Getting to the bottom of those creepy Michael Jackson claims
‘I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie,’ says Wade Robson, who previously denied sex abuse stories
“I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie,” Wade Robson says near the end of Leaving Neverland, the excoriating four-hour-long documentary about two of Michael Jackson’s alleged sex abuse victims and their families. During the film, Robson claims that he was groomed by Jackson, who abused him from the age of seven until he was 14.
While his story, like that of fellow alleged victim James Safechuck, is sickening and will irrevocably upturn Jackson’s legacy, it takes a dramatic twist: in 2005, Robson supported Jackson in the landmark sex abuse trial against the pop star. His vociferous denial of any assault led to Jackson being found not guilty.
Robson’s turnaround has made him a target for Jackson’s many adamant defenders who have accused him of profiting financially from the scandal. Yet Robson wasn’t paid to appear in Leaving Neverland, and he has enjoyed a successful career as a Hollywood choreographer. Furthermore, Robson’s story can be read as something else: a depiction of how trauma can leave the most deafening silences.
While Dan Reed’s documentary is not the first time Robson has spoken about the allegedly abusive side of his relationship with Jackson, that the Australian grew up under the wing of the King of Pop was never secret. The photographs seem chilling now – Robson, dark eyes shining under the wide brim of a glowing white trilby and a matching suit, guided by Jackson’s hand on his shoulder; others of Robson dressed up as a Jackson mini-me in studded leather, his light brown hair permed into a mullet – but they were taken in the full glare of the paparazzi. Robson first met Jackson in 1987, when he was the five-year-old winner of a national Jackson dance-impersonation contest; a meeting with Jackson himself was the prize. Robson later described it as “my wildest dream come true”. But he’d arguably encountered Jackson far earlier: his mother, Joy, played Thriller on repeat while Robson was in the womb. The youngest of three children growing up on a quiet backstreet, Robson, described as a “sensitive boy”, would copy Jackson’s moves by the time he was barely out of toddlerhood. “He’d dance out there for hours and hours, then come back and say: ‘Nobody ever drives past.’ He wanted an audience,” Joy recalled in 2003.
After meeting Jackson, he got one: the King of Pop invited him to join him on stage during his Brisbane concert. When the Robson family went on holiday to Los Angeles two years later, Jackson invited them to Neverland, his fantastical ranch, for the weekend. The star managed to convince Robson’s parents to let Robson, then seven, and his 10-year-old sister Chantal spend the night in his room. When the Robsons then left to continue their trip at the Grand Canyon, they allowed their youngest son to stay behind with Jackson. That, Robson alleges, was when Jackson first touched him and encouraged Robson to reciprocate, telling him: “You and I were brought together by God. This is how we show our love.”
By the time Robson’s parents had returned from Arizona, Robson claims that he and Jackson had had oral sex. Jackson told him never to tell anybody, or else both of them would go to jail. Robson maintained his silence for 22 years.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Robson and Jackson’s alleged relationship was that it was willing. As Reed explained in a LA Times interview about his film: “When Wade told me that he loved Michael, then everything suddenly crystallised and made sense. This is difficult to say, but he had a fulfilling sexual and emotional relationship at the age of seven with a 30-year-old man who happened to be the King of Pop. And because he enjoyed it, he loved Michael, and the sex was pleasant. I’m sorry, that’s just the reality.” Wade, Reed goes on to say, made it “very, very clear” that he was not “kind of forced”, that Jackson had spun an illusion of love and romance between the pair of them.
Furthermore, Jackson was helping Robson to live his childhood dream. The star encouraged the Robson family to relocate to Los Angeles when he was eight. Robson’s dance career began in earnest, in some ways replicating the showbiz childhood Jackson had experienced. Initially, the nine-year-old Robson was given starring roles in the videos for Jackson’s hits Black & White, Jam and Heal the World. By the time he was 11 he was in an ill-fated hip-hop duo named Quo with a friend called DeWayne Turrentine – Jackson’s label MJJ Music released their album. Robson was teaching dance classes in Hollywood when he was 12. He was 14 when he took his first choreography job, with the fittingly named R&B group Immature.
Robson had hit the big-time at 16, when he was put forward as the choreographer for Britney Spears’s first major US tour. Upon meeting him in 1999, she said: “He’s a friggin’ baby!” (Spears was only a year older). “I thought he was gonna be in his 30s or 40s,” Spears told People in 2003. “I was like: ‘Uh … is this guy capable of doing what I want to do? He has to really have it together.’”
But Robson did have it together. He was responsible for some of Spears’ most memorable routines: the syncopated break-down of Baby … One More Time at the 1999 VMAs; the much-imitated chest pump of Oops I Did it Again; the coming-of-age controversy of her Slave 4 U routine. It was Robson’s idea to drape Spears in a python during the 2001 VMAs, an image that would instantly become seared into her brand. “She hated me for that,” he remembered two years later. “She broke out in hives.”
Robson dallied in music, too, writing N*Sync songs with Justin Timberlake (he also choreographed the band’s Pop routine) and remixing Mandy Moore songs. In the early 2000s he worked with pop’s heaviest hitters – Usher, Pink and that relentlessly earworming hit from A*Teens, Upside Down.
