Jackson Fans

The Observer, Apr 2005

As the Jackson case unfolds, the star’s most devoted fans wait outside and maintain his innocence. In Santa Maria, California, Sanjiv Bhattacharya discovers just what sustains such blind faith.

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On the afternoon of Sunday 30 January, outside a courthouse in Santa Maria, California, Suzi and Sheree are shouting at passing cars. This is how the circus starts – with the first two of hundreds, perhaps thousands of demonstrators who will visit here over the next six months. They are here because, as Sheree says: ‘This is serious. It’s going to affect how the world sees America.’ And she’s not talking about the Iraqi elections which begin today. She means the Michael Jackson trial which starts tomorrow. ‘The world’s gonna see what American justice is all about. They gonna see what we mean by innocent till proven guilty.’

A car drives by and both jerk their banners in the air. ‘INNO-CENT!!’

The keenest of Jackson’s famously loyal fans, both Suzi Mumpheld, 23, and Sheree Wilkins, 34, have sacrificed a lot to be here. Last week, they both left their jobs – in teaching and childcare respectively – and gave up their apartments in Los Angeles, to share a motel room in Santa Maria, about three hours’ drive away, for $1,100 a month. They seem exhilarated by the experience. Evidently they see Jackson as a martyr. Suzi’s placard reads ‘Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dr Martin Luther King gave us freedom and equality. Michael Jackson… we’re going to fight for your life.’

And fight they will. ‘For the next six months or as long as it takes,’ says Sheree. ‘We’ll be here until Michael is free.’

Suddenly Suzi has an idea. ‘Come on, Sheree, let’s get this thing started.’ And she holds up her poster and starts singing the lyrics she wrote on the back. ‘Don’t blame it on the Jack-sons, don’t blame it on their good times, don’t blame it on their lovin’… blame it on your lying!’ After barely a verse, a Brazilian news crew scuttles over, a gaggle of photographers in tow. Suzi throws a pose, a German photographer says ‘that’s great, that’s great’ and the snapping begins.

Suzi and Sheree are precisely the type of Jackson fan we have come to expect – the all-singing, all-dancing kind, all perfectly willing to spend days on the streets waiting for the shake of a hotel curtain.

Not all followers are so circus-friendly. When I approached the fans through www.MJJForum.com I expected an exuberant deluge of devotees, blind with Michael-love. Instead, I found a tetchy and paranoid community with wagons circled and guard raised, discussing whether it’s respectful to dress like Michael at such a grave time and grumbling about how the media only focuses on fans who fit the stereotype. ‘Why should we trust you?’ asked one. ‘I know Michael teaches that we should not be prejudiced but the fans have been lied to for 10 years. You always call us wackos.’

It’s a fair point. The fans have long been an easy target, much like Jackson. And like him, they are a phenomenon. How many fans of other artists can say they have visited their idol’s house, ridden on his carousel and petted his llama?

After weeks of pleading, the first fans came forward, defensive and exasperated and determined to clear up misconceptions. First of all: ‘we’re not stupid’. Time and again I was told ‘we have doctors and lawyers’. And they probably do. Over several weeks, I met a mortgage adviser, a cancer research scientist and a legal secretary, and they were all well-informed about the case. They referred me to an essay about paedophilia hysteria, the percentage of false abuse allegations and Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon’s record as a prosecutor.

‘If you want to say Michael is guilty, you better have your facts ready,’ warned Patricia Brown, the president of the MJJForum. ‘Because our members will argue with you, and they’ve done their research.’

Despite her combative words, Brown, 31, is sweetly spoken and impeccably polite. She runs a promotion company in Carson, Nevada, and operates the website on the side, with 30 volunteer staff worldwide, at no small personal expense. Founded in 2001, the MJJForum had mustered only 300 members by January 2003, but as Jackson’s troubles deepened, the membership grew. Martin Bashir’s documentary aired a month later, the Neverland ranch was raided in November and charges were filed in December. Membership is at 7,000 and Brown says she’s getting up to 100 new members per day.

