When your father’s name is Michael Jackson, people have expectations.
The children of celebrities inevitably provoke curiosity, but the Jackson children have been the objects of unparalleled public scrutiny since before they were born. The speculation over how they were conceived. The controversy of an overly excited Michael showing off his youngest to adoring fans by dangling him over a balcony. The fascination with the flamboyant masks their father used to keep them anonymous, the media frenzy that occurred whenever they showed their faces.
The concern that bordered on ownership so many felt when their father died in 2009 and then 12-year-old Prince Michael’s embrace of his grief-stricken sister Paris, then 11, at the funeral was broadcast to 31.1 million people in the U.S.
Even now, many people have certain expectations about the Jacksons and their future.
And Prince Michael Jackson does not seem at all concerned about any of them.
Providing a rare tour of his father’s Encino compound Hayvenhurst, he is, at 19, a young man prepared to set his own course, one that honors his father but does not imitate him.
“Everyone thinks I’m going to do music and dance,” he says, laughing wryly because, as he is the first to admit, he cannot do either.
Jackson is interested in producing entertainment but from behind the scenes. Earlier this year he produced his first music video, for Omer "O-Bee" Bhatti’s “Automatic,” and used it to launch King's Son Productions, the name a wink toward his father’s 1980s coronation as the King of Pop. Another video, for the Sco Triplets, soon followed.
Music is a big part of my life. It shaped who I am because of my family, but I’ve always wanted to go into production.
— Prince Michael Jackson
“Music is a big part of my life,” Jackson says. “It shaped who I am because of my family, but I’ve always wanted to go into production. My dad would ask me what I wanted to do and my answer was always producing and directing.”
He speaks of his father with the easy fondness of many sons, just as he moves past iconic imagery and celebrity photos that adorn Hayvenhurst’s walls as if they were simply pictures of his family.
Which, of course, they are, just another sign of the extraordinary life that was Jackson’s normal for so many years, a contradiction he is quick to acknowledge.
“To me, these are family photos. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a picture of my dad and my godmother,’” Jackson says, pointing to an image of his father with Elizabeth Taylor.
And that’s the biggest expectation buster of them all. The most striking thing about spending time with Prince Michael Jackson is how much he reveals himself as a typical 19-year-old.
Infectiously charismatic and witty, with a handsome round face and dark eyes, he gets most animated when discussing his collegiate studies or weekend plans with his younger brother and their cousins (movies and video games were on the list).
Despite pursuing a career in entertainment, he prefers to keep a low profile. He stays away from gossip blogs and keeps social media at arm’s length, though he’s “getting out there more now with the company.”
The only outward reminder that his life isn’t typical comes during an earlier meeting when he declines to sit on the patio of a favorite sushi restaurant in order to evade paparazzi stalking Sunset Strip hot spots.
At times it’s tough to reconcile this easygoing young man with the flashy eccentricities that defined his family for so many years.
Yet on this sweltering summer afternoon in the Valley, Jackson is, in many ways, just a young man launching a business and retracing his father’s path.
He’s standing inside the Encino compound that’s been in the family for nearly a quarter century. The two-acre estate named for the street it’s on has served as inspiration for Jackson. Though the main house is under renovation, his younger sister Paris, now 18, lives in the guesthouse and Jackson visits often.
His late father’s imprint is all over it.
Michael lived here in the mid-’80s until he moved west to Santa Barbara County to his Neverland ranch in 1988. Hayvenhurst was a sanctuary away from fame that enveloped his life, the vastness of which becomes apparent the moment Jackson steps into the museum-like lounge Michael installed on the second level of a wing he added to the grounds.
A shrine to all the Jacksons had achieved by the early ’80s, the room is wallpapered with fame; hundreds of portraits are neatly collaged over its walls and ceilings.
I think people appreciate it a lot more than I do. To me, these are family photos.
— Prince Michael Jackson
There’s Michael, posing with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, shooting “Captain EO,” out with Brooke Shields, embracing Diana Ross, being presented with a plaque by Jane Fonda, passing for 11 on his first Rolling Stone cover (he was actually 13) and myriad performance shots. In every picture a dazzling smile is plastered across his face.
It’s an all-consuming display of superstardom, yet the young Jackson is unaffected.
“I think people appreciate it a lot more than I do. To me, these are family photos.”
The past is omnipresent in Jackson’s life. His father intended it that way. A marble plaque beckons at the entry of Hayvenhurst’s photo room, a place that stands as an ode to yesteryear.
“Hopefully this journey into the past, in picturesque form, will be a stimulant to create a brighter successful tomorrow,” it reads.
The past can be a complicated place, especially for the Jackson children and even more particularly for the eldest.
