1978:: Janelle Commissiong aka Miss Universe 77December 1, 2009
L.R. You’ve been seen out with Janelle Penny Commissiong, the former Miss Universe. Is it a romance?
M.J. [Laughter, giggling.] That’s a hard question to answer. Like most of the people you may see me out with, like Tatum [O’Neal] and Janelle, they’re kind of on and off, they’re friends, and [hysterical laughter] … I talk to them. I don’t know how to describe it, really [more laughter]. I don’t know what to say.
Toledo Blade, Aug 8, 1978
DRIVE, HE SAID: Michael Jackson blew $80,000 of his “Wiz” salary on a new Rolls – a gift to himself – and moved on to Phase Two: he’s learning to drive so he can take Janelle Commissiong, a former Miss Universe, to the movie’s premiere Oct 24th.
But he dates other women, including a former Miss Universe and Tatum O’Neal.
In 1978, I was an absolute neophyte, just out of college with big, maddeningly elusive dreams of being a writer and photographer. Michael Jackson, born in the same year I was, already had a pop star’s career. With his brothers, he had been performing since the age of five and, on the day he arrived in Piarco, had logged an imposing number of hit songs both with his brothers and as a solo act.
The concerts in Trinidad and Tobago would constitute a sliver of the band’s performance history and register as a fragment of that for Michael Jackson, whose star was about to go incandescent. The group had just left Motown and signed with Epic Records, producing a nondescript album titled, Goin Places‚ which didn’t. In the United States, they were popular but considered a bit past their prime in 1978.
In Trinidad and Tobago, they were the biggest stars the country had seen since Sam Cooke. The Martineau brothers, trading as Spektakula Promotions, delivered concerts at the Queen’s Park Savannah and at Skinner Park in San Fernando, performances by a band that was polished and practised at delivering the hits of more than a decade.
Penny meets the boys
Through a confluence of event and opportunity, I ended up in a small meeting room at the Hilton where the Jacksons were to meet local performers a day before the first of their local concerts. Alfred Aguiton’s new public relations company, AMPLE, was handling the press liaison, and he struck on the idea of bringing Penny Commissiong down to meet the boys. His brother, William, worked at the hotel and facilitated the request and so it came to pass that the first black Miss Universe came to meet the future King of Pop.
And I was the only photographer in the room. Armed with a beginner’s Pentax, the K1000 and a little flash, I shot the encounter, prompting a bemused Penny to ask my colleague, Joan Christopher in an aside she later took some glee in reporting to me, “Does he normally shake so much?” The resulting photo of Penny and Michael greatly pleased the Epic representatives, who requested prints that were promptly circulated to the international press.
There is, regrettably, little that happened of any consequence during their short stay. The boys, minus their brother Jermaine who remained with Motown, were press savvy, presenting themselves as quiet, generally shy young black men who largely kept to themselves and signed autographs politely when cornered.
Michael was the quietest of the group, prone to gently bowing his head as if the weight of his enormous afro was just a little too much for him, speaking a pitch and tone lower than his brothers and responding to direct looks with a shy smile. Thriller, cosmetic surgery and vitiligo were still in this young man’s future. At his request, John Cupid and I accompanied him to the top of Picton Road in Laventille, his security rolling along in a car a respectful but close distance behind as he set out to “meet the people,” as he put it.
The lanky young black man, his hair a massive puff that swayed in the evening breeze, walked along the road, waving, shaking hands and chatting with surprised people relaxing in their verandahs on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon. I photographed the entire encounter for what I was told were his scrapbooks, memoirs he gathered of his travels.
In return for another pittance, I handed over my unprocessed film of this evening stroll. Somewhere in the collected properties of the Michael Jackson empire, I sometimes imagine, is an old scrapbook full of these pictures, images I’ve never seen. I learned less about Michael Jackson’s world that evening than I had the day before, when the security team I was travelling with switched cars with the Jackson’s official vehicle.
We bundled into the car in the evening on its way to Skinner Park, and it rolled into a huge crowd waiting for the pop stars. Hands pressed against the tinted glass and groped at the door handle of the backdoor. I had failed to lock the door, and it sprang open with a roar of screams, now clearly audible.
I looked up, into the face of Michael Jackson’s world, a web of grasping digits, wide eyes and open mouths beyond them, accompanied by a ululating screech. A hand shot past me, pushing me back into my seat and seizing the door handle firmly, gently but forcibly shutting it again as the hands retreated and the sound dimmed. Through my shock, I heard the guard growl, “You never, ever, forget to lock the door.”
It seems we really never can say goodbye to the man who was Michael Jackson. Readers have been asking for more pictures of the Jacksons’ visit to T&T.
Spektakula Promotions Frank Martineau, who along with his brother Claude brought them to T&T on that now historic visit in 1978, said that he actually remembers very little, about the many places the brothers were taken to visit. Michael Jackson he remembers was ’very shy, introverted and very protected.’
The brothers however willingly met with the young people of T&T.
Yet Frank remembers the brothers valued their privacy and has this anecdote:
’The brothers were sitting around the pool and a member of our security team pulled up a chair to sit with them and the brothers were like ’excuse me’ and he had to leave them to talk. We used to laugh about that a long time after,’ Frank reminisced.
Their father did not accompany them, but there was a ’big, red, man’ with them who people mistook for Joe Jackson, Frank said.
Several activities were organised for the brothers. ’We had a committee comprising myself, Claude, Bunny Cummerbatch and Earl Patterson and we discussed everything. I think the man who took them to John John, which I actually don’t remember, was John Cupid.
The Jacksons came to Trinidad in February 1978, they stayed at the then Hilton Hotel. They had a wish fulfilled when they were introduced to T&T-born Miss Universe Janelle ’Penny’ Commissiong. While here they performed three shows, two at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain and one at Skinner Park, San Fernando.
Martineau says the team realised sometime after that having so many shows just was not economical. ’You don’t want all that expense. I think we charged $20 and the shows were sold out at that price which was plenty money then.’
However many readers have been asking to see some highlights of their visit to T&T in 1978. Here they are in photos taken by Tony Forte and Hubert Alexander.