Robson’s moves were always slightly indebted to his mentor – the same rapid-pace body-popping, the clean lines he would make with the snap of a wrist or a shoulder dip and limbs that seemed to melt into the floor. During his short-lived television dance contest, The Wade Robson Project, he even paid tribute to Jackson. In a white hat and trilby, a supersized version of the outfit he’d worn as a child, he spun and moonwalked, bringing Jackson to the stage once more. Robson was cresting a wave of his career, breaking into brand partnerships and cinema, in 2005, when Jackson’s court case began.
It wasn’t the first Robson had been involved in. He was 10 when Jackson’s first highly publicised sex abuse case took place, against Jordy Chandler. At the time, Robson – who looked older than his years, with hair that had been shorn and bleached blonde, and sporting a ring of black eyeliner – was interviewed by the press and denied any wrongdoing on Jackson’s part. He would later remember Jackson calling him up, saying: “They’re saying that we did this that and the other, these disgusting sexual things. We never did any of that, right?” “I would just play along and be like, yeah, it’s crazy, we never did anything like that,” he said in 2018.
“When I was younger I was terrified by the idea of my life falling apart, of him going to jail,” Robson said, in the same interview, of why he didn’t tell what he alleges is the truth. “He would play and train me for these [court] scenarios,” he had explained five years earlier. “From day one of the abuse, Michael told me that we loved each other and that this was love, that this was an expression of our love,” Robson said. “And he would follow that up with: ‘But if you ever tell anyone what we’re doing, both of our lives and careers will be over.’” Robson was still a child, but Jackson had given him the career of his dreams.
Robson was one of three witnesses brought to testify against Gavin Arvizo during the 2005 trial. The other two were Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes. Press reports at the time described him as “confident-looking”. He was there to refute the claims of Jason Francia, son of Blanca Francia, Jackson’s former housekeeper, who alleged that he had been touched inappropriately by Jackson. When Jackson’s defence lawyer Tom Mesereau asked if Jackson had ever molested Robson, he was insistent: “Absolutely not. And I can tell you right now that if he had, I wouldn’t be here right now.” Asked if Jackson had touched Robson in “a sexual way”, he said: “Never. I wouldn’t stand for it.”
And yet, in 2013 – and four years after Jackson’s death – Robson filed a lawsuit against Jackson’s estate, alleging that he was abused by the star. Jackson’s lawyers led a public consensus against Robson that he was out for money; just a year previously, Robson had stepped away from the industry, abandoning his first proper directorial gig, of the Step Up Revolution. “Mr Robson's claim is outrageous and pathetic,” Howard Weitzman, lawyer for Jackson’s estate, said. “This is a young man who has testified at least twice under oath over the past 20 years and said in numerous interviews that Michael Jackson never did anything inappropriate to him or with him.”
As Robson would later write on his blog, in 2012 his wife gave birth to their first son. With fatherhood came “visual flashes of my son experiencing something that I had experienced as a child. Something that I had never spoken about to anyone in my life, had actually passionately denied over and over and had always tried to just not think about.” It led to a nervous breakdown. Robson was forced to give up the directorial job that Jackson had always told him he would land, in part because the entertainment business “was synonymous with Michael for me and therefore the sexual abuse”.
It was during a subsequent therapy session, Robson writes, that he “finally worked up the courage to speak a particular truth for the first time in my life: ‘Michael Jackson molested me’”. Once away from Hollywood – Robson moved to his wife’s native Hawaii with their infant son – he decided to take legal action against the Jackson estate, “to create a serious legal platform from which to raise awareness about child sexual abuse”.
Three years later, a judge ruled that Robson could not pursue his allegations because he had waited too long to sue: the statute of limitations allows victims to make claims of child abuse until the age of 26. Robson was 30 when he filed his claim.
It was the start of a string of legal headaches for Robson, who tried to sue Jackson’s companies in 2016 – this time filing negligence claims that MJJ Productions and MJJ Venture were complicit in allowing Jackson to abuse boys like Robson. The companies, Robson’s second complaint claimed, “served dual purposes. The thinly-veiled, covert second purpose of these businesses was to operate as a child sexual abuse operation, specifically designed to locate, attract, lure and seduce child sexual abuse victims.”
This, too, was ruled against by a judge in December 2017. “Without control over Michael Jackson, the corporate defendants could not impose ‘reasonable safeguards’ or take ‘reasonable steps’ to ‘avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future’ by Michael Jackson”, court documents stated. Jackson’s actions, it was suggested, were uncontrollable.
Although defeated in court, Robson’s years of therapy and soul-searching appeared to be improving his personal life. In March 2017 he began to dance again for the first time in five years, starting with giving just the one dance class to a local group in Hawaii. “Muscle memory kicked in and I slipped right back into the role of dance teacher as if no time had passed,” he wrote. “Now each time I dance, I feel Michael Jackson and the sexual abuse expel from my body a little bit more.” - © The Daily Telegraph