Jackson doesn’t operate with the bravado you often encounter in celebrity children raised with a level of privilege, fame and wealth nor does he seem naive — particularly when it comes to how he plans on navigating an industry his father spent years warning him about.
“Trust no one,” Michael once cautioned.
“It sounds bad, but … a lot of people are motivated by themselves,” Jackson says. “He said don’t trust someone just because it sounds like a good idea — do your research. There are a lot of people who want to interact with [me and my siblings] just because of who we are.”
Hayvenhurst is a “sacred place” for Jackson, he says, and not just for the rich family history. This is where he and his siblings came to live to be raised by their grandmother after their father’s death.
“It was beneficial. There was 16 people here,” Jackson said, rapidly listing cousins and relatives who occupied the estate after Michael’s death. “It took you away from the grief. We’d wake up in the middle of the night, make quesadillas and talk.”
Originally purchased by patriarch Joe at the height of the Jackson 5's stardom in 1971, Hayvenhurst was Michael’s earliest attempt to create his own Neverland. In the early ’80s, before his solo career reached stratospheric heights, he bought it from his father and spent two years renovating it. Greeting visitors at the end of the long driveway is a wooden placard that reads, “Those who reach touch the stars”
A 32-seat movie theater and a Japanese koi pond were added, along with a two-story wing separate from the main 10,476-square-foot mock-Tudor mansion that looks like a small Disney castle with its fairy-tale turrets and clock tower.
Bubbles the chimpanzee and other exotic animals called this place home, and songs for Michael’s groundbreaking albums — “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” — were recorded here, at a home studio hidden in a corner of the estate.
As Jackson walks the grounds, he points out places where he and his cousins would shoot their own action films for fun.
In the house, he also points out the grand wood-paneled library that served as a shooting location. “This room usually meant you were in trouble,” he says, recounting the stern lectures he’d receive from his grandmother, Katherine.
Michael left his estate, which has reportedly grossed nearly $2 billion since his death, to his mother and his kids, with 20% earmarked for charity.
And it was here that, as the world mourned pop’s biggest fallen star 12-year-old Jackson had to process the loss and grapple with the blemishes of his father’s fame.
“After he died, we got bombarded with [everything],” Jackson says bluntly. “Everything” included scandals his father faced, including numerous allegations of child molestation, an acquittal of child sexual abuse and mountains of sensational stories about his changing appearance and eccentric behavior dating to the ’80s.
After being obsessively shielded from the media circus that enveloped Michael’s life, his children now faced all the allegations and tabloid fodder that often overshadowed their father’s celebrity.
“I told them, ‘I know you’re going to hear things around and whatever, but realize these are people trying to tear down your dad’s legacy,’” said cousin Taj Jackson. (Taj’s brother, TJ, was named co-guardian of Jackson and his siblings in 2012.)
How Prince, Paris or the youngest, Prince Michael II, would be affected by the things they would read or hear about their father was a chief family concern.
“I knew because [Prince] had spent time with his dad and was close to him that he knew inside he didn’t believe it,” Taj says of the numerous accusations.
When asked how he and his siblings navigated the allegations and sensational stories, Jackson is candid: “It was a shock,” he says. “It all came at once. But [we] learned how to deal with it by just kind of ignoring it.”
Jackson dismisses many of the allegations as attempts at extortion.
He knows his life has been, in his words, “unconventional,” but he seems at peace with most of it, including the fact that Jackson’s biological mother, Debbie Rowe, terminated her parental rights in 2001. The two do not have a relationship.
“I'm very lucky to have two mother figures in my life, my grandmother and my cousin Frances. As for my birth mother, she's always been more of a friend, and that works for us,” he says. “You could say my whole life has been unconventional. I really love that though, and it's all I've ever known.”
He understands the choices his father made as a parent. “My dad spoke to me like an adult. He told us the reason for the masks was he wanted us to have our own life without him,” Jackson said, noting he and his siblings could often go out without their father unbothered because they were unrecognizable.
“I don’t think I ever thought about if other kids lived like that when I was younger. But once I knew who he was, I realized it wasn’t normal.
“I remember being in Disneyland and I went to the window and there were all these fans waving and taking pictures of me. I thought it was normal, so I just waved back,” he continued. “It wasn’t until I saw a video of him performing and people were fainting and passing out, when I realized the work he did meant a lot to people.”
Today, a commitment to jujitsu is Jackson’s preferred method of coping with the loss of his father (he’s even got the colorful logo of the jujitsu academy he attends inked on his back leg). A grief class he took during his first semester of college helped. “I don’t think it’s anything you ever get over. It’s always going to be a part of your life that’s missing,” Jackson said.
“The way I cope with it is incorporating him into my life in every way — from my company logo having little bits of him [to] using his metaphors and trying to follow everything he taught us,” he continued. “My brother and my sister, we’ve all coped differently. I’ve gotten better the older I get.”
