Janet Jackson: ‘I’ve always wanted to own a king cobra because they’re so …

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jul 30, 2015 in Rat News | Subscribe

Sitting in an executive-styled chair in the executive-styled “conference” room of her record company’s Los Angeles headquarters, Janet Jackson’s stomach makes a gurgling sound.

“Oh, my!!” she squeaks in gross embarrassment, not knowing where to look. It’s as if she’s wet herself or done something equally unspeakable. Janet Jackson, you see, is a very shy person. She has the most bashful smile you ever did see and her enormous eyes, set in a baby face that’s just like brother Michael’s only smoother and prettier, peer constantly at the floor or thereabouts.

From her left ear lobe dangles a house key – quite a grown up – looking fashion accessory this – but apart from that she looks and acts and talks, in soft tones and nervous whispers, just like a little girl. Janet Jackson is 20 years old. Her LP, Control, has gone “double platinum” (ie sold 2m copies) in America. She is on her way to being as popular as Madonna – and yet the brash self-confidence of Madonna is something Janet Jackson quite clearly lacks. Not entirely surprising when you consider the way she was brought up, protected and in some seclusion, the youngest of the super-successful showbiz siblings.

“My parents are very strict and we were very sheltered growing up,” she quietly recalls, “but it was my brother Jermaine who was most protective towards me. Guys would come up and ask me for a dance and he’d tell them no, I can’t dance, I don’t feel good, I have a headache or something. He just didn’t like them touching his little sister, I suppose. But I didn’t really do any of that, going out dancing, until I was 18. My first time ever going out dancing was in Japan and I was 18. No, I guess I was 19. And I went out every night with my sister and my mother and we had the best time.

“And my very first party I’ve ever had was last Thursday – my double-platinum party– so that was very exciting. Usually I would pretty much stay at home because everything is at home. We have a screening room if we want to see a movie or something, and we have the animals…”

Ah, the animals. Animals are the one and only topic that Janet will chatter about happily and freely until the cows (haw haw) come home. But we’ll come back to them later. What did Janet do all day, hanging around the Encino, California, homestead when she was a wee girlie?

“I would talk to the animals.”


“I would talk to my dogs. I felt that they understood me – everything that I was saying to them. They’re the greatest listeners because they sit there and look at you and listen.”

Anything else?

“Oh, our next door neighbour – we would play together all the time. There’s a brick fence that separates the two houses and we’d get on top of the fence and we’d play and we’d bring cookies and punch and we’d have a little party of our own up there and just play little games.

“And I would write songs. I was eight years old when I wrote my first song and it was called Fantasy. I sang it to my brother and my sister and my mother in the car when we went for a drive and they said they liked it. I hope they were telling me the truth.

“And I would watch TV: The Three Stooges and cartoons. Bugs Bunny, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Speed Racer – those were my favourites. I always tried to do an impression of Donald Duck but I could never get my voice to sound like that. The first impression I did was of Mae West but I can’t do it any more. And I loved to draw and colour and so my brothers would send back all types of crayons and felts and colouring books from Switzerland and London when they were out of town.”

The brothers. The famous Jacksons. What were they like as children?

“With my friends, their older sisters and brothers would yell at them and tell them to get out and leave them alone and shut up, but my brothers and sisters never did that to me. They always wanted me around. I was a tomboy, actually, and they always told me I’d grow out of it but I told them that I never wanted to and I wouldn’t.

“We used to go horse-back riding and swim and play baseball and climb the fruit trees and pick the fruit off the trees and just get into trouble. Michael was the naughtiest – he was a real bad little kid and he was sassy and everyone would say ‘Oh, God, here comes Michael!’ What’s the worst thing he ever did? I think he looked up under a lady’s dress once. I think he did. I’d say that’s probably the worst that I know of. Me? I was good. I never got punished. I got hit a few times but that was all. One time I got hit for saying something I shouldn’t have said. A bad word. I shouldn’t have spoke it but I opened up my big mouth and my mother hit me for it.

