In Los Angeles, the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor is playing out like a sordid circus. Beyond the courtroom, the rumours continue to swirl about the doomed star’s private life, personal appearance and peculiar preferences. And in London, David Gest is talking to Live about the film that he’s hoping will perform a very different function. Gest is celebrated for his appearance on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here (Jackson, who was living in Ireland at the time, tuned in every night to watch) and his appallingly embarrassing kiss to new (now ex-) bride Liza Minnelli.
But he also made £28 million as a music producer, and knew and stood by Jackson since the pair met at Walton School art department when Jackson was ten and Gest was a 15-year-old music obsessive who wanted to meet this rising local star. Gest, who became close friends with Tito and Michael, also lived with the Jackson family for years as a teenager.
The point of the film, he says, is to show Jackson was not a psychologically damaged, whispery-voiced eccentric who retreated into a fantasy world because he couldn’t face reality; rather, he insists, a fun-loving, fearless and complicated man obsessed with music, movies, junk food and bargain hunting. Those close to Jackson – other artists including Smokey Robinson, Whitney Houston and his siblings Tito and Rebbie Jackson – tell the story of a man who was destroyed by the paedophile investigation and used drugs to get over first the pain of a serious accident and then the horror of being publicly shamed twice.
‘If anything, I blame the legal prosecutors for Michael’s death,’ says Gest. ‘He was accused twice of hurting children.
‘In the first case against Jordy Chandler (in 1993) his lawyers paid off the family, even though Michael’s family and Michael himself didn’t want this to happen.
‘In the second case (2005) Jackson was acquitted. But the fact he had been declared innocent didn’t even register with him. Part of him had died and that was when we really lost him. We lost this beautiful, funny, talented man.’
The film, which has the first ever full interview with the star’s mother, Katherine, traces Jackson’s path from childhood superstar to drug addiction wrought by the terrible burns sustained when filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984, the paedophile allegations against him and, finally, the realisation that he would never be able to complete the 50 concerts he had been committed to just months before his death.
Gest maintains the new film is not a sentimental whitewash of Jackson’s life.
‘Michael was destroyed by the allegations in his trial in 2005,’ he says. ‘After that point he made bad decisions, surrounded himself with people who kept his friends and family away.
‘There were religious groups, strange people… his mobile phone number was changed every three days and it became impossible to get hold of him. We were shut out.’
Here, Gest recalls the private life – and idiosyncrasies – of the man whom the world knew as ‘Jacko’ – but only he knew as ‘friend’.
Michael’s voice: deep, strong and low
‘There are so many myths about Michael, so many mad stories,’ insists Gest.
‘His voice was deep, low and strong and Michael could be incredibly forthright.’
Bizarrely, the tape of Jackson slurring his words under the influence of drugs heard during the trial against his private doctor, Conrad Murray, is, points out, evidence of the singer’s deep African- American voice.
The joker on the road trip
Gest’s last memory of having fun with Michael was just before Jackson’s 2005 trial.
‘We went on a road trip to San Francisco and we got on a stretch of highway that had road works and it suddenly got really hairy; we were driving so close to the edge of this cliff I kept screaming because I thought we were going over.
‘Michael was totally relaxed; he just kept laughing and laughing because I was going so crazy. He was totally fearless, he always was. That was so Michael. He was such a kid and a joker.’
Brought down to Earth at the petrol pump
‘I was the one with the bigger ego. I bought my first car after Michael made Off The Wall. We’d go on trips but I’d make him put the fuel in because I hated it going on my hands.
‘He’d bang on the window and say, “David, I’m the star.” I’d pull a face at him and say, “Not when you’re with me.” He’d laugh. I’d always make him laugh.’
He loved kids – but he was into women…
‘Michael wasn’t a paedophile. I remember him calling me late one night during the first case and he was just shell-shocked. I never for one second ever believed that Michael had done anything wrong.
