The iconic pop star and loyal sister emerges stronger than ever, ready to embrace her new reality and share memories of her brother.
By LAURA BROWN
Janet Jackson hasn't watched television since her brother Michael died suddenly in Los Angeles on June 25. She has blocked herself off completely from the hysterical media coverage of his death -- who did it, what did it. "It will drive you crazy," she says. "People can have rhinoceros skin, but there's a point when something's going to hurt you. Not everyone is stone, stone. I haven't watched the news in weeks. I had to ask my chef, How's Obama doing? I haven't read a newspaper. On top of that, [we've lost] a family member."
The last time Janet saw Michael was on May 14, two days before her 43rd birthday. It was a family celebration, the Jackson kids were running around, and she and her big brother hung out, ate Thai food, and tormented each other. "We had so much fun that day," she says, her soft voice almost inaudible. "We kept calling each other after and saying how great it was."
Janet left soon after to start work on Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too. She was on set in Atlanta when she got the call that Michael had died. She immediately returned to L.A., plunging headlong into a private family grief served up to a ravenous public. Of course, one of the most moving images from the memorial service was of Michael's daughter, Paris, who stepped up to the microphone and said, "Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine" before grabbing her aunt Janet for support. "I was really proud," Janet recalls. "People said to me that Michael's daughter speaking really gave them a sense of how he was as a father, in her words. Paris is incredibly smart; they are all so smart. She's a sweet girl. The kids are doing well. They're with all their cousins; that family love will keep them going."
After the service, Janet and sisters La Toya and Rebbie went to speak to the fans. Janet, who said a brief and quiet thank-you, was greeted with thunderous applause. "I don't remember that at all," she says. "I really didn't want to say anything. I left that night to go back to Atlanta to film."
Work has always been a tonic for Janet. Today she is sitting in a bunkerlike recording studio in Hollywood, writing songs for a new album, due out next spring. Nickelodeon is on the TV (perhaps the only network not doing Michael 24/7), incense is burning, and she is trying to discourage her French bulldog, Bullwinkle, a birthday gift from brother Jermaine, from nibbling at her towering Azzedine Alaïa lizard sandals.
"I've been doing okay," she says. "Work helps focus all of that energy on something that is of value to you." She's just back from vacation, a princely three days on a beach. "It was the first time I had to myself since Michael passed, the first time I could get away since all of that."
Janet doesn't like talking much, so it's not hard to understand why people applaud when she opens her mouth. While she is the baby of the Jackson family, she is, in many ways, its nexus. "I have no clue why," she says, "but maybe sometimes when there's someone you don't hear from, it's the person you want to hear from the most."
She's learned a lot in these past weeks. "I always wanted to have my mother's [Katherine Jackson] strength, but I didn't know if it was really there. But a few years back, something happened and I learned that I did." She fixes you with a keen gaze. "I'm not going to mention it, but we all know what it is. And now, coming off all this, it's even beyond that. I was just focused on my job at that moment within my family." She pauses. "Now at least I know that I can step up to the plate and not crumble when I'm needed. When it comes to something like this that is so, so serious, so painful, so traumatic, I can handle it."
Janet has been handling it in public for more than two decades. Rhythm Nation 1814, her groundbreaking album, was released 20 years ago this fall. She has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and had 41 Billboard number-one singles. Her out-of-this-world tours, indelible dance style, and bold, provocative, but always human presence is equaled by only that of her late brother. In 1995's futuristic "Scream" video, for which she collaborated with Michael, there is a telling scene where the space-age siblings are elbowing each other for the remote control. "Yeah," she says, smiling. "We had so much fun back then. We would organize our days together and go out for vegetarian lunch at the Golden Temple in L.A. We were so busy, but we'd make time."
While the $7 million video was the apex of art direction, Janet arrived at her look another way. "I've always been a tomboy," she says. "I've always liked to wear red, black, and white, and mostly pants." Her brother, of course, shared a love for the same palette. She lights up when she talks about Michael's style. "My brother is, I mean was ..." She shifts on the couch and stares at the floor. "You have to forgive me, because it's really hard to believe he's passed. He'd have the same red shirt, the same black pants, the same white T-shirt. Mike was very simple. When I was 14 years old, I would shop for him. [Michael was then 21 and a megastar.] I washed his clothes, cleaned his room. When Mother would go out of town, she'd say, 'I'm leaving you in charge. Take care of Mike.' I would head home from school, see what he needed, then go straight to the stores." She giggles a little and says, "You know something else? He loved to wear his shoes all the way down. His penny loafers would have huge holes in the bottom."
One thing Michael did prize, of course, was his single white glove. "That was actually my brother Jackie's idea at home one day," Janet explains. "He just said, 'You should wear one glove. A white glove.' And then Mike studded it all. That was it." Did he wear the glove to Jackson family dinners? She laughs. "Nooo." And yes, Janet has moonwalked. "Uh-huh. No, no one does it like he does, though. Everybody else tried, but it was no good."
