Friends and relatives of troubled pop star Michael Jackson descended on his Neverland Ranch in a show of support for the entertainer who is facing child sex abuse charges.
The private gathering behind the gates of the sprawling California estate was described as a homecoming for Jackson, who has kept a low profile in Las Vegas and undisclosed locations since surrendering to authorities on November 20 and being released on €2.85m bail.
“This event is to show Michael that he has the love and support of his friends and family,” Jackson’s spokesman Stuart Backerman told reporters outside the estate.
The Neverland party came as Jackson prepared for an imminent trip to Britain to fulfil unspecified contractual obligations. There have been reports he will be promoting his latest CD, Number Ones, which is doing better in Britain than in the US.
Mark Beaumont, a staff writer at music magazine NME, said he did not expect a rapturous welcome for Jackson.
“There will always be the hardcore fans, but that is a relatively small group now and people are becoming more suspicious,” Beaumont said. The gathering - entitled You Are Not Alone, after a Jackson song – drew about 600 people, including celebrities such as comedian Eddie Griffin and American Idol host and DJ Ryan Seacrest.
More than 450 cars entered the main gate of the estate. Fans ran up to a black Mercedes that carried two people who appeared to be Jackson’s parents.
About 20 reporters staked out the gate, along with a dozen fans. One sign pasted on a car read, “Michael is innocent!! Leave him alone!!”
Sheree Wilkins, 32, of Inglewood, said she was contacted on Thursday by an assistant to Katherine Jackson, the pop star’s mother, about attending yesterday’s gathering.
“That’s Michael’s style. When he wants to say thanks, he does it big and invites the people who care about him,” said Wilkins, who has visited the Neverland compound several times before.
Jackson was charged on Thursday with seven counts of performing lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent. He maintains his innocence.
Jackson was looking forward to thanking people who have stood by him, said Brian Oxman, a lawyer and Jackson friend who planned to attend the gathering.
“It’s for family and friends to say thank you from Michael to people he loves and who have supported him,” Oxman said. “It’s not a party. It’s not a pep rally. It’s not hoopla or celebration.”
Musician Edwin Birdsong said Jackson was subdued as various supporters honoured him.
“He just said ‘Hi,’ and smiled,” Birdsong told reporters as he left Neverland. “It was very festive and happy.”
A gospel choir led by Andrae Crouch performed, Birdsong said. Other celebrities included actor Robert Townsend and former baseball star Darryl Strawberry, he said.
Actor David McKnight said friends, family and children whom Jackson has helped over the years took turns giving tributes. He said there was “a lot of food, a lot of eating, and a lot of celebration, camaraderie, holding hands, cheering and praising Michael Jackson”.
Guest Katherine Rogers said Jermaine Jackson performed a song at the gathering and actor Tommy Davidson served as master of ceremonies. She said Michael Jackson looked ”relaxed”.
Asked by reporters how Jackson was faring, Backerman said, ”He’s doing fantastic. He’s doing well. He’s holding up fine. He’s clearly fighting mad regarding the allegations.”
Backerman refused to answer further questions about Jackson’s legal troubles.
As cars began leaving, passengers in one vehicle threw T-shirts reading: “I support Michael Jackson” to fans waiting outside.