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The art of celebrity weirdness
( 2003-11-28 11:13) (Agencies)

Howard Hughes had his long fingernails, Shirley MacLaine has her past lives, Roseanne Barr her 16 personalities. But when it comes to celebrity weirdness, Michael Jackson may be the king.

Michael Jackson wears a mask as he leaves a gallery in Berlin, Germany, November 22, 2002.
"Oh yeah, he wins that contest," said Tom O'Neil, senior editor of the celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly.

Much of the fascination with Jackson's arrest last week on child molestation charges stems from his long history of, well, unusual behavior, rather than his groundbreaking musical accomplishments. There isn't nearly such a media frenzy, for example, over R. Kelly's child pornography charges, which are based on the singer's alleged videotaped encounter with an underage girl.

But Kelly never lived in his own personal amusement park with a chimp named Bubbles.

Even before the first molestation allegations against Jackson arose in 1993, the singer paid homage to his own eccentricities in the video for "Leave Me Alone." The 1989 animated clip referred to Jackson's rumored "shrine" to friend Elizabeth Taylor, his serial plastic surgeries and his reported efforts to purchase the disfigured skeleton of The Elephant Man. Bubbles was in it too.

Fame can make people crazy, O'Neil said.

"We're talking about Brando, we're talking about Michael Jackson," he said. "This is a fantasy business. It's not a reality-based business, so they don't have reality checks. Often they seem to go over deep ends. It's not for attention, it's not for money. It seems to be a result of the business."

Like Jackson, Elvis Presley started as a clean-cut singer with happy feet. He then descended into a bloated, sequin-clad state, in love with drugs, guns and police badges and prone to shooting out the TV screen if he didn't like the program.

Others who went from suave to strange include Hughes, the dashing aviator and movie producer who ended up a recluse, terrified of germs and sporting fingernails long enough to make Freddy Krueger blush. (Biographers believe Hughes' delusions may have been linked to the 14 head injuries he suffered in airplane and auto crashes.)

Marlon Brando has been considered a little off ever since 1973, when he sent an American Indian activist to reject his best-actor Oscar for "The Godfather." Years later, Brando didn't win any normal points for tormenting, then mouth-kissing, talk show host Larry King during a 1994 interview.

Pop star Prince wore pants with no buttocks and changed his name to an unpronounceable, androgynous symbol in 1993, but the identity change turned out to be a tactic to escape his Warner Brothers record contract -- thus mitigating its weirdness.

"Some celebrities are just deliberately odd to get attention -- like Lara Flynn Boyle wearing a ballerina outfit to the Golden Globes, or Bjork wearing a swan outfit to the Oscars," O'Neil said. "It's show business, and they're just putting on a show."

Who else is weird -- truly weird? Well, there's Ozzy Osbourne's chronic befuddlement and The Doors singer Jim Morrison proclaiming he was "the lizard king" -- but that's drug-induced oddity, a different category.

Barr fits the bill. She claims to have a 16-character multiple-personality disorder that kicks in without warning to terrorize friends and family with fury. And since the personalities don't communicate with each other, she has to be told the same things over and over again to make sure the real Roseanne hears the information. She turned her experiences into a failed reality TV show this year.

A more benign sort of weirdness belongs to MacLaine, the movie star and mystic who has written about reincarnation and has a fascination with ghosts, UFOs and astrology.

MacLaine is outspoken about her paranormal beliefs, but has endeared herself to fans by poking fun at her new-age notoriety: At the Oscars, she once emerged from a set built like a flying saucer, and she did a self-deprecating cameo in the afterlife comedy "Defending Your Life."

"I believe in the saying: 'He who laughs at himself never ceases to be amused,' " she told The Associated Press in 2001.

Sometimes being weird is a just part of the act. With his bald head dripped with colored dyes, Boy George is not a celebrity imitation of the Sherwin-Williams paint logo -- he's performance artist Leigh Bowery in the Broadway musical "Taboo."

The public can sense when a person is truly peculiar or just an onstage oddball.

"Jackson has become a very polarizing individual in terms of liking and hating him. He has a real love-to-hate perception about him," said Henry Shafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., a company in Manhasset, New York, that tracks the "Q rating" popularity of performers, athletes and celebrities.

Jackson is one of the lowest-rated celebrities, although he has a high level of familiarity. "He is known by virtually everybody," said Shafer, who would not disclose the company's exact ranking for the singer.

While the rich and famous have always had the luxury of indulging their every fantasy, Jackson's quirks have been amplified by today's voracious and vicious celebrity culture.

Said Shafer: People "basically react to what they read and see in the media."

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