The End of the Age of Innocence : Janet Jackson is pop's most material girl now. In addition to all her power and money, she's added a new component: sex

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Janet Jackson has plenty of time on the set of her new video to talk--about Michael, LaToya and a favorite new subject: sex.

The pop world's highest paid female recording artist--sorry, Madonna--has canceled the dance rehearsal at the Hollywood sound stage because of "female problems," she says. That leaves her afternoon free.

"Come on, I'll give you a tour," Jackson says, walking on the set of a futuristic Asian nightclub, a voyeur's delight complete with high-tech cameras and monitors that enable you to spy on the intimacies going on in secluded lovers' nooks.

The video is for "If," a song about sexual fantasy and desire from "janet.," the hit album that introduces a bold, adult Jackson, a Jackson who says such things as "If you like, I'll go down."

Lust, voyeurism, seduction? What has happened to America's most famous little sister?

Jackson is 27, with a broken marriage behind her, but to millions she is still the little girl who grew up in the shadow of her famous brother(s)--the girl with the cutest dimples this side of Shirley Temple.

That image may soon be erased.

Not only does her spicy new album talk about love and desire, but Jackson makes out at a drive-in movie in the opening scene of "Poetic Justice," director John Singleton's much-anticipated follow-up to his acclaimed "Boyz N the Hood."

"I know there will be people who will look at me now and think, 'God, what has she done? She used to be this innocent little girl.' Well, I'm still the same person, but there is a point where you grow up and this is the time in my life," she says.

Some feelings, however, are slow to change.

Conscious of being a role model to young fans, Jackson opens one song on the new album by whispering a safe sex reminder: "Be a good boy and put this on."

She is taken aback, however, when asked about another whispered line after a song about sexual desire: "Are you still up?"

"No, no, that's not what I meant," she says quickly. "It's tied to the theme of the album. It's supposed to be like . . . 'Are you still awake?' "

New image or not, Little Sister is embarrassed.

Jackson is radiant as she stands in the middle of the busy video sound stage, as workmen rush past her to put scenery in place. There was a time when she felt self-conscious around cameras because the baby fat in her face and figure could lead to unflattering photographs if taken from the wrong angle.

She's now comfortable with her appearance. She looks gorgeous in the cover photo on the new album--like a young Dorothy Dandridge, the '50s film star whom Jackson hopes to portray in a film.

Jackson is equally confident in other areas of her life--secure enough to accept the demanding lead role in "Poetic Justice," an inner-city drama about a young woman's fight for happiness and identity after seeing her boyfriend shot to death. The film is due July 23.

"I think life is about risks," she says pausing on the tour of the sound stage. "There were certain people that said to me, 'Don't do a black film, especially a drama.' They said it would be easier to do a musical or a comedy because people would accept me easier in those roles.

"But I wanted something that mattered to me. When I saw 'Boyz N the Hood,' I said, 'That's it. I want to do something like that . . . something that is real.' "

Her manner, too, has opened up.

Like Michael, Janet was soft-spoken, painfully shy and so deferential when meeting someone for the first time that it was hard to imagine her actually taking charge of her own career.

For years, she found it hard to give orders because she was so timid. She also was uncomfortable talking about herself, especially her accomplishments, because it sounded too much like what her mother always hated: boasting. The hardest words for her, a longtime friend once said, are I and no .

The Gary, Ind., native still worries about sounding boastful or cocky when she talks about show-biz aspirations, but she now speaks easily--even on topics like sex and family, which once caused her to freeze.

Don Passman, a high-powered music-industry attorney who has represented Jackson since 1989, says there has been a change in Janet's personality.

"She was always very open and warm when she got to know people," he says. "The difference is (that) her ability to be herself around strangers has grown enormously."

Cynthia Horner, executive editor of teen-oriented Right On! magazine, has interviewed Jackson since the mid-'70s and attributes the new-found confidence to the success of her albums and her $40-million Virgin Records contract.

"I think the high that she is getting from the success is making her more relaxed and open," Horner says.

No one ever doubted that Michael Jackson had remarkable talent. He dazzled everyone with his singing and dancing with the Jackson 5 for years before his solo career made him the biggest-selling artist in the world.

But Janet had to fight for pop credibility.

Though she acted on TV shows such as "Good Times" and "Fame" as a youngster, the roles weren't demanding, and besides, everyone figured she got the parts because of her family name. When she did parlay that famous name into a recording contract in the early '80s, her first two albums flopped.

Jackson's recording career finally took off in 1986 with "Control." Because of the earlier flops, it was only natural to give credit to others, notably producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two former Prince allies.

Jackson's advisers insisted that the young singer-dancer was indeed in control--as obsessive as Michael about every aspect of her career. But the doubts remained, even after a hugely successful second album, 1989's "Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814."

That's why the pop world was so amazed when Virgin Records signed Jackson in 1991 to the $40-million contract--one of the biggest ever in the record business.

But the Singleton movie, which is a dramatic career stretch, and the album, with its sexy, adult tone, could finally find her the long-absent credibility.

