Michael Jackson: How the child superstar grew into an icon beloved by the world


Born on Aug. 29, 1958, in Gary, Indiana, to Joe and Katherine Jackson, Michael Joseph Jackson – the seventh child in a family of nine kids – showed a gift for singing at an early age, quickly becoming known as the little boy with a big voice. During his days with the Jackson 5, Rolling Stone magazine hailed the young singer as a prodigy with “overwhelming musical gifts.”


“Michael was the little cute one,” Jermaine told PEOPLE in 1984 about his younger brother, who joined his siblings – (clockwise from left) Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon – in the group the Jackson 5 at the tender age of 6. Though he started out as a backup musician playing congas and tambourine, it wasn’t long before he was the frontman, leading the group to massive success with No. 1 hits including “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.”


Despite his ever-present smile in photos (like this one circa 1970), life at home in the Jackson household was anything but happy. Jackson spoke out about the childhood ab**se he endured at the hands of his father during a lengthy 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. And in the 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson, the singer told interviewer Martin Bashir that during Jackson 5 rehearsals, father Joe “sat in the chair and he had this belt in his hand. If you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you.”


Though he and sister Janet (pictured in 1972) were close as siblings, Jackson had his typical big brother moments, like nicknaming her Dunk because of her size. “You look like a donkey, you’re so big,” he said. Years later, in 2001, the pair teamed up for the edgy song and video “Scream,” which earned them a Grammy nomination. “Everyone sees he is different. There’s no question about that,” Janet said in 2007. “He’s my brother. I love him regardless.”


During a 1972 appearance on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Jackson showed off his funny bone. “I can’t make up my mind whether to be a jet pilot, an astronaut or the governor of Georgia,” deadpanned Michael when Bono asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. In his teen years, Jackson (who that year earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song for “Ben”) struggled with self-esteem issues – especially about his acne and a nose he felt was too big. “I think every child star suffers through this period because you’re not the cute and charming child that you were,” he told Oprah Winfrey in ’93.


After leaving Motown Records in 1975, Jackson and his brothers changed their name from the Jackson 5 to the Jacksons, releasing six albums between 1976 and 1984. At the time, Michael was the group’s lead songwriter, and the period produced hits like “Can You Feel It.” Simultaneously, the singer was striking out on his own, pursuing solo projects like 1978’s film The Wiz and his celebrated solo album Off the Wall.


When Jackson made his film debut in The Wiz, it was a critical and commercial failure, but the singer earned positive reviews for his turn as the Scarecrow. Jackson called shooting it “my greatest experience so far” in the 1993 book Michael Jackson: In His Own Words. “I don’t think it could have been any better, I really don’t.”


Teaming up with longtime pal Diana Ross, Jackson celebrated The Wiz’s premiere with a bash on Oct. 24, 1978. The two shared a common history and career trajectory, each getting their start as a part of Motown groups before forging solo careers. While they maintained a professional relationship – Jackson later wrote and produced Ross’s 1982 single “Muscles” – the two maintained a personal connection over the years.


After his successful turn in The Wiz, Jackson released his fifth solo album, Off the Wall, on Aug. 10, 1979. Coproduced by friend Quincy Jones, the Grammy-winning album spawned hit singles like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You.” “He had it all …talent, grace, professionalism and dedication,” Jones said in a statement after learning about Jackson’s d**th. “He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever.”


It was the moment that had kids everywhere trying to walk backwards: Jackson, in cropped pants and loafers, debuted the smooth-sliding “moonwalk,” one of the most iconic dance moves ever choreographed, during the 1983 primetime special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Singing with his brothers and solo, he performed his hit “Billie Jean” – and left the audience screaming for more. He later reprised the moment at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards (pictured).


Jackson was inspired to do a horror-themed clip for “Thriller” after seeing John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. “It was a different type of horror movie. It was comedy and horror,” Jackson said. “I said … ‘We gotta get in touch with him.’ ” Landis directed the epic 14-minute clip, which premiered on MTV before Christmas 1983. Thriller, Jackson’s breakout ’82 album, went on to sell more than 100 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.


