Who doesn’t know the Jacksons? Their family story is seriously messed up—yet somehow, Janet Jackson came out of it all as a superstar, and seems relatively untouched by the drama. Well, keyword, relatively. What was it like for her to step out from the shadows of her famous siblings and make a name for herself? And how has she managed to escape the Jackson curse?
Janet Damita Jo Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana, to Joe and Katherine Jackson. Entering the world in 1966, she was the youngest of 10 siblings, with a 16-year age gap between her and her eldest sister. Jackson spent her early years at home with her mom and sisters, while her brothers would perform in L.A with dad.
Did Jackson catch the performance bug at that time? Surprisingly, no.
Although her brothers were already famous as the Jackson 5 when she was born, Janet initially had no desire to follow in their footsteps—instead, she had a rather unconventional dream. She wanted to be a horse-racing jockey! Well, it was either that or an entertainment lawyer. Clearly the girl had varied interests. But, destiny—AKA dad—had other plans.
Joe Jackson had once nourished hopes of becoming a blues musician. He modified that dream when he realized that he didn’t have the talent for it—but his kids did. The Jackson 5 may not have existed without his efforts, and Janet Jackson may not have realized her own talents without him either—but there was a dark side to his fatherly “guidance.”
Sadly, his methods of inculcating discipline were monstrous.
Joe Jackson and her siblings never saw their dad being affectionate. He insisted they call him “Joseph” and was particularly tyrannical and abusive towards his boys. Janet was lucky because she escaped physical mistreatment on account of being a girl. However, things were bad enough that she broke free from him at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately for Janet, her dad wasn’t the only weird parent in the family.
Jackson’s mom raised all her kids as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jackson had to accompany her mother to all theological meetings and events. She also couldn’t celebrate her birthday or Christmas, and mom encouraged her to “dress modestly.” She bolted from the fold as soon as she could though, claiming that she was “spiritual, not religious.”
Her next brush with organized religion would happen much later, but her mom’s habits did impact her in other ways.
Janet Jackson and her siblings are notorious germaphobes—and there’s a disturbing reason behind it. Their mom had an obsession with cleanliness and would dab the kids with rubbing alcohol to make sure they were spotless. Not content with that, she’d smear Vaseline on their faces to make them shine! No wonder Jackson attracted attention when she spent 40 minutes sanitizing her seat and table on an overseas flight a few years ago.
Apparently, Janet wasn’t the name her siblings used with her. They had another, quite uncommon, nickname for her: Dunk. And before you start imagining her as a basketball protege, let me clarify; it was Michael Jackson who gave her the name, for the flattering reason that her sturdy body reminded him of a donkey. Nice one, Michael.
Joe Jackson was nothing if not driven. When Janet was just 7 years old, he included her and her older brother Randy in the Jackson 5 act they performed at the MGM Casino on the Las Vegas strip. The younger kids had to keep the audience entertained by singing and doing impressions in between their older brothers’ performances. It was a life-changing moment for Janet.
She realized that performing was actually fun, and the audience seemed to love her too. No wonder she was more open to the next opportunity that came her way.
Lady Luck was on Janet Jackson’s side. During summer break, when most kids are chilling at home or at the beach, she found herself in The Jacksons. This was a summer replacement show, with a 30-minute runtime, featuring the siblings singing and dancing together. The show lasted for just 12 episodes, but got it gave Janet her first break.
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Janet’s presence in The Jacksons caught a producer’s eye. She was 11 when she landed the role of Penny Gordan Woods on Good Times. There was no looking back after that, and she went on to work in New Kind of Family and had a recurring role in Diff’rent Strokes. But Dad hadn’t forgotten about her singing prowess either.
While her TV career was doing quite well, Janet’s dad managed to get her a contract with A&M Records. Several songwriters and producers worked with her on her first album, with dad overseeing all of it. Her self-titled Janet Jackson album came out in 1982 and she became the highest-ranking female vocalist on Billboard Year-End Black Album Artists.
Her second album would come out two years later, while she was working in a teen drama, Fame…and hiding a dark secret.
