A  CLOSE  ENCOUNTER  WITH  MICHAEL  JACKSON  IN  MANILA

PHOTO AT LEFT - The author (right) shares a light moment with Michael Jackson during a Christmas party for orphans in Manila on Dec. 7, 1996. MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, JULY 11, 2009 (STAR) By Gwen Cariño -  (The author, a former PR officer of the Manila Hotel, writes about her experience with hotel guest Michael Jackson in December 1996.)

When I was a public relations officer at Manila Hotel, I was assigned to head the annual Orphan’s Christmas Party where 300 children from different orphanages around Metro Manila were treated to a day of fun and surprises. It was one of the biggest projects on my plate and it was such a challenge to focus on work the day before the big event, knowing Michael Jackson was billeted in the hotel.

Two nights before, I had been fortunate to be part of his welcome line at the hotel lobby together with the rest of the PR and sales staff and saw him walk by.

The day before, a guy claiming to be Michael Jackson’s aide from Mamarao Productions came to the office. I couldn’t recall his name but he looked for the “person in charge“ and said his boss had read the announcement about the event in the Dear Guest flyers we had circulated to all the rooms a week before. Michael wanted to know how he could help. His aide went up to the Penthouse and down to the PR office several times after we gave our suggestions.

Michael offered to fill up the 300 loot bags with goodies and toys, candies and chocolates. But after getting close to 50 sponsors, it was actually a problem for us to dispose of everything.

So I thought hard... how can the King of Pop meaningfully join the affair? I couldn’t possibly have him be with the kids in the palayok game or the pabitin as he might end up being mobbed! And since the annual event was really all about giving, I mustered all my courage and told the Mamarao guy that the best thing I could think of was for Michael to literally be present to help distribute the loot bags, sign autographs and pose with the children for photos.

“Wow, that may not be easy. You’re talking about handing goodie bags to 300 children and I can just imagine the chaos. We’ll see. I’ll get back to you,” he said.

Lunch break came and it was the most hurried one I ever took in my life. It wasn’t until after 5 p.m. that Michael’s aide came back and said, “Michael is more than happy to do whatever you suggest. How do we go about it tomorrow?” I wanted to scream. I had to calm myself and regain composure as the Lizzie Maguire in me said, “Get real, get back into focus.”

We agreed that Michael would come in after the games, musical program and snacks, at the last part to give out the loot bags. My colleague Annette Africano and boss Dulce Agnir requested for additional security around the garden and the stage area as this was where we decided to distribute the gifts. We made sure the children would form an orderly line.

Then the moment arrived. It was at the Champagne Gardens on Dec. 7, 1996. I was surprised to see him walking towards us, guided by his aide. Michael came up to me as I had to brief him.

“Hi, how are you? Thanks so much for letting me in, I know I’m early ’cause I didn’t want to miss the program.”

I said, “Are you kidding? Thanks so much for volunteering! Here’s what Michael – why don’t you just sit here and watch the musical numbers before we get into the gift giving. I will have to tweak the program a bit.”

He replied, “Sure, anything you say... (pausing to look at my name tag) Gwen!” I was stunned at how incredibly sweet and modest he was. And in my mind it was, “Oh my God, this is really happening!”

Amazing how he patiently sat through the whole program. Carol Banawa, then an “Ang TV” mainstay couldn’t believe MJ was watching her perform. She had her red blouse signed by him right after her number.

Then followed Stefano Mori’s dance number. Later, his back up singers and dancers came up on stage followed by select kids from different orphanages who danced to the beat of ‘Billie Jean’. Oh, the smile on Michael’s face was just amazing.

Then we announced that Michael will be distributing gifts onstage. I explained to him that there’s a loot bag for the younger kids and another for the older ones and he nodded. The thrill and excitement he gave those children was incredibly touching. It was in between the gift bag distribution that I caught a glimpse of MJ, not as a performer but as a person.

It was one in the afternoon. Santa Claus (David Endriga, a friend of fellow PR officer Francis Capistrano) was with us. The heat was

scorhing and I was worried that Michael felt so hot with his black long-sleeved signature attire and hat.

“Are you alright Michael? We can let you take a break,” I asked.

He said, “I’m cool, Gwen. Just imagine how Santa feels inside his velvet suit and beard. We’ll be fine.”

I never heard him complain or say a word about how hot it was or how long the line was. He had the most beautiful manners. He didn’t even ask for a drink or a towel to wipe his sweat but one of our banquet staff made sure he got a glass of fresh orange juice.

