PARK CITY, Utah — Wade Robson and James Safechuck were prepared for backlash when they went up against one of the world’s most beloved entertainers.
But they couldn’t have anticipated the level of vitriol leveled at them since last month’s Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Leaving Neverland,” which revisits their allegations of childhood sexual abuse by “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, who settled out of court on similar charges in 1994.
In the days leading up to the four-hour documentary’s first screening, the festival’s social media pages were flooded with messages from Jackson’s fans, fiercely defending his innocence. Some even made death threats against Robson, Safechuck and director Dan Reed, while others have recently accused HBO – which will air the two-part documentary March 3 and 4 (8 EST/PST) – of paying journalists to slander Jackson, who died in 2009 at age 50.
Jackson’s estate has also urged HBO not to air the film, denouncing it as “tabloid character assassination” by “two admitted liars.” (Robson and Safechuck filed lawsuits alleging molestation in 2013 and 2014, respectively. A probate judge dismissed their lawsuits in December 2017, but did not rule on the validity of their allegations.)
More: Michael Jackson estate slams ‘Leaving Neverland’; here’s what we learned from watching
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Still, the hostility “hurts less and less as time goes on,” Robson told USA TODAY in a joint interview with Safechuck last month. “It’s not a great feeling, I’ll be honest. But I just keep trying to remember that each and every one of us (as) humans are at our own state of evolution. We can accept whatever we’re able to accept based on where we’re at in our lives. … So the people who are choosing to take that nasty, volatile approach to me and James, that’s just where they’re at right now, and I wish them some peace and less anger in their lives.”
‘He knew what he was doing’
Robson, 36, born in Brisbane, Australia, was first introduced to Jackson at age 5, after winning a contest to dance on stage with the pop star when his “Bad” tour came to Australia in 1987. An avid fan who dressed and danced like Jackson, he was understandably awestruck when the singer invited Robson’s family to visit his Neverland Ranch in California two years later. It was then, Robson alleges, that he first slept in Jackson’s bed and was molested by him.
“He was already a god to me before I met him,” Robson says. “Then to get this wild, strange opportunity as a little boy in Australia to be brought together with him and have him tell me, ‘You’re special. I want to spend time with you. I want you to be my friend and I love you.’ This was God, in my mind, saying this to me, and that’s where it begins.”
Related: ‘Leaving Neverland’: What we know about allegations of molestation against Michael Jackson
Robson compares the experience to being “anointed” by God – a feeling that Safechuck, 40, echoes as he recounts the first time he met Jackson, on the set of a Pepsi commercial at age 10. Then a child actor in Los Angeles, Safechuck says Jackson became a fast friend: calling his house daily, coming over for play dates and eventually inviting the boy to join him on tour. It was during a trip to Paris that Jackson allegedly introduced him to masturbation, while staying in the pop star’s hotel room one night.
Both men claim Jackson targeted them specifically, after learning that each came from unstable families whose parents fought often. And those parents rarely forbade their children from staying with him.
“He knew what he was doing,” Safechuck says. “He has a way of sensing weakness in families. He has a really good sense of people and can read people really well. First, I think he’s physically attracted to the kid, and then he reads the family and just knows how to work it.”
Jackson was allegedly jealous of Sheryl Crow, called her unattractive
Robson and Safechuck each allege that they were sexually abused by Jackson until age 14. They describe him as being both psychologically and emotionally manipulative during those years: He told them he (and they) would go to jail if anyone found out about their relationships, and ran drills with them to hastily put on their clothes if they risked being caught.
They also say Jackson actively tried to turn them against their families and women, and listened in on their parents’ phone calls while the boys stayed with him at Neverland.
One time, “my mom was on a call with her sister talking trash about my dad, and then he was like, ‘Look how evil women are. Your dad is a sweet guy. Women are conniving,’ ” Safechuck says. “It was a consistent theme with him.”
Safechuck recalls being on tour with Jackson in the late ’80s, when Sheryl Crow was one of his backup singers. He claims his sexual relationship with Jackson had already started, but he had simultaneously developed a crush on Crow, who went on to become a pop/country star.
“Michael was very jealous,” Safechuck says. “So one thing he did was he had pictures taken of all of the (backup singers and dancers) before they had their makeup on, but he only wanted Sheryl Crow’s. Then he would show me (the pictures), like, ‘Look, she’s not really attractive.’ He was also very jealous that I had a girlfriend at school, and that was a point of contention.”
