Off the Wall
While Michael Jackson faces a courtroom thriller, one Corpus Christi superfan—and her army of 15,000—is making sure the Gloved One comes out swinging.
DEBORAH DANNELLY’S MOST cherished possession is a black fedora signed on the brim in silver ink by Michael Jackson. It is displayed in a glass case in her bedroom in the simple Corpus Christi home that she, age 48, shares with her two cats, two dogs, and two parents. Clarification: The house is simple; her bedroom is not. Every inch of wall and shelf space is dedicated to Jackson, the self-crowned King of Pop, in the form of posters, publicity photos, snapshots, framed album covers, 45s, LPs, CDs, DVDs, videotapes, souvenir Pepsi cans and bottles, ticket stubs and all-access passes from the concerts and special events she has attended, commemorative chocolate bars from Michael and Lisa Marie Presley’s wedding, key chains, puzzles, four miniature Michael dolls with as many miniature changes of clothes, stuffed toy replicas of animals in Michael’s menagerie, a Michael marionette commissioned by Jackson himself, and a two-foot-tall Rock & Roll Elmo doll that sings the Jackson 5’s early hit “ABC.” There is even a Michael pillow on the bed.
Dannelly bristles at the use of the word “shrine” to describe her room. “It’s a collection,” she said, cocking her head. “If someone is collecting Beanie Babies, you wouldn’t say they’ve created a shrine to Ty. So if I have a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, it’s not a shrine. Being a fan for so long, it documents my growing up, different eras I went through, some of the wonderful times that I have had relating to Michael.”
These are the times, however, that try fans’ souls. On November 18, a day the faithful had long anticipated as the release date of Jackson’s latest greatest-hits collection, Number Ones, the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices served a search warrant on Jackson’s Neverland Ranch amid new allegations of child molestation against the singer. The raid was massive; the Associated Press reported that so many investigators converged at the ranch that the county had to equip the force with portable toilets. But it was nothing compared with the circus that ensued, beginning with a press conference the next day that the beaming district attorney, Thomas Sneddon, conducted like a birthday party, followed by Jackson’s arrest and sad-clown mug shot, rumors of love letters and slipped Mickeys, and the defense team’s claim of vendettas and shakedowns. Despite the glossy Hard Copy sheen, not one bit of it was pretty, but neither was it unexpected. Jackson’s popularity has been in perpetual wane since Sneddon looked into similar charges in 1993, an investigation that ended only when that alleged victim, the recipient of a reported $20 million settlement from Jackson, refused to cooperate. By the end of 2003, a year in which Jackson’s behavior grew so strange that even the word “eccentric” no longer fit—the baby-dangling, the accusations of racism against Sony Music, the documentary TV declaration that sharing his bed with young boys was perfectly natural—his fan base had been winnowed down to the diehards.
Deborah Dannelly is one of those. She is the president of the Michael Jackson Fan Club, a 15,000-member international organization that is as close to an official fan club as Jackson has. And no matter how unsettling the charges have been and may become, her faith won’t be shaken. Shortly after the raid, Dannelly established a fan club offshoot called Fan Watch, billed on the MJFC Web site as “a new fan club project to ensure the fair treatment of Michael in the media and trial.” She assembled a handful of Texas lawyers and investigators to work pro bono for the Fan Watch team, which she has charged with doing whatever is necessary to make sure Jackson isn’t railroaded, including checking into the backgrounds of the DA and the alleged victim’s family. One Saturday in December, two days before Jackson was scheduled to be formally charged, she let me watch her direct the troops from her war room-office-sewing den as Fan Watch prepared a bombshell it hoped might change the course of the investigation. “Let me tell you something about real Michael Jackson fans,” she said. “We are loyal, and we are livid. This is not the first time we’ve been down this road, and we’re not just going to sit back and take it.”
DANNELLY CANNOT REMEMBER a time when Michael didn’t matter to her. She was raised an Army brat, born in Venezuela, then bounced from Ohio to Spain. She was in Cincinnati when she first saw the Jackson 5 on television: “I am three years older than Michael, and it was so cool to see kids my own age dancing and singing and showing up on TV. Michael, of course, stood out because he was so little and cute and always dressed so neat with those cute little hats.” In a sense, she grew up with Michael. “It’s like he’s always been there,” she said, “more a family member than a celebrity,” and as he went from lead singer to solo performer to worldwide icon, she started a family, built a career as a legal assistant, and went through her own ups and downs. She had surgery for a brain aneurysm in 1983 and lost her husband, a country radio deejay, to cancer in 1994. “That was particularly hard, because that was when Michael was going through the first allegations.”