Growing up he remembers his father proudly showing him “Thriller” and “Moonwalker” — two of Michael’s most visionary approaches to long-form music videos— and the two would also spend lazy afternoons binge-watching films and dissecting them. The “James Bond” series and horror were among shared favorites, and they would watch epics like “King Kong” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with the sound turned off and Michael would point out different shots.
Watching his dad in action, filming videos intended for Michael’s “This Is It” London residency (the superstar was rehearsing for those shows when he died at age 50), cemented Jackson’s career goal.
“That’s when I knew it was what I wanted to do,” He recalled during a visit to his Marina del Rey apartment. “I loved the thrill of it. I was able to talk to so many people on set — those doing the lighting or the assistant cameramen. I learned so much.”
While attending high school at the private Buckley School in Sherman Oaks he dabbled in theater, taking acting classes, learning sound design, building sets and working as a stagehand, and when he enrolled at Loyola Marymount University majoring in film was the obvious choice — until he talked himself out of it.
He decided to major in business.
There was a brief flirtation with being in front of the camera. In 2013, Jackson worked as a celebrity correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight” and made his acting debut with a cameo on the CW’s teen drama “90210.”
“He didn’t really want to be an actor,” said Duane Ervin, one of Jackson’s closest friends and his former classmate. “He’s always wanted to be behind the scenes.”
During his first semester at Loyola Marymount late last year, a longtime family friend Omer "O-Bee" Bhatti played Jackson his new record, a club banger titled “Automatic.”
Jackson saw it as an opportunity to launch the company, which at that point was nothing but a name in his head.
Bhatti, a Norwegian rapper/singer, was a protege of Michael’s after the star discovered the performer in the mid-’90s. Michael treated him like a son, even moving Bhatti and his parents to Neverland (much to the delight of Internet conspiracy theorists). In fact, Bhatti is the only person Michael actually taught to Moonwalk and he’s been part of the family for the entirety of Jackson’s life, to the point where they consider themselves brothers.
Launching the company with a Bhatti project was essential for Jackson.
Inspired by the dazzling, cinematic visuals that solidified Michael as a singular force in the early ’80s, they brainstormed ideas for a high octane music video and Jackson proposed to produce it. By February, Jackson had registered the company as a limited liability corporation and filming began.
“I was there for his first step, his first words. I used to change his diapers. And now he’s producing my video?” Bhatti, 31, joked over cocktails while visiting L.A. “He’s like my brother, but I would have never thought about us collaborating professionally.”
The production was primarily filmed at Hayvenhurst, but that wasn’t the plan. Jackson learned his first lesson in the perils of producing after realizing the original locations (an airport and an abandoned mall) would implode the production’s budget.
Although his dad went through painstaking lengths to protect him from fame, Jackson’s family is supportive of his foray into entertainment.
“Prince is extremely smart. He’s gonna be a target because people have the wrong impression that he’s a privileged kid and it’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Taj Jackson said. “When you grow up being around celebrity [your] whole life, there’s two ways it can go for the kids — they can be full of entitlement or grounded and realize that they are like everyone else. It comes down to character and with Prince, his dad instilled that.”
At Hayvenhurst, Jackson is seated on the edge of a piano in his father’s old bedroom as wooden blinds cast a shadow over him. The image of Jackson, partially hidden in a shadow, serves as an apt metaphor.
The vision for King's Son Productions is to eventually tackle film, something his father planned on pursuing more aggressively after “This Is It.” He has a working relationship with his father’s estate and hopes to one day collaborate on a posthumous project through his company, though there are no current plans.
Jackson recently produced his second music video, a visual for Brazilian sister group the Sco Triplets (member Thayana is married to Taj) and is working on a project for the new Shriners Hospital for Children opening in Pasadena next year.
He began his sophomore year of studies on what would have been Michael’s 58th birthday. (Another sign of his father’s continued guidance, he joked.)
Jackson plans on balancing studies and his fledgling business with work on a service organization he and a classmate established on campus that was inspired by the charity work his father did with his Heal the World Foundation.
“Honestly, I’m just going with the flow. I’m still young, my ideas can change,” Jackson said. “I can never be separated from my father — he set that big of an example. And I don’t really have a problem with that. I’m proud to have his name and to be his son.”
Jackson settles into a corner of the shrine, where he’s surrounded by a dozen or so portraits of aunts, uncles and his late father. He’s admittedly nervous about having to do a photo shoot — it’s not something he’s the most comfortable with, he confides. Paris pokes her head into the room to check on her brother, plopping down on a couch to catch up before the two begin joking about his jitters in front of the camera. “Smolder,” Paris instructs.
Jackson tries, and they both begin to giggle.