Michael Jackson’s death at age 50 of an apparent cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009, at his Los Angeles residence robbed the world of the King of Pop. Though his musical and creative legacy endures, as a person he died an enigma.

A talented, outgoing child, he dazzled in the spotlight as part of the Jackson 5. By the early 1970s, Jackson was a fresh-faced teen fronting a Motown-signed family musical group who had their own television series, a Saturday morning cartoon and recorded hits such as “I Want You Back” and “I’ll Be There.”

Jackson said he could relate to Peter Pan

Jackson had a successful career before he was of high-school age, but it came at the cost of his childhood.

“I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do,” Jackson once said of his early life. As an adult, Jackson created a haven in Neverland Ranch, an amusement park-like California home named after a location from the tales of the fictional character Peter Pan. Pan was a boy who could fly and never grows up. “I totally identify with Peter Pan, the lost boy from Never Neverland,” Jackson said.

Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch
Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos, California; Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images

His obsession with the character and apparent fascination with all things youth-oriented quickly resulted in the press labeling Jackson as having "Peter Pan Syndrome." Not listed in any diagnostic journal, it’s a pop psychology condition referring to an adult, usually male, who does not want to engage with the world as an adult but rather remain in a state of childlike innocence.

“During the Motown years especially was when Michael began noticing this phenomenon that he would talk about multiple times in his life,” says Steve Knopper, author of MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson. “The story he told repeatedly was that he was working away at a recording studio and he looked across the street and saw kids playing and he just yearned to be with them rather than doing the thing he was doing. It was something that plagued him, got under his skin, troubled him throughout his life.”

Growing up, Jackson was 'upset' that he couldn't have a 'good time' like other kids

Jackson’s father, Joe, recognized the talent in his children and pushed them toward a musical career. He was unrelenting in the early years, telling Time magazine in 1984 that he rehearsed them “every day, for at least two or three hours… They got a little upset about the whole thing in the beginning because the other kids were out having a good time.” Jackson accused his father of being physically abusive. “We’d perform for him, and he’d critique us,” Jackson wrote in Moonwalk, his 1988 autobiography. “If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch.”

Insulated from others his age, Jackson spent his formative years either in the spotlight or rehearsing for it, not indulging in the regular activities of an everyday kid. Success followed, as did greater fame and more money. His solo album Off the Wall was a sensation and the follow-up, Thriller, became the bestselling album of 1983, earning eight Grammy Awards.

The Jackson 5 performing on stage at the Royal Variety Performance in November 1972
The Jackson 5 performing on stage at the Royal Variety Performance in November 1972; Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

Jackson reportedly got a nose job to look more like Peter Pan

By the late 1980s, Jackson had become a prisoner of his own celebrity and his off-stage life had begun to attract as much attention as his performances. It was following Thriller that audiences began to notice changes in Jackson’s physical appearance, especially his nose. Jackson biographer Randall Sullivan told ABC News the performer saw himself as a real-life Peter Pan, going so far as to have plastic surgery to copy the character’s look. “He eventually gave himself the nose of the boy, the young actor Bobby Driscoll, who was the model for Peter Pan in Walt Disney’s movie,” Sullivan said.

As well as his evolving visage, Jackson would raise eyebrows due to antics such as traveling with Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee, while on tour. Bubbles reportedly slept in a crib in Jackson’s bedroom, the room where it was rumored the star slept in an oxygen coffin. The latter, along with the rumor he wanted to buy the bones of the Elephant Man, were notions fed to the media by Jackson himself.

“Michael was a really interesting media figure and unique in many ways because he learned at a very early age the Motown PR machine, which was don’t be honest,” says Knopper. “Show yourself as the image. … You didn’t really admit to the public or media your inner thoughts, instead, you would create a persona.”

Michael Jackson enjoys a cup of tea with his pet Bubbles at Osaka City Mayoral Hall on September 18, 1987 in Osaka, Japan.
Michael Jackson having a cup of tea with Bubbles in September 1987 in Osaka, Japan; Photo: Sankei Archive via Getty Images

He wanted to provide children with 'the childhood that I missed'

Jackson’s persona had morphed from child star and rock heartthrob to an eccentric, child-like entertainer the media often labeled Wacko Jacko. But in 1993 public fascination took a darker turn when Jackson was accused of molesting a child. “I am not guilty of these allegations,” Jackson said at the time, adding that he loved children of all ages and races and that he enjoyed through them “the childhood I missed myself.” The case was settled out of court.

“It really was when he started to withdraw and not be a regular guy who just walks around in public and makes jokes and has the chimpanzee and is hilarious and does funny things,” Knopper says. No longer willing to play along with the media and the public, Jackson became reclusive. “The withdraw and his relationship with the media became very suspicious and full of conflict and mistrust.”

Stung by the accusations against him and a once adoring public that had seemingly turned its back, Jackson’s former attitude of keep-people-guessing when it came to his personal life was now a liability, not an asset. “Part of the problem is that he didn’t come out and level with the public,” Knopper says. “In the vacuum of him not really saying what was going on and having a secretive kind of Motown-inspired PR persona, sometimes [when addressing things publicly] it came out as well [that] he’s lying.”

While Knopper believes Jackson did, in fact, have the skin discoloring condition Vitiligo, by the time the performer was willing to level with the public about it during a 1993 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the wilder theories and rumors that had circulated for years about why his skin was becoming lighter were already too firmly established in the pop culture psyche for him to be generally believed.

In 2003 Jackson again faced charges of child molestation. A televised interview that same year with British journalist Martin Bashir was intended to show the performer’s side of the story, but Jackson’s answers left audiences even more confused when he acknowledged that despite similar charges a decade prior, he still invited children into his bedroom and saw nothing wrong with it. “It’s not sexual. I tuck them in, have hot milk, give them cookies,” Jackson said. “It’s very charming, it’s very sweet.”

Jackson admitted that he was often 'afraid' when he wasn't on stage

For the boy who never wanted to grow up, Jackson was engineering a return to the place where he first found success, and solace, away from the quotidian pressures he seemed to struggle with his entire life.

“I hate to admit it, but I feel strange around everyday people,” Jackson once said. “See, my whole life has been onstage and the impression I get of people is applause, standing ovations and running after you. In a crowd, I’m afraid. Onstage I feel safe.”

Though he was acquitted on all counts, the child molestation accusations would follow Jackson for the rest of his life and beyond. In his final years, battling a growing dependency on prescription medications and a profligate and a peripatetic existence with his three children, Jackson disappeared from view until the announcement of his “This Is It” arena show in 2009. Billed as a return to the greatness of his younger self, Jackson died three weeks prior to opening night.