Janet Jackson was growing up and had a complicated relationship with her family—so she went to extreme lengths to get away from them. She graduated from high school while working on Fame, and managed to give her family the slip when on location in New York. There was a specific, and scandalous, reason why she disappeared for a bit. Not only did she have a boyfriend, they’d actually decided to elope.
Janet Jackson married musician James DeBarge in September, 1984. She was just 18 years old. Her family had no idea that she’d tied the knot, because she knew they’d disapprove. But it wasn’t only the family who’d have a problem with her change in status.
During a time when Janet Jackson should’ve been a happy young newlywed, she discovered that her new husband had a chilling dark side. DeBarge was battling addiction and depression—and that wasn’t all. Jackson’s manager vehemently opposed the union and told her she had to give it up if she wanted a career. This hasty decision did not end well for either of the two people involved.
Jackson’s second album came out a month after her elopement. It didn’t do as well as her previous one, and her marriage was also on the rocks by this time. She moved back to her parents’ house to think about what she wanted to do. Just five months after tying the knot, she came to a decision—and applied for an annulment.
This wasn’t the only major change, either.
Joe Jackson had hired a new manager, John McClain, for Janet before the second album came out. McClain was a man with a plan for how to boost Jackson’s career. Under his guidance, she began training as a dancer and lost some weight. She also realized that it was time for her to make some tough decisions.
Janet Jackson decided she’d had enough of being under her father’s thumb, and his supervision. She wanted to break free of his influence, and she did that with her third album. She was finally coming into her own and she was ready to announce it to the world through the tell-all title of her latest musical offering. The album’s name: Control.
While Janet Jackson decidedly wanted to step out of her siblings’ shadow, and her dad’s influence, she didn’t ever paint her dad as a complete villain—the same could not be said for her older sister La Toya, who made chilling accusations about the way Joe Jackson treated his daughters. In her 1991 book, La Toya said that Joe had molested his older two daughters.
No one knows if there was any truth to this revelation, as La Toya backtracked on it later.
A harrowing incident actually provided the inspiration for Jackson's landmark album Control. Janet Jackson was walking on the street one day when a couple of men started stalking her. She had the option of running to one of her songwriters and asking them to help her, but she stood her ground and confronted the men instead. “I took a stand. I backed them down.”
A few of her songs, like “Nasty,” are about this theme—the importance of standing up for oneself. This would be echoed throughout her career, for better or for worse…
Even though Jackson was ready to break out on her own, it is possible that her first outing without dad may not have been such a huge success if it wasn’t for two fairy godfathers whom McClain introduced her to: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. These two superstar producers/writers had a hand in making Jackson’s Control such a huge success.
Jam claimed that Jackson had an “off-the-charts” musical IQ and all he and Lewis did was talk to her and help her put her ideas and opinions in song. Having said that, the backing tracks the two crafted for Jackson helped showcase her individuality further. The slamming beats had roots in urban R&B and proved her music was different from her brothers’, especially Michael’s.
Control shot to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and resulted in five singles, including “Nasty,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” and “Let’s Wait A While,” which were the Top 5 in the Billboard Hot 100. Jackson suddenly became a role model for her empowering songs, and Control became nominated for several Grammys and American Music Awards.
Behind the scenes, things weren’t exactly going as smooth as her album sales.
Everyone was wondering if Janet Jackson had more to offer, or if her megahit album had been a fluke. McClain suggested that her next album should be more sensual to guarantee interest. But Janet had other ideas. She wanted to make an album with a social message, which had a central theme based on various media-reported injustices.
As Jackson said, “I know an album or a song can’t change the world. I just want my music and my dance to catch the audience’s attention...long enough for them to listen to the lyrics.”
Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson’s fourth album, came out in 1989 and reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Critics had all kinds of praise for the diverse sound, the thought-provoking lyrics, and Jackson’s immense range showcased in the album. Not only did it become the highest selling album of 1990, it is also the only one to get “seven top five singles on the Hot 100.”
The album also set Janet Jackson up as a style icon. Move over Michael, there’s another Jackson in town.