On stage, she adds, "if it was shiny, if it had any kind of bling, he loved it. It was that drummer-boy look. Do you remember that black jacket he wore for Motown's 25th anniversary? That's our mother's! He grabbed that from her closet! He loved anything that sparkled." Michael's love of all that glittered continued until his death. That last day Janet saw Michael, "he had a Balmain jacket on. He had a few of them -- all black, jeweled, studded, with rhinestones." While the public obsesses over what will happen to Michael's estate, including his famous jackets, Janet is not interested in wearing them herself. "No," she says emphatically. "They should go to the children, if anything."
Janet made a poignant point about family and celebrity at June's BET Awards. ("To you, Michael is an icon. To us, Michael is family.") "You know, people see this of you," she says, gesturing to the television. "They have a fantasy in their mind, and to really get to know the true person, it's different. Michael was a big brother. He was always very protective of me." Even though they were stars since childhood, the two didn't speak about how brutal the spotlight could be. "It's part of the job, and we understood that. We never discussed it."
There are other things Janet would like the world to know about Michael. "He loved to laugh. The last time we were together, he'd laugh so hard, he would just start crying. Sometimes his humor would be corny, sometimes dry. He loved the Three Stooges, he loved slapstick, he loved Eddie Murphy in his silly comedies. He loved to have fun. He loved to play." If Janet had one more day with her brother (whose nickname for her, incidentally, was Dunk), she would "relive that moment we had when we were kids, do our little run: We'd wake up, feed the animals, spend the entire day together."
She smiles at the memory, and Janet's smile is magnificent. "People have actually said that I should get it insured, but I never liked my smile until about six or seven years ago. I thought it was too wide, that it looked like the Joker! So sometimes I wouldn't smile too wide and would just kind of grin."
Even though Janet has her trademarks -- that smile being one of them -- her style is evolving. Currently on the curvier side, she is exploring her love for the 1940s: "I love shoulder pads, a nipped waist." Today she's in harem pants by Ellie Mae Byars of Mizzae, a denim jacket, and armfuls of black bracelets by Claudia Tate. "Since I was 16, I used to shop at Maxfield in L.A. I loved Thierry Mugler, Gaultier ..." Now Janet is a fan of Roland Mouret and Alexander McQueen, and she sheepishly admits she just had a room built for her shoes: "Louboutin, YSL, Alaïa, and Giuseppe Zanotti."
For all her quietness, Janet is acutely aware of image and the power she has, especially with young women. She is completing a book called True You, about diet and self-esteem. "It was originally about weight loss," she says. Famously up and down in weight, Janet shed 60 pounds in four months in 2006. She has been in turn envied and criticized for her figure, which has varied from girlish in Herb Ritts's 1990 "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video to muscly (2004's infamous Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction") to bigger when she takes time out. "But I wanted it to be more about my triggers. I can be an emotional eater." Her voice lowers. "Of late, I have been doing that, yes. It started when I was very little. My brothers were gone on tour a lot, and I would miss them so much. Certain things in my life would become triggers. I wish I'd had a book like this when I was that young. People forget that everyone has things going on." And with the album, tour, book, and film coming up next year, Janet has a lot going on. "It's still important to face reality, and not that I'm running, but sometimes you just need to get away for a second."
Janet is also now single, recently breaking off her seven-year relationship with music producer Jermaine Dupri. Does she still believe in marriage? "For [some] people, sure! I don't know if I'll get married again. [She's been married twice, as a teen to James DeBarge and to choreographer Rene Elizondo.] I'll put it like this: If God wants me to, then I will." Dating? "Yeah, I've had people ask me out. I haven't entertained any offers thus far, but I'm locking myself in my work right now." Some might say boys smell anyway. "Yeah, they stink," she chuckles, "and they're dirty."
Janet is similarly fatalistic on the topic of children: "Sure, I'd adopt. And I think that if I'm really supposed to have kids, it will happen, if that's God's plan for me." She wouldn't encourage her kids to go into entertainment "unless it was something they really wanted to do. If they knew what they were up against."
If Michael is the King of Pop, Janet is its princess. "I would hope my legacy would be bringing smiles to faces," she says. "Happiness with my music. Also, to make babies. I've had so many people come up to me and say, 'My child was conceived by listening to your music.'" She has more difficulty articulating Michael's. "It's so beyond. I can't even begin. It's on so many different levels. Bringing light and love and happiness. He's just got so much love, and so much heart, and so much power through his music. Children and his love for children. People have told me, 'I am an American citizen because of your brother.' He wrote them a letter or something. He was just that giving, loving person. And the greatest entertainer there ever was. And is. I hope people get a glimpse of him now, some sort of picture."
Now Janet sits atop an empire and a family mythology much of her own making and under her control, an iconic performer mourning her brother and planning what's next. "You know, I never look back on what I've done unless I'm asked," she says, "but I remember Mike saying, 'You need to stop and enjoy it. Think about everything you've done, all that you've accomplished.'
"But there's so much more I want to do," she adds. And the smile breaks out again.