
But the real question one has to ask is this: Is giving all the “right” answers a sign of innocence, or merely a way of deflecting guilt? Interestingly, Michael seemed to realize that his best line of defense was not to play it safe in the most obvious kind of way-by going along with the song and dance-but, rather, by challenging both the interviewer’s and audience’s biases, judgments, and perceptions. Lisa has said that the rebel in Michael could never quite be controlled, and we certainly see that here. His rebel streak could, by turns, be both his greatest asset and his worst enemy. But here I think it works wonderfully to his advantage, giving him the last word over all Sawyer’s attempts to steer him into a corner.
Speaking of rebel behavior, the next segment of the interview shows the wedding footage. Isn’t it interesting that everyone, including the bride, dressed in black for this ceremony? And that Michael chewed gum throughout his wedding vows? (Interesting considering this was his first time at the altar, supposedly to the woman whom he’d had a crush on for over twenty years. Their body language, even here, seemed to be that of two people totally at ease in each other’s company, with no need for fancy pretenses).
Also, Michael’s moods during this interview seem to pass as fleetingly as clouds. He was angry and frustrated during the grilling over the allegations, but is instantly at ease once the topic has switched to happier subjects. Note how his face light up like a furnace blast and he grins spontaneously, ear to ear, when Sawyer asks Lisa what she loves about him. It’s still a bit of an awkward moment, but most guys love hearing themselves bragged about and Michael was no exception.
However, the questions about their intimacy are invasive, even if, granted, they were no doubt expecting these questions going in. In most cases, when two attractive people marry (and granted there is no extraordinary age gap ala’ Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall) it is naturally assumed that they have sex. I cringe every time I hear Sawyer’s self-deprecating remark, “I didn’t spend my life as a serious journalist to ask these kinds of questions…” Oh brother. As if she hadn’t been chomping at the bit to ask that very question throughout the entire interview! Nor do I buy their random sampling of “fans” putting forth the question. None of those people strike me, particularly, as Michael Jackson fans. Nevertheless, their responses are used as a kind of justification-this is the question everybody wants to know; therefore, we are justified in asking it. “Do we have sex?” Lisa asks, playfully beating Sawyer to the punch (I love how Michael and Lisa both, throughout the interview, keep Sawyer knocked just slightly left of center!). “Yes, yes, yes!” she states at one point, almost giving Meg Ryan’s character from “When Harry Met Sally” a good run for her money. Hers and Michael’s reactions seem to be a genuine, honest mixture of astonishment and indignation, yet they also handle the invasive questions with an easy sense of humor that lets us know they are certainly not strangers to these allegations of their marriage as being fake. They had learned to develop a sense of humor about it because, after all, what else could they do? Obviously, no amount of protestations were going to change doubting minds, so I think they both handled the questions here as well as they could be.
It’s interesting that the very same media and public who labeled this as a marriage of convenience-who refused to believe they even slept together-were, by the same token, so quick to believe the pregnancy rumors (geez, did they ever hear that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too?). The easy camaraderie of the “baby” questions ultimately leads, however, to another tense moment when Diane Sawyer asks a truly bonehead question: Was Michael planning to adopt Lisa’s kids?
Lisa finds the question totally absurd, and minces no words in saying so. “I never heard of that, someone adopting someone else’s children,” she says, meaning in a case like theirs where there was clearly a biological father who was still in the children’s lives. I have gone back over this particular segment of the interview several times. It is interesting that Lisa is far more irked over the question than Michael (perhaps for obvious reasons) but I also believe it may be because she has caught something here that Michael did not, or at least not right away: That Sawyer is intentionally trying to entrap him with a foolish question in order to make him look foolish, especially to Lisa Marie’s fans, many of whom already had formed their own opinions about Michael and about the marriage. There may be something to this. Note how Sawyer has strung him along with the subject of adopting children (a subject I’m sure she knew he was passionate about) and then, abruptly, brings up Lisa’s kids. Yet this was the same women who, just minutes before, was insinuating that Michael was someone Lisa should not trust with her son! My honest take here is that Lisa caught what she was doing right away, even if Michael didn’t. And interestingly, when Lisa calls her out on it as an absurd question, Sawyer backs off instantly and does not pursue the question further; however, nor does she bother to defend her reasons for asking it. Instead, she very conveniently decides it’s time for a break.
