2019 was not a great year for Michael Jackson's legacy.
Already a polarizing figure, in life and in the decade since his death, the documentary Leaving Neverland had even some of the late artist's most stalwart fans—including those who were perfectly familiar with the previous abuse claims against Jackson—questioning whether he should still be on their playlists.
But it's been more than a year now since Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance and shook his supporters and critics alike. (His estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO, alleging the film violated a 1992 nondisparagement agreement between Jackson and the network and that the estate's denial was left out of the finished product; a judge refused to dismiss the case in September and ordered it to arbitration; HBO has appealed the ruling.)
Some have turned the page on Jackson, but it feels as if most people are carrying on as before, content to separate the art from the man, if they feel the two need to be separated at all.
Requiring no such compartmentalizing are Jackson's children, particularly son Prince Jackson, 23, and daughter Paris Jackson, 22 as of today, who grew up in most unusual circumstances while their father was alive and have seen firsthand that what the public thinks it knows doesn't necessarily match up with the life being lived closed doors.
(Of course, everyone's living behind closed doors right now, including the Jackson family, so we're catching up with their pre-socially-distanced lives.)
"I knew afterward there was gonna be plenty of s--t-talking, plenty of people questioning him and how he raised us," Paris told Rolling Stone in 2017, recalling what motivated her to speak out at 11 years old about how wonderful her dad was, at the public memorial held for him at Staples Center in L.A. "That was the first time I ever publicly defended him, and it definitely won't be the last."
Prince said that his sister, in that moment, proved she had "more strength than any of us."
"Nobody but my brothers and I experienced him reading A Light in the Attic to us at night before we went to bed," Paris explained. "Nobody experienced him being a father to them. And if they did, the entire perception of him would be completely and forever changed."
She said that their father didn't try to hide from them the pain that the unsavory things people said about him caused him.
"He did not bulls--t us," she told Rolling Stone. "You try to give kids the best childhood possible. But you also have to prepare them for the s--tty world."
A few years later, she and Prince both remain fierce protectors of their father's memory, but they're also determined to do their own thing, apart from the famous Jackson fold.
"They're still close with certain members of the Jackson family, not everyone, but a lot of the cousins—T.J. especially," a source tells E! News.
Michael's three kids went to live with their grandmother Katherine Jackson after he died in 2009, but cousin T.J. Jackson, son of Michael's brother Tito, was named their co-guardian in 2012. Prince and Paris' now 18-year-old little brother—born Prince Michael Jackson II and formerly known as Blanket, he started going by Bigi in 2015—remained under T.J.'s care as a minor.
"The siblings are close," the source says, and Prince and Bigi "are especially tight."
Last May the brothers reviewed Avengers: Endgame online with cousin Taj Jackson and pal James Sutherland. Not only was Bigi's encyclopedic knowledge of comic book lore on full display, it was the most anyone outside his private world had heard the teen talk.
The brothers explored Tokyo together with T.J. and his wife and kids toward the end of 2018 and, this past December, an even bigger group that also included Prince's girlfriend, went to Rome, making stops at the Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, among countless other places.
Famous faces who pop up aside, Prince's Insta-life resembles normalcy: he spends time with his girlfriend, hangs out with his siblings and extended family, rides motorcycles, and tends to his beloved dogs, OG and Kenya, the chocolate lab their father brought home for the kids as a puppy. He graduated from Loyola Marymount University last spring and "is trying to figure out what direction to take his career in," the source says.
He has dabbled in on-camera work, including a stint as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, but Prince "really enjoys directing and being behind the scenes."
In the meantime, he has co-founded the Heal Los Angeles Foundation, inspired by his father's Heal the World Foundation, to help at-risk youth by improving access to educational opportunities and enriching extra-curricular activities. On Wednesday the group was handing out meals to people in need at an L.A. church.
"I haven't been active on social media because I didn't want to add to the panic," Prince wrote in announcing Heal LA's plan, "and I'm sorry I don't have more to say other than we can beat this but we need to as a community, a group, and as in individual."
Philanthropy, of course, runs in the family.
"I feel like the world is my oyster. I have so many opportunities," Prince, dressed as Christmas Vacation-mode Clark Griswold, told ET at the foundation's "Thriller Night" costume benefit in October, held at the Jackson family mansion in Encino, Calif., where Michael once lived and Paris later moved into her dad's private studio on the grounds. "I feel like my time is best devoted to the non-profit right now because that's where my passion lies and that's where I feel I will get the most out of my life."
"I still have a creative bug and figuring out how I'm fitting into the entertainment industry," he continued. "I really have a few projects that I'm working on, but I want to make sure they are solidified before I talk about them. But definitely excited to see what the future holds for me. It's somewhere in the entertainment, with the philanthropic side of it, for sure."
Also in October he spoke at the Intergen Family Initiative event, part of the 2019 Family Office Association L.A. National Summit, a motivational program designed to get the younger people of the world involved in finding solutions to society's most pressing problems.
Asked about some of the life lessons his dad imparted, Prince explained, "A lot of people expect his fatherhood or words of wisdom to be different from their own parents, because he was such an icon and such an image that so many of us know and love; but to me, he was my father first and foremost...I tried to think about the words that really resonated within my own life and what I kind of live my life by, and the first one that came up was compassion.