An hour passed and we were halfway through gift-giving when we noticed that the garden was getting filled up. Suddenly, there were people from media, politicians, officials and hotel guests, including those in a wedding reception at the nearby Champagne Room who deserted the newlyweds just to get a glimpse of the King of Pop.

“Oh, this isn’t supposed to be, I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s all right, we’ll get through it,” Michael said, smiling. As we finished giving out the last loot bag to an 11-year-old orphan, a new line of more kids and adults formed. Michael’s bodyguard, Wayne, said. “We can leave now.”

Michael replied calmly, “We can’t leave when there are still people in line. It’s Christmas, dude.”

I felt my heart beat faster and the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. He wasn’t just the most electrifying performer, but the most generous person.

One of the most memorable moments was when a lady came up to him for an autograph. Laughing and holding his tummy, he said “Hey Gwen, you’ve gotta check this out.” He whispered, “It’s a blank check. The lady is making me sign on a blank check.”

We laughed hard and little did we know that it wasn’t even half of the comedy. He later showed me and Wayne other stuff people would use or pick up on the ground when they couldn’t find paper for him to sign on. One lady made him sign at the back of her elegant, designer Filipiniana gown. One teenager came up to him holding a dead leaf and another one, a popped balloon. Imagine how our laughter ballooned as well.

It was an amazing, genuine experience. At one point he asked if I was going to catch his History concert and I said, “Tomorrow night.”

“Oh, you’ll have a blast!” Michael told me.

At this point he became concerned about the stage as adults outnumbered the kids. His face had nervousness written all over it but he still didn’t complain. He tapped the wooden floor with his foot several times making sure it was sturdy enough not to fall apart.

“I’ve experienced the stage collapse and I just want to make sure we’re all safe here,” he explained.

Half of me wanted the line to finish because we were literally melting and worried about our safety, but half of me didn’t, knowing that once the line ended, Michael would leave.

At some point it did end. I managed to get an autograph for my sisters and me before our general manager, Clem Pablo, requested him to sing ‘Give Love on Christmas Day’.

Cesar Sarino, one of the hotel’s officials, addressed his thank you note to the King of Pop. Then I saw his guards and aides whisking Michael off stage. I said in my mind, “Oh man, I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye.”

Suddenly, I saw Michael return on stage and say, “Thanks so much to you and your team, Gwen. This really means a lot.” Then he held me beside him and said, “I’ll see you at the concert.”

As Michael Jackson is laid to rest and returned to pristine condition in the afterlife, these two incredible acts of the King of Pop – volunteering for charity and unselfishly spending time with the less fortunate – will forever be the way I will remember this man.

Jackson children take center stage Updated July 09, 2009 12:00 AM

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Michael Jackson's children from left, Paris, Prince Michael II, also known as Blanket and Prince Michael appear with their aunt LaToya Jackson, background left, at the memorial service for music legend Michael Jackson, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on Tuesday. AP LOS ANGELES]

 For all the hasty preparations, hand-wringing over security, breathless media competition to scoop details and soul-wrenching performances, the essence of Michael Jackson’s memorial service came down to 20 poignant, powerful seconds: the moment when 11-year-old Paris-Michael Jackson inched up to the microphone and, in a statement no one saw coming, referred to the late pop superstar as “Daddy.”

It was a remarkably humanizing moment. Then again, it was remarkable just to see Jackson’s three children in public to begin with.

A fiercely protective father, Jackson rarely brought his brood out in public, covering their faces in veils and party masks to protect their identity when he did.

Now here they were, unveiled, before an audience of thousands at Staples Center and millions more around the globe. Starting out seated in the front row, the three youngest Jacksons eventually joined the rest of the family onstage as the two-hour service wound to a close.

Dressed in the same dark suits and yellow ties as the rest of the Jackson men, 12-year-old Michael Joseph Jr., known as Prince Michael, chewed gum and toted the memorial service program; 7-year-old Prince Michael II, known as Blanket, held his program and clutched a Michael Jackson doll.

Paris, wearing a black dress with white trim, turned a small patent-leather purse over in her hands as other family members spoke. And then a dramatic hush fell over the crowd as family members whispered that the little girl, whose lifetime of public exposure amounted to a small handful of paparazzi photographs, Paris-Michael wanted to say something.

She furtively emerged from the tight circle of family members, who rushed to lower the microphone to her level. And with her uncle Randy on one side and aunt Janet on the other, Jackson’s little girl stood center stage.

“I just wanted to say,” Paris began weakly.

“Speak up, sweetheart, speak up,” Janet encouraged, sweeping the girl’s long hair back. “And get close.”