When the interview resumes, attention is next turned to Michael’s new film, the teaser for the HIStory album. This interview served as a kind of official promotion for the film, but Michael was given very little opportunity to actually discuss it. Instead, Sawyer launched immediately into the controversial aspect of it. The film itself and this particular aspect of the interview has already been quite well dissected in the multiple-part discussion on Dancing With the Elephant, so rather than focusing on the film and its merits here (which would necessitate an entire post unto itself) I will keep the discussion focused on the line of questioning and Michael’s reactions to them. I can’t watch this particular segment of the interview without feeling both enraged and short-changed. Here, again, was a perfect opportunity-on a wold platform-to allow one of the greatest artists of our time to discuss his art, and the moment was purely reduced to a trivial footnote of the interview in which the artist is pitiably reduced to a defensive “It’s art” stance, like a child backed into a corner who can only feebly protest his good intentions.
What is doubly frustrating here is that one senses, perhaps for the first time, Michael was really eager and anticipating the opportunity to discuss his art. I am sure he would have very much enjoyed being asked a few sensible, intelligent questions about the meaning behind the film; about its militant themes and symbolism and what that was really all about. In all likelihood, he would have gladly answered them. I know these kinds of interviews are all about ratings, and are not intended as serious platforms to discuss art, but it was clear from the beginning that, once again, Sawyer was merely creating a setup-a setup in which Michael was going to come out as second bested. From the beginning, Sawyer harps on nothing but the film’s controversy, making it very clear where her own biases lie. Rather than being able to engage in an intelligent discourse about his art, Michael is reduced to appearing like a begging child who-in the pitiable few seconds he is allowed to speak on the film in his behalf-can only protest that “it’s art.” After the film plays, Sawyer says rather snidely (in a way that is clearly intended to end the discussion of the matter) “Well, as we said, we’re going to clearly agree to disagree on maybe what this means to some people watching it.” Freeze the frame on Michael’s face at 3:07 as Sawyer speaks those words. That expression reads as an unspoken but pure, unadulterated “How dare you?” which can be interpreted on several layers-frustration at having his art misunderstood and its purpose distorted, without even giving him the courtesy of the last word on it; frustration at being so blithely brushed off. In fact, it’s almost a look of stunned disbelief. He doesn’t even bother jumping in with another line of defense. He seems to be thinking, What would be the point?
The conversation then turns to the controversy over “They Don’t Care About Us” and the line “Jew me, sue me.” Again, these were all recent, hotbed topics at the time this interview took place. I’m not sure that most viewers would have entirely bought Michael’s defense that he was speaking of himself as the victim with that line because the natural comeback would be “But Michael, you’re not Jewish.” However, what Michael is trying to explain here (for which, we must remember, he is only being given a very inadequate and small amount of time to state his case) is that the song is touching upon the broader strokes of racism; that he, in fact, is attempting to encompass many historical examples of racism throughout the song, all from the victim’s perspective-and there are many victims portrayed in this song. I have already written quite extensively on the topic of “They Don’t Care About Us” and appropriation in past posts:
Also, the recent Sony hacks revealed even more unsettling details surrounding this supposed “controversy”:
Again, what is most sad and frustrating about this particular segment of the interview is that, instead of being allowed to discuss his art, Michael is instead backed into a defense position, one in which he is clearly at a disadvantage no matter what punches he gets in. He seems to realize, with mounting frustration, that he is in a situation where his artistic work is not respected, where there is little actual, serious interest in it, and where there is no “right” answer he can possibly give.
Sadly, looking back at the track record, this seemed to be the case with most high profile interviews he ever gave. Perhaps part of the problem came from poor advice and poor choices. Naturally, he gravitated towards the high profile journalists who could guarantee him the highest platforms, in both exposure and ratings. But the trade off was that this often resulted in one-way conversations with shallow journalists whose only interest was in sensationalism, not art.
True to form, Sawyer no sooner dispenses with all discussion of art then here comes the next question-inevitably, steering it to Michael’s appearance and the color of his skin.
Again, the close-ups on Michael’s face in response to these questions are priceless. I’m not sure if he’s just trying really hard to maintain a poker face (and not succeeding very well) or what the deal is, exactly, but again, we are seeing the building of anger, frustration, and “why do we have to go there” all within a matter of seconds. As before, we can clearly see when those triggers are being pressed; when his eyes become like daggers.
Admittedly I have never really understood Michael’s reluctance to speak out publicly about his disease vitiligo. He had a unique position and platform in which to educate the public about this little understood disease and to help raise awareness of it. His evasiveness on the issue is largely, in part, what led to the public’s skepticism-or, at any rate, let’s just say that it definitely didn’t help.
