Friday, June 10, 2011

Growing Up Under a Lover's Spell

Written by Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer 
Posted originally on Monday, July 6, 2009

If Michael Jackson had married me, none of this would have happened.

That was the plan, from way back in elementary school. I was going to graduate, become a world-famous model and actress, and marry Michael Jackson.

There were several scenarios as to how this would happen, most of them dreamed up as I lay on my pink bedspread with yellow, green and blue butterflies in Indianapolis, about 150 miles from his home town of Gary.

Like thousands of other girls, I fell in love with Michael listening to Jackson 5 45s and LPs, long before videos, CDs and DVDs. For women of my generation, loving Michael Jackson was a rite of passage. We first saw him on "The Ed Sullivan Show" or "American Bandstand" or on the pages of teen magazines like Right On! and 16. We fell in love with Michael before he became the world's "Thriller," when he was still chocolate brown and had a wide nose and a big Afro and belted out love songs in a voice that hadn't yet changed.

We didn't have videos, but we saw him every night in our dreams, where he sang to us the way a man sings to a woman he loves deep down in his soul.

I had a special relationship with Michael, one that I argued about with girlfriends as we debated who was better suited to be Michael's wife. I had slumber parties where the activity focused on listening to J-5 records. My friends and I danced in the street on summer nights as his songs played on portable record players, singing at the top of our lungs:

Stop! [right arms outstretched, a la the Supremes] the love you save may be your own,

Darlin' look both ways before you cross me,

You're heading for a danger ZONE!

"People today just don't understand how much he meant to us," said Carolyn Winbush, 52, a nurse who lives in Bowie and has been mourning by playing her MJ and J-5 records with her daughters Jamie, 16, and Jade, 20. "We just loved him. There is no other way to describe it. There is no relationship today like we had with Michael."

While today's tweens, teens, Gen-Xers and millennials feel the pain of Michael's passing, they haven't loved him long enough to feel it as deeply as the baby boomers of his generation.

They love the superstar he became after moonwalking on "Motown 25"; we were there when the Jackson 5 were competing with the Osmonds for most-talented musical family. Since his death, they've devoured his CDs on Amazon, while we've headed to the attic to pull our old albums out of the cardboard boxes that have kept them safe for decades.

"We had him first. We grew up with him," Winbush said. "He was our age. That was the debate I was having with my daughters. Everybody would know when the Jackson 5 was going to be on and everybody would watch it back then. There was pure excitement and pride, and love that was so deep."

We did cheerleading routines to his songs. We had our first slow dances to "Maybe Tomorrow" and our first kisses to "I'll Be There."

We broke up with boys in middle school because they never measured up to Michael.

"There is a Michael Jackson song to go along with every phase of our childhood," said Cheries McElroy Dupee of Des Moines, my high school best friend. "His music defined us."

She, other girlfriends and I used to spend long afternoons fantasizing about meeting Michael. I used to try to set up scenarios for us to meet. I went to every J-5 concert, including one when I was in the eighth grade. I saved my babysitting money for weeks to buy a ticket, along with a group of my friends; we scored them sixth row center, close enough, I thought, for Michael to see me from the stage.

I blew more babysitting money on a white jumpsuit, something that would catch the stage lights. In my plan, the house lights went down as Michael began to sing. Suddenly, connecting with him on a psychic level as none of the other 49,999 screaming fans could, I stood up. The lights stopped on me, Michael noticed and beckoned for his stage manager. By the time Michael segued from "Never Can Say Goodbye" to "Got to Be There," I was onstage. He looked deep into my eyes, told me I was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen and asked me to marry him, right there in front of Cheri, my cousin Terry and everybody.

I have spent most of my waking hours since his death remembering Michael. I had a slumber party with some of my girlfriends where we pulled out my LPs, sang and giggled over the lyrics, danced to his videos and ate pizza. It was like a slumber party again, until we started talking about recent years, after the nose jobs and the skin and the chin and the balcony scene.

He had changed, but we loved him anyway. We never turned on him, as the newbies had, only to come flocking back after his passing. We always knew that his idiosyncrasies had resulted from failing to find personal happiness because he focused on giving it to us.

In one televised interview that I have seen repeatedly in my electronic vigil, a tiny Michael in black and white described how he put so much feeling into his songs. "I don't sing it if I don't mean it," he said.

That interview melded to a grown Michael, skin white and lips red, describing how he spent three hours a day with a tutor before heading to the recording studio to work until late. Across the street from the studio was a park and every day he would notice children playing there, he said.

And he would cry because he never got a chance to play.

That's when I cried, for the boy I had loved, the sadness he had obviously lived and the tragedy that he died before he got another chance to be happy.



  1. Wished I had the privilege of knowing Michael in his earlier years; pity that in my birth country, we did not have that much luxury of exposure to the J5's (or other foreign entertainers for that matter)... but still, I have much to be grateful about, knowing that every breath I take now, is under MJ's spell ♥

  2. What a lovely fan story... I wasn't old enough to be there for J5, and as I was growing up, my mum made sure I was kept far from american music, which she did not like. Only when I was 12 and living with my garandmother for a few months I got to really see and listen to Michael. That's when the Black or White video came out. It's still a long story for me...