‘A lot of his so-called friends melted away from him but myself and Macaulay Culkin were among the few who would regularly go on television to speak up for him. When they raided Neverland they found men’s magazines and there was no child porn anywhere in the house.
‘He loved kids like a father but he was into women. He was 100 per cent straight. He just couldn’t trust most of the women he met – he was genuinely shy and he just put his career first, before women.
‘He very definitely had sex. There was a Hollywood actress who absolutely jumped his bones and taught him a few things.’
On stage and off his head
‘In 2001 I persuaded Michael to do a Jackson Family Reunion in Madison Square Garden. It was amazing. Everybody turned out for it, from Britney to Slash, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. It was a huge, huge event paying tribute to Michael.
‘He had promised to be in the audience for the first part of the show, which began at 8pm, to watch other artists pay tribute to him, but 8pm came and went and no Michael. It turned 8.15, still no Michael. By 8.20 I was going crazy.
‘I sent an assistant to his hotel room and he was in bed. The assistant called me to say he was unconscious and I said just get him up, get him here. He got him up and Michael told him he’d taken Demerol, a painkiller.
‘I screamed at him to get to the stadium, whatever state he was in. He turned up looking totally off his head. But he performed note perfect, step perfect, word perfect – it was only as I was going through the footage that I could see his eyes were totally gone.
‘After the show, I exploded. We had one more show a few nights later. I told him that if he ever did that again I would dock him $8,000 for every minute he wasn’t there.
‘For the next show he was there well before time.
‘I was aware there were problems, I knew he had trouble sleeping. I went to meet him some time after and he told me he’d taken sleeping pills; he was groggy and he didn’t sound like Michael.’
Off to the cinema, dressed as an Arab…
‘You’d have all these stories about him going out in disguise. He did once put on an Arab’s costume when we went to the cinema, but pulled it off as soon as we got inside. Most of the time when we were together he didn’t bother disguising himself.
‘I taught him to barter for antiques. Despite his wealth he was fierce. He’d ask a price and the guy would say, “$1,000.” He’d say, “$200, take it or leave it,” and go to walk out of the shop. He’d be delighted if he got it for that price and we’d sit in his limo with a whole load of junk food laughing.’
The accident, the terrible burns and the start of painkillers
‘The general public are totally unaware of the devastating effect of the burns Michael received to his head when a stunt for a Pepsi commercial went wrong (in 1984).
‘A pyrotechnic burst into the air and hit him right on the head. His head was on fire and he continued to dance on stage before people actually realised. You cannot imagine the excruciating pain, the damage that was done to him.
‘He was burnt through several layers of his scalp and needed the most intensive surgery. We have the footage shot from the back of the commercial, so you can see how extreme that accident was, and we show exactly what surgery had to be done.
‘This was the point Michael began to take painkillers; that pain never went away. The surgery was incredibly painful and the recovery was painful; he couldn’t sleep without painkillers. In the documentary I show footage which shows how bad it was; so many people have no idea the damage it did to him.
‘Michael was never fit to do 50 shows. He just wasn’t. He wouldn’t be able to sleep for worry. And yes, he picked a doctor who he could be in charge of – he doctor-shopped because he could.’
Vintage wine and junk food
Gest remembers Jackson being made ill by drinking vintage wine.
‘Michael was throwing up in my garage and as I was laughing, he looked at me and said, “I’m going to tell Joe (Jackson) and you’re gonna be in big trouble.” Then he was laughing in the midst of being sick.’
At the age of 16, Gest recalls getting a monstering from Katherine after they were both charged with going out to buy eight buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which they left locked in her car in their haste to get to the cinema.
‘She went crazy the next day; that car stank and she was screaming at me and Michael. We had to clean out the car.’
To the end, he says, Jackson loved the Three Stooges, Marx Brothers movies, Gene Kelly musicals – and KFC.
‘I remember he’d sit in his car, take off the skin and say, “David, now I’ve made it organic. I can eat it.” I’d laugh in his face and tell him it was still Colonel Sanders. Michael wouldn’t have it. That is the Michael I miss.’