She joined her first Jackson fan club in 1991 and by 1997 was the assistant to the president of the official fan club. When Jackson opted not to renew that club’s contract in 1999, his company, MJJ Productions, asked Dannelly if she would set up her own independent club to fill the void. “I told his camp that I’d do this,” she said, “but only if I could give it one hundred percent. I actually thought about it for three months before I decided I could really give it as much as Michael deserved.”
It turned out that Michael would get quite a lot. Starting from scratch, Dannelly built her MJFC team, which includes an Italian-based official artist, a Swiss-based translator, a German-based webmaster, a UK-based historian, and a Houston-based official poet, among others. By working closely with MJJ, allowing Jackson’s people to vet all MJFC announcements and in turn getting to post official Jackson statements before other clubs, she grew the organization to 15,000 people. With membership fees, plus profits from Jackson merchandise, that amounts to around $250,000 a year. But she and her team work for free. The money, said Dannelly, who was typically guarded on the subject, goes to operations, members’ benefits, publication of the monthly MJFC newsletter, contributions to Michael’s charities, and frequent events. Last August the MJFC threw Jackson a $150,000 forty-fifth birthday party, renting Los Angeles’s Orpheum Theatre and flying in performers from around the world to impersonate and pay tribute to him. According to Dannelly, Jackson was suitably grateful.
Dannelly’s presidency has enabled about a dozen meetings with Jackson (a photo of the two of them together at a 2002 event is up on the MJFC Web site), but she doesn’t delude herself about the nature of their relationship. “We’ve never just ‘hung out.’ We’re not, like, friends,” she told me. Stuart Backerman, who was Jackson’s spokesperson until late December, said that Dannelly means a lot to Jackson and MJJ, and not just because of all that the MJFC does: “Mostly it’s her demeanor and sensitivity, the way she handles herself. There’s a perception that a fan is somebody who is crazy, with no rational life of their own. Deborah is a professional, with a professional career, not some screaming, crazy fan.”
WHEN I ARRIVED AT HER HOME in December, Dannelly had been at the computer since six in the morning, after a mere one-hour nap that capped nearly twelve solid hours of MJFC toil the night before. She wore an oversized yellow T-shirt with Native American patterns on it in pink, purple, and turquoise puffy paint, and her hazel eyes looked serious, not tired, beneath her blond pixie haircut. As she ushered me into headquarters, a small room filled with unfinished sewing projects and stacks of MJFC newsletters she’d been unable to mail under the weight of the current crisis, she explained that she’d learned in the night that Sneddon would not be filing charges on Monday, as he’d earlier announced. Now she was instant-messaging with her brother, Ron Kormanik, a Houston civil litigator on the Fan Watch team, trying to learn how long Sneddon could go without filing before the matter had to be dropped. Kormanik was unsure.
As she typed with her brother, she discussed the MJFC’s role in the current mess, which she sees as two-fold: to be there for Jackson but also for his fans. “Some of the fans who’ve been around forever are going through a very difficult time,” she said, “with people making comments and saying really negative things about being a fan and standing by Michael.” She pointed out that during the first round of accusations, some fans threatened suicide, although she doesn’t recall any attempts actually being made. To deal with the scandal this time, she assigned two team members to monitor the MJFC’s forum and chat rooms for posts of “uncalled-for, sick opinions” and set up a special e-mail address for distraught fans, with a promise that a team member would respond within 48 hours.
Meanwhile, under Dannelly’s direction, the Fan Watch team was already hard at work and starting to boast small victories. After learning that Amazon.com’s listing of Number Ones included sarcastic if-you-like-this-record-you’ll-love-this-book suggestions of titles like Thank Heaven for Little Boys, Dannelly oversaw an e-mail campaign to protest. Amazon responded by cutting the “scurrilous recommendations,” according to the MJFC.
But Fan Watch had bigger targets in its sights than online vandals. At about the time a person with less pressing concerns would have been eating lunch—Dannelly doesn’t take breaks—her phone rang with the special double-ring that announces official MJFC business. It was Kormanik and Michael Bradle, a Lampasas “business consultant” who is Fan Watch’s lead investigator. While Dannelly instant-messaged with Europe about posting news on the Web site of the passing of Keiko, the killer whale star of Free Willy (Jackson sang the film’s theme), I donned her headset and spoke with Kormanik and Bradle about their plans for Sneddon.
