NEW YORK - When Michael Jackson became a superstar more than three decades ago, irresistibly cute with his apple cheeks and dandelion Afro, perhaps the most startling thing about the child phenom was just how adult he appeared to be.
Though a diminutive 12 years old (his handlers said he was 10 to make him seem even more precocious), Jackson's vocal prowess and dazzling footwork truly made him seem like an old soul.
Yet as he grew older, Jackson was unwilling - or unable - to adjust to a grown-up world. Apparently scarred by the lack of a real childhood and a painful adolescence that included verbal and physical abuse at the hands of a demanding stage father, Jackson devoted much of his adulthood to recapturing the carefree atmosphere he never was able to enjoy.
Jackson always maintained that his affinity for children was non-sexual, and on Monday a jury agreed, finding that Jackson did not molest a 13-year-old former cancer patient. But Jackson still emerged from the courtroom as a broken, tragic figure with his once-brilliant career now in tatters.
Jackson's acquittal did provide some hope for his future. "He's absolutely capable (of a comeback), he has an amazing talent," Island Def Jam CEO and Chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid told The Associated Press after the verdict. "This is one of the greatest performers of our time."
Still, perhaps no other entertainer has plummeted from such stratospheric heights to the depths of notoriety like Jackson, who has been a superstar since he crooned "I Want You Back" in 1969, when he was 11.
Jackson was born in gritty Gary, Ind., surrounded by poverty and crime. With nine children, his mother, Katherine, and his father, steel worker Joe, looked for a way to keep their children off the streets. Music was a hobby at first, but Joe, a former guitarist, saw it as a way out of the ghetto.
"He was a great trainer," Jackson said of his father in "Moonwalk," but added, "We'd perform for him and he'd critique us. If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch."
When Motown founder Berry Gordy signed the Jackson 5 to his powerhouse label, they immediately started churning out hits. But Jackson was still missing something.
"There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can remember looking at those kids playing games. I'd just stare at them in wonder - I couldn't imagine such freedom, such a carefree life - and I wish more than anything I had that kind of freedom," he wrote in "Moonwalk."
As a solo artist and with his brothers, Jackson sold millions of records by the time he reached puberty. Then he made the tricky transition to adult pop star with the stunning "Off The Wall" album in 1979. And in 1983 he became an international icon with the release of "Thriller," still the best-selling album of all time, with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.
Given how unpopular Jackson has now become, it's hard to imagine that 20 years ago, he was not only the world's most popular entertainer, but the most beloved.
President Ronald Reagan was photographed with the world's most famous pop star. Former first lady and Doubleday book editor Jacqueline Onassis personally wooed him to write "Moonwalk." When Jackson's 1987 album "Bad" was released, with the video for the title track directed by Martin Scorsese, CBS deemed it worthy of a prime-time special. And a 1984 Time magazine cover story described Jackson as, "Undeniably sexy. Absolutely safe."
Those are the last words anyone would use to describe Michael Jackson anymore.
Yet for a long time, despite his growing "wacko" personality - his alleged plot to buy the Elephant Man's bones, or to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber so he could live to be 150, his crotch-grabbing dance moves, and reclusive personality - Jackson did seem to be an innocuous figure, an asexual persona more interested in children's games than adult relationships.
That all changed in 1993, when a 13-year-old playmate accused him of molestation. That year, Jackson had been riding high - he had diminished his weirdness factor with a sympathetic, highly rated Oprah Winfrey prime-time interview; his album "Dangerous" sold millions of copies and was still on the charts; he was on a sold-out world tour; and had gotten a legend award from the Grammys, at age 34.
But in an instant, he became an accused pedophile, an almost permanent stigma. It became even more difficult to separate him from the accusations after Jackson, despite maintaining his innocence, settled a civil lawsuit by the boy for a multimillion-dollar price tag. The boy then stopped cooperating with authorities and no charges were filed.
The episode put a dark spin on Jackson's formerly endearing penchant for all things childlike. Still, for all of his problems, Jackson's career - while diminished - was still viable.
A marriage to Elvis' daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, thrust him back in the spotlight in late 1994, and in 1995, he released a double-disc set, "HIStory" containing his greatest hits and new material, much of it detailing his frustrations over the child molestation allegation. The album sold more than 2 million copies in the United States and included the No. 1 hit "You Are Not Alone," but was considered a commercial disappointment because of the stunning successes of his previous albums and the amount of money he spent to record the album and shoot videos).
Later, he would divorce Presley and marry Deborah Rowe, a nurse for his plastic surgeon. They had two children, Prince Michael and Paris, before divorcing. Rowe gave Jackson full custody, though she is now fighting for custodial rights. Jackson later had another child, nicknamed Blanket (the mother's identity never was released), whom he infamously dangled over a balcony while showing him off to fans.
In 2001, Jackson released "Invincible" on the heels of a star-studded tribute concert. The album sold 2 million copies, but any modest success was obscured when Jackson accused Tommy Mottola, then the head of Sony records, of racism.
Given the road he was on before his 2003 arrest, it's unlikely that Jackson would have ever regained the universal appeal he enjoyed in his heyday. But he was popular enough, with respect and admiration in the industry, as well as top-notch talent willing to work with him.
Now, even with his acquittal, it's unclear whether he can salvage his career in any form. For many, his guilt was already determined, despite evidence that did not prove the contrary. And given the unseemly allegations - a penchant for drinking, a trove of pornography and a dangerous pattern of letting young boys into his bedroom - the public has been left leery and weary.
Almost no one in the music industry approached by The Associated Press before the verdict wanted to comment on what his future might hold - except esteemed producer Rick Rubin.
"I think he can always have a career making music. People will always be interested in what he does," Rubin said. "Regardless of any other things going on in their lives, people are always interested by the great acts, and there's no questions he's one of the greats.
"Regardless of anything else going on, he's still Michael Jackson."
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