“P.T. Barnum, in full Phineas Taylor Barnum, (born July 5, 1810, Bethel, Connecticut, U.S.—died April 7, 1891, Bridgeport, Connecticut), American showman who employed sensational forms of presentation and publicity to popularize such amusements as the public museum, the musical concert, and the three-ring circus. In partnership with James A. Bailey, he made the American circus a popular and gigantic spectacle, the so-called Greatest Show on Earth.”  – Irving Wallace, Encyclopedia Britannica [1]

The story of Michael Jackson’s fascination for PT Barnum, the man who created “the Greatest Show on Earth”, who weathered disasters and reversals of fortune and ended up Mayor of Bridgeport, is well-known to fans.  Jackson aspired to realize his dreams for unprecedented success, as Barnum had done a century before him.  He was said to be so impressed with Barnum’s autobiography that, in 1980, he gave copies to his management team to use as a blue-print for promoting him.

This tale has become part of the Michael Jackson legend, and with the recent release of the dazzling Hugh Jackman movie “The Greatest Showman” [2] it has been revisited in the media and discussed in MJ fan forums. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking just how much impact Barnum’s story really had on the young singer.

In the preface to his autobiography, P.T. Barnum wrote:

“I have thought that the review of a life, with the wide contrasts of humble origin and high and honourable success; of most formidable obstacles overcome by courage and constancy; of affluence that had been patiently won, suddenly wrenched away, and triumphantly regained — would be a help and incentive to the young man, struggling, it may be, with adverse fortune, or, at the start, looking into the future with doubt or despair.” [3]

There are doubtless aspects of Barnum’s life that would not have impressed Jackson, but the impresario’s self-penned book was written not as a confession, but to inspire others to live their dreams – a theme emphasised in “The Greatest Showman” movie.  This focus was very relevant to Michael Jackson in terms of his solo recording career in the late 1970s and early 80s when he reportedly read Barnum’s book.

PT Barnum’s desire to be accepted as a legitimate impresario can even be seen as analogous of Jackson’s desire, after “Off the Wall”, to achieve success beyond categories based on race or musical genre.  Despite Jackson’s high hopes, “Off the Wall” was restricted to two Grammy nominations in 1980 for the single “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in the R&B and disco categories respectively, resulting in just one award – for best R&B vocal performance. [4]

“I felt ignored by my peers and it hurt,” Michael said in his book “Moonwalk” (1988). [5]

Michael Jackson’s dream was to be The Best, period.  The “Off the Wall” Grammy slight filled him with new resolve – a lesson straight out of Barnum’s book, whether or not he realised it.  “I was disappointed and then got excited thinking about the album to come. I said to myself , ‘Wait until next time’ – they won’t be able to ignore the next album.” [6]

The next album was “Thriller” which, in addition to selling sufficient copies to propel it towards its current fame as the biggest selling album of all time, went on to win eight Grammys at the 1984 awards ceremony.

Like Barnum, who was the son of a tailor/shopkeeper, Michael Jackson came from humble beginnings.  Of course, the difference was, he knew success with his brothers from a young age and grew up in show business – unlike Barnum, he didn’t have to invent it.

But when it came time to develop his identity as a solo performer away from his brothers and the control of his father, he would have found Barnum’s story suitably instructive in the ways of showmanship. It was a craft Jackson continued to develop throughout his solo career – right up to his planned “This Is It” concerts in 2009. [7]

“It’s an adventure. It’s a great adventure,” Jackson told his cast and creative team at rehearsals.  “We want to take them places that they’ve never been before. We want to show them talent like they’ve never seen before.” [8]

Unfortunately, some of the “humbug” for which Barnum had been notorious similarly attached itself to Jackson, whose desire to be inscrutable left critics thinking him “strange” in uncomplimentary ways.

