Cover Story: Is Michael Jackson
for Real?

By Michael Goldberg and David HandelmanPosted Sep 24, 1987 4:11 PM

Can Bad possibly be as big as Thriller? In the years since the success of Thriller the public has found new heroes playing similar music — including Michael's own sister. Janet, whose album, Control, sold 4.5 million copies. If Bad sells "only" 10 million copies, that will be more than virtually any other record but could be viewed as a failure for Michael Jackson.

A few days after his house party Michael showed up unannounced at the offices of The Album Network, a small radio trade publication, to preview a few cuts of Bad for the editors. "It's such overkill, and it's undignified," says the manager of another major star. "Michael Jackson is past the point where he should be appearing be beg radio. That's what you do with your baby acts that you're trying to introduce."

"History's history," contends Frank Dileo. "I've got to work this harder. We've got to work this as if it was Miami Sound Machine. It's got to have the same intensity… You lose when you take things for granted. We don't do that. We win. We're into winning."

But the reason for this big push is more complicated than that. To top Thriller, Michael must counteract the backlash that began in 1984 during the much-hyped Jacksons' Victory tour. The slick and impersonal show was such an artistic and financial mess that by the end of the tour it wasn't even selling out; Michael ended up giving his money to charity, but fans still felt cheated. And those who weren't turned off by the intense media circus may have been alienated by Michael's increasingly eccentric behavior.

Stevie Wonder, who has known Michael since his childhood at Motown and who duets with him on Bad's "Just Good Friends," thinks Michael's priorities are a little out of whack. "You can't think about what people will like; you go crazy doing that. If it's possible for him to sell 50 million records, let that happen. But if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world. It's just records."

Failure seems an especially painful prospect for Michael, for whom satisfaction apparently comes not from within but from outside things like sales and awards, which can be fickle. In 1983 he and Rolling Stone's Gerri Hirshey discussed the phenomenon of the four hit singles from Off the Wall, the album that preceded Thriller in 1979. "Nobody broke my record yet, thank God," said Michael. "Hall and Oates tried but they didn't."

After Off the Wall won only one Grammy (in an R&B category), Michael told another reporter, "It bothered me. I cried a lot. My family thought I was going crazy because I was weeping so much about it." The down side of the astronomical success of Thriller is that Michael is now no longer competing with anyone but himself: he has been catapulted forever into his own lonely stratosphere.

"I'm gonna sue!" cries Michael Jackson's manager, a 220-pound, five-foot-two cigar-chomping cross between Colonel Tom Parker and P.T. Barnum. Frank Dileo is standing in his Encino office, an oversize cabana facing his swimming pool, just a short distance from his roomy ranch house, fuming about the previous night's Late Show, on the Fox network. The show featured a twenty-year-old Michael Jackson impersonator named Valentino Johnson, who had spent $40,000 to have his features cosmetically altered to look like the star. Dileo is infuriated that the subject of Michael Jackson and plastic surgery has again been raised in the media.

"I can't understand why people keep bringing that up," he says, settling into the sofa before his desk: a large, uncluttered coffee table. "So many terrible things have been written."

Unwrapping a cigar, he places it in his mouth, unlighted. Dileo hasn't shaved this morning; his longish brown hair is slicked back, tied in a ponytail. "Okay, so he had his nose fixed, and the cleft — big deal. I got news for you, my nose has broke five times. It's been fixed twice. Who gives a shit? Who cares? Elvis had his nose done. Marilyn Monroe had her nose done, had her breasts done ? everybody's had it done."

Michael calls Dileo Uncle Tookie (now also the name of the stuffed frog in Michaels Pets). The Bad song "Smooth Criminal" opens with the sound of Michael's heartbeat and Dileo breathing heavily; on the Bad inner sleeve Michael put a photo of himself and Dileo in silhouette with a caption the reads, ANOTHER GREAT TEAM. "Elvis and the Colonel are in our minds a lot ? the Beatles and Brian Epstein ? Abbott and Costello," Dileo explains. Michael and his manager talk on the phone constantly (Dileo has said "eighty-two times a day"), spend most of their days together, live less than five minutes apart. Dileo plays understanding father to Michael's impetuous ten-year-old.

Dileo hesitantly claims some responsibility for Michael's "new look," noting that "I bring a street attitude to Michael" He proudly recounts teaching Michael about Al Capone, "me explaining to him about all those type of people. Whether Capone was a good guy or a bad guy is yet to be determined in my mind. But nobody had more style." Dileo becomes animated when he mentions that Martin Scorsese wants to cast him as a gangster in the upcoming film of Wiseguy.


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