Even Michael Jackson knew the masks and veils would have to come off one day.
After a lifetime of hiding from the media glare at the insistence of their impossibly famous father, Jackson's children are front and center. Though their inevitable debut came a way no one could have predicted, those close to Jackson and the family say his three kids may be better prepared for the onslaught of attention than anyone could expect.
"They are going to grow up in the limelight," said Al Malnik, a former Jackson financial adviser and friend, "but I think because (of the) way that Michael has brought them up they have the capacity to deal with it."
They are also — for now at least — being cared for by Katherine Jackson, who has raised a whole family in the public eye.
"If anyone knew how to deal with the scrutiny and the whole culture of paparazzi, it was the Jacksons," said Rev. Al Sharpton, a confidant of the Jackson family. "It is not new to them."
The lives of Michael Jackson's children never qualified as normal. They had no mother, wore masks to conceal their faces and traveled the world while being raised by one of the planet's most famous figures.
But by all accounts from those who have watched and been close to the children, Prince Michael, 12, Paris-Michael Katherine, 11, and Blanket (Prince Michael II), 7, are not only normal, but model children: unaffected by fame, sweet, polite and very smart.
"Those kids are exceptionally bright. They really have the capacity and understanding," said Malnik of Jackson's kids, who were home-schooled.
Whether they will retain those qualities following the death of their father, a potential custody fight and the enormous media scrutiny that they have been placed remains to be seen. Already, they have been on the covers of magazines and tabloids, their images endlessly replayed on television — ABC this week devoted an entire hour in prime-time to an expose on their lives.
"Michael just having passed away, it's difficult enough to deal with privately, much less publicly and making statements about it," said Malnik.
But Sharpton says that Katherine Jackson, 79, and the rest of the Jackson clan are working hard to provide some semblance of normalcy as they grieve.
"The kids are at the compound," said Sharpton of the Jacksons' Encino, Calif., home. "The days that I was there, they would play with their cousins and were very familiar with them and their aunts and uncles. ... That's the only family they knew."
Unity displayed at memorial
Katherine Jackson, who Michael named as his choice of caretaker in case of his death, was named by a judge as the temporary guardian of Jackson's children, and they have been with her and the entire Jackson clan ever since his June 25 death. Their longtime nanny, Grace Rwaramba, has also been with the children, according to a source close to the family who is not authorized to speak for the family and requested anonymity.
While the Jackson family has long been perceived as dysfunctional — their battles have played out famously on the public stage — what struck many people at Jackson's memorial service on Tuesday was their display of unity.
Paris-Michael clutched grandmother Katherine during the service, while Prince Michael held onto his Aunt Janet as his sister made her tear-jerking testament of love about her father. Blanket hid behind a phalanx of Jacksons siblings onstage, and when Michael's brother Marlon broke down while addressing the Staples Center crowd, the entire Jackson family, including the children, embraced in one powerful group hug.
"The family is much closer than one wanted to perceive," said Sharpton, who acknowledged that Paris' speech was spontaneous. "People far overestimate and embellish any perceived differences in that family."
Custody battle?The public images of a Jackson family united in grief may help Katherine Jackson as she heads into Monday custodial hearing involving Mrs. Jackson and the biological mother of Jackson's two oldest children, Deborah Rowe. Rowe, who was previously married to Jackson, has not had a relationship with Prince or Paris-Michael, but since Jackson's death has expressed interest in raising not only her two biological children, but Blanket as well, to whom she has no relation (the mother of Blanket, born to a surrogate, has never been revealed).
It is unclear if a custody battle will develop. Rowe's attorney said she has not decided if she plans to seek custody, and people close to interactions with both camps, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said both sides have been gracious and cordial, not contentious.
Sharpton said the Jacksons haven't been anticipating a battle, but when asked about the best interests of the kids, said: "They ought to be around the people they are most familiar with. This is not the beginning of their relationship (with the Jacksons)."
Still, some have expressed concern that the Jackson's kids may suffer by being placed with their extended family. Michael's father Joe has been roundly criticized for promoting a record label on television in the days after his death, and Michael had long described him as physically and emotionally abusive. Katherine's age has led to questions about her ability to look after adolescent children.
Dr. Arnold Klein, Jackson's longtime dermatologist and friend, told "Larry King Live" on Wednesday night he feared that the performing family might turn Jacksons' kids into "The Jackson 3, their intelligence dancing away — because these children are bright."
But Sharpton dismissed the idea that the Jacksons would seek to exploit the children or take them on a path other than the one Michael Jackson had intended for them.
"For the life of me I don't now why people would assume based on no evidence at all why the Jacksons wouldn't have their own grandchildren and niece and nephews at heart," he said. "It is the most ridiculous notion I've heard."