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Michael and Me
The Untold Story of Michael Jackson's Secret Romance
By Shana Mangatal
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Shana Mangatal
All rights reserved.
It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.
— Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
The Jackson Five exploded on the scene with four number-one hit singles, launching the seventies and securing their place in history. My parents and brother Todd watched their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, which occurred just six months before I was born. I suppose I was there too, witnessing it from the womb.
Growing up, Todd and I loved to pretend we were the Jackson Five. He always insisted on being Michael. I protested, "No, I want to be Michael!" But Todd was five years older than I and he invariably won, making me Marlon. We acted out our parts in our living room, dancing and belting out all of the hits in front of an imaginary audience of screaming fans.
Our warm home in Largo, Maryland, was the backdrop for what I remember as the perfect childhood — akin to a family life one might find in the 1950s. My father, Emmanuel, who preferred to be addressed by his nickname, Mano, worked as an electrical engineer. My mother, Janice, carved out a career as an IT/computer manager at prestigious government agencies in the DC area, including NASA. Although both of my parents had busy work schedules, my brother and I never had a babysitter. My parents took us with them everywhere, or one figured out a way to be home with us while the other worked. We had yearly summer vacations to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and ate dinner together every night as a family.
My father had moved to Brooklyn from the French Caribbean island of Martinique in the early 1960s. He spoke with a romantic French accent and looked just like Johnny Mathis, who was my mother's idol. Suave and handsome, with thick, wavy black hair and a beautiful reddish-brown skin tone, he was what we call a pretty boy.
For my mother, it was love at first sight. She had relocated to New York City around the same time with her mother, whose family all lived in the New York area. She was working at a dry cleaning store when one day my father walked in to drop off some clothes. She was nineteen years old, and he was eight years older. They were married for forty-two years, until my father passed away in 2005.
On Christmas morning of 1973, I remember waking up before the sun to find an abundance of presents under our white Christmas tree. I spotted the Jackson Five board game and the other presents became invisible. Todd and I tore open the box and played as soon as we could take the pieces out. I was just a toddler so I wasn't very good at the game, but I tried my best to join in on the fun. Every Saturday morning our routine included playing that game in our pajamas while watching The Jackson 5 cartoon and Soul Train, followed by American Bandstand.
We combed through Right On! magazine every month to see what Michael and his brothers were wearing and what they were doing. Right On! was like our bible. If we saw Michael wearing a fringe suede jacket, then of course we had to get one too. When I think of the 1970s, my memories are painted with a kaleidoscope of colors and rose-colored dreams. It was a great decade filled with disco, soul, Afros, bell bottoms, peace, and love.
Computers, cell phones, video games, DVDs, and CDs didn't exist. We used our imaginations to have fun. Nothing was immediate or readily accessible and the world felt more enchanting and mysterious because of it. Hollywood resided in a land far, far away — a place inhabited by glamorous, pretty people and only reached in our fantasies. My brother and I incessantly asked our mother what movie stars were really like. They seemed so perfect; we couldn't imagine them doing normal things like going to the bathroom. My mother, always wanting to maintain an air of wonder and magic in our lives, responded that, in fact, movie stars did not go to the bathroom. We believed her wholeheartedly and viewed Hollywood as a mystical place where all of your dreams came true. From that early age, I knew that California was the place I was meant to be. My mother had instilled in us the motto "Go be your dream."
* * *
The first concert I attended was the Jacksons' Triumph tour in 1981. Todd took me — he was sixteen years old and I was eleven. We hopped in my father's station wagon, the kind with the wood paneling along the sides, and drove the short distance to the venue. I wore my coolest outfit — a colorful, braided headband and a purple jelly-bean jacket. This jacket was a must-have among us preteen girls. Although it was made of cheap, plastic, see-through material, wearing it made me feel like a part of the in-crowd. My hair was in its usual style, two long braids and curled bangs in the front. In elementary school, I was known as "that Indian-looking girl" because of my long hair. It was the envy of all of the girls in my class.
We arrived at the venue of the concert, the Capitol Centre, which was a few miles from our house in Largo. The tickets for our nosebleed seats were an expensive twelve dollars each, which took many months of weekly allowances to save.
