Gathering of the faithful

Times Staff Writer

Her bedroom is a shrine to the Gloved One, her home Command Central for legions of hard-core fans. For thousands linked only by a love of Jacko and a high-speed connection, Deborah Dannelly is the Supreme Commander -- president of the Michael Jackson Fan Club.

From her modest house on Lafitte Street in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she oversees the club's Web site (, Dannelly mobilizes the fan machinery around the world. Her job is part-time and all-consuming, a labor of love and a raison d'etre. In her zeal and devotion she is like a political campaign strategist, or a missionary spreading the word of God.

"It is not Michael alone who is being attacked here," Dannelly says. "The fans are being attacked. This is a person that we have followed, that we have believed in, most of these fans, most of their lives."

In quiet times the club -- which she estimates to be the largest Jackson fan club anywhere, with 12,000 to 14,000 members -- encourages members to buy albums, call radio stations with requests, purchase cellphones that play the latest Jackson tune or to be wary of Neverland Ranch items up for auction on Ebay or Yahoo (they could be fakes). Last summer the club threw a 45th birthday party for Jackson at the Orpheum, a grand old theater in downtown Los Angeles, complete with moonwalking, lip-syncing impersonators and a 400-pound birthday cake.

But in times like these, the fans get serious. In 2002 they picketed Sony over what they considered inadequate promotion of the album "Invincible." Earlier this year they denounced Martin Bashir's documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," which aired on ABC, and sent Bashir angry letters. Now, with Jackson facing multiple charges of child molestation, the troops are rallying once again.

Dannelly and her staff of 12 are gathering letters of support (only four lines, please!), and nine translators around the globe are rewriting them into English. They're keeping an eye on the media, and trying to swing public opinion polls. ("MSNBC is currently conducting the following poll: Should Jacko's kids be taken away right now? Currently 50% of the votes are 'Yes,' 50% are 'No.' We ask all fans, please go to MSNBC's web site immediately and voice your opinion," reads a Nov. 20 posting.)

Last Saturday, as fans held candlelight vigils for Jackson from Hollywood Boulevard to the Champs-Elysees, Dannelly racked her brains for a course of action. At midnight on Sunday she posted her latest strategy: Fan Watch.

According to the Web site, Fan Watch is assembling a team of lawyers, consultants and investigators to ensure that Jackson "gets fair treatment, both in court, and in public opinion." Fans are invited to contribute funds to the cause. Dannelly makes clear that Fan Watch is not part of the official Michael Jackson defense team but offers few specifics about what this new group would do, except to say, "When you print this article we are going to investigate to see if it is fair and balanced."

Longtime devotion

It's easy to see why fans are suspicious of the media, which have outdone themselves in a circus of speculative sensationalism in the past week, but ask them why they love Michael Jackson and they become expansive and eloquent. They reveal a depth of devotion that borders on cultish, but is almost childlike in its innocence.

Dannelly, now 48, has been a fan for 36 years, and has been working for the fan club for the past 12.

"I started when he did," she says. "I was just a child. He was just as cute as a button. He did and he still does just take my breath away when I hear him sing. I just love his voice."

Back then her favorite song was "ABC," and she still loves it; now her favorite song is "Ben."

"Most entertainers, all they offer the fans is their music," Dannelly says. "Michael offers himself."

If someone were to remain trapped as a teenage groupie for decades, her bedroom might look like Dannelly's. Every spare inch is covered with posters, plates and pictures. There isn't room to hang another 5x7, she jokes. She has nearly every album, and no CDs except Jackson's. "The only time I hear other music is TV or radio," she says.

Everyone in her life knows about her passion. At the law firm where she works as a legal secretary, her colleagues always ask to see pictures from her vacations, since they all revolve around Jackson. Her family forgave her for eating and running on Thanksgiving, without washing a dish. She had to get back to work on Fan Watch.

"My family is very supportive. Do they have a choice?" she asks. "They understand now more than when I was 13. That's when I saw this little boy, with this enormous voice. It sounded like an angel singing. I was so in love with this boy that I think that they all felt it was going to be a phase, that the next day it would be the Monkees and the Beatles. But it didn't go away.

"The only thing that went away is that I did get over the idea of marrying him," she says, ultimately losing hope in her 20s. "But when I was 13 I really believed that if Michael could just know how much I loved him, he would marry me. I knew I was the only one out there that loved him that much."

For some fans the devotion to Jackson parallels deep religious convictions, inspiring a belief that the King of Pop is an agent of God.

Sharon Sidney, 32, wrote her first poem to Jackson when she was 8. "If you propose to me, I will marry you," she wrote then. Today, in addition to her real job at a facility where children are housed before they move into foster homes, she is the official poet of the Michael Jackson Fan Club, writing a poem for him every month for the last four years.

"God has anointed his voice," she says, crying on the phone from Houston. "When I was a child I was frequently depressed. There were times when I was 9 years old when I would hear his voice on the radio, and basically, it was the thing that kept me holding on."

Matt Daniel, 31, is a scripture-quoting seminary student from a Detroit suburb who speaks similarly of Jackson as a spiritual experience. In a single conversation he draws on stories of Paul from the Bible and lyrics from Jackson's single "Tabloid Junkie."

Daniel remembers coming home from school and seeing the music video for "Billy Jean," one of the first videos he had ever seen. "It introduced me to what I have understood over the years to be charisma," he says. "Michael touched me very deeply, spiritually. I believe he is an instrument of God, chosen to serve a prophetic role."

Dannelly and other fans do not believe that Jackson is guilty, but they are careful not to cast themselves as blind devotees. What they resent, they say, is the jovial manner in which Santa Barbara Dist. Atty. Thomas W. Sneddon conducted his news conference announcing the charges, and the skew of television news reports, which always include more interviews with people who hate Jackson than with those who love him.

"This is not the man I know," Dannelly says. "I believe anybody who could spend five minutes with him would say the same thing. I believe those allegations are false."

In the past, Dannelly has put together books of thousands of e-mails from fans, compiled in binders, lugged them on an airplane as carry-ons so they wouldn't be out of her sight, and hand-delivered them to the gate of Neverland Ranch in a giant gift bag.

The current load (over 6,000 messages of love and support have been received so far) will be delivered to Jackson on Jan. 9, the day of his arraignment in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

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