Michael’s Neverland – May 1988
In May 1988, Michael Jackson purchased land near Santa Ynez, California to build Neverland Ranch at a cost of $19 Million. He installed Ferris Wheels, a menagerie, and movie theater on the 2,700-acre property. The amusement rides, petting zoo and other family-oriented attractions were later added by Jackson. Michael Jackson also spent several million dollars to pave roads and parking lots so that chartered buses could safely make it to the ranch. These buses brought in thousands of children, many with life-threatening diseases such as various forms of cancer, who used the facility for free. In 2003, the property was valued at approximately $100 Million.
I’ve traveled the world over 8 times. I do as many hospitals and orphanages as I do concerts. But, of course, it’s not covered (by the press). That’s not why I do it, for coverage. I do it because it’s from my heart. And there are so many children in the city who haven’t seen the mountains, who haven’t been on a carousel, who haven’t pet a horse or a llama, never seen them, so if I can open my gates and see that bliss, an explosion of screaming laughter from the children and they run on the rides, I say “Thank you, God.” I feel I’ve won God’s smile of approval, because I’m doing something that brings joy and happiness to other people.
– Michael Jackson, 2005
Never Neverland again!
7 July 2009It’s a strange feeling when someone you know dies. Strange in the sense you can’t really feel much at all. It feels strangely empty, although emptiness is of course not really a feeling. You fall into a sort of hollow Nirvana, a cage made out of glass. It is as though for a few moments you completely disconnect from reality only to snap back into it surrounded by a cushion that fogs your sight.
I experienced this last week after I learnt of Michael Jackson’s death and I admit that for the days that followed I felt somewhat in a haze. It was also a little strange the way I found out. I don’t regularly buy newspapers as I am a big fan of reading news online but on that particular day I did buy a paper. On every newspaper in the shop there was Michael Jackson’s face splattered across it. Funny, I thought to myself, what has he done now? When I actually read the headline I felt as though my heart missed a couple of bu-bu–ms. Could this really be true?
I have observed that we tend to feel very close to superstars like Michael Jackson. We practically feel like we know them. We consume celebrities like a hot slice of pizza which only tastes good steaming hot and fresh out of the oven … after a little while all you are left with is a greasy lump of goo you throw in the bin. It’s sad and when I step back from it all I find it appalling to talk about anyone the way we tend to talk about these strangers in a cage.
I know that I often find myself judging celebrities. I can catch myself saying Jordan is a bitch or Keira Knightley seems boring. How exactly would I know, I have never met either? It only hits home how appalling it really is to judge others when you are on the receiving end or when you actually know the person who is being slated.
In the case of Michael Jackson I did. As bizarre as this might sound Michael was our friend. He came to our house in Germany a few times and we visited him in his house/ranch/estate – the infamous Neverland. We went to several of his concerts and my brother even toured most of Europe with him. Whatever dirty thoughts you might be having now I must disappoint you – my brother Albert wasn’t our bribe into Michael’s closest circle … or was he?
Well I suppose in a way he was. Michael loved children. He felt a real kinship towards them. He was excruciatingly shy and I think that only amongst children did he really feel safe. It seemed he was particularly shy with women and it therefore seemed sort of natural to me that he preferred the company of boys. I never perceived him as being sleazy, quite the opposite. He was extremely polite and respectful. He was very generous and once he warmed up a little, even very funny.
Being the children of a strict mother we had niceties such as saying “please” and “thank you” ingrained into us. Whenever we would thank Michael for something he would reply “no, thank you”, which we thought was particularly funny and uber polite.
Our friendship with him all began because of my mother’s PA at the time, a woman named Regina. Regina was a huge Michael Jackson fan and, when I say huge, I mean HUGE. Regina was so much more than a PA. She was my mother’s best friend, advisor, travel companion, shrink and a fairy godmother to us kids. Regina is a legend. It was Regina who got the ball in motion and struggled her way up the ladder of importance until she fell right into the lap of someone influential enough to grant us audience with the King of Pop. I will not describe the whole story because that would take up too much time but let it be said that Regina shamelessly and enthusiastically pulled quite a few chains (rather than strings!!) to get us where we wanted to be. In the end she succeeded, and out of the five minutes of “meet and greet” grew a couple of visits to our house, more concert invitations, a trip to Disneyland together and finally – the grand finale – an invitation to Neverland. It was at the after party of one of our first MJ concerts in Munich that the ice really melted. We kids were thrilled. There were balloons, chocolate fountains and even dodgem cars but, most importantly, Michael was there. My brother went straight up to him, past all the insecure grown-ups and desperate wannabes who were circling and trying to get a piece of Michael, and in his angelic voice and with the nonchalance only a child has, asked him: ” Michael Jackson, will you go on a dodgem with me, please?” Michael was obvioulsy so taken by Albert’s genuine openness that he took him by the hand and practically spent the next few hours playing with him, taking him around the rides and munching away at the snacks (much to the disdain of all the grown-up guests who were lurking away in the background). What started as a formal meeting between Michael Jackson and a couple of Princesses and a Prince ended up as a real friendship between us kids and an introverted musical genius there after.
Our trip to Neverland was the highlight of this friendship. Michael had everything a child’s heart could possibly desire. There was a huge funfair with all the rides you could possibly wish for but no queuing or paying necessary. There were stands filled with chocolates, cotton candy and ice cream to be taken at our leisure, no need to ask for permission! There was a cinema with a huge bed in it, where we watched the Sound of Music stuffing our mouth with handfuls of popcorn. We went on quad bike tours around the countryside. We played with Bubbles the chimp and the other animals in the zoo. But the highlight of all was the super soaker park where we played for hours with Michael. He loved throwing water bombs and super soaking one another. He really turned into a kid. He didn’t mind his hair getting drenched and the make-up he was wearing washing off, he was enjoying himself and that was that. We were young enough to enjoy the children’s paradise but old enough to really remember and realize how special this actually was.
We lost contact over the years and like many friendships do ours fizzled. He had become so much more to us than a two dimensional superstar. He was a man, a buddy, and one of the friendliest people I had ever met.
I have fond memories of the overgrown boy, the friend, and the superstar. I hope the world will remember him as one of the greatest musical performers of our time. What I wish him even more is to enjoy the eternal Neverland up in heaven where I can’t wait to join him and throw another water bomb right into his face.
– Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis is FQR’s features editor