Carol Sarler: We know fame ruins children, but we're too talent-hungry to stop it

Michael Jackson was not born 'wacko', says our writer, who met a bubbly, confident 12-year-old. That was before he sold 750 million records, and everything changed
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The Independent Online

As fact chased rumour across the United States on Thursday, ending with the confirmation that Michael Jackson was indeed dead, tinny voices queued up to broadcast how absolutely everyone was "stunned" and "shocked" – at least, they did until Fox television presenter Geraldo Rivera called time on the amazement. "Of any 50-year-old that I knew," he said morosely, "his death was the least surprising." And that, we must allow, was rather closer to the truth.

For as long as most of us can remember, Michael Jackson had a visibly tentative grip on anything we might call life as we know it. The stick-thin little man, with bewildered eyes set large in his self-mutilated face, was never going to make old bones. His habits were bizarre: appearing in public in pyjamas and umbrella or wearing a black mask or, memorably, draping a living chimpanzee over his shoulders vied with reports of financial ruin, allegations of sexual abuse and enough images of him dangling his third child precariously from a balcony to keep the "wacko" headline writers perennially busy.

Plans for a 50-gig retirement show in London next month were dogged by whispers of exhaustion and of recurring addictions to potent prescription drugs; good money among observers waiting for toxicology reports has it that such substances will eventually be held responsible for his cardiac arrest. It is a sorry, wretched tale of a sorry, wretched life and a sordid death, of which the best one can say is that at least he is past caring.

The sad thing is, he was not born peculiar. I met him once, when he was a very young-looking 12 and I was invited to a small soirée held for the then relatively new band, The Jackson Five. In later interviews he would recall his early years as shy and awkward, yet at the time he appeared to be anything but. He was a dark-skinned, curly-haired, ebullient wee chap, who jigged unselfconsciously around the room, butting into conversations with gusto until either an older brother or his father shushed him. Between then and now, of course, has come the matter of some 750 million records sold, to everybody's satisfaction except, apparently, his own – and thus Michael Jackson takes his place in the infinite galaxy of child stars who fell from the skies.

We have had no shortage of warnings, from as far back as Judy Garland (right) tamed by adult-administered drugs at 14 and rarely rid of them after that. Or Lena Zavaroni, who at the age of 10 became the youngest person ever to have an album in the UK top 10 – but anorexia claimed her in the end. Britney Spears won a television talent show at 11 and was a Disney Channel star by 12; by 21 she was – is – a car crash.

Paul Gascoigne was still a schoolboy when he was signed by Newcastle United and catapulted to adulation. And the rest. Drew Barrymore, the little sweetie from ET, was drinking at 11, sniffing cocaine at 12, in rehab at 13 and attempting suicide at 14. Tennis pro Jennifer Capriati became the youngest person to win the French Open junior singles title, at the age of 13, before turning to drugs, theft and arrest, earning her the distinction of becoming, as the Chicago Sun-Times put it, "the poster child for burned-out sports prodigies".

It cannot be argued that it is the activities themselves that lead the way to the precipice. Plenty of children will immerse themselves in sport or music or suchlike for as many hours as the day is long and come to no harm. Nor does the fault necessarily lie with the pressure; again, plenty of children – either through personal passion or hideously pushy parents – will follow punishing schedules and emerge, give or take, unscathed.

What seems to do the irreparable damage is the adjunct to the activity: the by-product of success that is fame. All the evidence suggests that fame corrodes childhood – Michael Jackson actually described his childhood as having been stolen from him – and it really is not hard to see why.

To be famous as a child is to have the development process reversed. A child's world, in the general scheme of things, grows with the child: from the sides of the cot and the faces peeking in, to the walls of the house and the people within it, to the playschool and its newer, bigger cast of characters. The child, left to himself, observes and familiarises himself with all the detail of the small before taking the next step toward the large; he conquers that which he knows before addressing that which he does not. For most of us, it would be unimaginably strange, then, to take that curious step through the next door – only to find hordes and hordes of the far more curious, strangers to boot, pelting towards us instead.

A great many adults find it difficult to manage fame with aplomb, that odd mixture of being absurdly indulged while at the same time feeling that everyone wants a piece of you; some of my most level-headed and intelligent "friends in high places" have acknowledged that it takes a deal of practice to become comfortable with recognition by people they have not met. For a child? The extraordinary thing is that any survive.

On some level, we know this. Which is why, for instance, the British press is sternly regulated on issues concerning children; if you really want to feel your knuckles rapped by the Press Complaints Commission then you breach that code. The courts, too, lay down the law with vigour when it comes to anonymity for children. Some have wondered, for example, why it is that even though she has been convicted, we still may not know the name of Baby Peter's mother; it is because she has other children whose privacy has been deemed, at least for now, paramount.

Such exceptions aside, however, we appear to have declared open season on spotlighting children, completely disregarding repeated proof that they cannot cope. The blame must lie firmly with adults – the ridiculous plea that the child "wanted" his or her 15 minutes simply does not wash; they might also "want" to play with traffic but we do not let them.

We can understand, obviously, that films or plays or soaps need the freedom to cast children in appropriate roles. It is quite different, however, then to have them aping the fame of adults in eye-catching frocks on red carpets or making personal appearances to cut ribbons – except, as we know, the red carpet is the showcase for the next star casting and PAs are seriously lucrative, both for the child and for the agent on his 15 per cent.

Having said that the press is regulated when it comes to children, it could still be far kinder. One child actress in EastEnders (let us not compound the meanness by naming her here) must have been thrilled to get the part – but, no doubt, less so to find red-top newspapers making snide jokes about her puppy fat.

Producers, especially in the field laughingly known as reality TV, are increasingly culpable. Simon Cowell's Britain's Got Talent might not be your cup of tea, but as long as it sticks to the robustly good, bad and ugly belting out an optimistic tune, then you would have to agree that no harm is done. Yet in the last series, four children under 13 each stood alone, on a vast stage, in front of millions, and wept their little hearts out. How Mr Cowell could sit and watch, let alone instigate the misery, it is hard to comprehend. We can but wonder what would have happened to them had they won – perhaps the effect on Susan Boyle, who is said to have something of the mind of a child, provides a clue.

But nobody can or should shoulder as much blame as the parents who allow it. Parents who sign on the dotted line for cameras to come into their homes and document their children's lives; parents who think it is perfectly OK for their son or daughter to be seen squatting in embarrassment on the "naughty step"; parents who drive their babies to ruthless auditions where the potential for pain by failure in the short term can only be eclipsed by the potential for damage caused by success in the longer run.

Michael Jackson knew what that damage was; he sought out the company of the similarly afflicted, in friendships with child stars Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Lester and Brooke Shields, and in marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. He knew fame to be incompatible with childhood and spent much of his life saying so.

One thing he determined was that his own children would not be subjected to the world's gaze wherever they went. In recent years, he would take the three of them out, distinguishable from each other only by height as they were shrouded in long veils. It was, naturally, more fodder for the headlines: here he goes again, Wacko Jacko. It may yet turn out that putting on those veils was among the saner things he ever did.