Paris put one hand behind her neck, another on the microphone, and began again.

“Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,” she said, her tiny voice cracking.

Rebbie and Marlon Jackson moved in closer to comfort their niece. She shut her eyes tight.

Then she wrapped her hands - little fingernails painted red - around the microphone and fought back tears as she continued: “And I just wanted to say I love him - so much.”

She collapsed in tears into her aunt’s arms.

“It’s OK, baby. It’s OK,” Janet Jackson said as she held Paris close. Prince joined in on the hug.

And all at once, Jackson wasn’t the larger-than-life King of Pop, or Wacko Jacko the tabloid freak. He was a doting father who had left three adoring young children behind.

He was “Daddy.”

Somber, spiritual celebration

Some 18,000 fans, family members and friends took part in a public memorial for Jackson in the Los Angeles sports arena where the singer had rehearsed the day before his death for a highly anticipated series of comeback concerts.

Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder and Usher sang emotional farewells to Michael Jackson, who was hailed as “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

Jackson’s brothers, each wearing a single sequined glove in homage to his signature look, carried the singer’s golden casket into the downtown Staples Center.

Carey performed Jackson’s 1970 ballad “I’ll Be There,” Usher’s voice cracked as he sang “Gone Too Soon” and the King of Pop’s three children made a rare public appearance without veils used for years by Jackson to shield them from the media.

But it was Jackson himself who loomed larger than life, shown in old concert footage, music videos and news clips, singing, dancing his moonwalk and surrounded by adoring crowds.

“The more I think about Michael, and talk about Michael, the more I think that ‘King of Pop’ is not good enough,” said Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who signed The Jackson 5 to a recording contract in 1968. “I think he is simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

The two-hour memorial focused on Jackson’s musical achievements, overshadowed in the last 10 years by the darker side of the singer’s life, including his humiliating 2005 trial and acquittal on charges of child sex abuse.

Jackson’s sudden death from cardiac arrest in Los Angeles on June 25 at the age of 50 stunned fans across the world and sent sales of his biggest hits from albums such as “Thriller” and “Off the Wall” back to the top of music charts.

The memorial focused on Jackson’s 45-year musical career in which he was awarded 13 Grammys, his charity work for childrens’ groups and his role in opening the mainstream pop and celebrity world to African-Americans.

It was broadcast live on US national TV networks and Internet company Akamai, which handles 20 percent of the world’s Web traffic, said it was the most widely viewed event on the Web since the inauguration of Obama in January.

Gordy was among the few who referred obliquely to Jackson’s recent troubles. “Sure there was some sad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part, but Michael Jackson accomplished everything he dreamed of,” said Gordy.

Close friends

The atmosphere inside the arena was churchlike, assisted by an enormous video image of a stained-glass window with red-gold clouds blowing past that was projected behind the stage.

The ceremony began with Smokey Robinson reading statements from Jackson’s close friend Diana Ross – “Michael was part of the fabric of my life” – and then Nelson Mandela – “Be strong.”

A silence of several minutes followed, punctuated only by a steady twinkle of camera flashes. The thousands of mourners spoke softly to those in neighboring seats or contemplated their private thoughts.

Celebrities made their way to their places in front of the stage: Kobe Bryant, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Lou Ferrigno, Don King, the Kardashian sisters, Magic Johnson, Brooke Shields, Larry King. While Jackson was among the most famous faces in the world, today’s megastars were largely absent. Those present mostly reflected some connection to Jackson’s life or work.

Among those conspicuously elsewhere were Elizabeth Taylor, Ross and Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the mother of Jackson’s two oldest children.

Jackson was on the eve of a comeback after his career collapsed in the 1990s. The exact cause of his death is still awaiting toxicology results amid reports of abuse of prescription drugs, including the powerful narcotic Diprivan.

Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who has lashed out at media coverage of the bizarre aspects of Jackson’s life, had a message for the singer’s three children.

“Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with,” he said.

The children joined the family on stage for a mass chorus of Jackson’s inspirational hits “We Are the World” and “Heal the World.”

Jackson’s family and close friends held a brief private ceremony earlier Tuesday at a Los Angeles cemetery before the memorial and were reported afterwards to have gathered at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

But the destination of the singer’s body remained unknown with speculation that he could yet be laid to rest at his beloved ranch, Neverland, in central California.

Police had estimated more than 250,000 people would gather at the arena but the orderly crowds were much smaller than expected.

Police, security, escorts and sanitation for the memorial are expected to cost cash-strapped Los Angeles city council nearly $4 million and the city council Tuesday launched a website asking for fans to make donations toward the costs. – AP


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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