In an article titled “A Cultural Autopsy of Michael Jackson” dated 30 June 2009, Gregory McNamee references Margo Jefferson’s book “On Michael Jackson”:

“In Jefferson’s chronology, something quite mysterious and quite profound seems to have happened to Michael Jackson along about the late 1970s, when he was finally old enough to separate himself from his “scary family.” His psyche changed: “Think of his mind as a funhouse,” Jefferson instructs, a place populated by Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, his parents, James Brown, and, more than anyone else, P. T. Barnum, who well knew the rewards that can come from putting on a good freak show.” [9]

Whether a product or a consequence of his remoteness from outsiders when not on stage, following the success of “Thriller”, Michael Jackson attracted all sorts of weird and wonderful headlines, some of them possibly generated by his management acting independently or in collaboration with the artist himself, and some by tabloid writers in quest of a sensational headline.  So, we had the stories of Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones. [10]

Frank Dileo, who managed Michael Jackson from 1984-1989 (and was re-hired in 2009), was described by Rolling Stone as “a 220-pound, five-foot-two cigar-chomping cross between Colonel Tom Parker and P.T. Barnum.”   It certainly seems that Dileo was promoting his charge according to Barnum’s methodology for attention-grabbing publicity. [11]

Michael’s mother Katherine Jackson considered Dileo responsible for capitalizing on the more bizarre stories about her son. [12]  Certainly in telling Rolling Stone that he was dead against the hyperbaric chamber being taken on the “Bad” tour (“I don’t want it around”) Dileo was definitely taking the joke a bit too far, if indeed he actually said that.

He did draw the line at playing on the critics’ fascination with Jackson’s maturing physiognomy, telling Rolling Stone’s Michael Goldberg: “OK, so he had his nose fixed, and the cleft [in his chin] – big deal.  I got news for you, my nose has broke five times.  It’s been fixed twice.  Who gives a shit?” [13]

So, in making his solo career the greatest show on Earth, was it Michael Jackson in the role of PT Barnum, or Frank Dileo, who helped promote a phenomenon that the tabloid media turned into a Barnum-inspired “freak”?

Dileo had been Vice President of National Promotion at Epic Records (1979-1984) before becoming Michael’s manager. Promotion was his game, and he was very successful at it – even being voted Epic’s executive of the year and being credited with taking Epic Records from the number fourteen label in the U.S. market to number two.

Despite the amount of control Rolling Stone’s Michael Goldberg and David Handelman credited Jackson having over his career at the start of the “Bad” world tour, there were plenty of opportunities for those who worked for him to misrepresent him, unintentionally or otherwise.  This is what happens when you keep your distance from the media.  If they’re desperate to talk to you, and you’re not available, they’ll talk to someone close to you – or perhaps someone who was once in the same room as you!  (Those in the latter category are often described as “a source close to the artist” or something equally vague.)  In some cases, reputed “sources” are simply invented to give credence to a story.

Sadly, as experienced by PT Barnum, for Michael Jackson it also proved to be true that not “all publicity is good publicity”.  Some of it has devastating consequences and a long after-life.  Once a story becomes a headline, there’s little chance of taking it back, despite all evidence to the contrary.  This has proven to be the case with the false allegations of sexual impropriety made against Jackson during the last two decades of his life. Despite his vindication in a highly-publicised jury trial in 2005, elements of the public remain ignorant or unconvinced of Michael’s innocence.  We can look to the media as the principal source of this confusion.

Nevertheless, as Barnum’s life demonstrates, it is possible to resurrect oneself from the ashes of disaster – which he did, and which Michael Jackson did.  In Jackson’s case, his audience – his fans – were always there, just waiting for him to return to the studio or step back on stage.  In 2009, when facing the public and media at the O2 press conference must have been truly daunting, Jackson received a reassuringly ecstatic reception from the fans.  It prompted him to declare – as he had done often throughout his career – “I love you.  I really do.  You have to know that.  I love you so much, from the bottom of my heart.” [14]

This is showmanship without humbug or artifice.  Without this heartfelt sincerity Michael Jackson would never have accrued the type of legacy for which he is so loved and admired today.

As for the movie version of PT Barnum’s life, having seen “The Greatest Showman” a couple of times to date, I’m inclined to think that this musical adaptation , albeit sanitized, is more akin to the vision Michael Jackson had when he used Barnum’s autobiography as his blueprint all those years ago.

