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Revisit Janet Jackson’s November 1997 Cover Story: ‘JANET’S BACK!’

Miss Jackson talks about the pleasure in pain—and vice versa. By Danyel Smith

The whole thing is, she’s not fat. Right up until the moment I see Janet Jackson—in a penthouse suite at New York City’s Four Seasons Hotel—people are telling me that they’ve heard “Janet is fat now.” They heard on the radio or from some other reliable source that Janet’s been seen leaving KFC with buckets of Honey Roast. That her butt is wide, her tummy plump and mushy. “She’s changed” is what they whisper gleefully, “Janet said, ‘I’m eating what I want. Fuck a Versaclimber.'”

They wish.

When she walks into the sitting area of her suite—waist wee, eyes lined, lips laced bricky brown—she looks like she has since she lost the weight. She’s a 31-year-old woman who got her nose done when she was a girl of 16, who eats fatless soul food prepared by the chef she’s employed for ten years now, who walks the treadmill, counting the calories burned, tallying the surreal miles toward Global Stardom. She lives in Malibu with René Elizondo Jr., her lover of 11 years. She talks about her antiques. About her dissatisfaction with the way she’s dealt with mental trauma. Talks about hitting a boy when she was 13 because he took her food.

Whatever she talks about, she does it slowly. She pauses before she responds. Enunciates. When you do that, you may sound too slow to yourself, like you’re talking through molasses; but to the listener(s), you sound serene and confident. Thoughtful. Prepared. Too prepared, maybe.

And because these are cynical times, and because every “big” album is called “classic” before it’s even in the stores, it’s easy to start believing that we are all being manipulated into thinking Jackson’s new album, The Velvet Rope, is art—pure emotion manifest—when the songs are really just an indestructible, strategically designed platform from which to maintain world pop domination.

So, what’s up with this album?
It took me thirty-one years to do this album—my entire life. I had to run grab a tape recorder because I couldn’t write as fast as it was coming to me. A lot of it is about pain. I don’t know if it’s something that we developed as a family, but I developed this way: If I was ever in any kind of pain, I’d find a way to brush it aside. Eventually it caught up to me. Actually, I should say the album took 26 and a half years, because there’s one incident that I won’t go into that happened to me as a kid.

When you were four and a half? You’re not trying to go into it at all?

Have you reached out to a professional?
Rene helped me a lot. Then I was in the desert one day [on a trip with René], and I met this guy. He’s in his fifties, and he’s a cowboy, and he’s full of wisdom. The way that I see him is as my Obi-Wan-Kenobi.

We should all have one.
Yes. The day our paths crossed, he looked at me and told me about me.

Did he know who you were?
Yes. He’s not psychic. He saw me. I felt like I was ass-out, butt naked. I was sitting in front of this man who I had just met, like, a half hour ago, crying my eyes out. There are times when you don’t feel deserving of what you have. Feel fraudulent. For me, it has to do with my past and my childhood.

Should another girl have the life that Janet had?
I wouldn’t want them to.

Was it the stage and the cameras? Your family?
It was everything. I started working when I was seven. When I was ten, I had a serious full-time job. I had a contract with a studio, and I had to be there on time every single day.

This is when you were Penny on Good Times?
Yes. I enjoyed it—but were there days [when] I was lonely? Hell yeah! I missed my family. I missed Michael. He was doing The Wiz. We had a hiatus coming up, and I remember asking mother if I could go to New York and visit him because I missed him so much. I went to Studio 54 for the first time with Michael.

You went to Studio 54 when you were 10?
The only kid sitting up in the place, seeing people pretty much butt naked. I was loving it.

You had a life, Janet.
I was having a great time. But I could have swung in another direction. I could have gone to drugs, or drinking. There was cocaine everywhere back then. Someone could have said, “Hey, try this.”

You don’t regret your life, though?
I don’t regret it at all.

Check in the mirror, my friend
No lies will be told then
Pointin’ the finger again
You can’t blame nobody but you.

Are we friends? Yes. Are we enemies? No. Have I spoken to my brother recently? No, I haven’t. It’s kind of embarassing.