She describes it as ‘a sanctuary for fans who have had it so hard over the years’. And few have had it harder than Brown herself. ‘Goodness gracious, I’ve gotten so much hate! We’ve had our site hacked three times. I’ve had to change my phone number four or five times. People have spread rumours that I have a sexually transmitted disease. I got death threats. One email said: “We’re going to hang him and you’re going to hang with him.” That scares me. I don’t know these people.’ (Brown refused to be photographed for this article.)

Though the site has not sheltered Brown herself from ‘the haters’, as fans call them, it is nevertheless a haven of sorts, a place run according to principles taught by Jackson – like being unprejudiced (listen to ‘Black and White’), brotherhood (‘We are the world’, he sang) and making a change for the better (‘Man In The Mirror’).

And this is the second misconception the fans want to remedy: they adore Jackson more for his message than his music, more for what he’s like as a person than for discovering how to walk forwards and backwards at the same time. There are those who believe his words of gentle wisdome are to be quoted often and at length. For many at the courthouse gates, he’s nothing short of an angel of innocence and charity in an otherwise cynical world.

‘This trial is like the crucifixion of Christ,’ says Krissie Petrovay, a 31-year-old actress from Pasadena. She’s here outside the courthouse with her sister and brother-in-law – all normally dressed and cheerful, holding up a professionally printed banner which reads ‘leave him alone’, after her own website www.leavehimalone.com, which she set up after the Martin Bashir documentary. Her expression suggests that she knows how crazy she sounds, but she means every word. ‘I’ve been to Neverland, I’ve met Michael, so I know this case is wrong. When someone is as special as he is, normal people can’t handle it and they want to bring him down to their level.’

Even those who balk at jumping from Jackson to Jesus without a safety net see him in pseudo-religious terms. ‘He represents goodness,’ says Faisal Malik, a 30-year-old scientist from Los Angeles. Malik, who calls himself Faze, searches for a cure for cancer by day, and by night likes to meet fellow fans to distribute leaflets in malls. He too dresses inconspicuously – jeans and sweat shirt – and is a veteran of Neverland, having been there six times. He doesn’t reveal much about his trips there; all Neverland visitors have to sign confidentiality agreements. But they confirmed for him Jackson’s innocence.

‘If you’ve seen Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp, that’s what Michael’s like – he finds the goodness in children and he’s able to pass that on. No other major artist does songs like ‘Heal the World’ and ‘Man in the Mirror’. No one else opens up their home to disadvantaged and sick kids.’

The fans are similarly filled with a spirit of do-goodery. ‘Most clubs give time and money to helping the less fortunate,’ says Deborah Donnelly, the president of www.mjfanclub.net. At 49, Donnelly has been a fan for almost as long as Moses was in the wilderness. ‘Recently, one of our team gave up a highly paid job with the German government to become an SOS mother in Austria. It was because of Michael that she realised healing the world is more important than money.’

In many ways, Jackson fans resemble a Christian group – they rarely drink or swear, their anger is often tempered with forgiveness, and they are seldom lewd. When I ask the female fans if they think Jackson’s ‘hot’, they mostly blush and talk about ‘inner beauty’. While at times their tone can be as cloying as a Hallmark card, the sentiment is sincere – fans are genuinely supportive of each other. Their message boards teem with offers to share rides or motel rooms, or to show foreign visitors around Hollywood. ‘I’ve seen fans help each other financially, or through difficult periods in their home life,’ says Donnelly. ‘I’ve seen foreign fans help American fans learn a language for school.’

As the sun sets, about 100 fans mill about the front gates, most of them white women in their twenties and thirties bearing flags and banners from Spain, Belgium, Norway and Poland. They seem restless. There is supposed to be a march and a ‘Vigil of Faith’ starting soon, but no one knows when or who’s in charge.

Eventually, it falls to the loudest of the group – Suzi and Sheree – to lead the troops down an empty suburban side street. But the fans are hesitant and quiet. To pep things up, the Norwegian contingent tries to start a chant of ‘Fuck the press, Michael is the best’ but some are uncomfortable with the F-word, so it changes to ‘Heck with the Press’ which doesn’t scan properly and it quickly peters out.