“Another time I got hit was when I had an argument with my brother Randy. He would tease me and I’d get upset and start crying and I threw pool balls at him but not once did I ever really hit him. I’d always miss and my mother would hit me and hit him for that. There were other times when you couldn’t separate us, Randy and I. He’d hold my hand, when we walked across the street. We were just glued together. These days I’m very close to Randy and I’m close to Marlon and I’m very close to Michael.”

As the “baby” out of nine children, was she spoiled?

“My mother says that I’m spoiled and my friends say that I’m spoiled … so I guess I am. But we don’t celebrate Christmas and don’t celebrate birthdays, so I didn’t get everything I wanted. I’ve always wanted a horse and I still don’t have one. My brother Michael has an Arabian stallion and I want a black stallion but I don’t have a horse.”

We are family … The Jackson 5 and sisters Photograph: Newspix/Rex Features

Despite her reclusive upbringing, Janet did go to a “normal” neighbourhood school. For a bit, anyway. Until she got too famous. For, when she was 10, she became a child actor, appearing in the TV situation comedy Good Times.

“I played an abused child. I would come in and my arm was broke or I had iron burns on me. The make-up job was really neat. It was a lot of fun.”

But at school…

“The first year in junior high I missed the first two weeks because I was working on the show – I had a tutor on the set – so finally when I did come to school in the third week I was walking down the hallway and I saw a friend of mine from elementary school and we hugged and everything and then she yelled my name down the hallway and, everyone turned and they said, ‘Wow, that’s Janet Jackson’ and all the kids started running towards me so I dropped my lunch and started running too, and for the next week I had school in the principal’s office…”

And then she went to Valley Professional (“a school for kids who are in the business and ice skaters and things like that”) from which she took “time out” to further her acting career with parts on another comedy show, Diffrent Strokes, and the all-dancin’, all-sobbin’ all-lurvin’Fame.

Fame, on which the participants were expected to dance’n’whoop’n’glow from dawn to dusk, was an exhausting experience for Janet.

“I’d get home and I couldn’t eat. I’d just flop into bed. I’m not very fit. At elementary, school I liked track – I used to be a good runner. I used to come in first all the time and I won some ribbons, but not any more. One time I ran and I came in first but I got sick to my stomach and I turned pale and I was about faint and they took me to the nurse’s office and they let me go home. I was so happy.

“I can’t run any more because I have back problems and I don’t like exercising at all. I like clowning around. So I’ve put on a few pounds but I’ve stopped porking out. At lunch time I used to pig out. I’d eat everything. I used to make a lot of chicken with wine sauce and melted cheese and mushrooms and stuff on top of it. I’m not really into candy that much but I like bubble gum…”

Bubble gum isn’t fattening, is it?

“Too much sugar. And one of the vice-presidents of the record company told me to stop chewing so much gum because when you chew gum it exercises your jaw muscles and makes them bigger and they start swelling out. I laughed so hard when he told me that, that I spit my gum out.

“One time I blew a huge bubble and it burst and it got in my hair and in my eyelashes and I was so mad. I couldn’t get it out and I was just washing my face all night long and I was scrubbing so hard I was turning red all round my eyes and they said to use peanut butter to get it out. I guess because peanut butter is so oily it comes right out. So if you ever get bubble gum stuck in your hair, use peanut butter.”

So on that useful health’n’beauty tip, we return to the chronology of Janet Jackson’s career. Well, actually, we don’t. We continue on the bubble gum theme …

“Louis, our llama, he likes to chew gum. He loves gum. I think I’m the only one who gives him gum, so every time he sees me coming he tries to put his lips through the fence and I give him a piece of gum and he just sits there and chews.”

