Michael Jackson: The pop megastar whose music career has been eclipsed by his eccentricity

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The Independent Online

If Michael Jackson had been content to follow his musical instincts, he would now be remembered with fondness as the extravagantly talented megastar who redefined pop music for the MTV age, with his albums Off The Wall and Thriller and the treasure trove of hits they yielded.

But Mr Jackson had the misfortune of developing a second world-beating career as an eccentric of staggering proportions. So his name now evokes not the high point of 1980s pop so much as botched plastic surgery, ever-whitening skin and face make-up, defecating pet monkeys, babies dangled from balconies, a Xanadu-like retreat filled with funfair attractions, and the strange relationships he developed with one prepubescent boy after another.

Whatever one thinks of the evidence in his child molestation trial and its outcome, it is hard not to feel a twinge of sadness at the way the child prodigy who gave the Jackson Five its heart and soul in the 1960s and early 1970s went so badly awry.

Mr Jackson himself has always blamed the way he was robbed of his own childhood - ordered to perform by a domineering father and sent out on the road to scenes of mass adoration at an age when most children were playing sports in the back yard and having sleepovers with their friends on Friday and Saturday nights.

There is no doubt much truth in that. The arrested man-child he presented to his vast public was at first charming, then by degrees ever more perturbing.

Starting in the mid-Eighties, at the height of his fame, his face and complexion started to alter to an increasingly radical degree. Mr Jackson's entourage blamed it on vitiligo, a rare skin discoloration disorder, but many black leaders in the United States suspected that he was deliberately seeking to change the colour of his skin and deny his ethnic heritage.

The plastic surgery became ever more extreme, until his nose first appeared to develop a third nostril and then looked in danger of caving in altogether.

Mr Jackson complained of devastating loneliness, and said his life had meaning only if he could use his fame and fortune to bring happiness to children. So he built Neverland, his sprawling ranch in Santa Barbara wine country, complete with zoo, train, amusement arcades and myriad other diversions, and invited the poor, the dispossessed, the sick and the occasional Hollywood child to join in the fun.

The world got its first inkling that something was wrong in 1993, when 14-year-old Jordy Chandler told police he had been sexually molested on multiple occasions over an extended period. The case was settled out of court for $20m.

As Mr Jackson sought to impose damage control, he embarked on two short-lived marriages, the first to Elvis Presley's daughter Lisa Marie and the second to Debbie Rowe, who was a nurse at the offices of one of his plastic surgeons.

Two children followed, and the world could almost be reassured he had settled down. But then he reneged on two Millennium-eve concerts, costing him a fortune in a lawsuit, started appearing with a face mask to conceal his cosmetic interventions, and dangled his third child, Prince Michael II, from the fourth-floor balcony of a hotel in Berlin, to the horror of the many fans pressing against the building below.

Now that Michael Jackson has put one nightmare behind him, he will have to get to grips with another: his famously chaotic finances, painstakingly detailed in the trial, which have only deteriorated as his attention has been diverted by the court case and millions of dollars have been ploughed into the defence effort. The jury heard how Mr Jackson is lumbered with more than $300m in debt.