From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
The Jackson family Victory Tour—a spectacular follow-up to Michael Jackson's Thriller album—was one of the major musical events of 1984. But perhaps the biggest thrill for the family came from the news they heard on Sept. 7: While the rest of the clan was on the road, sister Janet Jackson, then 18, had eloped with singer James DeBarge. The brothers were shocked; so were their parents, Katherine and Joe. But no one was more shocked, or alarmed, than A&M record executive John McClain, who feared the marriage would torpedo Janet's fledgling career. "I tried to convince her that she's a teen idol and people just wouldn't accept it," says McClain, who, after eight months of hounding, persuaded her to annul the pact. Asked how he justifies his actions, McClain responds, "Hey—I'm trying to make her a star!"

Although some may question McClain's methods, there is no question that he has succeeded. Janet Jackson's third album, Control, has jumped to No. 1 on Billboard's charts and spawned two Top 10 singles, What Have You Done For Me Lately? and Nasty. The LP, laced with funk and a few low moans, represents a stylistic departure for Janet, whose first two albums, both coolly received, were co-produced by the Jackson family machine and aimed at the bubble gum set. For the aptly titled Control, McClain put Janet on a diet, sent her to voice and dance coaches for three months and shipped her to Minneapolis to record under the tutelage of Prince protégés Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. "Joe Jackson said fine, but if it didn't work he would backhand me," says McClain. Says Janet of her new, tartier image, "I'm not saying I don't want to be a part of the Jackson family, because, of course, that's my name. But I wanted this record to be my own."

How she feels about the annulment isn't clear. For the most part, she won't talk about it. But when asked if there's any chance she and DeBarge will get back together, she says softly, "I don't know, I really don't know. He calls every once in a while and says 'Hi,' but I really don't know." She claims that time spent making and promoting her record has left little time for romance with anyone. "I'm not a loner—at night I have to sleep with somebody or something," she says. "So right now, since I'm not married, me and my dog, we've been shacking up." DeBarge, of the singing DeBarge family—his brother, El, has a current hit single, Who's Johnny?—seems even more unsettled by the annulment, "I can pretend that I don't think about her and that I don't love her, that it's over, but deep down inside I'm fooling myself," he says. "I just had to 'hurt' it out. I think we meant a lot to each other, we gave a lot to each other," adds the singer, who agreed to be interviewed only if his lawyer was present. "She wasn't just my wife, she was my sister, my mother, everything." As for the future, he says, "I don't know what's going to happen. I'm very confused about the whole situation."

Janet's marital drama seems in keeping with a life that has been, almost paradoxically, fast paced and sheltered. She began acting at age 9 and appeared as a guest or a regular on Good Times, Diff'rent Strokes and Fame. Yet she had seldom explored urban nightlife without a bodyguard and a limo in tow, until her recent trip to Minneapolis. Recalls producer Jimmy Jam of one night's introductory outing, "Janet had never been to a bar to hang out, and a couple of guys started talking to her. Afterward she came up to me and said, 'That guy was bothering me—why didn't you help me?' And I said, 'I thought you took care of it yourself.' See, she had never had a chance to handle herself."

That comes from growing up under her folks' protective wing in the family's Encino, Calif. compound. Janet recalls that as a child, she was Michael's shadow: "Michael and I were like this," she says, holding up crossed fingers. "If you saw Michael, you knew that I would be somewhere close." The two shared an avid interest in pets; it was Janet, in fact, who brought home the family boa constrictor, Muscles, who sleeps near the head of her bed. "My mom called me crazy that I would let him sleep on my headboard," she says, "but I just trusted him from the start. It's like he understands me." When Thriller came out, Janet reports, "It was like, 'See you later, Michael,' and I grew closer to Marlon. Now that I'm back at home, Michael and I are getting closer again."

Professionally, she says, being a Jackson has its pluses—the last name can be "such an advantage"—and minuses. "People expect me to be just as good, to perform just as well, for my material to be just as good, and you know, it's hard not to compare [family members]," she says. "But really we don't compete. As long as one of us is at the top, that makes the rest of us happy. And now," she adds with a smile, "it's my turn."