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One the one hand Michael Jackson is said to have proposed marriage to Elizabeth Taylor (and built a shrine to her in his Encino, Calif, home), offered $1 million for the Elephant Man's bones, taken female hormones to keep his voice high and facial hair wispy, had his eyes, lips and nose surgically altered and his skin chemically bleached, and taken to sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in hopes of living to be 150 years old.

On the other hand, says his producer and longtime friend, Quincy Jones, "Michael Jackson is grounded and centered and focused and connected to his creative soul. And he's one of the most normal people I've ever met."

Either Jones hangs out with some extremely odd ducks, or there's more to Michael Jackson than meets the tabloid reader's eye. Herewith, PEOPLE'S attempt to answer pop's top trivia question: Is Michael weird, or what?

You won't get the answer from Michael, who last gave a lengthy interview, to Ebony magazine, in 1984. His last major public statement, spoken at a 1986 press conference announcing his $10 million-plus contract to endorse Pepsi, consisted, in its entirety, of the words, "This is a great honor. Thank you, Mr. Enrico and Pepsi Associates. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you." He's still keeping mum, despite the release of a new Michael Jackson album, Bad, his first solo outing since 1982's precedent-setting Thriller, which has sold more copies (38.5 million and counting) than any record in history. Critics, however, are talking about Bad, and most of what they've said is good. "First-rate work," said the New York Daily News. "The niftiest package of toe-tappers since Thriller," said U.S.A. Today. "Won't harm his reputation," said the Washington Post. Still, not all the notices have been positive, and most critics suggest that, for all it's gleaming technical proficiency, Bad won't rattle the record world the way its predecessor did. "You can't expect this album to do better than Thriller," says Los Angeles Times reviewer Dennis Hunt. "It's a shame that even if it sells nine million it will be considered a flop." Frank Dileo, Jackson's manager, protector, friend and spokesman, doesn't seem worried. "Everyone kind of wonders what sort of pressure Michael felt," he says. "The answer is simple: none. The attitude was to go in, make the best album you can, and present it. I think we've done that." As for the five-year time lag between LPs, Dileo points out that Jackson was busy with other projects, including Captain Eo, a 17-minute, $40 million, 3-D film fantasy now playing at Disneyland and Walt Disney World; an as-yet-unaired Pepsi commercial; a video for the single Bad; an hour-long video, to be televised in 1988, based on the song Smooth Criminal; and a video about the making of the Smooth Criminal video.

Okay, okay, enough about business; let's get to the real issues. Did Michael propose to Liz Taylor or didn't he? "No, he didn't," says Dileo. "And no, there's no shrine to her in his house. Yes, they are very good friends. They dine together occasionally and visit." Hormone shots? "Ridiculous," says Dileo. Eye surgery? "He has never had his eyes done." The nose, Frank, the nose? "Yes, he did have his nose done, as every person in Hollywood has. Elvis did, Monroe did." Cheekbones? "No." Did he have a cleft put in his chin? "Yes, a year ago." Why? "He wanted one." Chemical or surgical skin lightening? "Preposterous." The hyperbaric oxygen chamber? "He has a chamber. I don't know if he sleeps in it. I'm not for it. But Michael thinks it's something that's probably healthy for him. He's a bit of a health fanatic." Did he attend the Captain Eo premiere at Disney World dressed as a nurse? Yes and no. He was there, says Frank, "but I'm not sure which disguise he had on. He has a few." Did he quit the Jehovah's Witnesses? "Yes." How about the story that he tried to buy the Elephant Man's remains from the London Hospital Medical Center? "Well, everyone has a skeleton in their closet," says Dileo. But seriously, he adds, "[Michael] was fascinated by the movie and really wanted the skeleton. I don't know what he would have done with it. Except I know he would have put it in the room while I was having a meeting."

So how goes the reclusive singer's day? "It starts around 9:30 and he goes to bed around 1 or 2 in the morning," says Dileo. "He has breakfast and maybe reads the paper and makes whatever calls he has to make." (About that reading the paper—is he sufficiently in touch with current events to identify, say, Oliver North? "Maybe," says Dileo.) Next come the day's projects: working on a video, noodling in his 24-track home studio or rehearsing for his world tour, which opens in Tokyo Sept. 12 and comes to the U.S. in February. It is his first solo tour.

