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The King of Pop and his palace of broken dreams

With a new documentary about his life due to hit cinemas, Julia Molony looks at the troubled life of Michael Jackson and how Ireland rescued him temporarily from the pressures of his final years

It was to be a 3,000-acre monument to the childhood Michael Jackson dreamed of but never had. "I'm just putting behind the gates everything I never got to do as a kid," he once said of his theme-park residence Neverland.

Jackson, on stage since he was five, had been driven into stardom by his formidable father - a man whose presence frightened the young singer so much he once said he'd sometimes vomit at the mere sight of him.

Now, Neverland is up for sale. As the estate agents open the doors of the ranch, which has a price tag of $100m (£70.5m), the public are afforded a previously unseen look inside.

But all traces of the eccentric fantasy Jackson imagined are gone. The zoo is empty, the fairground abandoned. Even the name has been changed to the decidedly more sober Sycamore Valley Ranch. The marketing message is clear: the Jackson circus, and all its sordid associations, has left the property.

By the time the writer Paul Theroux visited 10 years ago, the project already seemed corrupted. Theroux described in livid detail the disgruntled animals, the empty fairgrounds, the pall of despair that hung over this edifice which contrived, yet failed, to manufacture innocent childhood joy.

It's been over six years since the singer died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. At next week's Sundance Festival, Spike Lee will screen Off the Wall, a look back at the singer's life in music. But the loose ends surrounding Jackson's troubled and troubling persona have still not been tied up. Not least the eternally vexed issue of whether, in the much-scrutinised story of Jackson's life, he was the victim or the villain of the piece.

From almost as soon as he could dance and sing, Michael was the clear, undisputed star of the Jackson family. Born in Indiana in 1958, he was the seventh of nine children shared by Joseph Jackson and his wife Katherine.

Early on, Joe began coaching his children to perform. He was a punishing task-master, regularly pushing his children to the point of exhaustion, and even whipping them when they made a mistake. "He practised us with a belt in his hand," Michael once said.

Even as a child, Michael was ambitious, a perfectionist and a natural performer. But, in spite of this, he always felt decidedly ambivalent about life on stage.

"When you're a showbusiness child, people make a lot of decisions concerning your life when you're out of the room," he once said.

For the rest of his life, he would always feel keenly the wounds of his childhood. To journalist Martin Bashir, he revealed that his father was abusive, saying: "If you didn't do it the right way, he would tear you up." As a child on tour with his older brothers, they would sometimes bring girls back to their shared room for sex.

Later, those who would defend him against the charges that he molested children would argue that these early, and inappropriately precocious encounters with adult sexuality, along with his father's philandering, instilled in Jackson a lifelong aversion to sex.

His relationship with his family remained troubled throughout his life. When he died, he made no provisions in his will for his father or his siblings, preferring to leave everything to his mother, whom he adored, and made her custodian of his children.

Indeed, it was rumoured that he hated his own family so much that he used a sperm donor to father his children, in order to avoid passing on his genetic heritage. Stacey Brown, a family friend quoted in a 2005 profile of Jackson in Vanity Fair, claimed: "He hates dark-skinned people. He did not want to take the chance that a child of his would look like Joseph."

In the early 1980s, Jackson made his triumphant transition from child performer to the biggest pop star in the world. But by the end of the decade, outward signs of inner trouble were becoming manifest. Not least through his changing physical appearance.

Some reports suggest that Jackson underwent up to 100 surgical procedures. He always denied that his skin was whitened through bleaching, saying it was vitiligo, a chronic, long-term condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin.

His dermatologist, Arnie Klein, set Jackson up with his assistant Debbie Rowe, who became Jackson's wife, though they never lived together. Later, through surrogacy, she bore two of his children, Paris and Prince. His third, Prince Michael II who later became known as Blanket (the one he dangled off the balcony in 2002) was also conceived via a surrogate and a separate egg donor. The identity of both women remains unknown.

By 1993, he was well on his way to morphing into the Wacko Jacko caricature much taunted by the tabloid press. Then catastrophe stuck. Jackson was put under investigation following claims made by the family of a 13-year-old boy named Jordan Chandler, a fan who had met Jackson by chance after the star's car broke down.

He reportedly called the boy often, invited him to Neverland with his mother and sister (they soon began spending every weekend there) and lavished the family with presents.

According to an in-depth report by journalist Maureen Orth published in 1995, Jackson and the boy soon became "inseparable", and eventually started sleeping in the same bed. Jackson attempted to allay the concerns of the boy's mother by saying: "Why don't you trust me? This is a bond. It's not about sex. This is something special."

The issue was settled out of court and little has been heard of Jordan Chandler since the trial. He received a pay-off from Jackson rumoured to be in the region of $20m.

But the story did irreparable damage to Jackson's image. He did little to help his own case when, in 2003, in a sensational interview with Bashir, he was asked about sharing his bed with children, and replied: "Why can't you share your bed? That's the most loving thing to do, to share your bed with someone."

Two years later, he was in court answering a litany of charges brought by another adolescent boy, this time a teenage cancer patient. One of his lawyers claimed that the settlements from the child abuse suits he'd been fighting had cost him close to $100m - his mountains of debt were reportedly in the region of $300m.

He had earned a reputation as a kind of creepy, corrupt Willy Wonka. During the trial one of his maids memorably described Neverland as "Pinocchio's pleasure Island".

No one could deny that Jackson's behaviour was bizarre, and inappropriate at the very least. But there was a persuasive voice of dissent in the form of Macaulay Culkin, who described how he'd slept in the same bed as Jackson many times, fully-clothed, and insisted nothing untoward had ever taken place.

He was, of course, acquitted, much to the delight of the devoted fans who gathered outside the courtroom every day in support.

The testimony of his accusers was sufficiently discredited by the defence, who cast them as fame-hungry opportunists. And an alternative narrative about Jackson emerged: that of a man-child stuck in a state of arrested development, who had never progressed beyond his pre-pubescent self, and was trapped by almost unfathomable loneliness.

Financially and psychologically, Jackson never really recovered from the ordeal of the trial. He didn't return to Neverland, instead disappearing into exile, first as a guest of the Sheik Abdullah of Bahrain.

The following year he moved temporarily to Ireland. He was here for a six-month stay - a rare and apparently "idyllic" window of reprieve from the madness. With just his three children, their teacher, a nanny and a magician in tow (the latter to facilitate the search for leprechauns, naturally), the family spent much of their time at Grouse Lodge in Co. Westmeath, where they lived a quiet, low-key existence.

It was, by some reports, the most stable and normal period of their lives. "He was mad interested in Irish music and the history of the area ... he felt really relaxed here," Grouse Lodge proprietor Paddy Dunning later told The Guardian.

But his health was already desperately fragile - and his creditors were closing in. In 2008 he put Neverland up for sale and moved the family to Vegas to negotiate a run of Casino concerts, while also entering into discussions for a run of 50 concerts at London's 02. It was to be a firm step towards rehabilitation -financially, morally and for his public image. But his comeback never came to pass. He didn't live to see opening night.

Although he faced ruin while alive, the year after Jackson's death was one of his highest earning ever. Prompted, by his death into a wave of nostalgia, fans snapped up 31 million albums and contributed $1bn (£705m) to his children's inheritance.

Belfast Telegraph

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