The album’s title track of “Rhythm Nation” became even more wildly popular after the music video release. Janet’s combat outfit established her as a fashion icon, and she appeared to be more comfortable in her skin, and more open to various sartorial experiments. But she would achieve even more from this album.
Janet Jackson went on a debut tour after Rhythm Nation’s release and it was so incredibly successful that she was able to set up a “Rhythm Nation Scholarship.” She donated the funds generated from her performances to several educational programs, proving that she wasn’t just talk when it came to her desire to make a difference.
And there was another surprise waiting for her once she got back after her tour.
Jackson’s time with A&M Records was almost up when she reached home after her tour. But there was nothing to fear, as once her contract with them was over, she signed a multi-million contract with Virgin Records. This made her the “highest paid recording artist at the time,” and cemented her status as “Queen of Pop.”
And of course the Queen had more musical excellence to share with her fans.
Janet Jackson was so comfortable in her skin now, and so sure of her unique identity, that she named her next album Janet. Unlike her previous musical outings, this one experimented with several genres and had more pronounced sensual undertones. It was another smash hit; her first one with Virgin Records. Janet was a bona fide superstar—but the pressure on her was more heavy than ever before.
Once an actor, always an actor? True or not, Janet Jackson certainly wanted to give acting another shot. She made her first film appearance in Poetic Justice, and while the film didn’t do too well, people certainly appreciated her performance. It became obvious though that music was her real calling.
Apart from acting in Poetic Justice, Jackson had written and performed a ballad in it. The song, titled “Again,” was so good that it became nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award for “Best Original Song.” And though the world wasn’t aware of it, her personal life seemed to be a love song as well.
Janet Jackson was no stranger to keeping secrets—and this one was particularly explosive. She’d been dating her choreographer/director René Elizondo Jr. for a while, and the couple married each other away from the media eye in 1991. The secret was so well-kept that no one knew about it until Elizondo filed for divorce nine years later!
Her fans do have a memorable keepsake from their time together though.
The Queen of Pop’s cover page for Rolling Stones also became a huge talking point after Janet came out. The photo showed her upper body minus any clothes, with Elizondo using his hands as a makeshift cover up. The magazine cover became one of the “most recognizable, and lampooned” ones in history. Hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, eh? Well…
Despite their differences, Janet was a true Jackson. When push came to shove, she stood by her family and didn’t throw them under the bus. On the contrary, she was all support for brother Michael when the press was berating him for allegations of exploiting and mistreating minors. She went so far as collaborating with him on “Scream,” his lead single on HIStory.
The song won the siblings accolades; it was the most expensive music video ever made but the effort paid off when they won a Grammy for “Best Short Form Music Video” for it as well. Jackson seemed to be going from one high to another.
Her sixth album The Velvet Rope was another super hit. Jackson wasn’t shy of talking about social issues in her songs, and this album discussed domestic abuse, discrimination against gays, depression, and everyone’s need to belong. Her concert tour featuring larger than life shows, reminded audiences of “the ambition and glamor of a Broadway musical.”
Like she’d done previously, Jackson donated proceeds from her concerts and sales to different philanthropic organizations. But she was hiding another heartbreaking secret. Janet, who was always helping others, needed help herself.
Jackson was battling depression and anxiety while she was working on The Velvet Rope. Opening up about it later, she admitted that she’d struggled with feelings of low self-esteem and depression throughout her life. She believes the roots could be in her childhood, the fact that she was unhappy about her looks, and about being in her siblings’ shadow.
Initially, she sought an…unusual course of treatment.
When Janet Jackson looked into ways to treat her mental illness, she came up with a truly bizarre method. It’s rumored that she used coffee enemas to address her depression. She believed that they would help purge “sad cells” from her body, which were there from her childhood. Fans were understandably skeptical of this method of treatment—and I don’t blame them for it!
Jackson was always an unequivocal supporter of the LGBTQ community, and The Velvet Rope really established her as a champion for their rights. The GLAAD Media Awards recognized her efforts and gave her the award for “Outstanding Music.” And that wasn’t the only honor she received…
For a while it seemed like Janet Jackson couldn’t do anything wrong. Next, she appeared in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. Both the film and her single used in its soundtrack did really well. She became the first “MTV Icon” and her seventh album, All For You, opened at No. 1 again. She also won the title, “Queen of Radio.”
