Transatlantic Hide-And-Seek

THE DAILY MIRROR CALLED ITS CONTEST "spot the Jacko." Last Wednesday the London tabloid printed a map of the world and offered its readers "a dream holiday" in Disney World if they could mark the spot where Michael Jackson would turn up next. The singer was last seen on Nov. 12 in Mexico City, where he canceled the rest of his world tour and forfeited his lucrative deal with Pepsi. He said he was seeking treatment for an addiction to prescription painkillers. Then he boarded Elizabeth Taylor's chartered plane and vanished. What followed was a surreal game of hide-and-seek--a game that may soon be over.

On Friday the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office stepped up its criminal investigation of Jackson, whom a 13-year-old boy has accused of sexual abuse, though charges have not been brought. Of all the spectacular rumors that circulated last week, one appears to be true: that the boy has described the singer's genitals and that the L.A. district attorney could call the superstar in for a physical exam. The tabloid theory du jour is that Jackson's penis is affected by vitiligo, the pigmentation disorder he says is the reason he wears makeup. There has been speculation that he is trying to get rid of the incriminating evidence. "I'm hearing all kinds of crap," says the singer's controversial security wiz, Anthony Pellicano. "I've even heard that he's having plastic surgery [on] his penis." Maybe the L.A. police heard the same thing. Pellicano confirms that last Friday, police raided the offices of two of Jackson's doctors, one of them Dr. Arnold Klein, a Beverly Hills dermatologist. The police are said to have confiscated office records, but it is not yet known what they contained.

Since the sex-abuse allegations became public in August, Jackson has canceled several concert dates, which his lawyers have attributed to everything but the accusations at hand: dehydration, migraines, back spasms, toothaches. But when the tour was finally pronounced dead two weeks ago, Jackson said, via audiotape, "I was humiliated, embarrassed, hurt and suffering great pain in my heart...I became increasingly more dependent on the painkillers to get me through the days of my tour." His spokesmen refuse to reveal his whereabouts. "Somewhere on this earth?" a reporter ventured during a press conference last week. To which one Jackson lawyer, Bertram Fields, responded, "I do not concede that."

The singer's spokesmen say they're merely protecting him from the press. "It's f---ing ridiculous," says Pellicano. "It's like a feeding frenzy." But Larry Feldman, the boy's lawyer, says Jackson's attorneys are "making him look like a criminal." And the singer has certainly been hunted like one. There were reports that be landed in Geneva on the 13th and was spirited away to Gstaad, where Liz Taylor has owned a chalet for 35 years. An airport spokesman quickly quashed the story. Two days later the tourist office in a French ski resort called Avoriaz sent out a communique saying that Jackson was staying at a local hotel, Les Dromonts. Hordes of journalists trekked there in the midst of a snow flurry--and found it closed. Veronique Froment, the tourism official who published the rumor, says, "It was, perhaps, a blunder."

Last Friday, during the dedication of an AIDS center in Washington, D.C., Taylor finally spoke up: "I traveled to Mexico City, where I saw for myself that Michael was in desperate need of specialized medical attention." Taylor added that he was undergoing treatment somewhere in Europe. One insistent rumor places Jackson at the Charter Nightingale Hospital, a clinic in a Victorian building in London. The singer and five bodyguards are supposedly occupying the entire fourth floor of the hospital at a cost of _GCP_35,000 a week. He is reportedly being weaned off Ativan, Valium and dihydrocodeine by Elton John's former therapist, Beauchamp Colclough. London tabloids say that, at one point, Jackson gave his keepers the slip and was later found wandering around the third floor in a daze. The hospital, which has reportedly treated celebrities in the past, refuses to comment.

If the painkiller defense is a ruse--as Feldman. the boy's lawyer, thinks it is--it has been an exceedingly costly one. When Jackson brought his tour to a halt, he ended his decade-long association with Pepsi. The record-breaking endorsement deal has reportedly earned Jackson $26 million; it has also helped Pepsi pick up an extra $500 million in annual sales. Pepsi spokesman Gary Hemphill denies that the company was alarmed by the sex-abuse allegations and says it had no post-tour projects in the works. "We totally honored our contract," he says. "If our relationship is over right now, it's because he canceled the remainder of his tour. We couldn't promote a tour that didn't exist." But Pepsi has previously dropped controversy-stricken celebs Madonna and Mike Tyson. Says David Burns, of Burns Sports Celebrity Service, "When a celebrity under contract has negative publicity, [a corporation] immediately makes plans to pull out. They announce that, 'Absolutely, we're behind Blab Blab 100 percent.' But believe me, backstage, they're scurrying around, running for their lives."

Sony Music Entertainment, which had signed a massive multimedia deal with Jackson in 1991, appears to be sitting out the storm, content to issue statements of "unwavering and unconditional" support. (Sources at the company say the singer took home $40 million for 1991's "Dangerous," and that his next release is to be a greatest hits collection.) That may well be the sanest course just now, though rumors continue to ricochet--rumors, even, that Jackson is suicidal. The singer's career as a pitchman is almost certainly over. His recording career is another matter; he has an extraordinary fan base overseas, where scandals are more easily forgiven and forgotten.

Fatalists will point out that Jackson's album sales aren't what they once were anyway. "Thriller" (1982) sold 40 million copies, while "Dangerous" sold just 20 million. But selling 20 million records is an extraordinary achievement by any standard. What's more, "Dangerous" was released into a far more competitive music world. It was a world thick with superstars, a world obsessed with colossal tours, image making and big-budget videos. It was a world that Michael Jackson all but invented. Will the King of Pop ever sell 40 million records again? That seems like one of the least pressing questions to await the singer. Feldman says he's "highly suspicious" that Jackson will come out of hiding. But Howard Weitzman, another of the star's attorneys, believes Jackson will return to the United States before the end of the year. It remains unclear what he will return to.