12/18/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
NOT EVERYONE HAS AN INTERNATIONAL megastar for a neighbor, even for only two weeks. So Linda Wolff and the employees at her New York City boutique, Joe's, had enjoyed spending the early days of December listening through the shop's wall as Michael Jackson rehearsed next door at the Beacon Theater for an HBO special. "We were just saying he sounded unbelievable—so powerful, like a record," says Wolff. "And then it stopped."
Jackson's collapse on Dec. 6, while he was practicing his hit "Black or White," brought an abrupt halt on the concert set. There were reports that Jackson had been suffering from flu-like symptoms all week and suddenly took a fall on the stage. By the time emergency medical worker Kevin Barwick arrived, Jackson "was lethargic," said Barwick. "He was speaking slowly, mumbling." Registering a blood pressure of 70/40 (compared with a normal 120/80), the 37-year-old star was rushed to Beth Israel Medical Center-North, about four miles away. Meanwhile, his doctor was boarding a plane from Los Angeles.
Whatever its cause, the collapse seemed almost symbolic of Jackson's troubles of late. Although the case was settled out of court, his image has never recovered from 1993 allegations that he sexually molested a 13-year-old boy, and his 18-month-old marriage to Lisa Marie Presley has been shadowed by speculation that it is a sham. Demonstrating how difficult it is being the self-proclaimed King of Pop, Jackson's latest album HIStory, was judged a flop when it racked up sales of just over a million copies following its Tune release but failed to dominate the charts as his previous records had
Despite some bizarre stratagems in matters of hygiene—including the surgical masks he wears often in public—Jackson has never been a picture of health. In 1990 he was hospitalized with chest pains; in 1993 he postponed a concert because of dehydration, and later that year he went through rehab for an addiction to painkillers. Last week, HBO postponed the Jackson special, and just what was ailing the star remained uncertain. But one thing did seem clear: Contrary to some cynical speculation that his collapse was a publicity stunt aimed at hyping his show, Jackson was genuinely ill. Whatever his need for public attention, his blood pressure reading was cause for concern and nobody's idea of a ploy.