Taking the Michael

It was the week that Mr and Mrs Jackson went on camera to discuss love and marriage. And children. Jasper Rees watched but was none the wiser

When Michael Jackson's Bad tour landed in Rome, it was rumoured that, rather than perform in a common-or-garden stadium, the singer wished to play the Colosseum. Given that the last entertainers to appear at the same venue were fed to lions, Jackson may well feel that subsequent experience has shown him what he missed out on.

These days, on those rare occasions when he grants a television interview, he chooses to feed himself to lambs. Even before the child-abuse allegations were made, he invited Oprah Winfrey into Neverland and was rewarded for his generosity with a volley of questions from the forelock-tugging school of interrogation technique.

Wednesday night's interview on ABC's Primetime Live delivered some cosmetic differences: it took place in a studio, his wife Lisa Marie Presley stonewalled her fair share of the questions, and Jackson was wearing ordinary clothes, save for what looked like a pair of knobbly golden cricket pads last modelled by C3PO. In essence, though, it was a repeat screening of Winfrey's massage in soothing oils. There was even another "surprise" (ie meticulously scripted) appearance from Elizabeth Taylor, who reiterated her insistence that Jackson is the sweetest most normal guy imaginable. It might have served his cause better if they had found someone else to say it this time.

Prime Time's questions were lobbed by Diane Sawyer, a curious choice for both parties. Jackson will have have looked down her CV and wondered what he did to deserve categorisation alongside her former interviewees Castro, Saddam, Noriega and our very own gargoyle, the Duchess of York. Sawyer, meanwhile, dressed to ballbreak in a svelte black trouser suit, was plainly having difficulty pretending to be coated in white fluffy wool.

She used to be a White House aide to Richard Nixon, and can plainly spot an evasive answer when she sees one. Sawyer was visibly embarrassed by the whole charade, but like a good pro she got on with the job of pretending the event had a toehold in reality as we know it. She dutifully threw in the stock "ve haf vays of making you talk" phrasings: "I have to ask", she would say, as if in imitation of herself in happier times, roasting some quivering dictator on a spit. But her hands were tied: roughly translated, "I want to be as specific as I can" meant "I can't be as specific as I want".

When the time came to be very specific and ask the (allegedly) happy couple if they do in fact have sex, she wriggled -"I'm going to confess, OK, this is live, I'm copping out here" - and writhed - "because I didn't spend my life as a serious journalist to ask these kind of questions" - and passed the buck. She may be on pounds 4.5m, you thought, but there are some indignities even that kind of money won't buy.

It turned out that even this admission was only a pretence of candour, because we promptly cut to pre-recorded video clips of a bunch of fans all saying something along the lines of, "Do you two do it?" Sawyer merely feigned coyness to provide a neat segue into the vox pop section. Luckily, before she could even announce her scruples, young Mrs Jackson had dived in with ballsy southern directness and asked the question for her. Elvis's little girl performed in that vein all the way through, upsetting the smoothness of the production with tongue-tied interruptions and sulky, snapped justifications. The King would be proud of her.

Her bumpy contribution notwithstanding, this show was the crudest example, since the last Jackson snowjob, of the growing trend in celebrity interviews. Because the media marketplace is getting so overcrowded, the rules are increasingly written beforehand by the celebrity rather than in medias res by the interviewer. Nowadays, the most dangerous question concerns the size of the pre-nuptial agreement. This week has already found a respectful Selina Scott cricking her neck by looking up to Donald Trump as if he were as tall as his tower. Jackson made a show of taking any question on his latest chin, but the bottom line is he's more famous than Trump, and so in an even better position to call the shots.

If it's a sellers' market, no one has more to sell, or a greater need to sell it. His people will have advised him that the figures add up nicely. ABC pulled in a huge national audience for the interview and syndicated it around the world: in Britain, Sky One showed it on Thursday and BBC2 jumped on the bandwagon last night. In return for answering a few polite enquiries about what he gets up to in bed, Jackson was able to run a free hour-long advertisement for his new album to 500 million potential buyers. Space was even found to screen his new video, a privilege not accorded to Noriega or Fergie.

What makes this horsetrading more undignified is the fact Jackson was not just marketing a product. He was also grabbing the chance, like some costume-jewellery salesman on the home-shopping channel, to hawk his good name. The last time he did this was in December 1993, days after he returned to the US to have bits of his body photographed by police, but then he took up only four minutes of satellite time. This week there was a whole hour in which to scotch, among other things, the latest damaging rumours about his marriage.

He and Lisa Marie did everything in their power to assure viewers that their vows are holding firm - everything, that is, apart from actually holding hands, or using each other's Christian names. Of course, you have to take them at their word when they say they don't live apart and they do have top-dollar sex, but then you also have to remember that Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford made similar protestations and split up minutes later.

To cement the union (or make it look cemented until the album has shifted 20 million units), the Jacksons had hoped to use this interview to announce Lisa Marie's pregnancy. Unfortunately, mother nature, who singlehandedly contrived to mutate Jackson into a Caucasian, was unable to fall in with the satellite television schedules. "It's in the hands of heaven," said Jackson, clearly praying for an immaculate conception.

There was, however, possible news of another of miracle of nature. When Sawyer asked Jackson if he had ever felt suicidal, he scoffed at the suggestion. "I have rhinoceros skin," he boasted, although he might have been speaking metaphorically.

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