The tragic events of Michael Jackson’s arrest are an indictment not just of a man but of a culture. America is increasingly becoming the land of damaged celebrity. Even Rush Limbaugh, a personality who is anything but tabloid, has not survived its corrosive impact. But who is to blame for the fall of so many “heroes”?
Many accuse Michael Jackson of living in a world of fantasy. But superstars live in a world not of their own creation, but of our creation. Our worship of celebrities has gone from a pastime to a devotion, from a form of recreation to a form of veneration, from entertainment to religion. Detached as we are from G-d and estranged from lofty pursuits, we have invented new gods here on earth.
Where once people were awed by the heavenly stars, today they prostrate themselves before movie stars. Where once man pondered the secrets of the universe, we today seek to uncover the enigma of Michael Jackson. Is it surprising, then, that the objects of this worship begin to believe that they have a right to make up and live by their own rules, even when it becomes completely ruinous?
Many believe it is drugs and failed relationships that spoils celebrities. But I have discovered it is sycophantic friends who are the worst poison of all. When I was close to Michael between 1999 and 2001, I tried to convey to him that – famous or not – he must incorporate the basic ingredients of a healthy life, and that among these are time spent with family, involvement with a spiritual community, and being prepared to take criticism.
When he mentioned to me that his greatest wish was to promote the welfare of children, I told him he could only do so if he regained a modicum of credibility. This meant never being alone with children who were not his, surrounding himself with respected child and education experts, and lecturing on the subject at serious rather than sensationalist events.
I took him to meet Elie Wiesel, Shimon Peres and Prof. Stanley Greenspan – one of America’s foremost child-rearing authorities. We lectured at Carnegie Hall and Oxford University. And when Martin Bashir’s people asked to do a documentary, I told Michael he’d be crazy to accept because the last thing he needed was to be more famous. He needed dignity rather than celebrity, and I advised him instead to accept an outstanding invitation from Harvard.
But by this time, my influence with Michael was waning. There was tension between us because of his resistance to making major modifications in his life that would have brought positive change, and rather than be supported, I was being undermined by managers and apparatchiks who accused me of diminishing his star power by making him too available.
What really upset them was when I pushed Michael to publicly distribute books to poor children in Newark. I was lectured to in Michael’s hotel suite by his manager who said, “Shmuley, you want to make Michael normal. What you don’t understand is that he’s famous because he’s not normal.”
Perhaps, in this celebrity-driven culture of ours, where we are more focused on strangers’ lives rather than our own, none of us are really normal any more.
Humans are not gods, and when the public expects them to be gods, they must conceal or dismiss their humanity in an effort not to be appear ordinary. It is against this backdrop that much of Michael’s bizarre behavior must be understood. But while some view Michael as the most important example of an irresponsible celebrity, I believe that people like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, whose antics have sexualized our children, are not far behind. The American public thought it was funny as we watched the Osbournes make up their own rules about how to run a family. But when their son checked into drug rehab, many of us stopped laughing.
Of course, while Michael must ultimately accept responsibility for his serious mistakes, I pray he is not guilty of the charge of molestation, as it would mean that the boy whom I met at Neverland, along with his parents, is OK. Still, I find it surprising that a society that reads Us Weekly, People and Hello magazines, and engages in endless celebrity gossip, could ask seriously why certain parents allowed their children to be alone at Neverland.
The time has come for all of us to heal.