Erratic Behavior, Appearance Again Cast Doubts on Michael Jackson’s Image and Career

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Michael Jackson seems to be moonwalking from one embarrassment to another this year.

He publicly feuded with his record label, accusing its chief of racism after his album sales were low. He dangled his infant son from a hotel balcony. And his morbidly altered face just gets weirder.

As the trial resumes Tuesday in a lawsuit filed against the 44-year-old entertainer in a contract dispute, his erratic behavior has once again eclipsed his musical talent.

“Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Michael Jackson finds a way _ an unprecedentedly creative way _ to make it worse,” said Michael Levine, a public relations expert who represented Jackson in 1993.

Tabloids accused Jackson of reckless endangerment two weeks ago after he displayed his baby, Prince Michael II, to fans by dangling him briefly from a fourth-floor balcony in Germany, where he had gone to accept an award.

Jackson called the incident a “terrible mistake,” and Berlin authorities said the actions were not punishable.

Not much is known about Prince Michael II, whose mother has not been identified. The singer’s 5-year-old son, Prince Michael I, and 4-year-old daughter, Paris, were born during his marriage to Debbie Rowe, his plastic surgeon’s nurse, which ended in 1999.

Jackson routinely keeps the children’s heads covered with cloth while escorting them in public _ and he usually sports a surgical mask himself when out and about.

Days before the baby-dangling, Jackson was testifying in California in the $21 million lawsuit filed by concert promoter Marcel Avram, who says the singer broke a deal to appear at two shows scheduled for New Year’s Eve 1999. Jackson maintains it was Avram who canceled the concerts over concerns they would not be profitable.

Jackson’s court appearance created a stir because of his ever-changing face. Along with his wide, ghostly eyes, unusually pale skin, and traces of a beard and mustache, he appeared to have a bandage hanging from his hollowed-out nose.

David Gest, who produced Jackson’s 30th anniversary special last year, told CNN’s Larry King that Jackson’s physical transformation resulted from “bad advice.”

“Sometimes people tell you that if you do certain things, you’ll look better, you’ll feel better, and you leave it to people who you trust,” said Gest, who met his wife, Liza Minnelli, through Jackson.

Jackson became a child star singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5, and later had one of the most successful albums of all time, 1982’s “Thriller,” which sold an estimated 26 million copies in the United States.

He had strong follow-up albums with 1987’s “Bad” and 1991’s “Dangerous,” but his career began to collapse in 1993 after he was accused of molesting a boy. Jackson has maintained his innocence, and reached a multimillion-dollar settlement. Charges were never filed.

Levine, who represented Jackson at the time, characterizes the singer now as a self-destructive personality akin to John Belushi or Elvis Presley.

Hyun Kim, music and lifestyle editor of Vibe magazine, sees Jackson as a “tragic figure.” “There are many people who are sympathetic and want to see him on top again,” he said.

Jackson’s 1995 “HIStory” disc, on which he voiced anger over the abuse allegations, sold more than 2.4 million copies and was Grammy-nominated, but was considered a commercial disappointment. “Blood on the Dance Floor” _ a 1997 disc with remixes from “HIStory” and a few new songs _ was an outright flop, selling just a few hundred thousand copies.

Jackson’s reputation enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in recent years, with pop stars such as Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child and ‘N Sync citing him as a major influence.

His album “Invincible” debuted last year at the top of the charts but plummeted quickly, selling about 2 million copies _ respectable for many artists, but far short of Jackson’s 1980s popularity. He blamed his label, Sony Music, for not supporting it, even though the company spent an estimated $25 million on promotions.

At a news conference in July, Jackson said Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola was “mean, he’s a racist, and he’s very, very, very devilish.” The label responded with a statement saying it was “deeply offended by the outrageous comments.”

The remarks were generally regarded as an act of desperation by Jackson to explain his waning popularity.

In another gaffe, when Jackson was presented with a birthday cake adorned with a treble clef at August’s MTV Video Music Awards, he accepted it as an “Artist of the Millennium” award, and went on to thank several people.

Although his fan base has dwindled over the years, admirers congregating on the Internet say his missteps have been overblown.

“People should still be allowed to have fun with his music,” said Robin Meltzer, 25, of London, a member of the fan group MJ News International. “But the vilification is so extreme that people almost feel embarrassed now.”