But in analyzing his response here, let’s go back to the exact trigger moment at 4:28; it occurs exactly when Sawyer says the words “the way you look.” Michael’s face winces; he literally draws back as if he’s been physically struck. I invite-urge-you to replay that mark of the video at least a couple of times. It is literally the physical reaction of someone who has been slapped in the face and is drawing back to deflect the blow. Once again he goes into passive-aggressive mode, giving a deliberately ambiguous and frustrating answer:
“I think it creates itself-nature.” -Michael Jackson to Diane Sawyer
On the one hand, this is Michael’s way of saying that the way he looks is out of his hands; it has all been an act of nature. On the other hand, he has to know here that he is being purposely vague by not giving an adequate answer. Obviously, some things like his skin color were beyond his control, but that was only part of the question. He purposely avoids addressing the other part of the question, which involved those choices he had obviously made on his own. Watch the way, at 4:35, he purses his lips and shakes his jaw in response to the question. That verbal cue is a brush-off; a deliberate response that says “I can’t be bothered with this.”
At this juncture, Lisa intervenes with a very telling statement. It falls in line with debates we have had on this very site, and some of the more controversial issues that have been raised by Susan Fast and other writers. She says that Michael is an artist who is constantly changing perceived imperfections and things he doesn’t like about himself.
“He’s resculpted himself; he’s an artist.”-Lisa Marie Presley to Diane Sawyer.
That is an interesting statement because, again, it goes back to the oft-debated controversy of whether Michael altered his appearance via cosmetic surgery due to insecurity about his looks, or was it, in fact, due to more purely deliberate and aesthetic choices that had more to do with being an artist, and less to do with these perceived insecurities? Lisa’s answer seems to hint at both, but it is interesting that when she makes the statement about him being an artist, Michael does not contradict her. In fact, not only does he not contradict her, he even chimes into the discussion,backing her up by adding, “I’m a performer.”
The theory that Michael did, perhaps, make a lot of conscious and deliberate choices about his appearance for artistic and aesthetic reasons-rather than simply because he saw himself as ugly or inferior (the popular body dysmorphic disorder theory that has so much become the accepted public narrative of Michael Jackson) is one that has been gaining a lot more serious attention among academic writers and other serious analysts of Michael’s work. In some ways, the theories are interesting in that, at the very least, they remove Michael from the often overhyped stigma of “victimhood” and recast him as someone who, to the contrary, was an artist very much in control of every aesthetic decision he made about himself, including the outer canvas that he presented to the world.
Michael tries to turn it into a joke by saying, “I might want to put a red dot right there one day” (points to his forehead), “put two eyes right here (touches both cheeks). But he’s not laughing inside. His words and expressions here are not particularly jovial because the tension elicited by the discussion is still quite palpable. It’s his way of communicating to Sawyer the ridiculous absurdity of this line of questioning. On the one hand, he’s trying to deflect the tensions with humor, but freeze the video at 4:55 and note the determined smirk on his face. It’s a look that dares; a look that challenges; a look that says “Try and follow up on that; I dare you.”
Well, she does. To further the boxing match analogy, it’s as if Michael has just delivered a left hook jab but now Sawyer is going to try to hone in for the knock out punch.
“Do you wish you were the color you were again?”
Again, this is the kind of question where Michael could have simply given the “scripted” and “correct” response and been done with it, but if we read Michael’s body language, he is very much perturbed by being asked such a ridiculous and invasive question. Think about it: The question is the equivalent of asking a cancer patient, “Do you wish you still had your hair?” or “Do you miss having your healthy cells?” Why not ask a leukemia patient if they miss their red blood cell count?
Note that the minute she asks the question, Michael sits up ramrod straight and crosses his arms. Crossed arms are, again, a barrier creating gesture. It’s only a fleeting moment, but the gesture speaks volumes about the feelings this question has evoked. He is subconsciously protecting himself from what he perceives as an invasive presence. “You’ll have to ask nature that,” he says, using “nature” again as a reference to indicate the situation is beyond his control. “I love black,” he says emphatically. “I envy her (points toward Lisa) because she can tan and I can’t.”
On a more subconscious level, if he could really say what he wanted to say here, he seems to be conveying an idea that would be worded thus: “I’m obviously white as a refrigerator, can you not see this? Do you think I prefer this? Do you think I wouldn’t prefer to be normal, like she is?”
