Janet Journey

America’s Most Wanted

When Janet Jackson flashed her right one at February’s Super Bowl, she instantly ignited a firestorm of finger-pointing, tongue-clucking and election-year moralizing. But was Hootergate really that out of character for Ms. Jackson? “I’ve always enjoyed sex,” she tells Blender.

Blender, June/July 2004 By Rob Tannenbaum

Technically speaking, the breast is not exposed,” an Access Hollywood reporter says with a snicker as Janet Jackson slides onto a wet stage early one March morning, cleavage ablaze, to perform live on Good Morning America. Since February 1, when the largest Super Bowl audience in history saw Jackson’s right breast exposed — either accidentally, as she says, or to create a self-promoting scandal, as nearly everyone else seems to suspect — our nation has turned into a classroom of sixth graders, tittering at any mention of “boobies.”

Because this is an election year, Jackson’s breast became a political football: Congressional Republicans denounced the halftime show as “indecent” and started a culture war that quickly spread to other TV shows and F-mouthed radio comics like Howard Stern. Eighty years ago, writer H.L. Mencken coined the term booboisie to describe the coalition of campaigning politicians, busybody clergy and moralizing commentators who raise an alarm at phantom menaces that they claim jeopardize our national health. Jackson’s reveal has made a lot of people look like, well, boobs.

ABC has promoted this as Jackson’s “first live performance since the Super Bowl,” hinting at the chance of shock value. Photographers and camera crews are packed in, in case Jackson decides to show us the left one. And if all eyes (and cameras) are on her chest, Jackson, 38, responds defiantly by refusing to cloak her breasts in a modest turtleneck. The cleavage is her way of saying Fuck You.

The fans who have filled a corner of New York’s Battery Park, some of whom have been standing in the cold since 2 A.M., announce their love with signs (ERIC LUVS JANET) and shouts (“Eric, put that damn sign down!”). “CBS ought to thank her,” clucks one man in a black leather coat who drove nine hours from Buffalo with his 4-year-old niece. “Ratings went through the roof. Everybody can’t wait for next year’s Super Bowl.”

Behind the stage, the Statue of Liberty is covered by mist — ah, cheap irony! — as Diane Sawyer questions Jackson about the Super Bowl show. Sawyer persists, getting nothing but softly murmured evasions, and those in the crowd begin to hiss and chant their unhappiness with the questions, growing so loud that Sawyer can’t hear Jackson. “She could have been saying ‘You bitch, you slut,’ for all I could tell,” Sawyer tells someone, coming offstage after the failed interview.

Jackson is far too kind to call Diane Sawyer a bitch or a slut on live television. But it is the kind of thing one of her alter egos might say.

* * * * *

Jackson titled her eighth album Damita Jo because it’s the middle name her parents gave her when she was born in Gary, Indiana, the last of nine children. But there’s also a longer, trickier explanation, which reveals far more about her, and about new songs like “Warmth,” where she describes giving a blow job in a car, and “Strawberry Bounce,” where she offers to pole dance and “keep you cumin’.” This explanation touches upon her famous family, teenage masturbation and Jackson’s fear that she’s a nymphomaniac. For brevity’s sake, she usually sticks with the simple explanation.

Damita Jo and Strawberry, Jackson tells Blender, are two of the “different characters who live within me.” She’s perched in the center of a large gray sofa in an expensive New York hotel suite, her posture perfect, her voice as soft and airy as her brother Michael’s. Her bombshell figure is wrapped in a dark velour track suit, and she’s nibbling from three giant strawberries sitting in her lap.

Compared to her, she says, Damita Jo “is a lot harsher, and quick to put you in your place. She doesn’t sit and ponder about stuff, where I’ll go, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ She’s tougher than I am.

“Then there’s Strawberry. She’s the most sexual of them all, the wildest. There’s a song I didn’t put on the album that was pretty hardcore — it’s called ‘Rufff,’ and she talks about how she likes it.” She pauses. “She likes it rough.”

Even before she understood the word, Jackson understood horniness — though she kept it hidden from her mother, Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and from her stern, violent, withholding father, Joseph.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I had a very active sexual mind at a very young age.” She frowns as she finishes the first strawberry. “I hope that doesn’t sound bad. My first crush was Barry Manilow. He performed on television, and I remember taping it. When no one was around, I used to kiss the screen. When my sister LaToya would say goodnight to her boyfriend, I would hide in the bushes just to watch them kiss, then report back to my brothers. ‘It looks like they have a whole bunch of candy in their mouths, the way they’re kissing.’”

At age 12, she had a “major crush” on R&B balladeer Teddy Pendergrass. “I thought he was singing to me. When you’re a kid, you have your little fantasies, but I saw myself being with him as an adult, not as a kid. I mean, is that normal at that age?”

Blender assures Jackson that sexual desire is normal in kids, even when it involves Barry Manilow. But since she was raised in a religion that prohibits masturbation and premarital sex as “unnatural,” she struggled to keep lust muzzled. Soon, she discovered that nothing is as natural as masturbation.

“I remember my mother would come into my room and say, ‘Janet, why are you being so lazy? It’s the middle of the day; you should be up.’ What she didn’t know was that I was having a very sexual moment when she came into my room. I was actually with Teddy, in my mind. ‘Gosh darn it, mother, you ruined my fantasy. Now I have to start all over!’”

The Jackson house was full of repression, which only deepened Janet’s curiosity. “I want to tell you a story, but it might embarrass my parents,” she says, shifting in the sofa. After a period of hesitation, she announces, “I caught my parents ‘doin’ it’ when I was about 12. I didn’t know what they were doing, and I got really mad. One of my brothers explained it to me, when they came off tour — ‘That’s how you have kids’ and the whole bit. But I was very upset, and I didn’t like it. That was my true introduction to sex.”

For Jackson, sex represents not only pleasure, but also liberation and rebellion against her upbringing — it’s a time when she doesn’t need to be the polite, professional Janet, and can turn into raw, unrestrained Strawberry. “I’ve always enjoyed sex. I probably sound crazy to you, but it’s something that I truly do enjoy. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’ve enjoyed it too much. I was made to feel like I want it too much. I was actually made to feel that there was something wrong with me.”

One lover, she says, accused her of being a nymphomaniac. “I started to think, ‘Am I? Is there something wrong with me?’”

She won’t name the guy who refused her sexual requests, “because truly, I’m not allowed to. And I wish I could.”

What would Strawberry say?

“She’d say ‘Fuck him.’ She’d tell it.” Jackson laughs. “She’d tell it all.”

* * * * *

Swearing came late to Janet Jackson. So did showing her body, songwriting and independence from her father.

When he first met her in 1986, “Janet wasn’t really into girly things,” says producer Jimmy Jam, who has worked on each of her last six albums. “She loved anything gross. If there was an eye operation on TV, she’d watch it. She was definitely a tomboy.”

At age 11, Jackson began starring as Penny in Good Times, a groundbreaking ’70s sitcom about a black family in the Chicago projects, and then moved on to the interracial farce Diff’rent Strokes. She spent her childhood reading scripts and going to auditions when she wanted to join the Girl Scouts and take gymnastics. Although Michael has said Katherine Jackson “treated each of us like an only child,” the family obeyed Jehovah’s Witness rules and didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays (Janet’s first birthday celebration came when she turned 23).

Jackson children were taught duty: Work came first, family came second and outsiders were not trusted. “I had one really good friend when I was in elementary school, and that was it,” Janet says, sounding sad and resigned. “At a very young age, I went through a great deal, and I think that’s the thing people don’t understand. And I don’t wish it upon anybody.”

Her brother Michael, eight years older, was her best friend, and they wrote out daily agendas: feed the family’s animals, eat breakfast, see a Three Stooges film, eat at a favorite L.A. vegetarian restaurant, then go to a toy store. “We were very close. We’d spend every day together like that, until I was around 14.”

As an actor, she was a mediocre singer: A&M signed her strictly because of her surname, and her 1982 debut was a dud. Released two years later, her second album — recorded after she graduated from high school — sold even fewer copies.

She was managed by her father, whose “ideas” usually involved having a Jackson brother sing or produce. Joseph ruled the family through fear: Michael has said that he was so terrified, he would vomit when he saw Joseph, who recently admitted to an interviewer that he “whipped [Michael] with a switch and a belt.” If you’ve ever wondered how Michael got weird, the tale begins here.

“Mind you,” Janet recalls, “my father became more lenient when I was growing up. But he was still incredibly strict. We weren’t very close to my father. He didn’t show love.”

Her first act of rebellion was to elope with R&B singer James DeBarge at age 18 without telling her parents, though after four months she left DeBarge and initiated an annulment. In the meantime, emulating Michael — who fired Joseph as his manager in 1983 — she disobeyed her dad’s wishes and went to Minneapolis to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two rising producers who had been affiliated with Prince, notorious for his perverse, dripping sexuality. (“Don’t make my daughter sound like that Prince guy,” Joseph Jackson ordered Jam and Lewis.)

Suddenly, Jackson was transported to the modern world, where adults don’t have curfews, and whipping is consensual. “We would cuss, and she would just put her fingers in her ears,” Jam says with a laugh. “She always said that we were corrupting her.”

But they also coated her soft, adolescent voice with pounding hard beats, and included her in the songwriting to give the music a sense of personality. The excellent Control, from 1986, was a shockingly big hit, selling 4 million copies. On the dazzling 1989 follow-up, Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson sang about social issues and became the first artist with seven Top 5 singles from the same record. Soon after, she signed a contract with Virgin Records that was worth between $32 million and $40 million.

Another milestone came while she was starring with rapper Tupac Shakur in the film Poetic Justice, which was released in 1993. “I was very shy, very quiet. If I saw someone mingling and having a good time, I so badly wanted to be carefree like that person. Tupac would always call me ‘Square’ — that was my nickname.”

Director John Singleton gave Jackson “homegirl lessons” by introducing her to girls from L.A.’s South Central and putting her to work in a hair salon. “When I did Poetic Justice, a big change happened within me. It really opened me up. I never cursed before that.” Now, she says, laughing, the cursing is rampant. “We were just in Europe, and I said, ‘I really have to stop cursing.’ One of my security guys said, ‘OK, $20 for every curse word.’ I said, ‘Fuck! What the fuck, $20?’”

On her next album, 1993’s janet., her songs turned provocative with arousing moans and savory promises and demands, and four years later, on The Velvet Rope, she sang about bisexuality, bondage and other mild kinks. The records were full of massage oil and incense, and sex was now Jackson’s big theme, even if her message was nothing more than Enjoy It. “It was because I felt free, like, ‘It’s OK to talk about this.’ Growing up, we didn’t talk a lot about sex in my family — well, we didn’t talk about it at all. I was getting into my womanhood. A lot of people know that sex sells, and I think they use that. For me, it’s something that’s true to me — my friends will tell you that sex is truly a big part of my life.”

As her brother Michael responded to charges of child abuse by insisting that it’s normal to share a bed with kids, all but destroying his career in the U.S., Janet has seemed to be the Normal One in the family, and her records have sold with a remarkable consistency. She firmly declines to discuss her brother’s troubles: “I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about any of his issues. I really can’t, for the most part. Nor do I want to.”

She acknowledges, though, that she and Michael “are not as close as we used to be. When we talk, we reminisce about when we were kids, all the fun we used to have.” She knows people think the Jacksons are a freak show, from their violent father to the feuding, surgically enhanced, press conference–calling kids, but she refutes the impression: “They call us dysfunctional — every family is dysfunctional.”

The Jackson family is supportive, she says, even when they disagree. Katherine Jackson, for instance, has asked Janet to make her concerts less sexually provocative. “Mother says, ‘Baby, why do you have to do all that nasty stuff?’ I said, ‘That’s my favorite part. I don’t wanna change it.’ It’s who I am. And I’m still her baby.” After all, Janet adds, “I have to get it from somewhere, right?”

* * * * *

Three hundred thousand dollars can still buy a pretty good party. The night before Jackson’s new album is released, Virgin Records throws her a bash at New York’s restaurant of the moment. Waiters walk around with flutes of champagne and tasty snacks, and Jackson and her boyfriend, Jermaine Dupri, sit in a closely guarded private room, receiving guests.

Though it has been called a publicity stunt, the Super Bowl show has put Jackson’s enduring career at risk. In less than two seconds, she was no longer the Normal One; now she had enemies. FCC chairman Michael Powell called it “classless, crass and deplorable,” as though he had never watched TV before. CBS had subcontracted the halftime show to MTV, since both are owned by Viacom, and the conglomerate began to fear that the FCC might clamp down on cable TV, which it has left unsupervised. As a result, the president of Viacom told Congress he was “shocked and appalled” by the halftime show, as though he had never seen I Want a Famous Face.

Tonight, some music-business executives at the party speculate that MTV could retaliate for the Super Bowl show by blacklisting Jackson. “They added the video today,” Roger Davies, Jackson’s comanager, tells Blender as a DJ gives shout-outs to celebrity guests Ja Rule and Ice-T. “They won’t not play it. But how much they play it.…” He shrugs.

As Jackson recounts what happened at the Super Bowl, she announces that it will be “my last time addressing it in any way or form.” When the halftime show ended, she went back to the hotel and heard on CNN that she and Justin Timberlake might be arrested. She was only two weeks away from her album deadline, with lots of work left, so she raced back to L.A. but heard nothing else about the scandal because a storm had temporarily knocked out the TV in her beach house. “I got a call from my sister LaToya, and she said, ‘Jan, have you watched television? This thing is everywhere.’ Then my phone would not stop going. It was crazy.”

Jackson’s TV habits run to the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, so “she was just very unaware of how huge the hoopla was,” Jimmy Jam says. He and the rest of the production team decided not to tiptoe around the incident, so “everyone downloaded the photo and used it as their screen saver. When she walked into the studio, everybody had their computers open to this picture, which she laughed at.”

She issued a brief statement explaining that the incident was a mistake and apologizing. When Grammy Award producers retracted her invitation to appear on the CBS show unless she apologized again, Jackson refused. “I had already apologized,” she says simply. Timberlake, however, caved in to the ultimatum and declared his sorrow for the whole incident. (“For which he lost his motherfucking ghetto pass,” one black music executive says.) When paparazzi were still following Jackson and Dupri three weeks later, she wore a pink-sleeved baseball jersey that read fuck off.

Although Jackson slips into the standard celebrity platitudes about “moving on,” she also has strong if guarded views on the reaction. She says the furor “is hypocritical, with everything you see on TV. There are more important things to focus on than a woman’s body part, which is a beautiful thing. There’s war, famine, homelessness, AIDS.”

The fact that it happened in an election year “did have a great deal to do with it. They needed something to focus on instead of the war, and I was the perfect vehicle for that.”

Jackson won’t blame race for the fact that she has been pilloried while Timberlake has not, but others are less cautious about doing so. “Race had a lot to do with it,” observes Jimmy Jam. “Listen, race always has something to do with it. I don’t think that mid-America is used to seeing a black boob. Maybe that was part of the outrage.”

“People are going to think what they want,” Jackson says. She’s been averting her glance, but now she turns and looks right at Blender. “It was an accident. It was not a stunt. That was embarrassing for me to have all those people see my breast. That’s like having your penis hanging out in front of millions and millions of people.”

It was also an embarrassment to Viacom, and MTV seemed to pull its support from Damita Jo — a month after its release, Jackson’s “I Want You” video was number 8 on the BET and VH1 airplay charts but number 30 at MTV, trailing even also-rans like Three Days Grace and Switchfoot.

“MTV is absolutely bailing on the record,” a senior Viacom executive told Blender. “The pressure is so great, they can’t align with anything related to Janet. The higher-ups are still pissed at her, and this is a punitive measure.”

“We didn’t pull our support,” responds Judy McGrath, MTV Networks Group president. “The video didn’t seem to connect with our audience. If there was demand for it, it would be on TRL.”

The alleged promotional stunt hasn’t benefited Jackson: The early sales of Damita Jo lagged behind those of her two prior records, a problem that has also hit similarly aged singers including Madonna and Bruce Springsteen.

Ever since the Super Bowl, she has frequently been photographed with Dupri, the Atlanta producer who is seven years younger and several inches shorter. Like Jackson, Dupri was a child star; his father was a concert promoter, and Dupri produced his first record at age 12, with his first hit record (by Kris Kross) at 18. Since then, he has produced TLC, Mariah Carey and Usher, and has followed P. Diddy’s entrepreneurial path by starting a label and a clothing line.

Dupri is Jackson’s first serious relationship since her second husband, Rene Elizondo, whom she married in 1991, though it was kept a secret until he filed for divorce in May 2000. On her left hand today, she’s wearing a ring so big, it’s a wonder she can lift her arm. So is she engaged to Dupri?

“It doesn’t matter what I say; people won’t believe me because of the past,” she says, laughing. “Maybe I’m engaged. Am I married? I could be. I don’t want to answer.

“After my divorce,” she continues, “I really put it in my head that I would never even be with anybody again, and I would end up being a single parent. When I said that, I got a few offers from sperm donors — a few good offers.”

Dupri was hired to remix the 2001 single “Someone to Call My Lover,” and the two stayed in touch, though Jackson declined his persistent romantic overtures. “He wouldn’t give in. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept him at a distance, because I was afraid,” she says.

“He courted her,” Jimmy Jam says. “He basically put aside everything in his life to woo her. He made it a point to be where she was, whether that was Minneapolis or Hawaii or Los Angeles. He gave her a two-way pager and a cellphone so that he could always reach her. That’s very hip-hop. Eventually he just won her over.”

As Jackson signs autographs at a Harlem record store the afternoon after her Good Morning America appearance, Dupri stands nearby, checking his pager and giving tough glances to fans who shout “JD!” when they see him. (On page 119, Jackson shows off a belly piercing that says JD’s.) As Chris Rock has noted, they seem like an odd couple: “Now, Janet Jackson is a 10; Jermaine is about a 4. That’s a six-point differential,” Rock cracked at last fall’s MTV Video Music Awards. “Seeing Janet Jackson is with Jermaine is like finding out about a sale a day too late. Like, ‘Damn, they were selling Bentleys for $4 yesterday?’”

Blender again asks Jackson if she’s engaged. “Why do you have to know?” she replies. “Why is it important?” The answer, we say, is that we had hoped to marry Jackson. We’ve come to propose.

“But we don’t know each other. And yet I didn’t know the two guys I was married to, either. So let’s go!” She giggles.

It’s now early evening, and Jackson has to wake up at 3 A.M. to allow for hair and makeup before another day of promotion. She considers taking melatonin so she can get to sleep. Blender suggests a glass of wine instead. Or perhaps a glass of wine and some sex.

“Then I’ll be wanting more 10 minutes later,” she howls, a bit of Damita Jo sneaking into the voice of Janet Jackson.

“‘Baby, wake up!’”