Unlike his friend Princess Diana or even his idol Elvis, he is destined to live on in the media in squalid infamy, his reputation in tatters, more beast than being. His is a quintessential story of corruption, of one man's inability to avoid the hubris of super-stardom. Crushed under the enormous weight of public adulation and idolization, he became incapable of reining in his own excess.
In America, celebrity, born of fame, is our equivalent of royalty. Both are antithetical to G-d's plan for humankind. While humility keeps humans grounded, the institutionalized arrogance that comes with celebrity is a noxious poison that can kill off all that is healthy in man.
The hallmark of American celebrity is a life with one's sins bared for all the world to see. To be a celebrity is to live in a glass house, subject to the adoration or fury of the public, who may throw rose petals one day, stones the next. American celebrities play out their roles in front of millions of people on concert stages, movie screens, and television sets. The more public their indiscretions and excesses, the more famous they become.
This, is turns out, was the fateful calculation Michael Jackson made. He took the celebrity calculus to an extreme, convinced that the stranger and more controversial he became, the greater notoriety he would achieve.
An endless stream of bizarre stories emanated from his camp that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber, that his favorite companion was a chimp, that he purchased the bones of the Elephant Man. Michael's publicists and retainers were often the ones promoting these bizarre tales.
Michael did his part by wearing strange masks in public and undertaking endlessly bizarre behavior-like dangling his baby from a balcony-that was designed to keep the public watching. Plastic surgery did the rest, transforming him from talented boy-wonder to sideshow freak. Weirdness and a lavish, eccentric lifestyle were not things Michael Jackson merely embraced. He poured all his creativity into them.
And like every reality TV star, Michael was chewed up and spit out, leaving a sad and hollow shell of something that once resembled a man. To be sure, he got a full hour rather than just 15 minutes of fame. But the overexposure to the camera's glare made him wither until he had shriveled up and even his undeniable talent could no longer redeem him.
Now, Michael Jackson has everything he ever wanted. He wanted to be the foremost celebrity in the world, and that is what he has become. His upcoming trial for child molestation is guaranteed to make him even more famous than the Beatles, to whom he long compared himself. But while some pay with their soul for a place in eternity, Michael paid with the very image of G-d in man. For, in the minds of the public, Michael not only lost his soul, he lost his very humanity.
It is sad that as his trial commences, America shows him little sympathy. What he has done to himself--the utter disfigurement, the teetering near bankruptcy, the squandering of his precious talents--would normally have elicited some measure of compassion. But the public has already judged him guilty. Even Martha Stewart, so disliked before her trial, drew public sympathy after her arrest and conviction for financial improprieties. Unquestionably, the allegations against Michael, involving harm against children, are far more serious and odious. But to elicit pity, one must first be perceived to be human. And in the eyes of the most of the public, Michael has become pure caricature, more mannequin than man.
Strong emotions can be flipped, and this is precisely what happened in the case of Michael Jackson. The public once loved him. Many remembered him as a child star, and in their eyes he remained a boy, an innocent and fun-loving man-child. Seeing him surrounded by children, they were convinced that he was an adolescent at heart.
Now the public has turned on him, because hell hath no fury like a fan duped. Peter Pan has become Peter porn. What they once saw as evidence of his innocence and naiveté is now seen as corrupt and cunning. Neverland, his estate fitted out with a zoo and an amusement park, was built not as a shrine to youthful precociousness, but as a lure for the young and unsuspecting. In Michael Jackson, they thought they were getting a choirboy. Instead, they've concluded, he's a master manipulator.
I still want to believe that Michael Jackson is innocent of the molestation charges against him. But it almost doesn't matter now, because the inspiration he once provided to so many has evaporated. He has become the very thing he once feared: ordinary.
It is no secret that Michael and I were once close friends, and I used to tell him that without an authentic connection to G-d, he would never survive life as a celebrity. But celebrities don't listen to ordinary mortals. And they don't need G-d, since they are gods themselves.
I remember that Michael once told me he had dreamed of being romantically involved with Princess Diana. Perhaps he thought that these two lonely and misunderstood people would live together happily ever after, comforted by their mutual sense of isolation. But things like a happy ending happen mostly in the kind of movies that Michael so loves. Michael's life, by contrast, has become all too real.