We'd only caught odd glimpses of Paris Jackson behind masks and scarves. But when the 12-year-old took center stage at the Staples Center -- after clinging to her Aunt Janet -- I gasped, despite myself. When she walked to the microphone and choked back tears to address the crowd, I felt a maternal pang.
"I just wanted to say, I love him so much," she managed to get out before collapsing in tears back into her aunt's arms. With that, she joined the tragic pantheon of celebrity orphans.
Think of the image of the toddler John John, in his perfect peacoat, saluting his father's coffin. Or the princes William and Harry, heads bowed, walking behind their mother's cortege. I know, I know, a presidential assassination and the death of a real princess are qualitatively different than the death of a recording artist, but in the world of celebrity worship, the King of Pop is a form of royalty.
We gossip about celebrities as if we all live in a small town where everyone knows everyone's business. Can you believe Jon and Kate are getting divorced? Did you hear Sarah quit her job? Yeah, and Jenny's husband Mark had a big affair with some Argentine woman ... What? It's like we're all standing at the clothesline talking over each other's fences.
Michael Jackson's kids are now in that fishbowl their father tried so hard to protect them from.
At least John John had a wise, loving mother in Jackie. And the princes were raised capably by their father. But what's to become of these orphans? JFK Jr. and the princes lost one parent, they weren't technically orphans. With the death of their father, the Jackson kids may have a legal mother, but they are emotionally orphaned ... which is why the custody issue looms so large.
So what will happen to Paris and her two brothers? A California appeals court ruled a few years back that Debbie Rowe is the legal parent of Prince I and Paris. You can sign away custodial rights, but it turns out you can't sign away parental rights.
The L.A. Times quoted USC law professor Scott Altman, who said, "When a child has two legal parents and one of them dies, the other takes custody." Another USC law professor, Grace Blumberg, said she expects Rowe to be granted custody, even if Michael Jackson designated someone else as guardian. But just to add legal spice to the confusing stew, Blumberg also says that if the European biological mother of Jackson's third child, Blanket, comes forward, she would have a claim because many European courts do not recognize surrogacy agreements.
There is a steady stream of Jackson supporters coming forward to assert that the best interests of the children are served by staying with their grandmother.
"Those kids need to be with Katherine and the family," Frank Cascio told "Good Morning America" in an exclusive interview. "That's who they need to be with. Not with Debbie."
Cascio was Jackson's personal assistant and as an adolescent, had travelled around with Jackson.
When asked if the children ever saw Debbie Rowe, Cascio said, "No. Not at all."
My 5-year-old is now singing "Billie Jean is NOT my lover ... she's just a girl who dreams that I am the one." I'm fairly certain that my son had never heard of Michael Jackson before last week. He's 5. He was in diapers when a jury acquitted Jackson of child molestation charges. And now here's my kindergartener singing "But the kid is not my son" with great flair. I'm not sure whether to applaud or try to stop it.
I suspect that's how a lot of us are feeling with the wall to wall coverage of Michael Jackson. As a card-carrying member of the mainstream media, I've gotten a lot of my friends' opinions on the MSM's coverage: "excessive" say some ... "mean-spirited" say others. And I'm just quoting the nice ends of the spectrum.
I was on a work call, with ABC's Jackson memorial coverage on mute in my office, when Paris Jackson walked to the mic. I'd seen Jermaine sing. I saw Usher cry. But I only turned on the volume for Paris. I had to stop the call I was on abruptly, "Excuse me," I said awkwardly, but I have to listen to this ..." it was the first time in the day that I was really moved.
Just days after his death, a sociologist observed that in death, Michael's fans will be able to reconnect with his art and put his misdeeds in perspective. While all that's true, I just keep thinking about those orphans.