Is Michael Jackson Dangerous or Off the Wall?

Nobody ever said Michael Jacskson wasn't weird. Tucked away behind the gates of the California ranch he calls "Neverland," the Howard Hughes of pop rarely goes out in public. But his 2,700-acre spread, with its carousel and Ferris wheel, its petting zoo and miniature railroad, is full of enticements for this lonely man's favorite companions-children. And it's a suitably surreal environment for containing the huge contradictions in his own life: he's a 35-year-old boy who won't grow up; a once handsome young guy who's used surgery and cosmetics to make his face look pasty and bizarrely androgynous; a pop icon whose giggly, wispy offstage persona is at odds with the performer who ("Aow! Ooh! Tee-hee-hee") grabs his crotch and sings, Give it when I want it/'Cause I'm on fire/quench my desire. Only his close pal Elizabeth Taylor doesn't think Michael is way out there. "He is the least weird man I've ever known," she told Oprah.

Until last week the eccentricities of the global superstar sounded pretty harmless. Then word leaked out that the Los Angeles Police Department was investigating allegations that Jackson had sexually abused a 13-year-old boy. Whether or not charges will be brought—and the evidence by the end of the week was not conclusive—this is the kind of accusation that leaves a nasty stain, no matter what, and could bring down the biggest pop star in America since Elvis. And, even more than Elvis, Michael's electrifying persona moonwalking across concert stages and dancing through music videos-has made him huge export, famous all over the world, music's Schwarzenegger. "Thriller," with 40 million copies sold, is the biggest-selling record of all time, but even his current release "Dangerous," considered disappointing, has sold 20 million copies. When the scandal broke out last week, Michael was reported to be in negotiations with Sony, his record label, to improve his $65 million megadeal. The incident could seriously hurt that relationship, and is even more likely to damage his multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with such sponsors as Pepsi (box).

For Michael, whose worldwide fans include legions of young children, the allegations also mean an end to innocence. We watched him grow up, an amazing little man-child, strutting across the stage, singing "I Want You Back," with his big brothers in the Jackson Five backing him up. When he went solo, we bought 11 million copies of "Off the Wall," then "Thriller" made him the biggest pop star in history. When Oprah Winfrey interviewed him, 62 million viewers made it the highest-rated TV show in six years. Until now he seemed almost scandal-proof, a fragile pop dweeb who once likened himself to "a hemophiliac who can't afford to be scratched in any way." He lived with his mom until he was 29. Raised a Jehovah's Witness, he never had a reputation for drinking or taking drugs, and his only public "romance" was with Brooke Shields, another former child star who wears her chasteness like a badge. When Oprah asked if he was a virgin, he replied, "I'm a gentleman." When news of the police probe broke, Jackson had just opened the Bangkok leg of his "Dangerous" tour. "I'm confident the...investigation...will demonstrate that there was no wrongdoing on my part," Michael said in a statement: then he canceled that night's concert, claiming illness.

Young defenders: The first friends to rush to Jackson's defense were all too young to vote—and they cast a bright light into intensely private corners of his life. Two boys who said they were his friends claimed the accusations couldn't be true because each had shared his bed without being molested. When Los Angeles Police searched the Neverland ranch for evidence, Brett Barnes, 11, was staying there with his family. "[Michael] is like a best friend," Brett said, "except he's big." Brett told reporters he'd slept with Michael, but said, "He slept on one side and I slept on the other. It was a big bed." Wade Robson, 10, said that he spent the night with the pop star, but they were dressed in pajamas and "just went to sleep." Sometimes there were other kids in bed, too, like a "slumber party" A slumber party of children with a grown-up man may not be criminal but it sure is creepy.