And on that useful zoological tip we…

“Jabar doesn’t chew gum. Jabar, that’s the giraffe – J-A-B-A-R – he’s so big and he’s still a baby. He’s so tall and he eats up my mother’s trees. All the leaves off my mother’s trees – she has a fit. He has big eyes and those beautiful, long eyelashes…”

And on that subject, we return to the chronology of Janet Jackson’s career. When she was 16, already a TV star, she made her first LP, Janet Jackson, a mediocre poppy thing that sold hardly any copies at all. When she was 18, she made a second LP, Dream Street, which was slightly better because she got to sing a duet with our very own Sir Clifford Richard on one track, Two To the Power of Love, although “I didn’t get to know him that well … he’s English.”

And then, also when she was 18, Janet ran off and got married to soul singer James DeBarge. After eight months the marriage was annulled. This is a subject Janet does not care to talk about at all.

“It was something that I just needed to do at the time,” she says, “something that I needed to experience right then…” She smiles a secret smile and giggles a secret giggle. I ask why.

“Oh … I was just thinking about him, that’s all…”

Him? You’d think “himmeant James DeBarge, but it might just as well be, for all we know, Muscles, the Jackson’s late, lamented rainbow boa snake…

“There was something about Muscles that I just loved. He was very different from the rest of our snakes – the pythons – because the rainbow boas are known for squeezing, not for biting, and I would let him sleep on my headboard. I used to sleep with him and I’d wake up in the morning and he’d still be sleeping on the headboard or he’d sleep in the bed next to me and he’d rest his head on the pillow and he’d have his tail curled up on the bed and he’d still be there the next morning and I’d carry him around my neck a lot and he never tried to squeeze me. I just trusted him. I find more guys are afraid of snakes than girls and I just trusted him a great deal.

“The only time I got in trouble with the animals was with our parrot Ricky; he used to bite me all the time and I got bit by one of our pet rats and he was hanging from my finger and I was trying to shake him off and he wouldn’t let go and finally he let go and I had to go to the hospital and my whole hand got so fat and they put a cast on my whole arm and it was my first time wearing a cast and I was real proud of it because all my friends in school had all had casts and I’d always wanted to know what it sort of felt like to break your leg or your arm…”

Well, and, um, so, does Janet feel ready for marriage again?

“I’d like to get married again at least by 30 so I can have kids and grow with them. I’ve always wanted 16 kids but I suppose I should have started a little while back. I’ll never make it now, so I’ll just have between five and seven…”

She’s had training for motherhood, has Janet.

“We used to bottle-feed the deer, Michael and I. We have two deer and we have a fawn because they had a baby…”

And she feeds Bubbles, the chimpanzee, too.

“He’s the sweetest thing. He’s so cute because he greets you. He goes ‘uuh uuh’. He greets you like that and he’ll walk in the room– ‘uuh uuh’ – and he’ll walk over to you – ‘uuh uuh’ – and he’ll give you a hug and rest his head on your chest and then he’ll start rocking and he’ll look up at you and you say, ‘Bubbles, give me a kiss’ and he puckers his lips and gives you a kiss.

“My mother treats Bubbles like one of the kids. One day Bubbles was crying because he didn’t want to have class that day and my mother was standing there watching Bubbles cry and she started crying too. It made her very sad because Bubbles was sitting there crying and screaming because he didn’t want to have class.”

And why, dare one ask, should a chimpanzee have “class”?

“Oh, it teaches him to hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil. It teaches him to shake his head no and to wave goodbye and to kneel down to beg and look up to the sky…”

Of course … but time is running out. Janet Jackson’s stomach is groaning in spectacularly embarrassing fashion and I decided to pose one last question – a predictable and orthodox “Do you have any burning, unfulfilled ambitions, Janet?” I suppose I should have known the answer …

“Yes. I’d like to own a king cobra.”

Janet, eyes off the ground for once, notices my ruffled brow.

“Ok, that might sound like a crazy ambition to you but I’ve always wanted to own a king cobra because they’re so dangerous and poisonous, and to make him my friend … that would be a serious achievement. And I think I could do it.”

Listen to Janet Jackson’s 2015 sound with new single No Sleep
  • © Tom Hibbert, 1986

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