"My father came from very humble beginnings in Gary, Indiana, a very large family in a very small house, so he understood what it was like to struggle, as well as what it was like to be prosperous," Prince continued. "And he wanted us to always remember to never forget to have compassion for the less fortunate because we could never truly understand where they were coming from."
Education, formal or otherwise, was key, the pop music scion concluded, because "just as long as you continue to have that desire to learn, you will be able to better yourself and to continuously better yourself, because you never finish that journey of education."
In November, he and Paris joined the Motown 60th anniversary celebration at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills, and Prince sang his model sister's praises on Instagram, writing, "I don't always dress up...but when I do it's with my gorgeous sister @parisjackson. Stay classy my friends." The Alexander McQueen-clad siblings also did a behind-the-scenes video for Vogue together, Paris having quickly become a sought-after presence on the fashion circuit after deciding to wade into public life a few years ago.
"I think of my childhood when I hear the word Motown," Paris said. "I grew up listening to that, so it makes me think of family."
Paris has leaned into music over the past year as one half of the singer-songwriter duo The Sound Flowers, with a source telling E! News last spring that performing is "when she truly shines and is in a good place." After beginning 2019 with a stint in treatment to work on her mental health, there were rumors that she was having a hard time in the wake of the Leaving Neverland premiere.
To which she replied on Twitter: "There's no meltdown, no 'losing s--t,' or being demanding of anyone. Please don't believe what you read."
The other half of The Sound Flowers is her boyfriend, Gabriel Glenn, and our previous source says they're "going strong." The couple took their show on the road to Paris (as in, the City of Light) last month—and while she was there, Paris walked in Jean-Paul Gaultier's farewell couture show, along with the likes of Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Irina Shayk.
Asked what compelled her to participate, Paris told British Vogue's "Miss Vogue" afterward, "Of course it was a no-brainer. I was, and am, absolutely honored."
Not one to trade on her name or otherwise assume she has a leg up on the competition, she gave it her all during rehearsals for the show.
"I was very nervous during the casting, but once I had the final look on it felt pretty natural," Paris said. "I had been doing a few walks for Jean Paul when he said, 'I'll see you tomorrow.' I almost screamed out of excitement, as that was his way of letting me know I got it. The whole experience is one I'll never forget."
And though she's focused on music these days, the photogenic singer would be happy to walk more runways.
"I was very nervous during the moments leading up to the walk, but once I stepped out there, all the anxiety faded away," she said. "The rush I got afterwards was similar to the one I get when I get off stage after performing with my band."
Though she keeps a pretty tight lid on her private life, Paris is already a veteran of two Met Galas, and her friendship circle includes Cara Delevingne and fellow L.A.-area natives Kendall Jenner and Sara Foster. Paris was among the revelers at Sara's celeb-studded birthday party at San Vicente Bungalows in West Hollywood in February, as were Kate Hudson, Courteney Cox and Demi Moore, and she donned a feather-trimmed Versace gown to frolic with the rest of young Hollywood at the Vanity Fair Oscar party.
Paris also remains very close to godfather Macaulay Culkin, who has always been protective of her and has been a supportive presence throughout her struggles with depression and dealing with a media machine she doesn't particularly trust. They have matching spoon tattoos on their inner forearms and, apparently, Culkin turned her onto stealing the occasional spoon from restaurants.
"It's harmless," he assured Esquire in its March 2020 issue. "It's a harmless thing. It's not like you're ruining something, like stealing a chess piece, where the board would be incomplete."
Culkin used the spoon heists as a metaphor in some advice he gave to Paris, telling her when the going got tough, "Don't forget to be silly, don't forget to take something away from this whole experience, and don't forget to stick something up your sleeve."
Prince and Paris "are close and bond over music," a source says. "There's always the possibility they will collaborate, with her in front of the camera and him behind it."
The Sound Flowers, who got in touch with their untamed side at a wolf sanctuary in the California desert for a photo spread in the latest issue of New Zealand's Remix magazine (the "Conscious Issue," featuring Paris on the cover), played a Thanksgiving benefit show for Prince's Healing LA back in November, and he proudly sports their merch to spread the word.
On Prince's 23nd birthday in February, Paris wrote on Instagram: "this guy. right here. greatest big brother and role model a girl could ever hope for. you already know all the things that i want to say to you, so this instagram thing is just for s--ts and gigs. thanks for being my twin and my bestie, i love you for always til the sun is swallowed by darkness and even after. happy birthday."
At the "Thriller Night" party in October, Prince called his bond with his siblings a "very raw, unfiltered relationship," since truly no one else can identify with what their earliest years were like as Michael Jackson's kids, and they "100 percent understand you."
"And especially," he told Access Hollywood, "you know, when there's a lot of people who may not have the best intentions for you, it's very easy to get caught up in a lot of fake personalities, so I think it's only made us stronger as siblings to have that bond, to have that very real relationship and raw relationship with each other, that we know it's always love."
(Originally published Feb. 13, 2020, at 3 a.m. PT)