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A hasty wedding raises more questions than it answers

WHEN MICHAEL JACKSON DECIDES to get married, he doesn't exactly wait for June to roll around. On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 12, Debbie Rowe—six months pregnant and apparently feeling it—said goodbye to her two beloved dogs, left in the care of neighbors in her Van Nuys, Calif., apartment complex, and boarded a jet bound for Australia. When she touched down in Sydney—Wednesday afternoon local time, after 14 hours in the air—the 37-year-old dermatologist's assistant was whisked by limo to the Sheraton on the Park hotel. There, she disappeared into the $2,750-a-night Presidential Suite and rested. The following day, Jackson performed to a sellout crowd of 40,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Then, around midnight, as the singer joined 30 or so associates at a post-concert party in a private room downstairs, Rowe slipped into something white and put on her makeup. At about 2 a.m., Jackson and a few pals made their way upstairs. The superstar sat down at a grand piano in the two-bedroom suite and played the Wagner march known to millions as "Here Comes the Bride" while Rowe entered and, after 15 years as Jackson's friend, became officially embroiled in his strange—and increasingly troubled—world. "Please respect our privacy," Jackson, 38, said in a release after the event, "and let us enjoy this wonderful and exciting time."

How many days had elapsed since Jackson confirmed that he and Rowe were expecting a child? Ten. How many questions about the groom had been resolved by the hasty civil ceremony? Zero. The singer's second marriage happened so fast, in fact, many people didn't even realize he was already divorced from Lisa Marie Presley, 28, whom he wed in May of 1994 and separated from 20 months later. Their split became official last August, with no regrets on either side. "They fell out of love," says Presley's attorney John Coale. "Anything she feels is going to remain private."

Rowe is already finding out how hard it is to know both privacy and the King of Pop. From the moment she was thrust into the spotlight by Jackson's announcement that she was expecting, she has had to live with speculation that her baby is in part a public-relations ploy. Friends of Jackson's insist that the marriage and pregnancy have nothing to do with his reported $15 to $20 million settlement of a child molestation suit in 1994, a just-published book about that case, or a new civil case being pressed in Santa Barbara (Calif.) superior court by the alleged victim's father. Still, even Rowe's father has expressed skepticism. Last week, Gordon Rowe, 67, a retired cargo pilot who lives in Cyprus, was quoted at length in News of the World, the racy British tabloid that reportedly broke the story of Jackson's involvement with Debbie earlier this month. As published in NOW, Rowe knew his daughter was friendly with Jackson but was stunned when she told him of her pregnancy.

"I said, 'Isn't this the same man who was accused of child abuse?'" Rowe reportedly told Debbie. As published in NOW, Rowe said Debbie dismissed the allegations. "She said, 'None of the charges against him were proved.'" She reportedly did not, however, dismiss reports—denied by the Jackson camp—of artificial insemination. "Isn't he capable of fathering a child like anyone else?" asked her father. "She laughed and said, 'Michael doesn't do anything like anyone else. Dad, you have no idea who the real Michael Jackson is. He is the most compassionate person I have met in my life.' "

Rowe's father has since issued a general retraction of his NOW statements. Her friends insist that Rowe is acting out of the goodness of her heart. "I know she doesn't want the publicity," says Rowe's pal Mary Colandro, 35, a tennis coach who has lived next door to Rowe for nine years. "She's done all this for Michael. She told us she was having the baby for Michael as a friend." She also told neighbors she was not artificially inseminated. "She said it was natural, and I believe her," says Colandro. "On the other hand, she is Michael's good friend. She is very loyal to him."

Until recently, Rowe's life was hardly the stuff of which cover stories are made. Born in Spokane, Wash., to Gordon Rowe and Barbara Chilcutt in 1958, Deborah Jeanne Rowe had moved to California by the time she was 15. About that time, her parents were divorced, and, according to NOW, her father took off for the Middle East. Soon after graduating from Hollywood High School in 1977, Rowe began working in the Beverly Hills office of dermatologist Arnold Klein. One former patient is still grateful for the care Rowe gave her father. "She held his hand during the surgery," says the patient, "and called to follow up. She is the right hand to Dr. Klein. She really kept the business going."

In 1982, Rowe married Richard Edelman, then a 30-year-old teacher at Hollywood High. The couple moved into a condominium in Van Nuys, where Edelman started his own computer consulting business. According to a pharmacist with whom Rowe had developed a friendship over the years, Edelman was "too quiet" for Rowe, a woman who, he fondly notes, "used language like a trooper but was always very pleasant." By the time their marriage fell apart in 1988, a major problem seemed to be money. In 1989, Rowe and Edelman filed for bankruptcy, with assets of less than $40,000 and debts of more than $73,000.

To friends, Rowe has always seemed a good-hearted woman, most comfortable in jeans and T-shirts and not much makeup. She has two dogs, a golden retriever named Cuervo, after the Mexican tequila, and Harley, a German shepherd named for the motorcycle Rowe loves to ride when she's not at the wheel of a truck. "If anyone has problems, she handles them," says Colandro. "She's a great rescuer."

