What the Future Holds for Michael Jackson's Kids

As a messy battle for custody of Michael Jackson's kids is beginning to look inevitable, it seems likely we'll follow the proceedings with even more scrutiny than might have been expected. To most of us, until last week Jackson's children were more of a concept than actual individuals—glimpsed from time to time, but largely unfixed in our collective imagination. Then Paris, Jackson's 11-year-old daughter, brought down the house at her father's memorial service, and everything changed. If there's one image that stands out, it's of Paris, demure in a black dress with white trim, telling an audience of millions how much she loved her father. As pure theater, her tribute rivals the brilliance of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s salute of his father's coffin. The audience may have gathered to mourn the death of a star that day, but by the end of the memorial a new star had been born.

Sure, some cynics said the appearance was stage-managed by the Jackson family, that the whole display reeked of the sort of child exploitation that led Michael to his grave. And reports that the Jackson family patriarch, Joe, is contemplating a "Jackson Three" tour featuring Paris and her brothers, Blanket, 7, and Prince, 12, in 2010 are certainly disturbing, considering that Michael said his own childhood as a performer was filled with sadness. Also troubling are some of the Jacksons' attempts to pimp out Paris's grief, like La Toya's revelations about Paris's reaction to the sight of her father's body—reportedly Paris said, "He is so cold. He is so cold." A&E had already commissioned a reality show starring Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon Jackson before their brother's death; if it goes forward, it seems certain the network will try to orchestrate an appearance by Paris and her brothers.

It's pointless to speculate about the degree to which Paris's testament was rehearsed or coerced. We'll never know, and it doesn't really matter. What matters is what the future holds for her and her brothers in a culture that both fetishizes the children of dead celebrities and treats them with the same ruthlessness as adults.

Consider, for example, Bindi Irwin, the now nearly 11-year-old daughter of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who was killed by a stingray in 2006. In the weeks following Irwin's death, you couldn't escape Bindi (often accompanied by her mom, Terri) on tributes to Irwin, talk shows, nature programs, etc. For many, there was something off-putting about the alacrity with which the girl assumed her father's role, and her (or her mother's) eagerness to trade on his legacy. Bindi appeared in a series of exercise DVDs, and performed an unfortunate rap about saving the planet with a creepy troupe of adult male backup dancers on the Today show. Most recently she signed on to be the spokeschild for a brand of cake mix, incurring the wrath of a nutritionist in the Australian press.

Is Bindi really excited about exercise, rapping, and baking cakes? Probably not. And even if she is, should Terri Irwin let her daughter be subjected to so much exposure and, increasingly, derision and criticism? For many parents, the answer is no—regardless of what Bindi (or Paris, or Prince, or Blanket) wants, they'd say it's a parent's job to protect kids from making bad choices.

But that's assuming the parent is not a celebrity. Terri Irwin never suffered camera-shyness, allowing her honeymoon with Steve to be filmed for their first documentary and appearing in many of his programs. Similarly, whatever happens in the custody battle for the Jackson children, they will be surrounded by people with a very different view of celebrity than most people have. Regardless of what Al Sharpton said, Michael Jackson was not "normal"—none of the Jackson children are normal, in the sense of having been allowed to grow up in unself-conscious anonymity. You could see this in the tribute, as Janet Jackson encouraged Paris to speak up; brushed her hair off her face; pushed her forward, just slightly, into the spotlight. The Jacksons have an instinctive understanding of what makes a good show, and, if the tribute is an indication, Michael's children already understand it, too.

Which doesn't mean Paris and her brothers are doomed to the sort of unhappiness Michael experienced, or will necessarily come to hate the fame that is being thrust upon them. Frances Bean Cobain, the daughter of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, seems remarkably levelheaded about her role in the public imagination. In an interview last year she said, "These people are fascinated by me, but I haven't done anything … I'm not my parents." Still, she is not exactly living a life of seclusion—she's appeared in many fashion magazines, and has become quite adept at posing for photographers when out with her mother (often appearing more put-together and self-possessed than Love).

From our brief glimpse of her at the memorial, Paris seems to have poise and maturity. Maybe she'll survive the spotlight's glare. Maybe she'll come to love it even more than her father did. And if she doesn't, let's hope at least one adult in her life can look away from the light long enough to let Paris step off the stage.