Nightmare comes to Neverland: Michael Jackson's career may be ruined, even if child abuse allegations are proved false, writes Phil Reeves in Washington

MICHAEL JACKSON will spend his 35th birthday today in a Singapore hotel room being comforted by his sister Janet and the actress Elizabeth Taylor as his advisers work to save his career.

When Jackson performed in Bangkok on Friday, more than 50,000 Thais battled through monsoon rains and traffic jams to sing 'Happy Birthday' adoringly and admire Thai Jacko look-alikes.

But, after the allegation that he sexually abused a 13-year- old boy, the son of a wealthy dentist from Beverly Hills, the damage has been done. Never again will the superstar glide across a stage without knowing that at least some of his millions of fans are privately asking the question: 'Could it all just possibly have been true?'.

Jackson, America's first major black teen-star, who became one of the wealthiest entertainers on the planet, has always been easy meat for his critics. There were his irritating eccentricities: the lavish Californian ranch with its llamas and pavilions, its merry-go- round, children's funfair and chimpanzees; his androgynous appearance and pip-squeak voice; whitening skin (which he blames on a pigmentation condition); plastic surgery; and his childish mannerisms.

When Elizabeth Taylor, one of his closest Hollywood friends, told the TV hostess Oprah Winfrey this year that Michael Jackson was 'the least weird' person she knew, just an ordinary knock-about guy, it was confirmed: the entertainment industry had spawned a genuine oddball.

The first signs that Jackson was in trouble came with a report on KNBC-TV in California late on Monday. The tabloid press and television worldwide swung into action, although with little to go on beyond a confirmation from the Los Angeles Police Department that the star was the subject of an unspecified criminal investigation. But it was quickly established that the inquiry centred on a 13- year-old boy called Jordan.

At this point, it is important to separate fact and fiction. Jordan is the subject of a custody dispute between his father, Evan Chandler, a Beverly Hills dentist whose clients include several celebrities, and his ex- wife, June Schwartz. Court documents show that his father recently applied for a judicial order preventing Ms Schwartz from allowing the boy to have any communication, even by telephone, with Jackson.

The boy's allegations were framed in a social worker's report, which is at the heart of the case. Its contents are graphic, distressing - and, it must be stressed, so far wholly unconfirmed.

The report, by a caseworker for the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services, is based on an interview with the child carried out 12 days ago. It states that Michael Jackson met Jordan through the boy's stepfather, the owner of a car rental company, and soon began telephoning him almost daily. The calls continued even when the superstar was on a world tour early this year. When he came home, Jackson allegedly started asking Jordan and members of his family to his 100-acre private retreat, Neverland.

The report says Jordan claimed that Jackson and he often slept in the same bed, and that the entertainer would 'cuddle and kiss him on the cheek'. Eventually, the boy alleged, Jackson 'graduated' to kissing him on the mouth. He claimed the kissing then went beyond friendship. On one occasion, the report said, the superstar rubbed himself against the child, and told him that their relationship was 'meant to be'. They had a four-month relationship, it said, which eventually graduated to abuse.

According to the report, Jordan told his story to his father after becoming worried that his mother was too enchanted by the 'glitzy life' surrounding Jackson. It says Chandler confronted Jackson in an effort to reach a settlement without going to court. When the entertainer declined, the boy was taken to a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, Mathis Abrams, to whom he related his story. Abrams went straight to the authorities.

That, then, appears to be the child's version of events. Jackson, his lawyers and his family and friends have strongly and repeatedly denied all the allegations. Shortly after the story became public, Anthony Pellicano, a private detective employed by the singer, was telling reporters that his boss was the victim of a botched dollars 20m extortion attempt - a claim which Jordan's father has denied (his mother, meanwhile, says she knew nothing about her son's complaint).

This was followed by allegations in the Hollywood Reporter, a film industry trade paper, that Chandler co-wrote a script for Mel Brooks's latest movie, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, based on an idea suggested by his son. It said he wanted to start a film production company, with Jackson paying the dollars 20m start-up costs.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Times said detectives had interviewed other young boys and were looking for evidence and witnesses. The 13-year-old star of Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin, had been questioned, but reported no abuse. Videotapes seized during a raid on Jackson's homes had turned up nothing, nor was there any other incriminating physical evidence against him.

Several other unexpected voices were raised in Jackson's support. Two young friends of the star, Brett Barnes, 11, and Wade Robson, 10, went before the television cameras, accompanied by their mothers, to assure the world that Jackson is nothing other than a highly sensitive and affectionate man with a soft spot for kids. Someone they could eat fast-food with, chat with, and sit around with watching TV.