Unfortunately, just as all good things must come to an end, Jackson’s success streak was about to plummet…hard.
Fans celebrated the news that Janet would perform at Super Bowl XXXVIII’s halftime show in 2004. Considering all the hits she had under her belt, people were sure it would be an explosive performance. And of course, it was—but not in the way she intended. Fans enjoyed Jackson’s solo performance, but when Justin Timberlake showed up for a duet, things got out of hand.
Timberlake’s appearance was a surprise, but that surprise quickly turned to shock. He and Janet performed a duet of “Rock Your Body,” and at the lyric “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” he pulled off a piece of her costume, exposing her pierced breast on live TV. Both artists apologized profusely at the end of the show. They claiming it was a “wardrobe malfunction” and completely unintended.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
The Super Bowl fiasco had devastating consequences for Janet. All radio and music channels blacklisted her, the Grammys forced her to withdraw as a presenter, even though they had no problems with Timberlake attending the ceremony. As if this wasn’t enough, she also had to withdraw from her role in Lena Horne’s biopic.
Although it was very unfortunate for her, Jackson unwittingly became the muse behind an important innovation.
When software engineer Jawed Karim went looking for footage of Jackson’s scandalous Super Bowl performance, he couldn’t find it anywhere. That experience actually inspired him to create YouTube. That was certainly an unexpected consequence!
Jackson’s next two albums Damita Jo and 20 Y.O. didn’t do as well as her previous ones. It is possible they wouldn’t have been as successful even if “Nipplegate” hadn’t happened, but there’s no denying that the incident didn’t help in the sales and reviews. In fact, many critics commented more on the event than the album’s music.
But Jackson was a survivor, and she wasn’t leaving the arena without a fight.
In the early 2000s, Janet Jackson hooked up with producer Jermaine Dupri—and their relationship was both professional and personal. They were both unhappy with how Virgin Records had handled her last two albums’ release. So, they moved to Island Records for her tenth album, Discipline. Despite the fact that she had differences with this label too, the album did well and topped the Billboard 200. Plus, they were very happy together.
It looked like things might be getting better—but it's never completely smooth sailing when you're a Jackson.
Along with her music, Jackson kept appearing in films that caught her fancy. Her next big-screen outing, Why Did I Get Married? did really well at the box office and she won an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.” She was working on the sequel, Why Did I Get Married Too?—but while she was on set, she received some heartbreaking news.
While Janet Jackson had been battling her own personal demons and problems, her brother Michael had been facing intense press scrutiny. The scandals surrounding him affected the family too, but Janet always remained on his side. His death utterly devastated her, and she publicly talked about her grief and her love for him.
She later performed their song “Scream” as a tribute to him on the MTV Video Music Awards. The Timberlake incident was fading into the background, and for the first time in years, critics were all praise for her performance.
After her second marriage fell apart, people whispered that Jackson was dating Matthew McConaughey and Justin Timberlake. Her most significant relationship was with Jermaine Dupri, and it lasted for around seven years. Afterward, she was single for a while, but when she met Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana in 2010, it was “love at first sight.”
The couple had been together for two years when they tied the knot in a small, private ceremony. Jackson appeared to be totally in love; she even opted to subdue her dressing style to respect Al Mana’s Muslim faith. People speculated that she converted to Islam to marry him, but Jackson never officially announced it herself. Sadly, this romance didn’t have a happily-ever-after either.
Jackson’s marriage gave her something that brings her endless joy: Her son. Jackson was 50 when she had little Eissa Al Mana, but her joy was tempered by heartbreak. She divorced his father a few months after the boy’s birth.
Remember how Janet Jackson battled with depression throughout her life? Well, she’s found a sure-shot way to manage it now: Motherhood. “The height of happiness is holding... my son in my arms.” Although she doesn’t share her details about her private life often, she recently tweeted a picture of a cardboard house she made with him at home.
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