The movie is about equality, empowerment, accepting our differences and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and setbacks to realise our dreams.  Indeed, Michael Jackson did all that in his 50 years with us.

A statement he made in “Moonwalk” back in 1988 remained relevant throughout his career and is why he is celebrated and admired by his peers.  This is particularly true of the young artists who, in their quest for show business success, have been inspired by his example.

“To me,” Jackson declared “nothing is more important than making people happy, giving them a release from their problems and worries, helping to lighten their load. I want them to walk away from a performance I’ve done saying, ‘That was great.  I want to go back again.  I had a great time.’  To me, that’s what it’s all about.  That’s wonderful.”

Recently, after seeing one of the stars of “The Greatest Showman”, actor Zac Efron, relate on the Graham Norton Show how Jackson had once told him over the ‘phone, “Hey Zac, isn’t it awesome? Dreams really do come true, don’t they?” I’m convinced that Michael would have loved “The Greatest Showman” and its message. [15]

We can lament the fact that he’s not here to see it in his own private cinema, along with his kids and friends, and a big bucket of popcorn.  But I prefer to believe that, where he is now, he has “the best seat in the house” any time he wants it.

Kerry Hennigan

January 2018

Postscript: Zac Efron and Zendaya bonded over their love of Michael Jackson while filming “Greatest Showman” : https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/movies/zac-efron-zendaya-michael-jackson/

[Above] “Asian elephants walk to the Staples Centre, hours before a memorial service for recently deceased singer Michael Jackson is to take place at the same location, during the traditional Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus Animal Walk from the circus train on July 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  Wherever the Ringling Bros. circus performs, the elephants and other animals must walk from the train to the performance arena.  The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is arriving for their 2009 month-long southern California engagement.  Jackson, 50, the iconic pop star, died at UCLA Medical Centre after going into cardiac arrest at his rented home on June 25 in Los Angeles, California.” [16]


[1] Irving Wallace “P.T. Barnum.  American Showman” Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/P-T-Barnum

[2] “The Greatest Showman” Fox Movies https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-greatest-showman

[3] The Life of PT Barnum written by himself, including his Golden Rules for Money-Making brought up to 1888.  https://archive.org/stream/lifeofptbarnum00barn/lifeofptbarnum00barn_djvu.txt

[4] Michael Jackson, Grammys https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/michael-jackson

[5] Michael Jackson, Moonwalk, 1988 Arrow Books paperback edition 2010

[6] Ibid

[7] Kerry Hennigan “Michael Jackson on Tour – Staging ‘the Greatest Show on Earth’ (and then topping it)” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/michael-jackson-on-tour-staging-the-greatest-show-on-earth-and-then-topping-it/

[8] “Michael Jackson’s This Is It'” directed by Kenny Ortega, Columbia Pictures, 2009.

[9] Gregory McNamee “A Cultural Autopsy of Michael Jackson” http://blogs.britannica.com/2009/06/on-michael-jackson/

[10] Kerry Hennigan “’Leave Me Alone’ – Michael Jackson and the Elephant Man’s Bones” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/10/07/leave-me-alone-michael-jackson-and-the-elephant-mans-bones/

[11] P.T. Barnum: Master of Advertising and Promotion:  http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/P-T-Barnum-Master-of-advertising-and-promotion-565330.php

[12] Katherine Jackson with Richard Wiseman, My Family, the Jacksons, St Martin’s Press 1990 accessed at http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/kj/kj16.html

[13] Michael Goldberg and David Handelman “Is Michael Jackson for Real?” Rolling Stone, September 24, 1987 https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/is-michael-jackson-for-real-19870924

[14] Michael Jackson press conference – Live from the O2 Arena London 05/mar/09 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1znYaU0oeo

[15] Zac Efron on The Graham Norton Show BBC published on YouTube Dec 29, 2017 https://youtu.be/jO2HEVc5iK4

[16] “Asian elephants walk to the Staples Centre…” Getty Images: http://www.gettyimages.com.au/event/circus-elephants-arrive-at-staples-center-hours-before-jackson-memorial-88872365