Jackson (with Quincy Jones) cradles his record-breaking eight Grammy Awards – including album of the year for Thriller and record of the year for “Beat It” – at the ’84 ceremony. (In 2000, Santana later tied his one-night feat.) Jackson kept his aviators on for nearly the entire ceremony, only removing the shades because, as he said onstage, Katharine Hepburn “told me I should and I’m doing it for her, okay?” Then, as the audience erupted in screams, he added, “And the girls in the back.”


It was a close call: While filming a pyrotechnic-heavy commercial for Pepsi at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium in 1984, Jackson’s hair was accidentally set on fire as he performed “Billie Jean.” The singer was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was treated for a third-degree burn and a palm-sized second-degree burn on the crown on his head. At the hospital, a flood of messages poured in from fans and friends, including a telegram from a girl that said, “I heard you were hot, Michael, but this is ridiculous.”


“Well, isn’t this a thriller?” President Ronald Reagan joked when presenting Jackson with the Presidential Public Safety Commendation Award in 1984. Jackson received the honor for granting the use of his hit single, “Beat It,” in a campaign against teen drunken driving. A humbled Jackson merely said, “I’m very, very honored. Thank you very much, Mr. President and Mrs. Reagan.”


Although he already was included on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the Jackson 5 received their star in 1979), the singer received his solo star in 1984, making him one of a select group to have two stars. (Diana Ross also has two – one as a solo artist, one with The Supremes.)


In 1985, Jackson and Lionel Richie penned the charity single “We Are the World.” The song was performed by USA for Africa, a supergroup that included Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and, of course, Richie and Jackson. Profits went to the USA for Africa Foundation, and targeted famine-stricken Ethiopia.


3-2-1 blastoff! In 1986, Jackson joined forces with George Lucas (left) and Francis Ford Coppola for the 3-D film Captain EO, which debuted at Walt Disney parks in 1986 and would play at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, for the next 11 years. In the sci-fi musical, featuring the song “Another Part of Me,” Jackson starred as Captain EO – and wins over an evil space queen.


Instead of a castle, the King of Pop chose to live in an amusement park. In 1988, Jackson bought a nearly 3,000-acre expanse of land in California’s Santa Ynez Valley and built Neverland, named after Peter Pan’s world and complete with a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and more rides. After po**lice searched the ranch as part of his 2005 chi**ld mol**tation tri*l, Jackson abandoned Neverland, saying it was “v**lated.”


In what remains one of the most talked-about halftime performances of all time, Jackson took the stage at 1993’s Super Bowl XXVII in his trademark spangled military-style gear and stood motionless for a few moments – before kicking into the energetic “Jam.” The surprise? He then ripped off his jacket and broke out in a medley of his hits “Billie Jean” and “Black or White” – ending the appearance, arms outstretched, in a hail of pyrotechnics and smoke.


“My chimp Bubbles is a constant delight,” Jackson wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, published in 1998. The chimp was just one of the animals – don’t forget Louis the llama and Jabbar the giraffe – the singer had when he moved into his Neverland Ranch, which contained a zoo. But Bubbles – who wore clothes, used a toilet and reportedly learned to moonwalk – had “a special relationship with Jackson,” animal trainer Bob Dunn told PEOPLE. “He spoils him, just like any parent would.”


Outrageous rumors about Jackson ran rampant in the ’80s. Among them: He offered $1 million for the Elephant Man’s bones and slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, hoping to live to be 150 years old. “He has a chamber,” his manager Frank Dileo said at the time. “I don’t know if he sleeps in it.” Jackson later told Oprah Winfrey that the chamber was a “piece of technology used for burn victims” and that he decided to crawl inside and “hammer around.” Other reports had him leaking the photo himself to conjure a sci-fi image ahead of the release of Captain EO.


