Guest Column

The same media that force-feed us with images of celebrities would have us believe that fans are freaks: obsessed loners, or faceless members of hysterical crowds. It’s a bizarre tension. And it’s borne out by coverage of the Michael Jackson trial, and of the fans gathered in Santa Maria to support him.

News hounds eager for the latest on the trial also get a sidebar on the fans–the Jackson impersonators and fringe characters whose strangeness offers a specific reassurance to the rest of us. Our consumption of the latest celebrity trial story is compulsive, but at least we’re not like those poor, lost, starstruck fans huddled at the gates of Neverland.

As the author of a new book about fandom, I can say that Michael Jackson’s most devoted followers are unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. But neither do they conform to the media stereotypes of fans.

Jackson’s biggest fans describe their passion for the star as a moral duty. They see themselves as intermediaries to a holy innocent, representing what they perceive to be his values – generosity, humility, and love – in a world where goodness is persecuted.

Michael Jackson’s fans don’t exactly embrace his eccentricities; they simply deny that he is strange. And their righteous pleasure in defending him is compounded by a sense of exclusivity: The world may see them as fools, but they know they are the faithful remnant.

Who are these people?

The core group of Michael Jackson fans consists of several dozen attractive, fashionably dressed, and well-spoken European women over 21 and under 40 who refer to themselves as “girls”-and whose lives are largely ordered by the desire to see the singer in person at every possible opportunity.

Jacqui Scott, a slender, stylish beauty consultant who flew in from England, said, ” To be a fan is to see his goodness … Michael used to say, ‘If it wasn’t for the children of the world, I would throw in the towel.’ When Michael was arrested, I understood what he meant. In a world where this can happen, if it wasn’t for the innocents – the children and animals – there wouldn’t be any hope.”

Dulce Iglesias, a 29-year-old Spanish fan who helps run a family-owned restaurant in London, estimated that in the previous year she had taken eight “Michael trips,” lasting “anywhere from five days to a month.”

The women often travel in packs of four to six, usually with others from their home countries. Sometimes they follow the singer’s concert tours; sometimes they simply wait outside the gates of Neverland Ranch for weeks at a time, in hopes that he will notice them on his way in or out of the property.

Occasionally he invites them to have supper or watch movies with him at Neverland, although they declined to discuss these experiences in detail because they sign nondisclosure agreements upon entering the house. “I love the popcorn at Neverland,” said Daniela Kameke. “It tastes better than any popcorn in the world.”

The sacrifices they make for Michael’s sake are not just financial. They are also emotional. At the courthouse rally, Jacqui Scott expressed some bewilderment at the persistence of her ardor: “Some people let go of the things that helped them through their childhood. With Michael, it’s kind of like he’s this lost child. And a lot of his fans are like lost children.”

Most of these fans’ interest in Jackson is almost completely nonsexual. When they occasionally allow that he’s “hot,” the adjective is uttered with blushing and embarrassment.

It’s a curious discomfort. Sex appeal is usually a core element of pop fandom. The majority of Michael Jackson fans I talked with, by contrast, seemed embarrassed about sex.

I have run across only one other fan group that is so notably asexual. The television series “Beauty and the Beast” has a large following among people who have been physically disfigured, and those who have been victims of sexual abuse. These fans idealize the purity of the love affair between the show’s main characters – a love that is passionate but can never be sexual.

None of the Michael Jackson fans made any comments to me indicating that they were victims of sexual abuse. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about parallels to “Beauty and the Beast.” Quite possibly, people who have been abused and have chosen never to reveal it might be drawn to idealize a man who symbolizes childhood innocence and absolute goodness.

None of the fans I met operate under the delusion that they are personally close to Michael Jackson. They are simply willing to accept a relationship that is less than intimate at the center of their lives because of the sense of adventure that it provides. “I’ve been to places most people will never go,” said Myra Julliette. “Because of Michael, I have friends in Angola … I’ve been on the floor of the parliament in Romania. And Britain. And yet, in the end, he’s a stranger to me.”

At the end of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” Wendy, Michael, John and the Lost Boys return from Neverland to the real world. When the boys grow up, the narrator makes the melancholy judgment that “it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them. You may see the twins Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and umbrella … The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”

Sometimes I have a strong urge to wish little bags and umbrellas and offices on Michael Jackson’s lost girls. Years from now, Myra may have great stories to tell. And yet, if she and Dulce and Jacqui and the rest never stop flying around the world chasing Michael Jackson, who will they have to tell their stories to?

It’s an important question, but the more I think about it, the less I understand the point of asking it–or of judgment that dismisses these fans as insane. Their devotion to Michael Jackson is a funhouse mirror reflection of emotions that we have all experienced, and emotions that keep the entertainment industry in business. They live in the enchantment of the starstruck: the belief, despite all evidence, that someone wonderful is worth our wildest, deepest faith.

Gross is the author of Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame, recently published by Bloomsbury USA

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