“We’re working on something very sensitive that we cannot talk about,” said Bradle.
“And we don’t want to divulge any information that we’re not one hundred percent sure about,” added Kormanik.
“We’re speaking with a number of sources,” said Bradle. “We’re like a conduit for sources. I was on the phone with a source in California last night until two o’clock in the morning. It’s all related to this one investigation, and it’s big. But we refuse to engage in gutter tactics like the ones being used by the DA.” He offered a little insight and then a little tease: “Look at 1993 and now. It’s the same attorneys and therapists involved. It’s the same shakedown for money. I think the DA has no evidence and that this is clearly the product of a vendetta. But for specifics, you’ll have to wait.”
“I’m not as big a fan of Michael Jackson as Deborah is,” added Kormanik, “although I do like the music around Thriller and Bad. I’m doing this because I’m a fan of justice.”
THAT AFTERNOON, DANNELLY FINALLY had some downtime to focus on the MJFC’s peacetime endeavors. One of the services the MJFC provides to fans is to make them aware of the fraudulent Michael memorabilia that frequently come up for sale. Michael is, according to Dannelly, the most collected celebrity in all of celebrity memorabiliadom. We made a quick run-through of the eBay items listed under “Michael Jackson, nostalgia.” At a breakneck pace she clicked on selected items, rendered judgment, then clicked on others.
“I have tons of these Topps trading cards. They’re legitimate.” Click. “I have that Pepsi can.” Click. “A Michael Jackson pocketknife? That’s obviously not a licensed item. Michael wouldn’t do that.” Click. “I have these puffy stickers.” Click. “I do have a bottle of Michael Jackson perfume, but not this one.” Click. “This November ’84 issue of Cracked is really kind of negative. I don’t do that.” Click. “This Neverland Valley Fire Department patch is not authentic. I’ve been there and seen them, and this is close, but there are differences. I can’t tell you what they are.” Click. “Here’s an autographed jacket from the 1984 Jacksons World Tour for $55,000. But it’s billed as the ‘Jackson 5 World Tour.’ The Jackson 5 were not even around anymore in 1984, so, first of all, whoever’s selling this doesn’t know Michael and the history behind the item. Secondly, that is one hundred percent not Michael’s signature.” She pointed out the intricate loop in the J of an authenticated rendering of Michael’s “Jackson.” “I’ve watched him sign autographs and wondered how he does it.” This loop didn’t measure up. “On a good day I wouldn’t pay over two hundred dollars for this jacket.” Click.
The calm broke when her phone double-rang with a call from a man who calls himself Nijel, Black Prince of God, a California-based artist who was commissioned by Dannelly to create the fan award that supporters worldwide gave Jackson in celebration of his thirtieth year as a solo performer, in 2001. Dannelly and Nijel began to commiserate. “It’s just kind of a constant race and push and shove,” she said, “trying to get things done, keep things organized.” She sounded sad, then defiant. “Oh, no, sweetie, I’m just getting started. Somebody somewhere has to stand up and say, ‘Enough, okay? Enough!’ That’s what you can get me for Christmas, a T-shirt that says ‘Enough!'”
But Christmas wouldn’t come fast enough. On December 18, Sneddon filed his formal charges, ending the growing speculation that the DA might drop the case. That same day, Fan Watch countered by releasing its own announcement to the media. According to Bradle, the California State Bar had agreed to investigate a grievance, filed “on behalf of the public good,” accusing Sneddon of misconduct in the Jackson matter. In an e-mail to me, Bradle said Sneddon had abused his office by pursuing a vendetta against Jackson, and he alluded to claims of overzealous prosecution in cases unrelated to Jackson’s. He offered to provide a copy of a malicious prosecution lawsuit filed in federal court by a California man a week before the Neverland raid.
The Fan Watch announcement was picked up by a few media outlets, but it was soon overshadowed by one Jackson himself would make on 60 Minutes a week and a half later, when he accused the Santa Barbara sheriff of locking him in a men’s room that had “doo-doo” on the walls. As the news grew weirder in California, Dannelly’s resolve only grew stronger. She’s got a credo that, along with Jackson’s music, keeps her going when the skies turn dark: “If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything.”