Janet jackson
Janet Jackson in a black bra, panties, and cover up on VIBE's November 1997 issue
Cover photo by Mario Testino

Janet is not just a voice. She sings (her voice is pretty and small), and she writes. She comes up with melodies. She makes music. Janet says she’s always resisted taking credit for her writing. She says, like she’s admitting to a misdemeanor, that this album is the most personal, wrenching work she’s ever done. And you know with that “Man in the Mirror” reference in “You,” she ain’t talking to nobody but big brother Michael. She even sounds bratty just the way Michael did circa 1987 in ”Leave Me Alone.” The song is spat out over a snatch from War’s 1972 “Cisco Kid.” You can definitely feel that “was a friend of mine” vibe.

Are you feeling competitive with Michael?

Is it hard for you?
Because we’re brother and sister?

No. Because it’s business. I love him. He knows that.

Right. . .
I know that he loves me.

Was that hard for you to come to?
That was very hard for me to come to, and I didn’t realize how—how do I say this correctly—how much business it was with he and I until a few years ago.

It’s hard to say this because he’s your brother.
Go ahead, say it.

Michael is a legend in his own time. There will never be another Michael Jackson.

I just don’t know if there is a Michael Jackson right now.

The Jackson right now is Janet. I’m wondering how you deal with that.
It’s hard. It’s very hard for me. That voice inside my head starts talking. I ask, why me? What did I do to deserve this?

To deserve all this adulation?
Yes. I called my mother and asked her. She said be thankful. So I try not to question it. I used to do that all the time because I felt guilty.

For being a winner?
I felt very guilty for being a winner when maybe someone else in my family wasn’t doing as well as I was.

That must have been hard.
There are lots of times where I would ask, God, why can’t you just make us all be on the same level? Why is one of us excelling more than the other?

Did you feel this way before Control? You know, when Michael was Mr. MTV and Mr. Thriller—did you wish everybody could be “even” then?

You wanted to be a star?
Yes! I wanted to be a star! But I was so happy for Michael. I remember when he did Thriller—he had a serious sound system in his car. He played the album for me there. I’d never heard anything like it.

How old were you?
A teen-ager. I was so stoked for him.

Does he get excited about your work?
From what I hear, yes he does.

From what you hear? Have you guys had any good talks recently?
[No response]

I guess I’m asking, are you guys friends right now?
Are we friends? Yes. Are we enemies? No. Have I spoken to him recently? No, I haven’t. It’s kind of embarrassing. I hate to say how long it’s been since I’ve even seen my brother—two years. But he’s on tour. I haven’t even seen my nephew.

I know. It’s horrible. I know.

Are you guys going to be all right?
Yes. It’s nothing like that. It’s just that, when everyone was invited to the ranch to meet [his new son] Prince, I was doing the album, and there was no way I could even come home for the day.

That’s kind of deep.
It is. I mean, the last time I saw my brother and spoke to him was when he was in the hospital. He was supposed to do the show for Pay-Per-View or HBO or something—it was the night of the 1996 Billboard Awards, and I was supposed to receive an award that night. I didn’t even go accept my award. I went straight to the hospital.

You haven’t seen him since then?
I haven’t seen him since then; I haven’t spoken to him since then.

Did it have to do with that “Scream” single? I thought your voice was mixed down kinda low. I was wondering why I couldn’t hear you.
I wondered why you couldn’t hear me either. We went back [after the session] and put my vocal up, and it sounded better. That’s pretty much all I can say because I don’t know what really happened. I wasn’t there.

You were singing when you were in the booth, right?
Oh yes. I recorded my part in New York, and I didn’t like it. So I sang it again in Minneapolis, at Jimmy and Terry’s studio where I felt comfortable. [Michael] was there too because he wanted to re-sing his as well. He re-sang his, but his first pass at it in New York was the shit. I don’t know what happened, but I felt I was mixed down too. It sometimes happens, you know. I wish they would have pushed it up a little bit more. I think “Scream” was the best video out. But it didn’t have anything to do with me being in it or anything like that.

What about the times
You lied to me
What about the times
You said no one would want me
What about all the shit you’ve done to me
What about that?
What about times you yelled at me
What about the times I cried
You wouldn’t even hold me
What about those thing
“What About”

So, what is The Velvet Rope? Art? Hype? Maybe, as with Janet’s breakthrough album, 1986’s Control, it’s both. The 20 year old’s newfound command of self, combined with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s superpop music—combined with the power of a huge entertainment conglomerate—connected with more than five million fans. Rhythm Nation was about Janet tackling “big issues”; but the music was fierce, the big-budget videos were mesmerizing for the time, and she sold another umpteen million units and played to sold-out arenas around the world.