‘He immediately freaked out’ after filming alleged sex act
Both men claim Jackson never wore condoms during their sex acts. They allege he often plied them with alcohol and pornography before molesting them, and even recorded one of his sexual encounters with Safechuck.
“He immediately freaked out when he realized what he just did and taped over it,” Safechuck says. Although he was aware Jackson was filming, “it was fun at the time, and when you’re having fun, (Jackson) isn’t thinking about it. But later, he’s like, ‘Wait a minute. I just documented this.’ He was very careful, but that was his one sort of slip.”
One of the most disturbing anecdotes in “Leaving Neverland” is that Jackson allegedly staged a mock wedding ceremony with Safechuck when the boy was 10, exchanging vows and rings in his bedroom.
“It was more of a reinforcement of, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll always be together. We’ll always have this love,’ ” Safechuck says. The ring was one of many pieces of jewelry that Safechuck claims Jackson gave him, primarily as rewards for sex acts.
‘The sex became the safe zone’
An aspiring dancer at age 9, Robson and his family moved to Los Angeles at Jackson’s urging, after promises he would be the boy’s mentor. But once he arrived, Robson says he saw Jackson increasingly less, as the singer moved on to younger boys including Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes (both of whom have denied that Jackson sexually abused them).
On rare occasions when he was invited to stay at Neverland, “there was an unsaid feeling to be impressive and make it worth his while – get back into that favorite position in his life,” Robson says. “So the sex became, in the craziest way, the safe zone, as the rest of the relationship really changed.”
Robson claims that Jackson kept him and the other boys separated from each other, although he briefly met Safechuck on the set of the “Jam” music video in 1992.
There was no tension or jealousy between them, in part because “(Safechuck) and I were in a similar position at that point, because there was a new boy on the set with Michael,” Robson says. “We had both been removed from that top spot and were dealing with that in our own ways.”
Even as they grew apart from Jackson, his alleged abuse impacted their relationships with women, as they grappled with their sexuality and intimacy.
“I struggled with the ‘Am I gay?’ thing early on, as soon as the abuse started,” Safechuck says. “Michael would say, ‘You’re not gay, this is just how we express our love. I’m not gay either, but we love each other.’ As I got older, I didn’t struggle or question whether (I was) gay, but your first sexual experience is awkward enough without having been abused. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around how it’s affected me, but I think I have more nerves with intimate relationships than I would guess other people do.”
As Robson moved into adulthood, he says he “became really promiscuous with women. I think I was trying to prove in some sense that I was heterosexual to myself, and trying to prove some sense of ‘masculinity’ by conquests with women, which was an ultimately unfulfilling experience.”
Healing, forgiveness is a ‘really long journey’
After years of denying Jackson sexually abused him, Robson came forward with his allegations in 2013, claiming he suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by sexual trauma. He later said the singer had “brainwashed” him into testifying on his behalf in a 2005 trial. Now married with a young son, he says Jackson’s alleged molestation has “absolutely impacted” him as a father. (He isn’t comfortable leaving him with a babysitter, for instance.)
“Our boy has always been similar to how I was as a young boy in a lot of ways, in that he’s more sensitive and quiet,” Robson says. “So when I started witnessing that nature in him, I started getting really triggered by that – understanding now that was some trigger relating to, ‘Oh, my gosh, he can’t be like me. If he’s like me, is the same thing going to happen to him?’ ”
Safechuck expresses similar concerns about his son, who is nearly the age that he was when he was first allegedly abused.
“I have been preparing with a therapist for it many years, seeing him at that age, because you’re really looking at a mirror of yourself. How am I going to deal with that?” Safechuck says. “But I think I’m in as good a place as I can be to not be triggered by it, and enjoy my experience with him as its own experience. It can’t help but make you more protective and conscious of who they’re hanging out with, and what they’re doing. Hopefully this film will do that for other people.”
Their wives, moms and siblings all appear in “Leaving Neverland,” and watched the film before its Sundance premiere. Robson and Safechuck say they are still reconciling with their moms, who were spellbound by Jackson’s celebrity and, in on-camera interviews, lament not protecting their sons.
“There’s been a lot of challenges to my relationship with my mother,” Robson says. “There’s been a lot of healing and growth, and there’s a lot more to go.”
As for whether the men have begun to forgive Jackson, Safechuck says he “can’t give a two-sentence soundbite for that.”
“Yeah, that’s a really long journey,” Robson adds. “We’re working on it.”