Child star. King of Pop. Poster child for plastic surgery. Accused child molester. What will Michael Jackson's next act be?
While Jackson was once the most-popular entertainer in the world, his reputation has taken a battering during his trial on charges of molesting a 13-year- old cancer survivor.
"The Michael Jackson brand is effectively dead," said Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of 5W Public Relations, which has handled such high-profile clients as fashion and music mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and rapper Jay-Z.
"The image of Michael in handcuffs, or of him saying that it's OK to sleep with teenage boys has soured the public as a whole on him. I think he will forever suffer the O.J. Simpson Syndrome, where someone is found innocent by a jury but is guilty in the public mind."
The 46-year-old entertainer's career was already in free fall when the trial began. And while the not-guilty verdict won't reverse that decline, observers said yesterday, it may represent an opportunity for Jackson to regain at least some of his past glory.
One need only consider the nation's fascination with the singer's 15-week trial - Billboard magazine says that 75 percent of popular music fans followed the court proceedings - to speculate that a comeback, while difficult, might not be impossible.
"Americans love comeback stories, and he can parlay himself as a victim more now than before," said Clark Collins, senior writer for Blender magazine. "Michael can go away for a while and be in position for a comeback."
But that may be difficult.
"I don't think he can have the mass appeal that he enjoyed one or two decades ago," said David Perell, co-author with Suzanne Ely of the revised edition of Freak!: Inside the Twisted World of Michael Jackson (Harper/Collins, January 2005).
"The type of popularity that he once had is impossible to maintain anyway. I don't think the verdict means there's going to be a second act in his career."
And yet, no one is denying that Jackson continues to have passionately devoted fans.
Bill Werde, senior news editor at Billboard, said that Jackson's most recent album, 2001's Invincible, has sold 2 million copies. "That isn't the same number as Thriller, but 2 million copies would be career-making for many artists," Werde said.
"A lot of albums tanked right after Sept. 11. That says a lot about his appeal. There is still a sizable fan base for him. A lot of people talk about how strange Michael Jackson is, but that hasn't been career-ending."
Among those fans is Carol Smith, 45, who lives near Dundalk. For many artists, she said, turmoil fuels a creative regeneration. She points out that the singer did not take the witness stand during the trial - so fans are hungry to hear his point of view.
"He's had this cloud over him for the past year and a half," she said. "The public will be interested in anything coming out of him that seems to tell his side of the story."
What a comedown it has been for the pop star who once broke sales record after sales record, who was the standard-setter for the popular music industry.
Little Michael was just 4 years old when he became a star, as an adorable, pint-sized dynamo in the Jackson 5. He had his first million-selling hit, I Want You Back, at age 11. The young phenom launched his solo career in 1979, peaking like no other artist in pop history before he reached his 25th birthday.
In a sense, Jackson came along at the right time, just before radio stations became increasingly specialized, playing to a narrow segment of the market.
His album Thriller, released in 1982, was a consciously slick record that set out to garner listeners of widely varying formats, including rock, pop and soul. He was a pioneer in using videos to popularize his albums, and they aired on a fledgling television station called MTV.
Thriller remains the second-biggest selling album of all time. The 45 million copies it sold around the globe rank behind only the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975.
But early bloomers sometimes fade early, and some popular music experts date the beginning of Jackson's artistic decline to 1987's tepid Bad.
That album coincided with the singer's increasingly bizarre appearance and erratic behavior.
Public support for Jackson began to erode amid rumors about the artist's short-lived marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and later Debbie Rowe, and the widely reported 2002 incident in which he held his infant son over a Berlin hotel balcony.
In 1993, the rumors about Jackson's relationships with young boys changed to accusations; the singer, while maintaining his innocence, reportedly paid a multimillion-dollar settlement to one accuser. A decade later, he was arrested on more recent allegations.
Perell points out that Jackson's ordeal may not be over. He faces a possible civil case related to the molestation allegations and perhaps a custody battle with Rowe, the mother of his two children. Add to that his reported $270 million in debts and severe health problems, and it may be that a career comeback will be a low priority for the singer for a time.
But if Jackson decides to try to reinvent his image, Collins suggests that the singer take his act on the road.
"Perhaps he can do a residency in Vegas," he said. "That's how Elvis came back. Michael's show very much fits into the Vegas-y vibe: kind of glitzy, kind of trashy. In a good way."
Torossian takes the common-sense approach:
"Whatever Michael Jackson's recovery looks like, it involves staying far, far away from children and stopping doing things that got him called 'Wacko Jacko,'" he said.
"He needs to stay out of the spotlight for anything that doesn't make him money. He needs to be seen as a serious, responsible adult, as a normal individual."
Los Angeles media psychologist Stuart Fischoff recommends that the singer hold press conferences in a controlled setting with hand-picked reporters to bolster his fans and convince doubters of his innocence.
"If I were his parents, his brothers and sisters, anyone who can't be fired, I would lock him in a cell, do anything to help him take charge of his life," Fischoff said. "Perhaps a Vulcan mind probe."
Sun staff writers Rashod D. Ollison, Dan Thanh Dang and John Woestendiek contributed to this article.
Michael Jackson at a glance
Aug. 29, 1958: Michael Joseph Jackson is born in Gary, Ind., the seventh of nine children.
1963: After several years of training, the Jackson 5 begin to perform in public.
Dec. 14, 1969: The Jackson 5 appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.
1970: Their first album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, includes the hit singles "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There," which go to No. 1.
1972: While still singing with the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson puts out his first solo album, Got to Be There.
1979: Jackson's first "adult" solo album, Off the Wall, is released; he becomes the first solo artist to place four singles from the same record in the Top 10.
1982: His album Thriller wins a record eight Grammys and becomes one of the biggest sellers of all time. Along with the title track, it includes the songs "Billie Jean" and "Beat It."
1983: Jackson electrifies the 50 million viewers of the Motown 25 television special by singing and dancing to "Billie Jean" while wearing a black fedora, one white glove, and pants that end above his ankles.
1984: During production of a Pepsi-Cola commercial, Jackson's scalp sustains burns when an explosion sets his hair on fire.
1985: Jackson and Lionel Richie write what becomes one of the fastest-selling singles ever with "We Are the World." The song was produced to raise money for the victims of famine in Ethiopia.
1987: His album Bad produces five No. 1 singles and sells at least 22 million copies worldwide.
1995: Releases the album HIStory: Past, Present, and Future Book I. In August the song "You Are Not Alone" becomes the first single in pop music history to enter the Billboard chart at No. 1.
1997: The album Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, sells in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, disappointing numbers for Jackson.
2001: The album Invincible debuts at the top of the charts, selling 2 million copies, but plummets quickly.