Rather than attempt to echo the shock-'em sexual exploitation of Madonna, the music and attitudes on "janet." tend to be more realistic and convincing explorations of a young woman's sexual awakening. Many of the songs are set in a tender, romantic context.

"I felt it coming for a long time," she says about the album's theme. "I knew the next album would be about love, but I didn't know at that point how far I really wanted to take it . . . how far into it I could get emotionally.

"I finally just started writing down all my feelings about love . . . making love, falling in love, falling out of love, everything. I'm not going to do something I can't relate to . . . .that I haven't experienced, know what I mean?"

This ease in talking about herself is another strong selling point in getting people to toss aside her old image.

One longtime Jackson observer feels the pop star has worked hard at overcoming the family shyness to get to this point.

"I think Janet has realized all the mistakes that various relatives have made . . . being too removed from the public, too out of touch with the public," the observer says. "It is very apparent to all of us, including Michael, that he is too isolated. That is why he went on Oprah. He is trying to open up now, but it's kind of late. He's in his mid-30s."

When talking to or about Janet, references to Michael are never far away.

It has been 20 minutes since Jackson began the tour and she's still talking about the video . . . all the plot twists. Unlike many pop artists, she sees videos as an extension of the record. It's a further chance to express yourself, she says, not just a necessary evil in an era of MTV.

"You know, Michael was the one who made videos an art form," she says proudly. "He took them to another level. They were so cheap before . . . just little performance things. Kids love them."

Janet is the first to admit that she idolizes her brother. He wasn't just a big brother, but her best friend for years. They were almost inseparable until she was in her mid-teens. They went to movies together, went to the store together and daydreamed together.

Even today, she feels no self-consciousness about describing him as a "genius" or "such an incredible mind."

At the same time, she is equally comfortable saying her goal is to sell more records than Michael.

"On one level, we are competitive," she says, matter-of-factly. "I want to sell more records than Michael--and he knows it. We both aim high because we feel that nothing is impossible. It's one of the things my mother taught us."

Janet was part of the massive television audience that tuned in the Oprah Winfrey TV show in February for Michael's first interview in more than a decade.

"I loved it," she says, petting Puffy, her 9-year-old bearded collie, who follows her around the set. "People finally got a chance to see him, how human he really is. It was wonderful. They could finally see what kind of heart he has. Still, there is so much more of him. That was just the icing."

Jackson was especially happy that he revealed on the show that he has a skin pigmentation disease which causes a discoloration.

"The first thing people ask me about Michael is why he does that to his skin . . . why is it turning white," she says. "I knew, but I couldn't say because I promised I wouldn't tell when he told me. I spoke to him on the phone after the show and said, 'You have just lifted the biggest burden off my shoulders. Now everybody knows the truth.' "

Things aren't as cheerful as the conversation swings to others in her family.

Jackson stops the tour of the set and sits on a sofa to concentrate on the interview when the topic turns to sister LaToya, whose 1991 book, "LaToya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family," was highly critical of their mother, even suggesting child abuse.

"My mother flew to New York to see her after we heard about some problems she was having and she wouldn't see Mother. Then, she goes on TV and says no one reached out. That's what upsets me."

What about the child abuse charges?

"My parents were never abusive . . . never," she replies. "Our parents were strict, but I'm thankful for that. One day you'd have all these people screaming over you at a concert or television show and the next you'd be at home on your knees scrubbing the floor. It helped us keep our feet on the ground."

But didn't Michael also use the word beat during the Winfrey interview?

"Michael did say the word and what a lot of people don't understand is that as a race, African-Americans, we use that word in place of 'spank,' " she says, earnestly.

"I was talking to one of my friends and she'd say, 'You know, girl, when I was little my mother used to beat us.' But they don't mean anything brutal. They mean spank. My parents never beat us in the sense of black and blue. Never."

Jackson also doesn't sidestep the controversy that surfaced in late 1991 when brother Jermaine released a single, "Word to the Badd," that criticized the self-proclaimed King of Pop as out of touch and for turning his back on his black heritage by allegedly altering his skin color.

"To me, there's no excuse for what he did and I told him I didn't like the record," she says. "We weren't raised like that. If you have a problem with someone, you tell that person. You don't tell the world about it."

About her own black heritage, she says, "I feel closer to it than ever. I think a lot of it has to do with growing older, being inquisitive. I think some people in the business, as far as African-Americans feel, they forget where they've come from.

"You can get too involved in what you are doing and never look back. I think it is important to sit down and think about where you came from and to help your people by extending your hand to bring someone else along."

It was the inner-city focus of "Poetic Justice" that excited Jackson about the film.

The pop star was looking for a script during the 1990 "Rhythm Nation" tour, but she didn't find anything she liked and was planning to go into the studio to make another album. But first came the lengthy contract negotiations with Virgin Records.

Shortly after the pact was signed in March, 1991, Jackson ran into director John Singleton while both were visiting Steven Spielberg on the set of "Hook."

They knew each other slightly from their days together at Portola Junior High School in Tarzana, where Singleton was bused daily from his home in South-Central Los Angeles. Janet later saw and loved "Boyz N the Hood," the Singleton movie that led last year to his being, at 23, the youngest director ever nominated for an Oscar.

