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Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and the dangerous intimacy of fandom

We feel like we know our favorite stars. Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly show how predators can take advantage of that feeling.

Jackson and Robson in an image from Leaving Neverland.
Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in an image from Leaving Neverland.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

About an hour into Leaving Neverland, HBO’s relentlessly devastating documentary about two men who say they were abused by Michael Jackson, Wade Robson tries to explain how it came to be that his parents felt comfortable letting him spend the night in Michael Jackson’s bedroom. Robson was 7 years old the first time it happened, and it was shortly after his parents interacted with Jackson for the first time.

“We’d known him for, I don’t know what, four hours, maybe,” Robson says. (He and his mother had met Jackson once before, briefly, at a concert Jackson did in Australia where Robson and his parents lived. This encounter, on a family trip to America, was their first sustained interaction with Jackson.) Then he corrects himself: “Not known him. We met him four hours ago.”

But it felt like they had known him for longer, he explains. “That’s the trippy part, is that it felt like we knew him. He had been in my living room every day, in my ears, via his music and his posters. I’d known him. I thought.”

Robson was a devoted Michael Jackson fan as a child. His first concert encounter came about because Robson won a Michael Jackson dance contest, and the meeting was his prize. When Jackson invited Robson to visit him in America, Robson wore a custom-made “Smooth Criminal” suit. He taught himself to dance from Michael Jackson videos; he’d listened to Michael Jackson music every day.

And because of that, he felt as though he knew Jackson. He felt like Jackson was someone he could trust. And Jackson, Robson says, abused that trust in order to molest him.

The abuse of trust is a recurring theme in Leaving Neverland, as well as in Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime’s recent docuseries about the decades of accusations that singer R. Kelly has sexually abused multiple women and young girls. Again and again, the subjects of these documentaries have described themselves as “superfans” of the stars who they say abused them. And both Kelly and Jackson, according to these documentaries, took advantage of that fandom.

Fandom creates a kind of one-sided intimacy, a feeling that we personally know the stars that we admire. For predators, that intimacy is a vulnerability that can be exploited.

Both Michael Jackson and R. Kelly have been accused of targeting fans

Jerhonda Pace, one of the women featured in Surviving R. Kelly who says that R. Kelly abused her, met the singer while he was on trial for child pornography in 2008.

“I went to his trial because I was a superfan at the time, and the fact that the trial was open to the public, I was excited to go,” Pace says in the documentary. “I got the chance to engage in conversations with him. So I would just say ‘Hey, good morning’ and he would speak back. I would just tell him to keep his head up, the same thing I would say outside of the courthouse, and he would just thank me for it.”

Pace spoke out in Kelly’s defense to reporters waiting outside the courtroom for a good fan quote. In the documentary, the camera repeatedly pans over photos of the crowds that gathered outside the courthouse during Kelly’s trial, in which Pace appears gazing adoringly at Kelly while he makes his way to his car.

Pace was 15 years old at the time. A few months after the trial ended — and after Pace had turned 16 — she says that one of Kelly’s employees connected with her on social media and invited her to a party at Kelly’s mansion. Shortly thereafter, she says, Kelly initiated a sexual relationship with her that rapidly turned abusive.

Pace, like Robson with Michael Jackson, believed that she could trust R. Kelly. She believed that he was someone she knew and someone she should defend, because she was a fan. And Kelly, like Jackson, is accused of abusing that trust.

It’s not uncommon to invest yourself emotionally in celebrities and pop stars, says pop music professor Norma Coates. “You’re really invested in this person, not so much for who they are but what they mean to you,” she told Vox over the phone. “Music touches us in so many ways, and for so many people it becomes a lifeline. It’s part of who we are, especially at very vulnerable times in our lives.”

Often, that fandom is a joyous, enriching experience. “Stardom is something that gives us resources for living,” Coates says. “They’re models, they’re friends, they help us be parts of communities, especially online these days. You don’t feel so alone. It’s something to grab onto. It makes you feel more human.”

And being the fan of a musician can feel even more personal than being the fan of an actor or an athlete. “With music, it’s right in your head,” says Coates. There’s little barrier between your thoughts and the music streaming into your brain.

All of this means that we tend to identify closely with our favorite musicians. But, as Coates points out, we aren’t actually connecting to the real person behind the music.

“You don’t have access to who this person is,” Coates says. “You have access to the persona and the character that the person plays. We fall in love with that.”

But emotionally, the distinction between the unknowable star and their knowable persona doesn’t necessarily hold much weight — especially for children. Robson didn’t know Jackson, but he really did have Jackson’s face and voice in his house every day. That created a sense of intimacy that felt real, even when it wasn’t.

Stars who are predators can take advantage of that one-sided intimacy. They can rely on their fans to assume they can be trusted, without having to really earn that trust.

That might be why Jackson seemed to find his fans to be attractive targets. James Safechuck, the other man who says in Leaving Neverland that Jackson abused him, says that he was not a Michael Jackson fan the first time he met the singer on the set of a Pepsi commercial they filmed together. “I was probably more into, like, Voltron and Transformers” at the time, he explains in the documentary.

But on set, Safechuck — 10 years old at the time — was overwhelmed and star-struck by the weight of Jackson’s celebrity (“He was larger than life,” Safechuck says in the documentary), and Jackson began to take an interest in him. Shortly after, Jackson sent a film crew to Safechuck’s house and asked him to film a video saying hi that Jackson could watch while he was on tour overseas. Before the crew began filming, they dressed Safechuck’s room with Michael Jackson posters and memorabilia, so it would be “more appealing,” Safechuck’s mother explained.

There is an enormous power in fandom and in fannish attention, and becoming a fan of a star means you are giving some of that power to their persona. “It grants the fantasy you have of them power,” says Coates — and it’s often difficult to distinguish between the fantasy and the real thing.

According to Safechuck and Robson, Michael Jackson was drawn to this power disparity. He allegedly used it as a tool to break down barriers that he might have otherwise faced, like taboos against adult men sleeping in the same bed as 7-year-old children. And according to Pace and others featured in Surviving R. Kelly, Kelly was drawn to that power disparity too, and used it as a means of filtering potential victims to figure out which women to target.

All power can be abused by predators. What Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly make clear is that to have fans is to have a peculiarly intimate power over them.