Stacy Lattisaw opened the show. She had the voice of an angel, was just a few years older than me, and also hailed from the Washington, DC, area. Seeing someone so close to my age, from my neighborhood, on TV and the radio, inspired me. I idolized her. Every day I locked myself in my room imagining I was Stacy, singing her songs and recording my voice in a cassette recorder. I also performed her songs at family get-togethers. Everyone knew to expect a one-woman show from me at all of our parties. I'm sure they were all sick of hearing me sing Stacy's hits "Let Me Be Your Angel" and "Love on a Two-Way Street" at every event, but enduring my little performances was the price you had to pay to eat the delicious food my mother was cooking at our frequent Maryland blue crab feasts.
Whenever Stacy had a new album coming out, I begged my parents to drive me to the record store on the first day of its release. The joy of seeing that big album cover sitting on display for the first time is one of those indescribable feelings that future generations will never know.
At the Jacksons' concert, Stacy performed all of her hit songs. Mesmerized, I sang along. Her initials, SL, were spray-painted on top of her hair ... and the top of her hair was all I could make out from my seat in the upper deck. But that didn't dampen anything. I was fulfilling one of my girlhood dreams — being able to sing along with her live.
Stacy took her final bow and the lights in the arena dimmed. The crowd stirred with anticipation. After about twenty minutes, the arena went completely dark and a huge video screen dropped down in front of the stage. A short film starring the Jackson brothers played. The audience went crazy. There they were, up on the screen, singing their powerful anthem "Can You Feel It," which was one of the hit songs on their Triumph album. As the song boomed out over the large speakers, the excitement in the air intensified. Everyone screamed and sang along until it ended. The video screen disappeared into the air and huge colored spotlights rose from the darkness. All five of the brothers stood onstage, posed like statues of gods. With Michael in the center, they remained frozen for five minutes. The audience screamed louder and louder. The song "Can You Feel It" exploded back onto the sound system, and the brothers burst into their dance routine, singing the song live.
Stacy Lattisaw became a distant memory as I sat enthralled by the power of Michael's performance. He was no longer that little boy in the Jackson Five. He was a grown and sexy man now — a confident superstar. Michael made me a believer that night.
After the concert, my brother and I walked to our car, which was in an outside parking lot. We noticed circles of teens gathered. Curious, we approached one of them. Two teens were in the middle of the circle performing a weird dance we had never seen before. It baffled us. They were gliding as if on air and spinning on the ground with acrobatic moves. As it turns out, it was breakdancing. It was the first time my brother and I had ever witnessed it.
* * *
From the moment MTV launched its rocket ship in 1981, it was on all day in my house. And no artist was more brilliant when it came to music videos than Michael Jackson. I always had the VCR ready to record anything that had to do with Michael, and I amassed a stack of tapes that I watched over and over again. I remember running home from school to catch the world premieres of Michael's short films from the Thriller album. Michael didn't call them music videos, he called them short films — and they really were. These were not the cheap videos with cheesy special effects and bad choreography that filled MTV all day. Michael's videos each had a story line, expensive sets, great cinematography, a respected director, and breathtaking choreography. And thus, MTV treated the premiere of a new Michael video as an event.
In my teenage years, I wasn't like most other girls. I wasn't crazy for boys and I had no interest in partying. I preferred to keep to myself. I was a loner. I always felt I was on the outside looking in on life — never feeling like I fully fit in with anybody or anything. The song "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian became my theme song. At school, I became known for my unique wardrobe — wearing mismatched socks, sparkly gold boots, and three watches on each arm. I was a cross between Madonna, Jody Watley, and Cyndi Lauper. I dared to be different and the other kids respected me because of it. But I knew that living in a small town was just not for me. California was the only place I wanted to be and dreams of living there consumed my mind.
While other kids partied, I took the subway to Washington, DC, to visit the Smithsonian and other places filled with culture. Alone, I attended plays and concerts of classic singers — soaking up as much as I could. I watched old movies and read every book that ever existed on Hollywood. The entertainment world was all I cared about, and I was determined to learn every piece of its history.
At the age of fifteen, I became fascinated by ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. I saw him in a movie called White Nights with Gregory Hines and I fell in love. I just had to meet him.
