“Unmasked” by Ian Halperin is a sympathetic portrait of Michael Jackson that explores Jackson’s prescription drug use, ties to Scientology, multiple plastic surgeries, skin bleaching, sexual identity and the lineage of his three children. In this excerpt, Halperin writes about Jackson's waning health in the months leading up to his death.
Before long, however, 10 concerts had turned into 50 and the potential revenues had skyrocketed. But those who knew Jackson best knew he was in no shape to perform 10 shows, let alone 50. “We knew it was a disaster waiting to happen,” said one aide. “I don’t think anybody predicted it would actually kill him but literally nobody believed he would end up performing.” Their doubts were underscored when Jackson collapsed during only his second rehearsal. “Collapse might be overstating it,” said the aide. “He needed medical attention and couldn’t go on. Not sure what caused it.”
Meanwhile, everybody around him noticed that Jackson had lost an astonishing amount of weight in the months leading up to the London concerts. His medical team even believed he had become anorexic. “He goes days at a time hardly eating a thing and at one point his doctor was asking people around him if he had been throwing up after meals,” one staff member told me in May. “He suspected bulimia but when we said he hardly eats any meals, the doc thought it’s probably anorexia nervosa. He seemed alarmed and at one point said, ‘People die from that all the time. You’ve got to get him to eat.’ ” Indeed, one of the known consequences of anorexia is cardiac arrest. This is what killed another iconic pop singer, Karen Carpenter, who admitted to suffering from anorexia shortly before her death in 1983.
After spotting him leave one of his rehearsals, Fox News reported that “Michael Jackson’s skeletal physique is so bad that he might not be able to moonwalk anymore.”
“I never saw anybody weigh him, but he couldn’t have weighed more than [100 pounds] in the last month,” says one member of his L.A. staff who saw him every day. At Jackson’s official height of five foot ten inches, that represents a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 14.3 which, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, may indicate anorexia. The normal BMI for somebody Jackson’s height is between 18.5 and 24.9, meaning Jackson is at least 25% under the normal weight for a healthy male. Anything over 15% falls within the category of a potential anorexic. Although eating disorders such as anorexia are much more prevalent in women and girls than men, according to the association, as many as one million men suffer from the disease, which, curiously, is twice as prevalent in gay men. By any definition, Jackson’s rapid weight loss clearly indicated something was wrong.
For the first time, those in Jackson’s inner circle began to urge him to cancel the shows, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
“There was just too much money at stake,” recalls one aide. “The people who had his ear told him he would be a laughingstock if he cancelled. They had to have known he was in no shape to go on, he was so frail, he kept canceling rehearsals. We wondered if somebody was going to cash in whether or not he performed. It just didn’t make any sense. I know his family was concerned, especially his brother Jermaine, but Michael was kept very isolated during those last weeks.”
One of Jackson’s closest friends claimed a month before Jackson died that Michael told his daughter Paris he only had weeks to live. “He called her into his room and told her not to get mad at him if he didn’t make it to Father’s Day. He had a premonition that his days were numbered. He felt extremely ill. Unfortunately, no one wanted to help him. His closest advisers tried to control him with medication, drugs and false hopes. They wanted to make sure he didn’t bail on the O2 gigs and that they would not be paid the money Jackson owed them.”
The friend said that Jackson spent the final months of his life writing extensively. He thinks it was a long farewell, and not that Jackson simply wanted to write to his fans. “He’d hole himself up in his room for hours, sometimes days and not move,” the source said. “I asked him if he was writing a novel. He replied ‘just some thoughts on my journey on this earth. I want to leave something to my children.’ ” This alarmed the friend. “After he told me that, I was concerned Michael was suicidal and that he was writing a long note to say farewell. His emotions during his last few weeks were completely erratic; I had never seen him more depressed. He knew he could not comeback because of his failing health and that he wouldn’t be able to pay all his debts. He told me three times that he felt like dying. At first I thought he was joking. Michael always liked to play the victim and convince people he was terminally ill. This time he was serious, he seemed to be convinced that he was dying. I wish I had taken him more seriously and tried to get him help. Unfortunately, Michael was like the boy who cried wolf — anytime he complained there was always doubt about his authenticity. He had spent years and years fooling people.”
Although the financial details of his arrangement with AEG won’t fully emerge until the estate is settled in 2010 and beyond, most of Jackson’s long-time inner circle suspect that the people who had the most to benefit from the London concert were those associated with the complex web of businesses associated with Tohme, including the giant real estate firm Colony Capital LLC. Colony Capital had saved Neverland from foreclosure more than a year earlier by purchasing a $23.5 million credit note in a deal brokered by Tohme. Somehow this action allowed Jackson to retain his prized estate.
On May 20, 2009 concert organizers suddenly announced that the first London concerts had been delayed for five days while the remainder have been pushed back until March 2010. At the time, they denied that the postponements were health-related, explaining that they needed more time to mount the complex technical production, though skepticism immediately erupted among ticketholders. Their doubts were well placed.
