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Remembering Michael Jackson
JENNI MICHELE HANDEL
07/07/2009
When he sang 'Take a look at yourself, then make a change,' the audience was electrified.
It was 1984, I had just graduated college. A very focused and determined 21 year old, I was hopeful that even without any contacts my degree in journalism would land me a position in the entertainment industry. Not wanting to be a starving actress on the streets of New York, I pursued a career in publicity. A child of the '70s, I was a television baby, nursed on The Partridge Family, The Osmonds and of course The Jackson Five. But as a teenager, I became so much more sophisticated. No longer a screaming fan, I considered myself a connoisseur of good music. Naturally, I was head over heels infatuated with Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. Upon graduation I received many gifts from friends bearing the I Love Michael Jackson insignia. I had three goals then: (1) to work in the entertainment industry, (2) to meet Michael Jackson and attend the Grammy Awards and (3) to make a difference in the world. The good the entertainment industry could do was enormous, so I thought. I had to be involved. I was naive. Four years later, I would see just how much. Michael Jackson was a client of the PR firm I began working for after graduation. Friends and family never understood exactly what I did in publicity, but they all thought my life was glamorous. I sported a wardrobe of jeans/sweatshirts and long flowing gowns and fashionable evening wear. By day, I worked in an office that was reminiscent of a refurbished stock room: old desks, chairs and typewriters. By night, dressed to the nines, we worked at the fanciest hotels, nightspots and restaurants, hanging out with journalists, photographers and celebrities. My client base ran the gamut from the silliest to the hottest. Learning how to pitch a story, develop an angle, meet and greet VIPs and organize big events are definitely skills I appreciate and continue to use today. Yet the lesson I learned from Michael Jackson allowed me to live my much simpler, humbler and more spiritual life in Israel today. IT WAS 1988. I was turning 25, and my dreams were coming true. My 25th birthday would be sandwiched between the Grammys at Radio City Music Hall, where Michael would sing "Man in the Mirror," and his solo concert two days later at Madison Square Garden. I would be working both events! I was the envy of all my friends. My coworkers and I were responsible for all the logistics of the event and publicity for the show. The hottest tickets in town were press credentials for backstage and the coveted invitations to the post-Grammy party. We distributed both sparingly and discriminately to media outlets from around the world. At the Grammys, Michael was amazing. "Man in the Mirror" was an inspiring performance. On stage level, I watched Michael with Diana Ross. Diana was beaming like a mother watching her "child" in his glory. When the number ended, Michael was whisked off stage toward us. Smaller than I imagined and thinner than seemed possible, Michael remained still, frozen. What to do next, where to go, those decisions were for the mortals around him. In that moment I saw my hero, a man surrounded by people and yet very much alone, isolated. When Michael sang "If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, then make a change," the audience was electrified, energized, empowered. Yet backstage, all that seemed to matter was whether Michael would win the Grammy. He didn't. Michael left the stage. I felt a deep sadness. Could I feel bad for a superstar? Next night at his concert, Grammy winner or not, Michael was a star. The press arrived early, strategically positioning themselves. There were lots of requests to fill, problems to solve and changes to be made. Lots of hard work and not much fun. The night was over. I had made it. Or had I? I had worked the Grammy Awards, surrounded by more famous people in one night than I could have ever imagined. Michael Jackson's concert was amazing, but as my coworker remarked, "One day I just want to buy a ticket like everyone else and sit comfortably (not stand) and watch a concert." The excitement was real but the performer was not. Enclosed within a straitjacket of celebrity, Michael was a product not a person. The goal of making a difference didn't seem nearly as important as making an impression. Where was the meaning in that? A year later, I decided to pack it all in. I came to Israel for the first time. When I told my bosses I would be gone for three months, they not only gave me a leave of absence but a bracha as well. "Israel," they said, "is real. There is no other country like it. Enjoy." Off the plane I felt like I was no longer in Oz but in Kansas. I had arrived home. I found the life in Israel simpler yet more meaningful. I found the people determined and committed, passionate and alive. I began to meet true heroes, individuals who actually were looking at the "man in the mirror," making real changes in their lives, and making the world a better place. While it took a few years, Israel is now my home, birthplace of my children. Away from the limelight, I believe I am finally achieving my third goal, to make a difference, in the lives of my children, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The writer is an independent marketing writer and consultant, specializing in special events and fundraising activities, mostly for non-profit organizations.
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