Baryshnikov was the star dancer of the American Ballet Theater and the revered company was scheduled to perform a few nights at the Kennedy Center in downtown Washington, DC. My friend Cheryl and I came up with the bright idea to dress as ballerinas and sneak backstage so we could meet him. There was one small catch — there were no black ballerinas in the American Ballet Theater. We knew we would stand out like a sore thumb, but we were willing to try anything. Believe it or not, our crazy plan worked. We dressed in ballet workout clothes — leg warmers, shorts, and a T-shirt — and strolled through the backstage door. No one stopped us at all. We were in.
The first night was called the gala. This was huge in the ballet world. Politicians and the upper crust of Washington, DC, were all in attendance, having paid lots of money to witness the brilliance of Baryshnikov.
We found our way to the stage and stood in the wings, watching the entire gala from that location. We were actually on the stage, just behind the curtain, waiting with the other ballerinas who were taking turns dancing on and off stage. At one point, Baryshnikov, his entire body drenched in sweat, twirled off stage and reclined in a chair right next to me. He flexed his leg muscles, warming up for the next sequence. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. No one said a word to us all night and we were glad. I suppose they figured we belonged.
We tried our luck and went back the next night, hoping for the same results. We managed to watch half of the show from the same location until a crew member told us we were in the way and couldn't stand there due to insurance issues. We left, sad but with a feeling of accomplishment. Our goal of watching Baryshnikov dance, up close and in person, was achieved. I think some of his sweat might have even dripped on me on his way off of the stage.
This sense of adventure was the driving force behind my decision to leave Largo, Maryland, at the age of eighteen and drive across the country to California. I had attended precollege courses in high school from the University of Maryland, graduating with honors and straight As, and my mailbox was flooded with scholarship offers from prestigious universities. But California was calling. Every second that passed was a second that I could be in Los Angeles. I felt I was wasting time by not being where I knew I belonged. College would always be there, I figured. And if I moved to California, I could go to my dream school, UCLA, while working a part-time job. All of these thoughts swirled in my mind as I packed my bags and loaded them into my 1984 gray Chevrolet Cavalier, which I received as a graduation present from my parents.
My friend Evelyn joined me on my adventure and we hit the road, taking turns driving. We had formed a singing duo a few months before and we were determined to get a record deal — writing a new song every day and recording them on our cheap, portable cassette recorder. Evelyn played the keyboard and I wrote the lyrics and melodies. We figured we could record a real demo when we arrived in L.A. and find a record company interested in us. Yes, we thought it would be that easy.
On our journey across the United States, we recorded and wrote five new songs. I sang as I drove through the cow pastures of Texas and the majestic mountains of Arizona, while Evelyn operated the tape recorder. We were focused on having a few songs to give record companies upon our arrival. We didn't have any other jobs lined up — we just figured it would all work out somehow.
An invisible force was pulling me to Los Angeles and I wasn't going to let a minor detail like a job or lack of money stop me.
My dreams were big, and it was time to chase them.CHAPTER 2
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
— Helen Keller
Welcome to California. Evelyn and I screamed with joy as the words on the dusty green sign came into view. After driving nonstop across the United States for two and a half days, we had arrived.
It was 1989 and Los Angeles felt like paradise. There was a sense of hope here, a feeling that anything was possible. The sun was bright and hot and the sky was deep blue, with no clouds in sight. Just waking up every morning and seeing palm trees swaying outside of my window made me happy.
Evelyn moved in with her sister in the rich neighborhood of Brentwood, just down the street from O. J. Simpson, and I settled into a Holiday Inn in Glendale, a sleepy town just on the edge of the San Fernando Valley, which was not considered a desirable area back then. But it was cheap, safe, and offered monthly rates for extended stays. At $650 a month, it couldn't be beat.
Incidentally, Michael's final resting place would be in Glendale at Forest Lawn Memorial cemetery. And, by some twist of fate, I was there on June 25, 2009, when I learned of his death as I was driving by the cemetery. But I still had twenty years to go before any of that happened. We'll get to that later.
Between trips to Fat Burger, Evelyn and I wrote and recorded songs in a makeshift recording studio inside the pool house in the backyard of Evelyn's sister's Brentwood mansion, located just off of Sunset Boulevard. We purchased a four-track recorder, microphone, reverb machine, and keyboards — just enough to get by. After polishing our demo of three pop/R&B songs, we pounded the pavement, hoping for a lucky break.
The lucky break came, but not in the music industry.
Excerpted from Michael and Me by Shana Mangatal. Copyright © 2016 Shana Mangatal. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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