Behind the scenes, Jackson’s mental and physical health was rapidly deteriorating. According to a member of his household staff, he was “terrified” at the prospect of the London concerts:
He wasn’t eating, he wasn’t sleeping and when he did sleep, he had nightmares that he was going to be murdered. He was deeply worried that he was going to disappoint his fans. He even said something that made me briefly think he was suicidal. He said he was worried that he was going to end up like Elvis. He was always comparing himself to Elvis as long as I knew him, but there was something in his tone that made me think that he wanted to die, he was tired of life. He gave up. His voice and dance moves weren't there anymore. I think maybe he wanted to die rather than embarrassing himself onstage.
The most obvious comparison between the King of Pop and the King of Rock and Roll was their all-consuming prescription drug habit, which in Jackson’s case had significantly intensified in his final months and is almost certain to be a factor in his death when the autopsy results come in. “He is surrounded by enablers,” said one aide who labeled himself in this category two months before his death. “We should be stopping him before he kills himself, but we just sit by and watch him medicate himself into oblivion.”
Like his long-time idol, Elvis, Jackson could count on an array of doctors to write him prescriptions on a whim with little regard to medical necessity, though Jackson would always cite "pain" as the basis for his drug-taking, which also provided the enabling physicians an excuse not to ask too many questions. Among the many drugs for which he developed a fondness in recent years was OxyContin, often nicknamed "Hillbilly Heroin.” It had become quite fashionable among musicians and Hollywood stars for its instantaneous and powerful high. But, although members of his entourage witnessed Jackson receiving injections from doctors on a regular basis, they all insisted that the singer never used heroin itself or any other illegal drugs.
"He always had a prescription or a doctor giving him what he wanted," said a member of his staff who witnessed Jackson's long-standing addiction escalate since the Arvizo trial. "As far as I know the drugs were always legal, unfortunately."
In fact, in late 2003, shortly after he appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss the Arvizo scandal, Jackson overdosed on prescription drugs and had to be revived by a doctor who had been treating his brother, Randy. The doctor was summoned to Michael's rented Beverly Hills home in the middle of the night. After the doctor revived him, he advised that Jackson should enter a rehab clinic to treat his addiction, advice the singer ignored. On other occasions, the children's nanny, Grace Rwaramba, reportedly had to pump Jackson's stomach on a number of occasions after he took an excessive amount of drugs.
According to the aide, painkillers aren’t the only drugs that Jackson took on a regular basis. “He pops Demerol and morphine, sure, apparently going back to the time when he burned himself during the Pepsi commercial, but there’s also some kind of psychiatric medication, anti-anxiety or something like that. One of his brothers once told me that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was younger, so it may be to treat that.”
His aides apparently weren’t the only ones who recognized that the prospect of a 50-concert run was foolhardy. In May, Jackson himself reportedly addressed a group of fans as he left his Burbank rehearsal studio. “Thank you for your love and support,” he told them. “I want you guys to know I love you very much. I don't know how I'm going to do 50 shows. I'm not a big eater. I need to put some weight on. I’m really angry with them booking me up to do 50 shows. I only wanted to do 10.” One of his former employees was particularly struck by Jackson’s wording that day: “The way he was talking, it’s like he’s not in control over his own life anymore,” she told me in early June. “It sounds like somebody else is pulling his strings and telling him what to do. Someone wants him dead. They keep feeding him pills like candy. They are trying to push him over the edge. He needs serious help. The people around him will kill him.”
"It's like he was being kept away from his family," said an aide. "His family used to be the only people he could trust and I know for a fact that they were very concerned with his health, but it's like he was being kept isolated from them. I think he spoke to his mother occasionally on the phone, but his brothers were being kept at a distance. I think if they had been around and seen what Michael had been reduced to, they would have put a stop to the concerts. Maybe that's why they were being kept away." He revealed that various members of the Nation of Islam seemed to be in control of the singer's affairs and kept a very tight grip over Jackson's every move:
They were scary people, very intimidating. I'm not sure why Michael was so in thrall to the Nation. There were rumors that he had secretly converted to Islam and that he was one of them, but I never saw him praying to Mecca. His brother Jermaine was a devout Muslim, but I never saw any sign that Michael himself had converted. Yet the Nation of Islam seemed to be controlling his life. We couldn't figure it out.
The above echoes charges made by Jackson’s former close friend and publicist, Stuart Backerman, who left the singer’s employ in 2004 after the Nation first entered Jackson’s domain. “They basically took over Michael’s business and isolated everybody,” Backerman complained. As the first London concerts approached, something was clearly wrong. Jackson had vowed to travel to the UK in order to obtain a house and acclimatize himself at least eight weeks before his 50-show residency, but he kept putting it off. First, he said he was worried about Swine Flu. Then, when that abated, a new series of excuses followed. Few who knew him were buying it. "For some reason, he didn't want to leave for England," stated one aide. "The bigwigs were getting nervous that he was going to back out of the London concerts." “To be honest, I never thought Michael would set foot on a concert stage ever again,” said another aide, choking back tears on the evening of his death. “This was not only predictable, this was inevitable.”
Excerpted from "Unmasked" by Ian Halperin. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.