We take a look back at Janet Jackson's milestones...
Born into one of the most successful musical dynasties of all time, the five-time Grammy winner blotted her copy book with nipplegate. But she’s nothing if not tenacious, putting family tragedy, two divorces and decades of body loathing behind her to craft a kicking comeback album
When she was a child, Janet Jackson remembers being happiest snuggled up with her siblings on her mother Katherine’s bed. Dressed in pyjamas, they would tell jokes, read books and watch television together. But when they heard the sound of tyres crunching on the gravel driveway outside, it was their cue to freeze whatever they were doing. ‘It was Joseph in his car, headlights turned off, windows rolled down, trying to sneak up on us to hear what we were talking about,’ Janet admits. ‘The sound of his car stopped us cold. We’d scatter like roaches, off to our rooms, ducking down low so as not to be visible through the windows. We didn’t know what mood Joseph was bringing home.’ Joseph was their father, acknowledged to be a violent disciplinarian, who forced all nine of his children into a music career and made international superstars out of Janet and brother Michael.
There’s no disputing Joseph’s show business acumen, but the impact of early fame on his children would prove to be devastating for them all: on 25 June, Janet and her siblings will mark the fifth anniversary of Michael’s early death from a drugs overdose, and most of them have spoken out about the long term effects of their father’s aggression.
Janet was born in Gary, Indiana, on 16 May 1966. As the youngest of nine children her earliest memories were watching her brothers perform as The Jackson 5. By the time she was three, they’d signed to Motown Records and the deal made her parents wealthy enough to afford a move to Los Angeles. They were now an affluent family, but Janet learned early on that her father was a difficult man to please. She wasn’t allowed to call him ‘Dad’ (he insisted on Joseph), and while being the youngest meant she escaped the beatings he inflicted on her eight older siblings – Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, LaToya, Marlon, Michael and Randy – she wasn’t immune from his iron determination to make his children the most famous family on earth.
With cherubic good looks and a sweet voice, Janet clearly shared Michael’s star quality, and by the age of 10 her father had signed her up to join the cast of a TV sitcom, Good Times. ‘I would set my alarm clock for 5.30am, get myself dressed, and get myself out of the door for work five days a week,’ she says. ‘And for a 10-year-old to have that kind of discipline – there’s a lot to be said for that.’ But the role also exposed Janet to a world she wasn’t prepared for. Constantly judged on her looks, these early years would have a profound impact on her body image for life. ‘I wasn’t a heavy kid on the show, but I was developing very quickly,’ she says. ‘They would put gauze around my chest to make me smaller, and I think that has an effect on you, things like that when you’re growing up. As if who you are isn’t good enough.’
Other TV roles followed, but in 1982, when she was 16, Joseph suddenly decided it was time she switched to singing, like her brothers. Her first two albums did well, but she wasn’t happy being so dominated by her father. In 1984, in a stunning act of rebellion, she eloped with her childhood friend, the singer James DeBarge. The marriage was annulled after three months – he was struggling with drug addiction – but by seizing the moment, Janet sent a clear signal to her dad that she was in charge of her own life. And, to prove it, she called her next album Control and began working with a new manager – John McClain. Released in February 1986, Control became one of the biggest albums of all time, shifting 200,000 in just one week in the USA. It spawned hit after hit, including Nasty and What Have You Done For Me Lately. Janet’s intricately and energetically choreographed videos set a benchmark for other performers who would follow, from Britney Spears to Christina Aguilera.
In 1989, when she was only 23, she followed up with Rhythm Nation 1814, another global smash. By 1991, she had signed the first of two record-breaking deals with Virgin Records after being approached personally by Richard Branson. Janet was paid a sum estimated to be between $32 and $50 million, making her the highest-paid recording star of all time. That is until brother Michael eclipsed her just days later by signing his own $65 million deal with Sony. Of all the siblings, Janet was always closest to Michael, planning days out together that included swimming and sketching. For a time in the 70s, he bizarrely even answered interview questions directly through her, even though he was sitting in the same room as the interviewer. When she eloped with James DeBarge, Michael was distraught, telling interviewers, ‘Janet is a tomboy. That is why it kills me to see her married. We did everything together and were just alike. It’s a terrible loss.’