Over the years, Jackson’s face changed dramatically as his skin appeared lighter, his nose narrower and his chin more defined, which prompted stories about addictions to plastic surgery and skin bleaching. Jackson admitted to twice altering his nose and adding a cleft to his chin, but told Winfrey, “I’ve never had my cheekbones done, never had my eyes done, never had my lips done.” As for his changing skin color, Jackson blamed it on vitiligo, “a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of my skin,” he said. “I have to even out my skin.”


Honoring Jackson on his 44th birthday at MTV’s 2002 Video Music Awards, Britney Spears presented him with a cake and said, “I consider him the artist of the millennium … So, happy birthday, my friend, the King of Pop.” Confused, Jackson responded: “When I was a little boy in Indiana, if someone had told me … that one day I would be getting, as a musician, the artist of the millennium award, I wouldn’t have believed it.” The singer went on to thank Diana Ross, Quincy Jones – and David Blaine, saying, “Your magic is real and I believe in you.”


Jackson married dermatologist assistant Debbie Rowe, a longtime friend who also treated the singer for his vitiligo, and the two welcomed kids Michael Joseph Jackson Jr. (known as Prince) and Paris. When the marriage ended in 1999, Rowe gave her ex full custody. Three years later, Jackson had another child, Prince Michael Jackson II (a.k.a. Blanket), through artificial insemination, but he never revealed the surrogate mother’s identity. Jackson was protective of all his children, often masking their faces when they go out.


In Berlin in 2002, Jackson greeted fans from his fourth-floor hotel balcony, but things turned scary when he held infant son Prince Michael II with one arm and dangled the baby outside the railing. “We were waving to thousands of fans down below, and they were chanting that they wanted to see my children, so I was kind enough to let them see. I was doing something out of innocence,” Jackson said. “I love my children, I was holding my son right and strong … I wasn’t going to let him fall.”


A lengthy interview with journalist Martin Bashir from May 2002 to January 2003 became Living with Michael Jackson, a documentary that premiered on ABC on Feb. 6. 2003. Composed of quotable and bizarre moments – Jackson memorably compared himself to Peter Pan; went on extravagant shopping binges; and admitted to letting disadvantaged children sleep in his bed – the documentary was a major factor leading to his 2005 ch*ild mol**tation tri*l. Jackson later said he felt betrayed by Bashir and the footage.


After years of spending time with famous kids like Emmanuel Lewis and Macaulay Culkin, Jackson settled a suit charging him with ab**sing a chil*d in a 1994 case. Then, amid recording a music video for his single “One More Chance” in Las Vegas, Jackson flew back to Santa Barbara, California, on Nov. 20, 2003, and surr*endered to p*olice on charges of lewd or lascivious acts with a child younger than 14. Taken to jail in handcuffs, the pop star took this mug shot – and weighed in at a frail 120 lbs.


Throughout his 2005 chi*ld mol**tation trial, Jackson had problems arriving on time to court. On March 10, Judge Rodney S. Melville threatened to issue an arrest warrant if the pop star didn’t appear immediately. His defense attorney claimed that Jackson was hospitalized for back pain, but Jackson eventually arrived – minutes after the judge would have to make good on his threat – sporting slippers, pajama bottoms, a white undershirt and blue blazer.


After being acquitted on ch*ild mol**tation charges, Jackson and his children went on an extended trip to Bahrain, beginning a real retreat from the public eye. In the Persian Gulf nation, Jackson was reportedly a guest of the king’s son. When he returned to the States, his public appearances were few. Here, the singer stepped out to the Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier stores with his kids – sporting a mask.


Despite questions about his health, Jackson was preparing for a comeback tour in 2009 when he d**d on June 25 at the age of 50. He suffered cardiac arrest at home. In 2011, his doctor Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in his d**th. Throughout the six-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Murray as a reckless doctor who treated Jackson’s insomnia with a nightly drip of propofol, an unpredictable and potentially fatal anesthetic.