No doubt Jackson saw these qualities some 15 years ago, when he first met Rowe at the office of Dr. Klein, who was reportedly treating Jackson for vitiligo, a condition that causes skin discoloration through loss of pigment. Over the years, she and Dr. Klein accompanied Jackson on various world tours, and Rowe befriended the superstar. A few posters of Jackson popped up on her apartment walls, but no one was likely to hear Jackson's "Billie Jean" blaring from Rowe's stereo. "She seemed to prefer New Age," says Colandro, "or easy listening."

Though Rowe dated several men in the years after her divorce, pals say Jackson wasn't one of them. And as far as anyone knew, she was not in a relationship last spring, when Rowe surprised her pharmacist friend with the news that she was expecting a child. "I'm doing a favor," the pharmacist recalls her saying, "for a good friend."

Most of her neighbors knew that the good friend was Jackson. He had just split with Presley in January, less than seven months after telling Prime-Time Live that he and Lisa Marie wanted to start a family. Apparently, Rowe was ready to give Jackson the child Presley did not. At first their plan took an unhappy turn, friends say, when Rowe miscarried last spring. "She was really sad for about a week," says Colandro. But her pharmacist friend says she quickly bounced back. "She's that kind of a gal," he explains. "She doesn't get heartbroken."

As the world now knows, another attempt to conceive a child proved successful. But would Rowe raise the baby in her $840-a-month, one-bedroom apartment? Or would Jackson take custody and raise their child on his 2,700-acre Santa Ynez Valley Neverland ranch, complete with zoo and amusement park? How would the couple interact over time? Would money change hands?

When it came to marriage, Jackson seemed to want to act first and figure out the details later. A week before the Sydney wedding, his lawyers contacted the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Jackson had show dates in Auckland on Nov. 10 and 11.) They filled out registration forms for Jackson and Rowe and asked marriage celebrant Anne Stubbersfield to be ready on short notice—which never came. "I'm sorry I didn't get to marry him," she says with a laugh. "New Zealand could have been put on the map."

In the end, of course, that honor went to Australia, where, as Elton John told talk show host Rosie O'Donnell last week, "all the loonies get married." (Now openly gay, Elton married a sound engineer, Renate Blauel, in Sydney in 1984; they divorced four years later in Britain.) But how loony is Jackson, really? If ever he could have been described as blissfully wacky, that no longer seems to apply. Three years after he was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 1993, Jackson is still dealing with the fallout. Five former employees are suing him for wrongful termination, claiming they were threatened, harassed and forced to quit during the police investigation into the charges. A book on the case by author Victor Gutierrez—filled with legal papers, bank statements and photos—was published in Chile in September and has sold some 5,000 copies Stateside. And though he negotiated the multimillion-dollar settlement from Jackson in 1994, the father of the boy Jackson allegedly had molested recently hit the singer with another $60 million lawsuit.

According to one of the father's lawyers, James E. Prosser, Jackson violated the terms of the settlement, which required him to make no public statements about the case, when he told Prime Time Live's Diane Sawyer last year that the accusations were "lies, lies, lies, lies." In addition, the suit claims that anti-Semitic lyrics in Jackson's HIStory album (which were later changed by Jackson, who issued a public apology) were aimed at the boy and his father.

Jackson is, in other words, a man who could use a "great rescuer" like Rowe—and his friends know it. "She's a really gentle person, very loving," says Stephen Millard, marketing director at Epic International Artists, Jackson's label in Australia. Adds another associate: "Lisa Marie had a mind of her own. Debbie is not involved in the limelight. She is very easygoing."

So easygoing that she spent her first day as Mrs. Michael Jackson on her own—while her hubby, surrounded by his usual entourage of associates and kids, cuddled a koala at Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo. Later, Jackson went, without Rowe, to the Australian preview of his new 35-minute film "Ghosts", a horror/music video. At the entrance to the theatre, the singer was surrounded by fans, one of whom gave him a pair of blue baby booties, which he clung to during the screening. Rowe remained out of sight for the next few days as she, Jackson and several colleagues traveled from Sydney to Brisbane to Melbourne. Nor was she at the hospitals he visited, the events he attended or the concerts he gave. "She's six months pregnant," says a spokesperson for Jackson's concert promoter. "She wants to rest."

Or hide. Rowe has been getting a crash course in what it means to do "a favor" for a famous friend—as have many of her pals back home. In Van Nuys, one old buddy has turned down tabloid offers adding up to $20,000 for private details of Rowe's life. "I guess it's about integrity," says her friend. "But it's hard," he adds with a laugh.

His friend Debbie doesn't have it easy either, being married to a man who once had too little childhood and now may have way too much money and freedom. If Jackson wants the world's sympathy, he has a tough row to hoe, but if it's advice he's after, there's no shortage of givers. In Christchurch, Anne Stubbersfield may have lost her shot at performing Jackson's ceremony, but she still has words of wisdom. He should "think seriously" about his future as a husband and a father. Take classes in parenting. Get prepared. "You've got to be normal now," says Stubbersfield. In his own way, Michael seems to be trying.

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
MONICA RIZZO, JOHN HANNAH and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles, JULIE BEUN-CHOWN, DENNIS PASSA and SHELLI-ANNE COUCH in Australia, KIRSTEN WARNER in New Zealand and PETER MIKELBANK in France

  • Contributors:
  • Monica Rizzo,
  • John Hannah,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Julie Beun-Chown,
  • Dennis Passa,
  • Shelli-Anne Couch,
  • Kirsten Warner,
  • Peter Mikelbank.