Michael still lives with his parents, Joe and Katherine, and sister LaToya in the 22-room Tudor mansion on one acre in the L.A. suburb of Encino that his family bought in the late '70s. For relaxation, he can watch a movie in his 35-seat screening room, order up a vegetarian snack from his personal chef or play with one of his pets—Louie the llama, Jabbar the giraffe, Thriller the Arabian stallion, an unnamed lion, two 18-foot Burmese pythons and an assortment of parrots. (For reasons of space, some of the critters live with trainer Bob Dunn.) Jackson's favorite pet—and perhaps his closest companion of any species—is a chimp named Bubbles, who has been trained to smile, roller-skate, ride a horse, moon-walk and give a high five. "Michael has a special relationship with Bubbles," says Dunn. "He spoils him, just like any parent would. But he is strict with him when necessary." Dunn doesn't see anything too extraordinary about Michael's animal passion. "He likes things a lot of kids like, for sure. Who doesn't? I mean, if we all could have 'em, we would."

There is, clearly, a childlike aspect to the Jackson persona. Pets, practical jokes (particularly the tarantula-on-the-sleeve or the old python-in-the-laundry-bag trick) and collecting Disney memorabilia are not the preferred pastimes of most 29-year-old rock stars. Jackson also has a special affinity for children: A 10-year-old neighbor named Johnathan was a frequent visitor on the Captain Eo set, and Sean Lennon and TV's Webster, Emmanuel Lewis, are also pals. "When he comes to my house, my daughters think they're doing me a big favor by loaning him to me so he can rehearse," says Quincy Jones. "He's just got a very pure enthusiasm for simple things." Dileo and others subscribe to the Lost Fun Theory, which postulates that Jackson, who has been performing since the age of 5, is belatedly "doing things now that he couldn't do then."

But if Michael is a kid in a candy store, he also knows who owns the store: Michael Jackson. He has made difficult, and apparently sound, career decisions: hiring Jones to produce his records, replacing his previous manager—his father—with Dileo in 1984, and spending $47.5 million to buy ATV, which owns the rights to much of the Beatles' music. One insider says the transaction will probably pay for itself in ten years and bring in $5 million per year thereafter. He has, reportedly, the best royalty deal in the record business—$1.70 per album sold, plus song-writing fees—and seems to have won the respect of the people he works with. "If something isn't to his liking he'll just say, 'Let's do it over,' " says Bob Collins, who directed the video about the making of the Smooth Criminal video. "He doesn't attack people who are doing the work. He tries to get the best people he can and he works for excellence." Keyboardist David Paich, who played on three tracks of Bad, says that criticism in the studio "was always positive. Quincy and Michael don't say anything, because they figure you're searching for something they don't understand. That's a good attitude to have." Adds keyboardist Steve Porcaro, another Bad contributor: "Michael has strong melodic ideas and can come up with things I'd never think up in a million years."

Jackson also has a surprising circle of adult celebrity friends. Along with Liz Taylor, "Gregory Peck has been a friend of his for 10 or 11 years," says Dileo. "Sophia Loren is a friend; she asked him to escort her to the American Cinema Awards earlier this year. He's friends with Spanky Macfarland [of Our Gang' fame]. Marlon Brando is a very good friend. I'm at most of the dinners and there's not anything earth-shattering being discussed. They talk about life, about making movies, how things are done." Cary Grant was a friend, and Michael escorted Liza Minnelli to her father's funeral in 1986. "Brando invited us down to his island three or four times," adds Dileo. "We were going to go down with Scorsese and De Niro, but we were never able to get away." One suspects that an album of Michael Jackson's conversations with Marlon Brando might outsell even Thriller.

Significantly, almost everyone who spends time with Jackson invariably uses the same four-letter word to describe him: "nice." He may be eccentric; he is not, by most accounts, egocentric. "I didn't see anything freaky," says Helene Phillips, assistant choreographer on Captain Eo. "No big ego. He was friendly and had a good time. I'd sit on his lap to discuss shots." Gene Shelton, Jackson's publicist for his 1979 Off the Wall album, recalls that Michael had peculiar habits—like letting his sister Janet speak for him at press conferences—but "was never disrespectful. He would always say 'please.' I have no horror stories to tell about how he treated people." "Always laughing and joking," says Ola Ray, the female lead in the Thriller- video. "He seemed very happy."

Jackson's charitable work is also noteworthy. Among other contributions, he gave $1.5 million to establish a medical facility, the Michael Jackson Burn Center, in L.A. He donates regularly to leukemia research and to a camp for terminally ill children, and since 1985 has funded 97 scholarships for the United Negro College Fund. Says L.A. Times critic Hunt, who interviewed Jackson in 1982: "He's shy and eccentric, but he's sincere. You can't say anything bad about him."

Sums up Dileo: "He's utterly devoted and very disciplined. It sounds boring and stupid, like I'm hiding something, but I'm not. He realizes that he's a good person. I think he hopes he's thought of as a good entertainer, since that's what he likes to do."

Oh, and one more thing. Adds Dileo, with just a hint of irony: "We see ourselves as a couple of regular guys."

—Written by Cutler Durkee, reported by Todd Gold and the Los Angeles bureau

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold.