In her first-ever in-depth interview, Michael Jackson's daughter discusses her father's pain and finding peace after addiction and heartache.
Paris-Michael Katherine Jackson is staring at a famous corpse. "That's Marilyn Monroe," she whispers, facing a wall covered with gruesome autopsy photos. "And that's JFK. You can't even find these online." On a Thursday afternoon in late November, Paris is making her way through the Museum of Death, a cramped maze of formaldehyde-scented horrors on Hollywood Boulevard. It's not uncommon for visitors, confronted with decapitation photos, snuff films and serial-killer memorabilia, to faint, vomit or both. But Paris, not far removed from the emo and goth phases of her earlier teens, seems to find it all somehow soothing. This is her ninth visit. "It's awesome," she had said on the way over. "They have a real electric chair and a real head!"
Paris Jackson turned 18 last April, and moment by moment, can come across as much older or much younger, having lived a life that's veered between sheltered and agonisingly exposed. She is a pure child of the 21st century, with her mashed-up hippie-punk fashion sense (today she's wearing a tie-dye button-down, jeggings and Converse high-tops) and boundary-free musical tastes (she's decorated her sneakers with lyrics by Mötley Crüe and Arctic Monkeys; is obsessed with Alice Cooper – she calls him "bae" – and the singer-songwriter Butch Walker; loves Nirvana and Justin Bieber too). But she is, even more so, her father's child. "Basically, as a person, she is who my dad is," says her older brother, Prince Michael Jackson. "The only thing that's different would be her age and her gender." Paris is similar to Michael, he adds, "in all of her strengths, and almost all of her weaknesses as well. She's very passionate. She is very emotional to the point where she can let emotion cloud her judgment."
Paris has, with impressive speed, acquired more than 50 tattoos, sneaking in the first few while underage. Nine of them are devoted to Michael Jackson, who died when she was 11 years old, sending her, Prince and their youngest brother, Blanket, spiralling out of what had been – as they perceived it – a cloistered, near-idyllic little world. "They always say, 'Time heals'," she says. "But it really doesn't. You just get used to it. I live life with the mentality of 'OK, I lost the only thing that has ever been important to me.' So going forward, anything bad that happens can't be nearly as bad as what happened before. So I can handle it." Michael still visits her in her dreams, she says: "I feel him with me all the time."
Michael, who saw himself as Peter Pan, liked to call his only daughter Tinker Bell. She has FAITH, TRUST AND PIXIE DUST inked near her clavicle. She has an image from the cover of Dangerous on her forearm, the Bad logo on her hand, and the words QUEEN OF MY HEART – in her dad's handwriting, from a letter he wrote her – on her inner left wrist. "He's brought me nothing but joy," she says. "So why not have constant reminders of joy?"
She also has tattoos honouring John Lennon, David Bowie and her dad's sometime rival Prince – plus Van Halen and, on her inner lip, the word MÖTLEY (her boyfriend has CRüE in the same spot). On her right wrist is a rope-and-jade bracelet that Michael bought in Africa. He was wearing it when he died, and Paris' nanny retrieved it for her. "It still smells like him," Paris says.
She fixes her huge blue-green eyes on each of the museum's attractions without flinching, until she comes to a section of taxidermied pets. "I don't really like this room," she says, wrinkling her nose. "I draw the line with animals. I can't do it. This breaks my heart." She recently rescued a hyperactive pit-bull-mix puppy, Koa, who has an uneasy coexistence with Kenya, a snuggly Labrador her dad brought home a decade ago.
Paris describes herself as "desensitised" to even the most graphic reminders of human mortality. In June 2013, drowning in depression and a drug addiction, she tried to kill herself at age 15, slashing her wrist and downing 20 Motrin pills. "It was just self-hatred," she says, "low self-esteem, thinking that I couldn't do anything right, not thinking I was worthy of living anymore." She had been self-harming, cutting herself, managing to conceal it from her family. Some of her tattoos now cover the scars, as well as what she says are track marks from drug use. Before that, she had already attempted suicide "multiple times", she says, with an incongruous laugh. "It was just once that it became public." The hospital had a "three-strike rule", she recalls, and, after that last attempt, insisted she attend a residential therapy program.
Home-schooled before her father's death, Paris had agreed to attend a private school starting in seventh grade. She didn't fit in – at all – and started hanging out with the only kids who accepted her, "a lot of older people doing a lot of crazy things", she says. "I was doing a lot of things that 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds shouldn't do. I tried to grow up too fast, and I wasn't really that nice of a person." She also faced cyberbullying, and still struggles with cruel online comments. "The whole freedom-of-speech thing is great," she says. "But I don't think that our Founding Fathers predicted social media when they created all of these amendments and stuff."
There was another trauma that she's never mentioned in public. When she was 14, a much older "complete stranger" sexually assaulted her, she says. "I don't wanna give too many details. But it was not a good experience at all, and it was really hard for me, and, at the time, I didn't tell anybody."
After her last suicide attempt, she spent sophomore year and half of junior year at a therapeutic school in Utah. "It was great for me," she says. "I'm a completely different person." Before, she says with a small smile, "I was crazy. I was actually crazy. I was going through a lot of, like, teen angst. And I was also dealing with my depression and my anxiety without any help." Her father, she says, also struggled with depression, and she was prescribed the same antidepressants he once took, though she's no longer on any psych meds.
Now sober and happier than she's ever been, with menthol cigarettes her main remaining vice, Paris moved out of her grandma Katherine's house shortly after her 18th birthday, heading to the old Jackson family estate. She spends nearly every minute of each day with her boyfriend, Michael Snoddy, a 26-year-old drummer – he plays with the percussion ensemble Street Drum Corps – and Virginia native whose dyed mohawk, tattoos and perpetually sagging pants don't obscure boy-band looks and a puppy-dog sweetness. "I never met anyone before who made me feel the way music makes me feel," says Paris. When they met, he had an ill-considered, now-covered Confederate flag tattoo that raised understandable doubts among the Jacksons. "But the more I actually got to know him," says Prince, "he's a really cool guy."
Paris took a quick stab at community college after graduating high school – a year early – in 2015, but wasn't feeling it. She is an heir to a mammoth fortune – the Michael Jackson Family Trust is likely worth more than $1 billion, with disbursements to the kids in stages. But she wants to earn her own money, and now that she's a legal adult, to embrace her other inheritance: celebrity.
And in the end, as the charismatic, beautiful daughter of one of the most famous men who ever lived, what choice did she have? She is, for now, a model, an actress, a work in progress. She can, when she feels like it, exhibit a regal poise that's almost intimidating, while remaining chill enough to become pals with her giant-goateed tattoo artist. She has impeccable manners – you might guess that she was raised well. She so charmed producer-director Lee Daniels in a recent meeting that he's begun talking to her manager about a role for her on his Fox show, Star. She plays a few instruments, writes and sings songs (she performs a couple for me on acoustic guitar, and they show promise, though they're more Laura Marling than MJ), but isn't sure if she'll ever pursue a recording contract.
Modelling, in particular, comes naturally, and she finds it therapeutic. "I've had self-esteem issues for a really, really long time," says Paris, who understands her dad's plastic-surgery choices after watching online trolls dissect her appearance since she was 12. "Plenty of people think I'm ugly, and plenty of people don't. But there's a moment when I'm modelling where I forget about my self-esteem issues and focus on what the photographer's telling me – and I feel pretty. And in that sense, it's selfish."
But mostly, she shares her father's heal-the-world impulses ("I'm really scared for the Great Barrier Reef," she says. "It's, like, dying. This whole planet is. Poor Earth, man"), and sees fame as a means to draw attention to favoured causes. "I was born with this platform," she says. "Am I gonna waste it and hide away? Or am I going to make it bigger and use it for more important things?"
Her dad wouldn't have minded. "If you wanna be bigger than me, you can," he'd tell her. "If you don't want to be at all, you can. But I just want you to be happy."
At the moment, Paris lives in the private studio where her dad demoed "Beat It". The Tudor-style main house in the now-empty Jackson family compound in the L.A. neighbourhood of Encino – purchased by Joe Jackson in 1971 with some of the Jackson 5's first Motown royalties, and rebuilt by Michael in the Eighties – is under renovation. But the studio, built by Michael in a brick building across the courtyard, happens to be roughly the size of a decent Manhattan apartment, with its own kitchen and bathroom. Paris has turned it into a vibe-y, cozy dorm room.
Traces of her father are everywhere, most unmistakably in the artwork he commissioned. Outside the studio is a framed picture, done in a Disney-like style, of a cartoon castle on a hilltop with a caricatured Michael in the foreground, a small blond boy embracing him. It's captioned "Of Children, Castles & Kings". Inside is a mural taking up an entire wall, with another cartoon Michael in the corner, holding a green book titled The Secret of Life and looking down from a window at blooming flowers – at the centre of each bloom is a cartoon face of a red-cheeked little girl.
Paris' chosen decor is somewhat different. There is a picture of Kurt Cobain in the bathroom, a Smashing Pumpkins poster on the wall, a laptop with Against Me! and NeverEnding Story stickers, psychedelic paisley wall hangings, lots of fake candles. Vinyl records (Alice Cooper, the Rolling Stones) serve as wall decorations. In the kitchen, sitting casually on a counter, is a framed platinum record, inscribed to Michael by Quincy Jones ("I found it in the attic," Paris shrugs). Above an adjacent garage is a mini-museum Michael created as a surprise gift for his family, with the walls and even ceilings covered with photos from their history. Michael used to rehearse dance moves in that room; now Paris' boyfriend has his drum kit set up there.
We head out to a nearby sushi restaurant, and Paris starts to describe life in Neverland. She spent her first seven years in her dad's 2,700-acre fantasy world, with its own amusement park, zoo and movie theatre. ("Everything I never got to do as a kid," Michael called it.) During that time, she didn't know that her father's name was Michael, let alone have any grasp of his fame. "I just thought his name was Dad, Daddy," she says. "We didn't really know who he was. But he was our world. And we were his world." (Paris declared last year's Captain Fantastic, where Viggo Mortensen plays an eccentric dad who tries to create a utopian hideaway for his kids, her "favourite movie ever".)
"We couldn't just go on the rides whenever we wanted to," she recalls, walking on a dark roadside near the Encino compound. She likes to stride along the lane divider, too close to the cars – it drives her boyfriend crazy, and I don't much like it either. "We actually had a pretty normal life. Like, we had school every single day, and we had to be good. And if we were good, every other weekend or so, we could choose whether we were gonna go to the movie theatre or see the animals or whatever. But if you were on bad behaviour, then you wouldn't get to go do all those things."
In his 2011 memoir, Michael's brother Jermaine called him "an example of what fatherhood should be. He instilled in them the love Mother gave us, and he provided the kind of emotional fathering that our father, through no fault of his own, could not. Michael was father and mother rolled into one."
Michael gave the kids the option of going to regular school. They declined. "When you're at home," says Paris, "your dad, who you love more than anything, will occasionally come in, in the middle of class, and it's like, 'Cool, no more class for the day. We're gonna go hang out with Dad.' We were like, 'We don't need friends. We've got you and Disney Channel!' " She was, she acknowledges, "a really weird kid".
Her dad taught her how to cook, soul food, mostly. "He was a kick-ass cook," she says. "His fried chicken is the best in the world. He taught me how to make sweet-potato pie." Paris is baking four pies, plus gumbo, for grandma Katherine's Thanksgiving – which actually takes place the day before the holiday, in deference to Katherine's Jehovah's Witness beliefs.
Michael schooled Paris on every conceivable genre of music. "My dad worked with Van Halen, so I got into Van Halen," she says. "He worked with Slash, so I got into Guns N' Roses. He introduced me to Tchaikovsky and Debussy, Earth, Wind and Fire, the Temptations, Tupac, Run-DMC."
She says Michael emphasised tolerance. "My dad raised me in a very open-minded house," she says. "I was eight years old, in love with this female on the cover of a magazine. Instead of yelling at me, like most homophobic parents, he was making fun of me, like, 'Oh, you got yourself a girlfriend.'
"His number-one focus for us," says Paris, "besides loving us, was education. And he wasn't like, 'Oh, yeah, mighty Columbus came to this land!' He was like, 'No. He fucking slaughtered the natives.' " Would he really phrase it that way? "He did have kind of a potty mouth. He cussed like a sailor." But he was also "very shy".
Paris and Prince are quite aware of public doubts about their parentage (the youngest brother, Blanket, with his darker skin, is the subject of less speculation). Paris' mum is Debbie Rowe, a nurse Michael met while she was working for his dermatologist, the late Arnold Klein. They had what sounds like an unconventional three-year marriage, during which, Rowe once testified, they never shared a home. Michael said that Rowe wanted to have his children "as a present" to him. (Rowe said that Paris got her name from the location of her conception.) Klein, her employer, was one of several men – including the actor Mark Lester, who played the title role in the 1968 movie Oliver! – who suggested that they could be Paris' actual biological father.
"I was crazy," Paris says of her mid-teens. "I was actually crazy. I was going through a lot of teen angst."
Over popcorn shrimp and a Clean Mean Salmon Roll, Paris agrees to address this issue for what she says will be the only time. She could opt for an easy, logical answer, could point out that it doesn't matter, that either way, Michael Jackson was her father. That's what her brother – who describes himself as "more objective" than Paris – seems to suggest. "Every time someone asks me that," Prince says, "I ask, 'What's the point? What difference does it make?' Specifically to someone who's not involved in my life. How does that affect your life? It doesn't change mine."
But Paris is certain that Michael Jackson was her biological dad. She believes it with a fervency that is both touching and, in the moment, utterly convincing. "He is my father," she says, making fierce eye contact. "He will always be my father. He never wasn't, and he never will not be. People that knew him really well say they see him in me, that it's almost scary.
"I consider myself black," she says, adding later that her dad "would look me in the eyes and he'd point his finger at me and he'd be like, 'You're black. Be proud of your roots.' And I'd be like, 'OK, he's my dad, why would he lie to me?' So I just believe what he told me. 'Cause, to my knowledge, he's never lied to me.
"Most people that don't know me call me white," Paris concedes. "I've got light skin and, especially since I've had my hair blonde, I look like I was born in Finland or something." She points out that it's far from unheard of for mixed-race kids to look like her – accurately noting that her complexion and eye colour are similar to the TV actor Wentworth Miller's, who has a black dad and a white mum.
At first, she had no relationship with Rowe. "When I was really, really young, my mum didn't exist," Paris recalls. Eventually, she realised "a man can't birth a child" – and when she was 10 or so, she asked Prince, "We gotta have a mum, right?" So she asked her dad. "And he's like, 'Yeah.' And I was like, 'What's her name?' And he's just like, 'Debbie.' And I was like, 'OK, well, I know the name.' " After her father's death, she started researching her mum online, and they got together when Paris was 13.
In the wake of her treatment in Utah, Paris decided to reach out again to Rowe. "She needed a mother figure," says Prince, who declines to comment on his own relationship, or lack thereof, with Rowe. (Paris' manager declined to make Rowe available for an interview, and Rowe did not respond to our request for comment.) "I've had a lot of mother figures," Paris counters, citing her grandmother and nannies, among others, "but by the time my mum came into my life, it wasn't a 'mummy' thing. It's more of an adult relationship." Paris sees herself in Rowe, who just completed a course of chemo in a fight against breast cancer: "We're both very stubborn."
Paris isn't sure how Michael felt about Rowe, but says Rowe was "in love" with her dad. She's also sure that Michael loved Lisa Marie Presley, whom he divorced two years before Paris' birth: "In the music video 'You Are Not Alone', I can see how he looked at her, and he was totally whipped," she says with a fond laugh.
Paris Jackson was around nine years old when she realised that much of the world didn't see her father the way she did. "My dad would cry to me at night," she says, sitting at the counter of a New York coffee shop in mid-December, cradling a tiny spoon in her hand. She starts to cry too. "Picture your parent crying to you about the world hating him for something he didn't do. And for me, he was the only thing that mattered. To see my entire world in pain, I started to hate the world because of what they were doing to him. I'm like, 'How can people be so mean?' " She pauses. "Sorry, I'm getting emotional."
Paris and Prince have no doubts that their father was innocent of the multiple child-molestation allegations against him, that the man they knew was the real Michael. Again, they are persuasive – if they could go door-to-door talking about it, they could sway the world. "Nobody but my brothers and I experienced him reading A Light in the Attic to us at night before we went to bed," says Paris. "Nobody experienced him being a father to them. And if they did, the entire perception of him would be completely and forever changed."
I gently suggest that what Michael said to her on those nights was a lot to put on a nine-year-old. "He did not bullshit us," she replies. "You try to give kids the best childhood possible. But you also have to prepare them for the shitty world."
Michael's 2005 molestation trial ended in an acquittal, but it shattered his reputation and altered the course of his family's lives. He decided to leave Neverland for good. They spent the next four years travelling the world, spending long stretches of time in the Irish countryside, in Bahrain, in Las Vegas. Paris didn't mind – it was exciting, and home was where her dad was.
Paris is certain Michael Jackson is her biological dad: "He would point his finger at me and say, 'You're black.'"
By 2009, Michael was preparing for an ambitious slate of comeback performances at London's O2 Arena. "He kind of hyped it up to us," recalls Paris. "He was like, 'Yeah, we're gonna live in London for a year.' We were superexcited – we already had a house out there we were gonna live in." But Paris remembers his "exhaustion" as rehearsals began. "I'd tell him, 'Let's take a nap'," she says. "Because he looked tired. We'd be in school, meaning downstairs in the living room, and we'd see dust falling from the ceiling and hear stomping sounds because he was rehearsing upstairs."
Paris has a lingering distaste for AEG Live, the promoters behind the planned This Is It tour – her family lost a wrongful-death suit against them, with the jury accepting AEG's argument that Michael was responsible for his own death. "AEG Live does not treat their performers right," she alleges. "They drain them dry and work them to death." (A rep for AEG declined comment.) She describes seeing Justin Bieber on a recent tour and being "scared" for him. "He was tired, going through the motions. I looked at my ticket, saw AEG Live, and I thought back to how my dad was exhausted all the time but couldn't sleep."
Paris blames Dr. Conrad Murray – who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in her father's death – for the dependency on the anesthetic drug propofol that led to it. She calls him "the 'doctor'", with satirical air quotes. But she has darker suspicions about her father's death. "He would drop hints about people being out to get him," she says. "And at some point he was like, 'They're gonna kill me one day.' " (Lisa Marie Presley told Oprah Winfrey of a similar conversation with Michael, who expressed fears that unnamed parties were targeting him to get at his half of the Sony/ATV music-publishing catalogue, worth hundreds of millions.)
Paris is convinced that her dad was, somehow, murdered. "Absolutely," she says. "Because it's obvious. All arrows point to that. It sounds like a total conspiracy theory and it sounds like bullshit, but all real fans and everybody in the family knows it. It was a setup. It was bullshit."
But who would have wanted Michael Jackson dead? Paris pauses for several seconds, maybe considering a specific answer, but just says, "A lot of people." Paris wants revenge, or at least justice. "Of course," she says, eyes glowing. "I definitely do, but it's a chess game. And I am trying to play the chess game the right way. And that's all I can say about that right now."
Michael had his kids wear masks in public, a protective move Paris considered "stupid" but later came to understand. So it made all the more of an impression when a brave little girl spontaneously stepped to the microphone at her dad's televised memorial service, on July 7th, 2009. "Ever since I was born," she said, "Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just wanted to say I love him so much."
She was 11 years old, but she knew what she was doing. "I knew afterward there was gonna be plenty of shit-talking," Paris says, "plenty of people questioning him and how he raised us. That was the first time I ever publicly defended him, and it definitely won't be the last." For Prince, his younger sister showed in that moment that she had "more strength than any of us".
The day after her trip to the Museum of Death, Paris, Michael Snoddy and Tom Hamilton, her model-handsome, man-bunned 31-year-old manager, head over to Venice Beach. We stroll the boardwalk, and Snoddy recalls a brief stint as a street performer here when he first moved to L.A., drumming on buckets. "It wasn't bad," he says. "I averaged out to a hundred bucks a day."
Paris has her hair extensions in a ponytail. She's wearing sunglasses with circular lenses, a green plaid shirt over leggings, and a Rasta-rainbow backpack. Her mood is darker today. She's not talking much, and clinging tight to Snoddy, who's in a Willie Nelson tee with the sleeves cut off.
We head toward the canals, lined with ultramodern houses that Paris doesn't like. "They're too harsh and bougie," she says. "It doesn't scream, 'Hey, come for dinner!' " She's delighted to spot a group of ducks. "Hello, friends!" she shouts. "Come play with us!" Among them are what appear to be an avian couple in love, paddling through the shallow water in close formation. Paris sighs and squeezes Snoddy's hand. "Goals," she says. "Hashtag 'goals'."
Her spirits are lifting, and we walk back toward the beach to watch the sunset. Paris and Snoddy hop on a concrete barrier facing the orange-pink spectacle. It's a peaceful moment, until a middle-aged woman in neon jogging clothes and knee-length socks walks over. She grins at the couple as she presses a button on some kind of tiny stereo strapped to her waist, unleashing a dated-sounding trance song. Paris laughs and turns to her boyfriend. As the sun disappears, they start to dance.
From issue #785 (April 2017), available now. Main photo: David Lachapelle.