From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As pop diva Janet Jackson's eight-year marriage to husband René Elizondo Jr. continued to disintegrate last summer, her sister LaToya and family attorney Brian Oxman dropped by her $4.5 million Malibu home to commiserate. "LaToya and Janet talked," says Oxman, "and they cried together." Then, he recalls, Janet drove off with LaToya to a beauty shop in Santa Monica. When the two got stuck in traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway, "the people on the sides of the car were going wild," says Oxman, who was following in his own car. "The guys were hollering and hooting. They're an exquisite-looking [pair] of ladies."

Even in a traffic jam, Janet knew how to keep up appearances. In fact, until just a few weeks ago the 34—year-old Jackson always claimed she and the Mexican-born Elizondo, 37—a former dancer who shares songwriting credits with her on virtually all her albums since 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814—were lovers, not husband and wife. Yet on May 31, Elizondo filed for divorce in Los Angeles, citing irreconcilable differences and revealing that he and Jackson wed on March 31, 1991, and formally separated in January 1999. "They were one of the greatest teams of pop music," marvels Jackson family biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, "and we didn't even know they were married."

Explaining the secrecy, Jackson told USA Today in July, "People in this industry don't get a fair chance with some things, and especially with marriage. Other people say, 'Oh, that's not gonna work.' Or 'I give it a year, maybe.'...I wanted to have as normal a marriage as possible."

Ah, normalcy—which brings us to the other incongruity on that day of sisterly closeness. One would as soon expect to see the ghost of Bubbles, brother Michael's late primate friend, as find Janet trapped in traffic with family troublemaker LaToya, 44. In fact, Janet has maintained a certain public distance from all eight older siblings. Currently onscreen as Eddie Murphy's shy, brainy girlfriend in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, she has shown more devotion to her singing career, racking up more than 20 Top 10 singles since her breakthrough 1986 album, Control, and nailing a reported $80 million contract with Virgin Records. "When you're younger, it's just music, music, music," says brother Randy, 38, the president of Beverly Hills-based Modern Records. Now, though, "I think we realize how bonding is more important."

Which may be why, on July 24, Janet attended the Klumps premiere in L.A. on the arm of her father, Joseph, 72, a man who showed so little paternal warmth toward his children, Janet once told the Los Angeles Times, he always insisted they call him by his first name. Superstar Michael, now 41, remains elusive, constantly traveling or working, but Janet is on the phone with her mother, Katherine, 70, "all the time," says Oxman. And he renewed friendship with LaToya "is just jaw-dropping," says biographer Taraborrelli.

Equally surprising, say those who have worked with her, is Jackson's pleasantly undivalike demeanor. One associate describes her as "incredibly shy." Larry Miller, a Klumps costar, recalls being bowled over by her beauty. But then, he says, "you find out how sweet she is. She's like your sister. You become protective, asking if she needs sugar for her tea or if she wants you to bring her some lunch." When Jackson auditioned for The Klumps, director Peter Segal expected her to arrive with an entourage but found her standing outside his office alone. "I said, 'Where is everybody? Are they lost?' " he recalls. "She said, 'No, it's just me.' "

Jackson so far has refused to discuss how she ended up minus a husband as well. She and Elizondo first met in 1982 after he was hired as a dancer for LaToya. They became romantically involved several years later. But by February 1999 the couple announced that they were ending the relationship amicably. "We just grew apart," Elizondo himself said this May after he "finally filed for divorce. "She went on tour, I stayed back to work on my own project."

Now the couple is at loggerheads over Elizondo's attempt to overturn a prenup agreement. "The prenup involves everything," says Elizondo's attorney Manley Freid. "Real estate, securities, artistic endeavors, writings, everything." Jackson, mean-while, has been hanging out with a tight group of dancer girlfriends. They hit the clubs, take island vacations and watch the Three Stooges. "This is really a new Janet Jackson," says Taraborrelli. "She's never been single, really."

Raised a Jehovah's Witness, Jackson wasn't encouraged to date. At 18, she up and eloped with singer James DeBarge. That marriage was annulled after less than a year. And then at 20 she began what became her 13-year relationship with Elizondo. Now she's rumored to be linked romantically to Johnny Gill, an R&B singer who first met her 18 years ago and, as a pal of Eddie Murphy's, was a fixture on the Klumps set last winter. "I plan on being a part of her life for a long time," says Gill, 34. But he denies anything more than a close friendship. "We talk for hours," he says. "From all different time zones, from anywhere." Sometimes, he says, "we sing together, just stuff you hear on the radio, for fun." Even their dates sound chaste. "She doesn't hardly drink at all," says Gill. "If she has just a glass of wine and takes even a little bit, she gets giddy and giggly, like a little kid."

And yet she remains a woman very much in control of her future. This spring she resumed work on a new album—without Elizondo's collaboration—that had been interrupted by the Klumps shoot. And she hasn't ruled out future acting roles. "In all the years I've known her," says Gill, "this is the happiest I've ever seen her. She's older and wiser now, but beyond that—well, she's still superwoman."

Tom Gliatto
Mark Dagostino, Julie Jordan and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Pamela Warrick.