A Las Vegas meeting between Michael Jackson, his mysterious aide and four powerful businessmen results in a thrilling deal
Evening Standard Published: 23:05 March 15, 2009
Even by Las Vegas standards, the stakes at the meeting in the MGM Grand were extraordinarily high, the bet incredibly risky.
While tourists gambled dollars and cents in the slot machines next door, four of the most powerful men in show business were risking hundreds of millions, as well as their reputations, on a man whose own reputation was in tatters.
But as Michael Jackson sat before them, his youngest son, Blanket, at his side, the executives from AEG, the world’s second largest entertainment company, knew they had got their man.
Jackson, in a sober black suit (he has been photographed in women’s clothes on one shopping trip and pyjamas on another) appeared fit and well.
After years dogged by child abuse scandals, near bankruptcy and an obsession with plastic surgery, he told them what they were desperate to hear: the “King of Pop” was ready to make his comeback.
Just two months after that meeting, Jackson, who has not performed live for 12 years, is at the age of 50 breaking all records. His 50 concerts at the AEG-owned O2 Arena sold out within hours of the box office opening on Friday.
Jackson-mania is gripping London and the world, transforming the figure of fun, never to be let near children, to the biggest draw on the planet once again.
He has in effect been detoxified by an American corporation that stands to make a fortune. Jackson too will earn as much as £100 million (Dh512.6 million).
The Las Vegas meeting was crucial. Jackson had with him his mysterious aide Dr Tohme Tohme, a former Saudi Arabian orthopaedic surgeon who is his closest confidant.
His youngest son, officially Prince Michael II but referred to as Blanket in the family circle, played in the room. The last association Blanket, now six, had with a hotel was when his father dangled him from a balcony as a baby in Berlin in 2003.
The AEG delegation was headed by Philip Anschutz, its billionaire founder, and included his most senior executives: AEG’s chief executive Tim Leiweke, Randy Phillips, who heads up AEG Live, the live entertainment arm of the company, and Paul Gongaware, who managed Jackson’s live shows in the ’90s and will do so again in London.
Gongaware, who also staged Prince’s 21 nights at the O2 in 2007, is widely recognised as the middleman. While Jackson sipped bottled water, the AEG men, in polo shirts and jeans, sized up their target.
Jackson, with debts of up to $100 million (Dh367 million), desperately needed the cash while AEG was eager to land the showbiz coup of the decade.
Anschutz, a devout Christian, was weighing up whether hiring Jackson would damage his company’s reputation. The presence of Blanket helped to convince Anschutz that Jackson was ready for a return into the spotlight.
“It was a feelgood meeting,” Phillips said. “We went into why I felt London was the right place to visit. He agreed. Phil [Anschutz] is very good with people and he was like a father figure to Michael. He likes to invest in family entertainment and saw that Michael was such a great father.
“Michael talked about his ambition to write, produce, direct and star in films and Phil, who owns the largest cinema chain, said he would be able to help.”
For Phillips, the Las Vegas meeting was the culmination of three years wooing Jackson out of retirement.
In 2006 the brash American, formerly Rod Stewart’s manager, approached Jackson’s aides. “I was turned down twice by his representatives. I was told he wasn’t ready to go back on stage both physically and psychologically,” said Phillips.
In 2005 Jackson had finally been acquitted of child molestation charges. Spurning AEG’s offer, Jackson effectively fled to Bahrain where he was looked after by Shaikh Abdullah Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a son of the king.
But the two men fell out and the Shaikh sued Jackson in the High Court in London, claiming the pop star had reneged on a recording contract and owed him money.
Last November, hours before Jackson was due to give evidence in court, the case settled. The pop star, again out of pocket, his debts escalating, needed to act fast.
By December, said Phillips, talks with AEG “started to get serious”. The key was a call made to Anschutz by an old friend Tom Barrack Jr, a billionaire who paid $23.5 million (Dh86.2 million) for Jackson’s Neverland ranch.
Barrack told Anschutz that he and Tohme had agreed to take control of Jackson’s finances. They were rescheduling his $100 million debt and the pop star was ready to meet AEG.
London would be the first venue because the executives were not convinced America was ready to welcome Jackson back. Phillips couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
He said: “I got a call from Dr Tohme who gave it to me straight. He said Michael was in really bad financial straits.”
He met Barrack and Tohme in Los Angeles. “They were restructuring loans and settling all the law suits. Michael had got into so much trouble because he didn’t have the security blanket of managers. As sophisticated as he is, he is very trusting, almost to a fault.
“I gave them the plan I had been working on a four-year period of him playing live, releasing new music and a whole other bunch of commercial tie-ins including a new version of Thriller in 3D that would open on Halloween.”
“Phase one” Phillips told Barrack and Tohme, would be the announcement of 10 shows at the O2 in London. The deal agreed, there was only one hurdle: to get the concerts insured.
Phillips approached the London-based insurance company Robertson Taylor. The complex policy was only hammered out in the past two weeks after Jackson had a rigorous medical check-up at his LA home.
Phillips said: “Michael was put through a whole battery of tests; stress, treadmill, electrocardiogram, bloodwork and he passed them all. It’s a very complicated policy. Its very important he doesn’t perform consecutive nights.
“He’s in very good health. I’m 54, he’s 50 and I would like to have his cholesterol levels. He is a magnet for some of the strangest stories. The flesh-eating disease and things like that are simply not true. I have to say when I saw him last year he looked a little frail, but this time at the MGM Grand, he looked great.”
Phillips now speaks to Jackson directly each day. “He calls me all the time. We spoke on Wednesday afternoon. He said: [putting on high voice] ‘Randy, Randy no more shows, no more shows.'”
There are now 50 shows, stretching into January and February next year. While industry insiders remain sceptical, many are convinced Jackson will mime at least part of those gigs. But Phillips is confident.
“My guts tell me he’s gonna do it,” he said. But none of us will know for sure until July 8 when Jackson takes to the stage for his first night at the O2.
Assuming, of course, that he actually turns up.
Don’t miss it
Tickets for the 50 Michael Jackson concerts have all been sold out. But if you can scrape together Dh128,000, you might find a ticket online. Ouch!