Jackson's friendships with young children were already legendary. Michael used to carry TV's Emmanuel Lewis with him everywhere to award shows, on "dates" with Brooke Shields. More recently, Macaulay Culkin seemed to be his best buddy: "Macaulay spends all his vacations" at Neverland, Michael told Life magazine. (Culkin reportedly was interviewed last week by police but denied that Michael had ever behaved inappropriately.) Other kids have joined Michael on trips to Disney World or Europe. "I love being around [kids]," Jackson wrote in his 1988 memoir, "Moonwalk." "They aren't jaded. They get excited by things we've forgotten to get excited about anymore." The boy who accused Jackson of sexual abuse was treated to $1,500 worth of toys in one day. He was also Michael's guest, along with his mother and half sister, on a trip to the World Music Awards in Monaco last June; on another trip to Las Vegas, he and Michael holed up in the hotel, watching "The Exorcist" in bed. According to a report filed with the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services, what began as innocent sleep-overs in pajamas led to baths together and eventually fondling and oral sex. "One time he was kissing me and put his tongue in my mouth, and I said, don't do that," said the boy in the report, according to the Los Angeles Times. "[Michael] started crying."

But was Michael the victimizer or the victim? Longtime family acquaintance Joyce McRae-Moore protested, "His vocal projection comes across as frail, fragile, almost feminine. You don't exactly hear testosterone. But that doesn't qualify him for the pedophile Hall of Fame." The Jackson camp jumped into action. Hotshot lawyer Howard Weitzman, hired by Jackson just a week ago, led the offensive: at a press conference at his office, private detective Anthony Pellicano charged that it was all a $20 million extortion plot. Weitzman talked to reporters about another underlying story: the boy was the object of a bitter custody battle. He is the son of a prominent Beverly Hills dentist and screenwriter who co-wrote the current Mel Brooks spoof, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" (based, said Brooks, on the son's idea). The youth told his dad about the alleged Jackson actions; the father, in court papers, reportedly demanded his ex-wife bar the star from contact with their son. "I have the sense that because Michael was the focus of a lot of the young boy's attention," says Weitzman, spinning a scenario of a jealous absent father, "that there was a tremendous amount of emotion by the father, who attempted to end the relationship."

Meanwhile, the boy's mom, now married to the Rent-A-Wreck car-rental tycoon, won a judgment ordering the father to pay $68,800 in back child support and interest last week. She hadn't suspected any abuse, her lawyer told NEWSWEEK. But her exhusband took the kid to a shrink, who reported the alleged incidents to the child-services department, as required by law. According to Weitzman, the father had tried to set up a $20 million movie-production deal with Jackson and an extortion attempt was made. (The father would not comment to NEWSWEEK; the only interview he granted last week was to The National Enquirer.)

How was the reclusive star taking the pressure? In Bangkok, Michael canceled a second concert; his doctor said he was acutely dehydrated. An employee at the luxurious Oriental Hotel said Michael was holed up in his suite, practicing and "playing computer games and hide-and-seek with some of his staff." When he did go onstage for his last Bangkok concert, the sold-out crowd of 70,000 were clearly on his side, chanting "Michael, Michael," and raising banners that said WE LOVE You. He never mentioned the scandal from the stage, but the Thai fans knew about it—and most didn't seem to think it was true. "I don't believe any of the things people are saying about him," said Dharini Divari, 27, a marketing manager, who'd skipped work for three days, waiting to see his show. "I might go back to work and find I've been fired, but I don't care."

On Saturday, the day before his 35th birthday, Jackson flew to Singapore, the next stop on the tour. Dressed in sweat suits hers, pink; his, white—Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky boarded a plane in L.A. to join him. They'd been married under a gazebo at Neverland almost two years ago; Jackson had given the bride away. "This is the worst thing that could happen to a man like Michael, who loves children," Taylor told NEWSWEEK on the flight to Singapore. "He'd rather cut his own wrist than harm a child." The actress, who was carrying "a bunch of messages" for him from friends, said she'd talked to him. "Of course, he was upset, but he's holding his own. He knows he'll be vindicated."

One irony of this sad and troubling story, whatever the truth turns out to be, is that the intensely shy Michael Jackson had just begun to creep out of his media-proof shell. Vindicated or not, he'll surely crawl back in. In the last year, be performed briefly at half time during the Super Bowl, then gave Oprah Winfrey the 90-minute live inter-view at his ranch in February, his first television interview in 14 years. At the Grammy Awards two weeks later, he hugged his sister Janet ("Me and Janet really are two different people," he joked) and spoke for six minutes. "Because I don't read all of the things written about me, I wasn't aware that the world thought I was so weird and bizarre," he said. "But when you grow up as 1 did in front of 100 million people, as I did from age 5, you're automatically different."

He talked about why he loves kids. "I realize that many of our world's problems today, from inner-city crime to large-scale war and terrorism...are a result of the fact that children have had their childhoods stolen from them. The magic, the wonder, the mystery and the innocence of a child's heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world."

If these glimpses of Michael's private life and thoughts were a public-relations gesture meant to make him seem less strange-while boosting the sagging sales of his album "Dangerous"-they didn't exactly work. What we saw on "Oprah," and again in June, when Michael let Life magazine roam Neverland with a camera, was a grown-up man wearing red lipstick and Cleopatra eyeliner who'd created a fantasy land, with free candy stands, trees sprinkled with fairy lights and flowerbeds that sang pop songs from speakers disguised as rocks. His menagerie was fully stocked and included miniature animals, like a tiny stallion and pig. But despite the weekend visits from Macaulay Culkin and all the kids he entertains at Neverland—including groups of terminally ill children whom he regularly invites for a day of playing and watching movies in his private theater—Michael is very much home alone. So alone, he admitted in Life, that when there's no one there in the evenings, he goes over to his amusement park and goes on ride after ride all by himself.

Old soul: Smokey Robinson once said Michael was "an old soul in a little body." He was the wonder kid with the lost childhood, who started singing for his supper at the age of 5, who has told of wistfully watching kids playing in a park across from the recording studio where he spent so many boyhood afternoons. As a child star, he told Oprah, "you don't get to do the things that other children...take for granted: having friends, slumber parties and just hanging out."

Now that he's an adult worth more than $150 million, who can do whatever he wants with his life, it's no surprise he craves the childhood he never had. But psychologically, it may be more complicated than that. Michael has claimed his father beat him and scared him until he was sick. And the unauthorized 1991 biography "Michael Jackson: The Magic and The Madness," by J. Randy Taraborrelli, gives accounts of an early childhood often spent away from his adored mom, on the road with his older brothers and his allegedly abusive dad, performing first in crummy burlesque clubs and, after fame hit, working nonstop-rehearsing, recording or performing.

The roots of his loneliness are so clear in his childhood that we feel enormous sympathy for Michael. We've understood why he's enchanted with children, maybe even assumed he's emotionally more like the kids he hangs out with than like the grown-ups he cuts deals with. It's as if America entered into a tacit agreement of trust with Jackson as his star rose higher and higher. We know he's a fantastically talented entertainer onstage—and we know it's theater. When he grabs his crotch, when he sings of seduction, of desire—all the staples of pop music—we know it's make-believe. Michael gets away with what Madonna can't. As elusive and enigmatic as he is, people have felt certain they could trust him—his music, his videos, his image—with their kids.

As he prepared to celebrate his birthday, TV cameras caught Michael, looking dazed in a red shirt and black hat, waving to fans from the window of Singapore's elegant, colonial Raffles Hotel. If his tour continues as planned, he'll be on the road until nearly Christmas, crisscrossing the globe from Japan to Moscow, the Canary Islands to South America, India to Australia, a long way from where this nightmare started.

Back in California at the end of last week, the police, in their sweep of Jackson's ranch and Los Angeles condo, had found no physical evidence to support the claims of child abuse, but they were continuing the investigation. If the allegations prove true, that trust between the public and the superstar will be shattered. And if the accusations are proven untrue? An illusion has nevertheless been shaken. It's hard to be Peter Pan if, even for an instant, everyone has realized you are just a man.