By the time we return to the courthouse, it is dark and cold and all talk of a vigil has been forgotten. The fans look ill-equipped for such a chilly evening. Only a few have coats or sleeping bags. Those who brought gloves brought only one. So the faithful quickly disperse in search of McMeals and motels, leaving only the hardcore huddling by the courthouse gates.

‘You have to stay the night,’ insists Lidi Gyampol, 25, a ‘nail technician’ from Canterbury, Kent. ‘Because otherwise you’ll never get a good spot.’ She’s wearing a luminous yellow worker’s jacket – picked so that Jackson will notice her – with a picture of Dancing Michael drawn on with a marker. ‘I feel bad because I left my three kids with my grandma back home, and the youngest one’s only six months. But I had to – the thought of never seeing Michael again if he went to jail… I would regret it for the rest of my life.’

One skinny Jackson impersonator seems unsure whether to stay or leave. In his shades and fedora, he paces to and fro, looking worried, his teeth chattering. ‘Have you seen Faze? He’s the guy I’m supposed to be staying with. I don’t have any money, so I really need to find him.’ Sean Vezina, 22, moved to Los Angeles last summer to sleep on a friend’s couch and try to earn a living impersonating Jackson on his Walk of Fame star on Hollywood Boulevard. ‘On a good week I make about $200 posing for pictures, but it’s tough because people call me a paedophile and pervert. I’ve heard it all. And when the weather’s bad, I make nothing. It rained last weekend, so basically I’m broke now. And I’m hungry. And cold.’ A gust of wind blows his hat and wig off and sends them tumbling down the street. Vezina runs to retrieve them and returns, dusting them off, apparently on the verge of tears.

‘I do a lot to survive,’ he says, his voice breaking. ‘A lot. It’s just a long sad story. I don’t want to get into it.’

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Sad stories abound among the Jackson fanbase. He has a reliable constituency of the damaged, the alone, the victimised and the sick or disabled. The latter relate to his skin disease, vitiligo, and the lonely to his shyness. The persecuted, bullied and misunderstood see a kindred spirit. But of all Jackson’s misfortunes, it is his lost childhood that most resonates with the fans.

‘A lot of us have had painful upbringings or been abused,’ says Malik. ‘I was beaten by my father. I haven’t talked to him in two years.’ Suzi Mumpheld says she was raped by her step-brother. ‘And I was getting beat every day. I still got the bruises.’

As a result, Suzi chose, as several other fans have done in their careers, to work with children. She has taught dance, taught at a nursery and worked for a spell at Disneyland, a favourite haunt for Jackson fans. (She was Pluto – Michael’s favourite character after Mickey Mouse.) ‘Everybody experiences pain and that’s what Michael’s all about,’ says Suzi. ‘The question is: what do you do with that pain? Some people become abusers themselves. But Michael took that pain and said, “I’m going to make sure people can have a happy childhood.”‘

It is Jackson’s attachment to childhood, his Peter Pan appeal, that exerts the strongest hold on fans, even beyond his good works and music. His greatest connection with them is this shared experience of remaining emotionally mired in one’s pre-teens. Fandom suits the immature mind. To fixate or strongly identify with famous entertainers is more common among the young whose own identities are not yet fully developed. So Jackson’s appeal for the fan is compounded – he is not only an entertainer, a messenger of truths and an icon of charity, he is also a fellow child.

It’s odd that the fans should identify with a man so unusual as to be almost otherworldly. ‘No one in the world knows what it’s like to walk in his shoes,’ says Krissie Petrovay. ‘No one has had a life like he has.’ And yet fans claim an almost personal knowledge of this unknowable man. Deborah Donnelly says she knows Michael ‘on another level. I can see him on TV and almost know what he’s going to say next’.

