Until this year, Jackson's fixation with children and the trappings of childhood, including his $28 million, 2,700-acre Neverland Valley Ranch with its theater and exotic petting zoo, seemed merely eccentric outgrowths of his artistic genius. His weird-ness even had a quasi-psychological explanation: Michael was trying to recapture the childhood he never had. The singer himself advanced that theory during his February TV interview with Oprah Winfrey. After the allegations, however, the public's attitude shifted from bemused fascination to wariness at best and to hostile suspicion at worst. Jackson's dreamy alternative universe suddenly seemed suspect; one couldn't help but wonder about his friendships with other kids—from such celebrity pals as Macaulay Culkin to the many boys who have visited him at Neverland—or about his crotch-grabbing stage persona, which had always seemed bizarrely at odds with the shy, fey, real-life Michael.
From the outset, the Jackson camp steadfastly maintained his innocence, contending that the child-abuse charge was linked to a failed extortion attempt. Although two boys who were friends of Jackson's rose to his defense, their testimonials—that they had slept in the same bed with Jackson, but nothing happened—were less than reassuring. And the Jackson family itself broke ranks, with sister La-Toya publicly accusing Michael of having a history of sexually abusing children.
Jackson's woes generated months of speculation and gossip, and one thundercloud question: Could Jackson's career—the most lucrative in pop—ever recover? For an entertainer whose image has been predicated on a sense of childlike innocence, even unproven charges of sexual misconduct seemed potentially poisonous.
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