When they got together again later, Singleton gave her a copy of the "Poetic Justice" script and asked if she'd give him her opinion of it. When she came back enthusiastic, Singleton offered her the lead role of Justice, a hairdresser in South-Central Los Angeles. She was so eager to play the role that she gained 10 pounds to look more like someone who had sort of let herself go after the trauma in her life.

"I felt the same realness that I had in 'Boyz N the Hood,' especially the Justice character," says Jackson. "I think it is a very strong part because there is a vulnerability there and through all the tragedy that has happened in her life, she has taken a positive road and how she expresses herself. I understood her pain."

Pain.

It's not a word you associate with Jackson--either the image or the pretty, confident, upbeat woman on the Hollywood set.

"I'm sure a lot of people are going to have the same question," she says. "But everybody has felt some pain. It's part of life. I remember my mother telling me that she didn't want me to ever get hurt by someone I was dating . . . and I told her that feeling pain is the only way you are going to grow."

She points to her marriage as her most painful time.

Jackson was 16 in 1984 when she eloped with James DeBarge. It was a marriage of musical dynasties because her husband was a member of the singing group DeBarge, which Motown was promoting as the new Jackson 5. But the Jackson family wasn't happy.

Some blamed family pressure as the reason for the annulment the following year, but Jackson disputes that. She points to personal problems, which she refuses to discuss, except for the effect the relationship had on her.

"I was devastated," she says of the annulment and the resulting loss of self-esteem. "I used to hurt so bad that I'd ask God, 'Why? . . . What have I done?' "

Singleton, who had turned successfully to pop music before-- rapper Ice Cube, for an essential role in "Boyz N the Hood"--had no worries about the public accepting Jackson in the role of a troubled South-Central woman.

"I spent time with Janet and I knew about some of the things she went through, plus I knew she had done the acting on TV," Singleton said in a separate interview. "But the main thing was Janet herself. We were just sitting around with her and she started loosening up and telling me about going to the San Diego Zoo and how these girls recognized her and she mimicked them. I told myself, 'That's cool, Janet can do this part.' "

But he acknowledges the curiosity on the set about this pop star turning to film: "When we had the first reading of the script, she thought that there'd just be the four characters and me, right? But everybody was wondering, 'Oh, man, I can't wait to see this.' They wanted to see the words come out of her mouth.

"So, there were like 40 people there when she walked into the room. But it really started to flow. It was much more than another job. It was kind of a cathartic experience, I think. After she ended up doing the movie last year, she recorded the album, and I think in some ways it had an influence on her . . . opening her up more, giving her confidence."

Another factor in shaping the album was the fact that Janet was again in love.

Jackson met Rene Elizondo, who is her boyfriend, when she was 16. He, too, grew up in Los Angeles around the entertainment world. Several relatives worked in the film business and he wanted to be a director. (He directed her recent "That's the Way Love Goes" video.)

"The funny thing is we were best friends for years before things became more serious," she says, still sitting on the sofa, amid the bustle of the set. "He was going through a lot of problems with his girlfriend. And I had things that were really hurting me with my relationship and being married.

"It was when I was 20, maybe, that we started being attracted to one another, and it was strange, like, 'Wait a minute, what is this I'm feeling? This is my best friend.' I guess I kind of felt guilty in a sense, not knowing this was right, but this is after I got an annulment."

But the film liberated her, making it easier to express feelings that she might have once shied away from in her music--feelings like "If," which deals with fantasies about sex and seduction.

"That's the most personal song on the album for me," she says. "They are feelings every girl has had, even guys. At one point, I thought, 'Hmmm, I wonder if this is going to be too much for people to take from me . . . this innocent picture they have.' But I said screw it, this is me. I felt this way, exactly this way."

Jackson pauses.

"I don't think the album is crass because I don't think sex is crass. To me, it's an expression of love."

On the following day, Jackson is feeling better and the rehearsal is in full swing. Even between takes, she's in constant motion. At one point, she rushes to a row of bleachers set up for about 30 unwed teen mothers, who are visiting Los Angeles as part of a work experience program.

"Janet, Janet," the girls scream. Some are so excited they are in tears.

She shakes hands with several of the girls and gives them autographs.

Horner of Right On! magazine said Jackson may have a more adult image now, but she hasn't lost the sense of approachability, something that is important in maintaining ties with her teen fans.

"I think people think Janet looks absolutely stunning," Horner said in a separate interview. "That's what we hear across the board. She looks like a movie star or a Miss America, but her beauty is not off-putting. The fans are still attracted to the warmth they see in her persona."

Later, Jackson reflects when told about all the reasons given by observers and friends for her newfound confidence--from the album successes to her own monitoring of what has happened to others in her family.

"I think people may be trying to overanalyze it," she says finally. "I've seen certain things, but it's not why I've changed and neither is the success. I'm still the same person. I think (the changes) have to do with the making of the film, which was a wonderful experience, and something everyone goes through: maturity. I think I've finally grown up."

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