Jackson’s freakish appearance or bizarre behaviour are no obstacle to devotion – quite the opposite. For true fans, his weirdness only highlights their moral superiority. While the outside world is obsessed with skin-deep superficialities, the fans can see past that, just as they can see through the biased media coverage. Still, it’s a sensitive subject. Only when I questioned the wisdom of his surgery or his lies about the extent of it were voices raised in anger. Donnelly snapped: ‘If you judge someone by their appearance, then you’re no better than a racist.’ Only Dieter, a 22-year-old hotel receptionist, had the courage to say: ‘He looks amazing. Much better than when he was young and had a big wide nose.’ Dieter is from Belgium.

8am on day one of jury selection and the frenzy has begun. Cameramen prowl, fans jostle and chant, opportunists bask in the publicity. A woman wanders among the reporters, singing and handing out lyric sheets to a song she wrote for Jackson – ‘Michael! Be courageous and strong!’ And as the hour nears for Jackson’s arrival, a fracas breaks out between the fans and the author of a children’s book called Those are my Private Parts.

‘I’m here for the victims. Children should know that they can say no to child abuse,’ she screams. ‘But Michael didn’t abuse anybody!’ the fans scream back.

In the melee, Lidi stands out in her luminous yellow coat. She’s quaking with excitement. ‘I hardly got any sleep,’ she says, breathless. ‘The police wouldn’t let you lie down! But I don’t care. What’s the time?’ Sean, the impersonator, stands only a few feet away, besieged by reporters. ‘I feel his presence very strongly,’ he tells them. ‘I can feel he’s near.’

A car pulls in and there is a mad scrum at the gates. Fans and reporters scramble to catch sight of Jackson. Photographers are toppled off step ladders, there is shrieking and yelling from both men and women. Then it is over. Some fans are crying and calling their friends, trying to dodge the cameras as they go. Others look confused. ‘Did you see him?’ they ask. ‘I saw his elbow, I think. Or his shoulder.’

Faisal Malik seems fortified by the experience. ‘These things mean a lot to us,’ he says, beaming. ‘A little wave can make us feel great. I know Michael is very strong and this case has no merit. I have several friends who were at Neverland when this family say they were kidnapped, and they saw Michael with the family – everyone was happy, no one was held against their will… They’re going to testify in this case. You watch, a lot of things are going to come out.’

Suzi Mumpheld emerges from the throng, ebullient and optimistic. Both she and Sheree woke at 4am to walk to the courthouse and get in position for Jackson’s arrival. They will do this every day until the trial is over. And on occasion they will be selected for the public seats in the courtroom itself. ‘I’m not worried at all,’ Suzi says. ‘I’m happy that this has started. Because y’all are gonna see that he is INNO-CENT! The prosecution case makes no sense.’

A few weeks later jury selection is over and the daily routine of the trial gets under way, beginning every morning at 6am, when a lottery is held to allocate the courtroom seats that are set aside for the public. After an early surge, the fan showing quickly reduces to a trickle. Most international visitors return briefly to their jobs and families, plotting like Lidi from Canterbury to return for a later rally in April or May. So for the time being, most of the public seats are taken by hardcore supporters like Diana Enola, a 19-year-old student who drives through the night – leaving LA at 3am – armed with notebook and pen, so that if she is selected, she can annotate the court proceedings and post them up on fan sites. ‘We don’t trust what we hear on the news,’ says Enola. ‘We would sooner hear it from a fan.’

As for Suzi and Sheree, they have already been lucky- their 4am wake-up call is paying off. Both have been inside the court, radiating moral support. ‘It was just magical, to be there with Michael,’ says Suzi, standing outside the courthouse as ever. ‘He looked at me and I know he felt the love. He knows we’re here for him.’ Sheree is more analytical. ‘It’s going great for Michael right now,’ she says. ‘Martin Bashir might be held in contempt. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ruled a mistrial.’

And they start up their chorus. ‘Don’t blame it on the Jack-sons! Don’t blame it on their good times!…’ And this time an impersonator joins in. Then a gothic-looking kid and a Scottish grandmother holding a green cuddly toy ‘to give to Michael’. It’s a fittingly weird coalition for a weird star. And I think: what if they’re right?