TELEVISION / Soft soap Oprah

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The Independent Culture
'Do not judge a person unless you have talked to them one on one.' Michael Jackson's injunction, delivered in the course of his conversation with Oprah Winfrey (BBC 2) gave the casual watcher some problems. If you were watching this, his first television interview for 14 years, did that count as a proxy one on one? Could we take these overheard remarks as being in some way revelatory? Or do you have to pitch up at the Santa Ynez ranch in person before it is legitimate to pass comment? As the conditions of entry are a little restrictive (you have to be Elizabeth Taylor, a llama, Brooke Shields, a top-rating talk show host or a child suffering from cancer), most will have settled for adjusting their prejudices on the basis of this 90-minute special, perhaps the longest piece of spin- doctoring in the history of modern broadcasting.

It opened with a soft-drink montage of Michael in action over a soundtrack of religiose utterances from the fans. 'I try to imitate Jesus,' Jackson said much later when talking of his charitable activities, adding hastily, 'I'm not saying I am like Jesus.' But the preceding confection had been so awestruck and reverential that you felt the remark had less to do with modesty than with a practical desire to avoid any confusion amongst those watching.

Earlier Oprah, who insisted throughout on the bona fides of the conversation, assured us that she had not been contractually obliged to call Jackson the 'King of Pop' (though the phrase occurred in the introductory titles anyway), adding usefully, 'I personally think that King of Pop is too limiting for you.' And while she did, as reported in newspapers from Bangkok to Bangui, ask the direct questions - How much plastic surgery? Do you lighten your skin? Are you a virgin? - she received the answers as Moses probably took down the Ten Commandments - very little visible scepticism and no supplementaries.

So Jackson's explanation that his skin-colour was the result of a skin disease passed away without comment. But if he uses make-up to even out the blotches and if he is proud to be a black American, why doesn't he use a darker brand? And where exactly does the heavy eye-liner and lip-stick come in? Similarly it might be true, as he pointed out, that hardly anybody in Los Angeles hasn't had plastic surgery but that still didn't answer the question of why he had, and to such drastic and androgynous ends (he looks now like a Barbie doll that has been whittled at by a malicious little brother). When asked about his relationships with women, he blocked with a cliche - 'I'm married to my work' - ignoring the fact that most celebrities manage a degree of polygamy in this respect. The mere fact that Winfrey asked the questions she did seems to have startled some viewers so much that they overlooked the fact that they weren't ever answered.

Even so, the result was fascinating - a demonstration of the strange enchantments of fame and the virtual impossibility of sincerity on American prime-time television, a medium that has devalued the currency of sentiment so much that the simplest emotional transactions have become impossible. Were La Toyah's stories of parental abuse true, asked Oprah. 'I haven't read her book,' replied Michael, 'but I love her dearly.' So what about his father? 'I love my father but I don't really know him,' he continued before revealing that he was so frightened of him that he frequently threw up before their meetings. These weren't really confessions, just observances of the American ceremony of candour, of which Oprah is high priestess.

In the absence of any real communication you had to look for clues in the details. In the spooky frigidity of Jackson's features, for instance, as he stood impassively at Elizabeth Taylor's shoulder while she sang his praises ('Highly intelligent, intuitive, understanding, sympathetic, generous to a fault almost'), his face unruffled by embarrassment or laughter. Or in the name of his ranch ('Neverland'), an odd choice for someone who protested at one point that his audience wouldn't let him grow up. Or in the Las Vegas style pantomimes of reluctance when Oprah asked him to dance, though a rhythm track was at once to hand when he 'spontaneously' obliged. Whatever he does to his face, this was a whitewash.