But they probably did more harm than good. Both youngsters revealed that they had shared a bed with the star, insisting that it was just like a 'slumber party' and nothing untoward had happened. 'I was on one side of the bed and he was on the other,' said Brett. 'It was a big bed.' Harmless stuff. Perhaps even sweet. But many will feel that mega-celebrities in their thirties should know better than to dive under the sheets with other people's children.

If there were grim faces among the Jackson entourage as these allegations emerged, then the mood cannot have been much better at the headquarters of PepsiCo. Michael Jackson has been on the drinks giant's books for a decade, although the deal was scaled back after criticism of some of the scenes in the video for his album Dangerous. However, the conglomerate was reportedly planning to spend nearly dollars 50m on product marketing tied to his current world tour. But the child abuse scandal suddenly jeopardised everything.

Jackson postponed two performances in Bangkok, on Wednesday and Thursday, complaining of severe dehydration caused by a two-hour concert in sweltering heat on Tuesday. There was even speculation that he was planning to head home to California, his reputation crushed like an aluminium can by the giant fist of the world's media.

Not everyone joined in. While television stations blared out every available detail of the tale, several of America's more prestigious newspapers turned their noses up at the story, mindful that the star has not been charged with any offence - let alone tried. On Thursday, the Washington Post buried the story in its 'Style' section; the New York Times did not cover it at all. The caseworker's report seemed to change things: by Friday, the Post saw Jacko as front-page news. But few went as far as Britain's Sun, which reported on Thursday: 'Jacko Used Me As Sex Slave.'

All this will have awoken unhappy memories among Pepsi executives, for it was not the first time a superstar has landed them in an embarrassing situation. They cancelled a contract with Madonna after her video Like A Prayer upset some consumers, and Mike Tyson, the jailed boxing champion, was dropped after his former wife, Robin Givens, accused him of beating her. Wife-beating doesn't sell soft drinks.

Matters were scarcely improved by a remarkably deft, and witty, piece of opportunism by Pepsi's arch-rival, Coca- Cola. While Pepsi spokesmen were assuring journalists that they planned to remain loyal to Mr Jackson (at least while there is no substantive evidence against him), Thais were opening English language newspapers in Bangkok to discover half-page advertisements which said: 'Dehydrated? . . . There is always Coke.'

Tempers cannot have been much better at the New York offices of the Sony Corporation, where Mr Jackson's travails are the latest in a battalion of troubles caused by the alleged activities of one star or another. First, Woody Allen was accused by Mia Farrow of molesting his own child just before Sony's Tristar Pictures division was about to release Husbands and Wives. He was subsequently cleared.

Then came reports linking its Columbia studios with the scandal over alleged Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss - stories that were largely inspired by a studio executive who, out of the blue, issued a statement denying any involvement with her. And finally - nightmare of nightmares - a police investigation into Michael Jackson, by far Sony's greatest breathing asset. Jackson has a complicated, but vastly lucrative, music, video and film deal with the corporation - a contract which Sony has calculated should net it around dollars 1bn.

The child abuse allegation was the worst, but not the first, setback for the Jackson money- machine. Although he earns an estimated dollars 50m annually, there have been signs that he has been fretting that his popularity may be waning. Sales of his album Dangerous have fallen short of the 40 million sales of Thriller and the 22 million of Bad. But nothing can compare to this week's disaster. 'I think it would be impossible for me to negotiate any type of endorsement deal for Jackson right now,' said Charles Stern, a Hollywood agent. That comment would have been unthinkable seven days ago.

Jackson's huge wealth will insulate him from feeling much financial pinch. The effect on his personality, however, is a different issue. His lonely experience as a child-star with the Jackson Five seems to have stunted his development as an adult, turning him into a recluse. He admits he prefers the company of children, whom he invites to his fantasy world at Neverland, where he attempts to re-live a lost childhood which he claims was marred by his abusive father. In recent months, perhaps to bolster flagging sales, he has increasingly emerged into the public eye, giving his first television interview for years. It seemed as if he was growing up.

But now there is a new tragedy in the making, whatever the outcome of the police inquiry. Life will never be the same for his young accuser, Jordan, who will always be reminded of the effect he had on the superstar's life. Nor will it be for Jackson, who will surely withdraw into his shell again, terrified by the world.

(Photograph omitted)

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