Janet spent the 90s experiencing one career high after another and, behind the scenes, her personal life was flourishing, too. By 1988 she’d begun secretly dating dancer René Elizondo Jr and, on 31 March 1991, they quietly married in front of a handful of witnesses at the home they shared in San Diego. Janet’s desire for privacy was obviously a reaction to the incessant media interest in her family. Incredibly, it would be another nine years before the world discovered the marriage – on the day René filed for divorce, citing that the marriage had broken down. But worse was to come. In December 2003, Janet’s brother Michael was charged with seven counts of child molestation against a 14-year-old boy. It was no surprise to anyone that Janet became his most vocal supporter, staying glued to his side when he attended pre-trial hearings in the midst of a media frenzy. However, when his trial began in the spring of 2005, her absence from court was conspicuous. She only attended the trial’s final stages and it was reported at the time that her advisers had warned her to stay away.
Janet also faced her own internal struggles. She became as much talked about for her supposed cosmetic surgery procedures and weight fluctuations – which were mocked in the tabloid press – as her career. ‘For more than three decades, I’ve struggled with yo-yo dieting,’ she says. ‘Even at my thinnest, when my body was being praised, I wasn’t happy with what I saw in the mirror or how I felt about myself.’ But it was her performance during the half-time break at the American football Super Bowl final in Houston on 1 February 2004 that would cause the most controversy. Janet asked long-time friend Justin Timberlake to perform a duet of his solo hit, Rock Your Body. But as he sang the very last line, ‘I bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song’, Justin grabbed the front of Janet’s Alexander McQueen tunic and pulled it – exposing her right breast, complete with nipple shield, to a TV audience of 90 million, many of whom were children.
What happened to Janet in the aftermath of her nip slip continues to anger her supporters to this day. Both she and Justin claimed the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ was an accident, yet the blame was heaped on her. Forced to make a video apology, she was then banned from attending the Grammys a few days later (unlike Justin). America’s biggest broadcasters, including the company that owned MTV, blacklisted her, meaning none of her singles or videos received radio or TV airplay. Disney even took down a statue of Mickey Mouse wearing her iconic Rhythm Nation 1814 costume from its Orlando theme park. Katherine Jackson reacted angrily to the way her daughter was being treated, telling reporters: ‘What I didn’t like is there wasn’t one person on the stage. There were two people. After a while, there was only one. Janet Jackson.’
The effect of this public blacklisting was catastrophic, with sales of Janet’s next three albums tanking. In fact, she hasn’t released an album since 2009 (a collection of her number ones). Her friendship with Justin was also irreparably damaged. In 2009 he said: ‘I wish I had supported Janet more’, but the pair reportedly remain estranged. In the aftermath, Janet returned to acting, taking lead roles in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? Her performances were warmly received and she seemed back on track. Then, on 25 June 2009, she received the news. ‘I was at my house in New York,’ she later recalled. ‘It was just another day, another morning, and then I got the call. They said your brother’s been taken to hospital… it’s on CNN.’ Janet was left devastated by Michael’s death. As the sibling closest to him, it hit her especially hard, and triggered a period of introspection that was reflected in the grittiness and melancholy of her next single, Nothing, which she recorded in 2010. Janet, along with her siblings and parents, was in court on 27 September 2011 to see Michael’s physician, Dr Conrad Murray, go on trial for involuntary manslaughter. The opening session was so harrowing – the prosecution showed a picture of Michael moments after he died to the courtroom – that she cancelled the concerts she was due to perform in Australia, and returned to LA for the rest of the trial; she was there when the jury returned a guilty verdict. But while her sister LaToya took to Twitter to crow ‘Victory!’, Janet kept a dignified silence.
Divisions within the Jackson family over Michael’s will and the care of his children, Prince, Paris and Blanket, would cloud the aftermath and lead to a falling out with her niece Paris. Yet in the midst of all the family dramas came a glimmer of happiness in December 2012, when she secretly married the Qatari billionaire Wissam Al Mana. Their combined wealth has helped her to reach billionaire status, according to Variety magazine.
Retaining control over her privacy, it seems, is Janet’s way of coping with being thrust into the limelight at such a young age. ‘Show business wasn’t something I said I wanted to go into,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if my parents asked me or if it was a natural progression because of everyone else. But I did it and I guess it’s gotten me where I am.’