From the beginning it was always a quandary for me, Michael’s birthday. From the first day we met, unfamiliar to me, I was faced with his chosen religion, Jehovah’s Witness.
When Michael arrived for his photo shoot for THRILLER, two men accompanied him impeccably dressed in suits, who sat over to the side on some cushy couches and watched his every move.
Since this was the first time I worked with him, it didn’t feel appropriate for me to ask who they could possibly be. I thought if he wanted us to know, he would have told us. I just felt their presence throughout the entire day. They left with him as mysteriously as they had entered with him. At the time I really did not give it another thought, because I had no idea of the adventure that was ahead of me.
The next shoot, there again…a mysterious gentleman, sitting in the background.
As our working relationship and friendship began to grow, I asked. He explained to me he was a Jehovah’s Witness. He was very active with the church, and these gentlemen were monitors. They watched over him. He also explained he went to bible study, and spent time going door-to-door teaching the word each week. I had to take pause for a minute and think about that one….
THRILLER had been released by the time he was explaining this to me. “You mean to tell me, that you ring someone’s doorbell, they come to answer it, and there stands Michael Jackson??????”
He gave me one of his hi pitched belly laughs…and said, “yeah”. He further explained that he does it in disguise.
“Oh no you don’t.”
Still giggling, he paused and got amusingly serious. “Yeah, sure. After they let me in, they usually begin to look at me funny, so I end up admitting who I am.”
“Wow, I wish I could be a fly on the wall and watch that. I still can’t believe you do that.” I said.
“It is a big part of being a Jehovah’s Witness. We also do not celebrate holidays or birthdays. We believe that we should honor and celebrate these things daily, and not have just one day.”
So I asked “No birthdays. No Christmas?”
“No” he replied.
“Isn’t that difficult, when the world around you is decorating and singing carols?”.
“Yes, Turkle…it is always kind of sad, especially when I was a child, because it looked like so much fun. But it is okay; we have things like FAMILY DAY, where we all get together. There are hundreds of Jackson’s and we all try and be there.”
I could genuinely see the sadness in his eyes and the sense his feeling of loss, not celebrating Christmas with the other kids…so I changed the subject.
One August 29th, we ended up working. Everyone was wishing him Happy Birthday and giving him little presents. He smiled and graciously accepted them. Once we were in the privacy of the trailer, he put the gifts down on the seat, and looked down at them.
“I wish people wouldn’t do that. Please promise me, Turkle, don’t EVER say Happy Birthday to me.”
I was torn. I once again saw how sad and conflicted he was on the inside about this, but he remained loyal to his beliefs. It was so difficult for me too. I wanted to give him a present and a big birthday hug every time August 29th rolled around, and join in with the others who were celebrating his birthday around him. I also wanted to comply with his request not to even SAY happy birthday.
We were shooting SMOOTH CRIMINAL. I was accustomed to the monitors by now. The filming was going on longer than planned, as usual. We were preparing for a very big scene. Michael was surrounded by the alien battalion in a gully, built on stage 14.
The special weapons and ammunition team had briefed Michael on how to hold the machine gun and fire it. It was the last scene of the evening. Michael was having fun with it, like a little boy playing army. He took a strong stance, and fired as the cameras rolled.
That was a wrap for that evening, and we were given our call time for the next morning.
Michael was a little late arriving the next day. I was waiting in his trailer. He walked in so distraught. I didn’t understand, we were having so much fun the night before. He was silent as he sat in the makeup chair. I had to ask him please tell me. Please tell me what is wrong.
His eyes welled up with tears. “Mother called last night. The church called her, and told her that I held and fired a gun yesterday. They ordered that I have to make decision. I must leave the church, or leave the entertainment industry.” He was weeping as he uttered those words.
I was quite mortified. “What did your mother advise you to do?”
“She felt horrible. She told me it was up to me. She said she would stand by me with whatever I decided.”
“I see, you are here today”.
“Mother is supporting my choice”.
It took a while for Michael to adjust to his choice. He continued to feel uncomfortable with his birthday, but attended fan events in his honor, and truly enjoyed them.
When I was around him during Christmas, he would hide in his own closet to secretly wrap presents. He still held a tinge of guilt. I knew it was difficult for him, but I know he loved all the decorations that NEVER came down. He could freely give his children the birthdays that he never had. I knew deep down inside the Jehovah Witness teachings continued to hold a sacred place inside of him. That is why I was forever torn by not saying “Happy Birthday”. He never released me from my promise to not say it to him.