Neverland Valley was Michael’s magical kingdom, a haven of innocence and bliss. Everything about it was an extension of his soul – the bronze statues of children depicted in a moment of playfulness, the winding paths that glittered at night, the movie theater where the candy was free and abundant, the sparkling fountain, the exotic animals, the fairground rides, the rolling hills and meadows…
It was a paradise designed to reflect the essence of who he is, to appeal to the inner child in everyone and to provide a retreat for the many busloads of terminally ill children who he invited inside.
On September 6 2003, I was one of a very lucky 13 – a group of fans from Europe who just happened to be at the gates of Neverland when Michael rolled up on a scooter and invited us all to spend the day with him inside. It wasn't my first visit to Neverland – that had been with four friends in February 2003 (see photo above) – but it was by far my most magical and memorable one.
A beautiful monologue
After we'd parked our cars and cooled off with a water fight, Michael called us into a room and had us sit around him in a circle. He then began to interview us one by one, asking us how and when we became fans, where we had been to see him, what our favorite songs were…
After listening to us and asking us questions, it was his turn. And so he began, breaking into a beautiful monologue, drifting from topic to topic, speaking with such knowledge, wisdom and insight. Michael is so beautifully expressive. It’s always a joy to hear him speak.
He talked about the beauty of Africa, saying, “You read a lot of things about Africa but they’re not true. People want you to believe that it’s a poor country full of crime. Every country in the world has poverty and crime. Africa is so beautiful, full of rich resources.”
He spoke about the importance of childhood, saying, “Parents don’t spend enough time with their kids. PlayStation has become the pacifier. Children are crying out to be loved.”
He spoke about how the media portrays him, saying, “I don’t know why the media always say that I’m a freak and that I’m weird and that I don’t want to talk to people. Why do they say those things when they're not true?”
Of course we responded passionately to this, assuring him that anybody with more than half a brain cell could see through the media lies. When the conversation finally wound down, he asked us, as he did several times that day, “What will we do next?” and then came up with a plan. He led us outside to his car and a handful of us piled in (while the others travelled in a van).
We drove with him to the movie theater, where he led us all into a secret room crammed with recording equipment and tour costumes – including his gold Scream outfit from the HIStory tour. He told us he had come up with the backbeat for Stranger in Moscow and The Lost Children in this very room, then burst into song. We were in HEAVEN.
We drifted over to a huge painting of Michael surrounded by angels, in which there were hidden images and symbols. Michael began a little game that he would continue later in the house – where there were many more amazing paintings. He would say, “Find Macaulay Culkin,” and we’d find a figure under a tree with blonde hair, or “Find me,” (pointing at a section of the painting) and we’d find a set of leaves in the shape of his Billie Jean pose.
The most surreal moment of my life (up until then at least) came a little later, when I was sitting next to Michael in the theater watching his videos on the big screen and sharing his popcorn. Smooth Criminal had always been my favorite video, one that my brothers and I had taped off the TV and watched over and over again every day after school, so when it came on the screen, it all hit me….
Here I was sitting beside Michael Jackson in Neverland Valley watching his videos while eating popcorn from his bowl. I tried to tell him how I was feeling but became too overwhelmed to speak. He squeezed my hand. I think he understood.
Through his home
Michael left us at the theater and we were whisked off to the zoo for a 10-minute visit, after which we were summoned back to the house. The door swung open and inside stood Michael holding Blanket in his arms and beaming proudly. Such a proud father. Such a sweet little boy, just learning to walk at the time.
With Blanket clutching the edge of his trousers, Michael led us through his home, first past the kitchen, where all the staff greeted us, then into the dining area. He pointed out photographs, including ones of his children that he had taken, and beautiful paintings, including some of those that appear in his book Dancing the Dream.
At one point, a door burst open and Prince and Paris rushed in, calling ‘Daddy!’ Michael picked each one of them up and hugged them tightly. It was clear even then that he and his children were each other’s world.
The house was beautifully furnished, with touches here and there of their family life together. On a bulletin board by the door were notes the children had written to their father, telling him how much they love him. Underneath were their shoes, kicked off after a day playing outside.
Inside his mind
“If you want to know what stimulates my mind, take a look around,” said Michael as he led us into a series of rooms cluttered with all the things that inspire him - cardboard cutouts of Peter Pan, Harry Potter and Charlie Chaplin, giant paintings of his children, enlarged baby photographs, movie memorabilia, fan gifts (including one I had given him a week earlier, on his birthday – he told us that he keeps EVERYthing we give him!), toys, knick-knacks…
We followed him into a walk-in closet that was crammed with jackets, including the silver one he’d worn in New York in September 2001 and the one with a US flag that he’d worn at United We Stand a month later. He handed a few of them to me – they were HEAVY!
“Oh, they’re so heavy,” I said in surprise. “How do you dance with them on?”
“That’s what you don’t see when you watch me perform,” he replied. “You have no idea how heavy they are. But when I’m dancing, I don’t think about it. I melt into the music. If you see a dancer and you see her counting, 'One, two, three,' she’s not really dancing. When you dance, you become the music. You become the rhythm and forget everything else.”
I wrote down every word he said the next day so I could hold on to it forever.
“Have you seen my bedroom?” he asked us a little while later. We all shook our heads, our eyes wide with excitement as we followed him up a short stairway into his bedroom, which had a movie screen that dropped down from the ceiling, a rhinestone-covered bedspread and a pet rat called Sparkles in a cage. He waited until we’d all crowded in, then turned off the lights – everything sparkled and we all oooh-ed and aaah-ed in amazement.
Tainted by darkness
Little did we know it at the time but that was one of the last happy days at Neverland, before it was raided by darkness for a second time and tainted beyond repair. The estate became a prison to Michael in 2005, and after the trial ended, he moved out, never to return.
He talked to my friends and me about Neverland several times in 2007 and 2008 and always vowed that although he would never live there again, he also would also never sell it. The fantasyland he created exists now only in photographs and videos, in the memory of those he invited into his paradise and in the hearts of all those who can still go there in their dreams.