Of course, this is followed by a photo of a very youthful, dark complexioned Michael with an Afro, a photo from almost twenty years previously. As always, the insinuation is that this was the “superior” version of Michael; the way we prefer to remember him, in his prime. Michael always hated those types of comparisons, resenting the inference that he was now somehow inferior; that he could not measure up to some nostalgic ideal of himself
But, in an interview that has seen more than its share of peaks and valleys, Sawyer tries to end things on an upbeat note by asking if they plan to sing together. Michael engages in a bit of cute but show-offey behavior (the kind that used to drive Lisa bananas), singing dramatically “I would love to sing with you/would you like to sing with me?” Ever alert to any excuse for a good publicity moment, Michael’s inner child and sense of spontaneous playfulness can’t resist the moment. Lisa is a little embarrassed, but can’t resist smiling. She seems genuine when she says, “That’s not why I married Michael.” Their body language here is very relaxed and casual; his right hand rests on her back shoulder; she grabs his left hand and holds it. Again, their gestures seem to be that of a couple who feels very much at ease in each other’s company. Michael, of course, can’t resist one more joke at Lisa’s expense, making “rabbit ears” over her head as she babbles on and on about how she doesn’t need a recording career. This was a playful, teasing gesture that Michael did a lot with some of his most intimate friends, but it was sometimes also Michael’s very playful way of calling out his friends when he thought they were full of BS. It could have also been an Illuminati joke. Michael was, after all, notorious for his infamous sense of humor. “He’s a nut,” Lisa jokes, as Michael “celebrates” having survived the interview with an emphatic “Yes!”
Whatever the case, it often did seem that Michael liked to steal the spotlight whenever they were together. Here, it was cute. Later, it would become a source of real contention between them. They were, when all was said and done, two celebrities with much in common, as Lisa said-perhaps a little too much in common for any kind of lasting union. Both stubborn, rebellious, strong-willed and determined; two show business kids spoiled on the one hand, yet damaged and victimized on the other, their union was passionate, volatile, and ultimately, doomed to burn out and fail.
This interview captured their union at an interesting halfway juncture. They had been married a little over a year at this point, when the passion was still hot but some of the problems that would eventually drive them apart had set in. Sawyer ends the interview by asking where they both hoped to be in five years. It is interesting that she puts the question to them separately, as individuals, rather than together as a couple. Within five years, of course, they would be divorced; Michael would have two children by another woman, and Lisa would be on a downward spiral of guilt and bitter anger that would drive her to lash out at Michael in unbelievably cruel ways. By 2000, I am sure this interview must have seemed like a distant and painful memory to both of them.
But, for all of Diane Sawyer’s smugness; her frustrating shallowness and the sometimes outright irrelevance of much of her questioning, it remains one of Michael’s most valuable interviews-again, perhaps as much for what is not said as what is said. Michael could be, by turns, a difficult interview subject, especially when he felt cornered or pinned down by invasive, personal, or just plain idiotic questions. On the flip side of that coin, he was also a very transparent interview subject whose emphatic honesty was too often brushed off as being…well, somehow, too honest to be true. People, it seemed, were always looking for ways to second guess his honesty; to twist it into something manipulative or insincere. Michael’s very human faults, such as his tendency to resort to passive-aggressive answers when he didn’t like the direction an interview was taking, have too often been used against him, rather than, perhaps, looking at the line of questioning that brought on those responses. Michael had too much class to ever walk out on an interview, or to give outright hostile responses, as I have seen many celebrities do in more recent times. Yet he had his ways of letting his displeasure be known.
First and foremost, however, we have to remember that Michael didn’t really hate giving interviews. He just hated giving dumb ones. Some of his most interesting interviews were very low profile ones such as this candid, off the cuff radio interview he gave to Steve Harvey, where there was no pressure to be “on” and where he could actually just relax and have fun.
But as I have discovered through the years, no interview he ever gave was totally without merit. Even the Bashir piece, for all its atrocities, had its moments. Each one presented an opportunity to learn something valuable about Michael even if, granted, it was not always the thing he most wanted us to take from it-that being, usually, his views on art or humanity (the two things closest to his heart, but which so seldom became the focal pieces of any of them). Nevertheless, they do provide interesting glimpses into the heart and soul of a man who had learned, early on, that few people were to be trusted and that no journalist was ever simply looking out for his best interests.
We can observe how he is almost always thinking 2-3 steps ahead of the interviewer (because he had learned he had to) and how he used the art of the interview as a means of challenging us to look beyond our preconceived notions, our biases, and our judgments. He did so, by turns both consciously and subconsciously, by challenging journalists, and us, both directly and indirectly. Like a flawless dance with a ballroom partner, he knew when to hold back and follow, and when to take the lead.
And here, for once, it was a dance he didn’t have to do alone.