Newsweek - Off The Wall?
March 7, 2001

Meet The New Michael Jackson. The Wacky Star Is Now The World's Latest-And Perhaps Most Unlikely-Spokesman On Family Values

Michael Jackson is calling himself the icon of a generation-a generation, he says, that "no longer knows what it means to be a child." And the crowd in a hallowed debating chamber of Britain's Oxford University is lapping it up.

The mostly-student audience in a nation better known for its buttoned-down reserve clapped, cheered and offered standing ovations as Jackson launched a new charity-Heal the Kids-in the historic city on Tuesday night. Its aim: to try to redefine childhood and inject innocence back into our youth.

Jackson, delivering what was described as his first public lecture, broke down as he described how he was denied a normal childhood and how his father never told him he loved him. On stage, he apologized as he asked for a tissue and openly wept. 'I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that. He never gave me a piggyback ride, he never threw a pillow at me, or a water balloon.'

The recording artist is an improbable figurehead to launch a global initiative about better parenting. British newspapers this week were filled with reports about the bizarre upbringing of Jackson's own two children, Prince Michael Junior, 3, and Paris Michael Katherine, 2. Rarely seen by their natural mother, Jackson's former dermatology nurse-turned-ex-wife Debbie Rowe, the children are said to be looked after by more than a dozen caretakers. The nurses allegedly are under strict instructions not to kiss or cuddle the children, who are kept under constant camera surveillance in rooms where air quality is carefully monitored. For hygienic reasons, their toys and cutlery are said to be disposed of at the end of every day.

Jackson was also accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy in 1993. Although the family withdrew their claims after an out-of-court settlement rumored at $26 million, the star remains a less-than-obvious choice to launch a children's charity.

Nonetheless, Jackson is vowing he is serious about his new role. In spite of fracturing two bones last week in a fall at his Californian home, the singer said he was determined to make the trip to Britain and deliver his message. Announcing that he wanted to forgive his father and restore love "to a desolate and lonely world," he called on the audience to join him in giving "our parents the gift of unconditional love."

Jackson turned out to be the biggest draw in the Oxford Union's 178-year history. More than 20,000 people applied for tickets, beating out the number of would-be attendees to lectures given over the decades by luminaries that have included Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, O.J. Simpson and even Kermit the Frog.

Earlier, hundreds of fans hoping for a glimpse of Jackson had lined the streets of Oxford in freezing temperatures and pouring rain. He eventually arrived on crutches nearly three hours late-he was said to be seeing a physician-and hobbled among the crowd to sign autographs and accept gifts. He wore a black marching jacket trimmed with a thick white border and studded with large black buttons. Around him, security guards kept a photographers at bay and held an umbrella above his head. Garbage cans in the area were emptied and matting was laid down on the grass to make a path to the Oxford Union.

Nor was he the only celebrity promoting the new charity. At his side in Oxford were his two close friends, the progressive Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and paranormalist Uri Geller. Boteach, author of the controversial book "Kosher Sex," is a cofounder of Heal the Kids. Geller, best known for his demonstrations of mental spoon-bending, is on its international board. (Other members of its board of advisers include former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and American socialite songwriter Denise Rich.)

But if Jackson cut a recognizable figure, his message about child welfare was less clear. His speech almost entirely focused on himself, his own feelings and his relationship with his father. He did not explain how he planned to achieve its goal of "greater understanding between children and adults all over the world." (A press release did announce a global public-education campaign, a book club to encourage bedtime reading and an interactive Web site with parenting courses.)

The lecture, though, was mostly about Jackson's own childhood. In this public confessional, students listened attentively as he offered a candid and honest summary of how he was learning "to put to rest the ghosts of [his] childhood."

Referring to his father, Jackson declared: "In the place of anger, I have found absolution. And in the place of revenge, I have found reconciliation. And my initial fury has slowly given way to forgiveness." At the end of his speech, Jackson tearfully donned a gown and mortar board presented to him by the Union, and students complimented his new initiative. "It was a very important message," said one young woman. Another undergraduate looked shaken. "I feel very emotional. He really believes in what he is saying and I think we all need to respond to that." Only one man appeared to be bored. "Far too long," he moaned.

Jackson probably had little time to ponder such reactions. The day after his speech he was due to serve as best man at Geller's wedding, and on Wednesday night he was scheduled to appear in London for a star-studded show in honor of the 10th annual Michael Jackson Day. The profits from this performance? They'll go to Heal the Kids.