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Janet Jackson is opening up about the scrutiny that comes with having her last name and the media treatment that resulted in a constant swirl of rumors across her decades-long career.
Through new and archival interviews, photos and footage — including 10 years of never-before-seen home video captured by her ex-husband René Elizondo — Janet Jackson enlists siblings Tito and Rebbie, mother Katherine and father Joe, as well as celebrities like Norman Lear, Debbie Allen, Questlove, Whoopi Goldberg and Missy Elliott, to unpack the singer’s early life, career and cultural impact.
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In the first two hours of the four-episode Lifetime docuseries, airing Jan. 28, the music icon discusses various personal and professional subjects, from her family’s roots in Gary, Indiana, and their move to Encino, to their rapid rise to fame as children, her work on shows like Good Times and Fame, and her shift into adulthood, which saw her take control of her music career and marry twice.
Those initial segments highlighting Janet’s early experiences with racism as the family moved into the L.A. suburbs, working in the not-so-kid-friendly Las Vegas with her brothers, launching her first tour, and the tensions between the singer and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis while working on her socially conscious third album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, are illuminating.
But what the doc’s first half repeatedly comes back to is the long-standing discussion around how Janet’s father, Joe, treated his children as their parent and their manager. At one point, as Janet admits her father stopped her from going to college in favor of a music career, the singer offers her own perspective of Katherine and Joe’s parenting.
“My parents disciplined all of us and that’s how, we as a people, raised our kids. But you turn around and you give them love to show them, ‘I love you. I’m here for you,'” Jackson says in reference to her parents’ treatment of her and her siblings. “Discipline without love is tyranny. And tyrants they were not. They just loved us and wanted us to be the best that we could be. Obviously, it worked.”
Later in night one, Jackson reflects on the decision to break away from Joe following the release of her self-titled debut album and low record sales. “I knew that I had to take control of my life. I wanted my own identity. I wanted to go on my own,” she explains.
“At that time, my father was in charge of my life, my career and he was my manager. There were things I wanted to do, a direction that I wanted to go in, that I — like I said, it’s hard to say no to my father,” Janet says. “So in order to do things the way I wanted to do, … I guess he would have to be out of the picture.”
Says brother Tito, “Janet is one of the few people in the family that would stand up to my pop. She’s tough. She’s not going to let anyone say anything to her. My father admired her for being that way, I think.”
Around that same time, Janet says, “a shift was happening” between her and Michael, whose solo career had made him the most popular artist in music thanks to the success of his Thriller album.
While the majority of Jackson’s commentary on her brother and the controversy that surrounded him is reserved for the doc’s second night, the singer-dancer does speak to how the duo, who were once “very, very close,” saw their relationship change. After one particular visit, she says, in which he came to talk in her bedroom, the two sat in silence, an unusual move and a clear sign things were going to be different.
“Neither one of us said a word to each other,” Janet recalls. “That’s a time when [Michael] and I started going our separate ways. We weren’t as close.”
Janet also explained that having her last name meant “there’s a certain microscope that they want to use with that.” When it came to Michael, the negative media attention did impact him, and it played a part in the distance that grew between them, according to Janet.
“They always tried to make my brother seem like some kind of a freak,” she says.
Night one’s two hours also explore the differences between Janet’s first two marriages. The performer details how her short-lived union with her first partner, singer James DeBarge, impacted her acting work, while previously unseen footage reveals her proposal from backup dancer turned creative collaborator Elizondo.
When it comes to DeBarge, although the two came from similar backgrounds — young talents from singing families — his drug use negatively shaped Janet’s time on Fame — a show, she said, that she did for her father. During this same period, a rumor was born that Janet had a secret child with DeBarge. According to her, her Fame co-stars believed the rumor because she was gaining weight — something Janet chalks up to taking birth control at the time.
“First they were saying my niece Brandi was my daughter, and that I gave it to Jackie [Jackson] to raise. And then, because Randy [Jackson]’s daughter looks so much like me, then they started saying it was Stevanna,” a frustrated Janet recalls. “I don’t like the weight of that negativity around me. I could never keep a child away from James. How could I keep a child away from their father? I could never do that; that’s not right.”
But Fame co-star Debbie Allen defends Janet against the rumors, noting that the actress was “there with us all day, every day” and “nobody saw a baby.”
Rebbie, implicated in the rumor, also shoots it down. “I don’t know where that ridiculous idea came from,” she says. “It’s funny, the rumors. That’s a whole other story. I mean, there’s not a time when I haven’t stepped into the food market — I see somebody from my family on a magazine.”
Janet Jackson, the two-night, four-hour documentary, airs on Lifetime and A&E Friday, Jan. 28, and Saturday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.