Four years later, janet. was “about” Janet’s blossoming sexuality—but was it really? Or was it just calculatedly “hot” and ”sexy”—a big vibrator for our rhythm nation’s collective clit? (Batteries not included.) It’s hard though, to think janet.—with beautiful songs like “Again” and “That’s the Way Love Goes”—was all spin. And now, with The Velvet Rope, it’s all about Janet Jackson getting into her “self.” She writes songs that allude to some unnamed childhood trauma. She sings of hiding a lot of pain—and that segues really nicely into the idea that she herself may be semi getting into “paid” as arousal. She and her longtime love have written a song, about bondage. Not to accuse her of making up trauma for the sake of drama or of creating fetishes just to flourish—but you can’t help thinking that real life needs a remix to go platinum.

What about your self-esteem? Most people assume that you always feel absolutely perfect.

No—are you kidding? That’s the furthest from the truth. I have never felt attractice.

To whom? To men?
Period! Just period!

What about after you lost the weight back in 1990s?
Did I feel better about myself after losing the weight? Yes, I did. Did I still feel ugly? Yes, I did.

People didn’t tell you were ugly when you were little?
No. That’s just the way I felt when I looked in the mirror. I was shocked when René and I got together.

What brings you joy, then?
René brings me joy; work brings me joy.

You’ve been with René for a long time.
Since 1986. We were friends for, like, four or five years before that. Like, best friends.

You guys have a good relationship?
We have a very good relationship, and it’s due to us being good friends in the beginning. It’s weird to kiss your friend for the first time. It’s also hard work—

To keep a relationship going?
We work at it.

Did I see you at the Essence Awards with a diamond?
Everyone thought it was an engagement ring. It was a birthday present.

Do you like not being married?
I’m not afraid of marriage. I just like where we are right now.

[Phone line beeps] Janet, hold on for one second.
Sure. It’s okay.

I just told my cousin Khalief that I have Janet Jackson on hold. I’ve got a few family issues tonight.

Don’t worry. I can understand family issues.

Dancin’ in moonlight
I know you are free
‘Cause I can see your star
Shinin’ down on me
“Together Again”

Together Again” is a big, perfect, Donna Summer ode, all “MacArthur Park” and “Last Dance,” and you just know the spirit of Ray Vitte (who played the DJ in Thank God It’s Friday and who died tragically) is dancing on his celestial ceiling.

Janet Jackson gives it all the way up in this, her tribute to friends who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. I mean, not to compare it to other extremely beautiful songs that play with our despair, but that song her brother did, 1991’s “Gone too Soon,” about the little blond boy with AIDS? “Together Again” tops that. Puffy’s chart-destroying “I’ll Be Missing You”? “Together Again” kills that. This four-minute song is true disco dying for a 21-minute extended mix. The joint is hot to death. Literally.

What was it like working with Q-Tip? Do you like his voice?
I love his voice. I know René is probably sick of me saying God, I love TIp so much. He was real quick in the studio.

So you, Tip, Joni Mitchell—
I spoke to Joni over the phone and told her we used her sample. Everyone kept saying don’t even bother. I called her up myself, told her how much of a fan I was and how my brother Randy introduced me to her work. And she said we could use it! I was stoked.

What’s your favorite Joni Mitchell song?
“Beat of Black Wings.” I love it. As a matter of fact, Joni called and asked me to be on her tribute album.

So you did that one—the “Wings” song? How did it work out?
I like it a lot. I just hope she does. You just don’t touch greatness. It’s like, Leave it there because you can’t go any place with it. For her to ask me was such an honor.

Speaking of how you feel about not touching greatness, I’m wondering how come you’re not working with Puffy? How come you’re not working with the fabulous Babyface?
It’s a loyalty thing, for one. Jimmy and Terry and I work well together. There’s still more within us to give. Though that’s not to say that if I were to do something with Babyface that I would be unhappy with Jimmy and Terry. But if it’s not broken, why fix it?

Follow the passion
That’s within you
Living the truth
Will set you free
“Velvet Rope”

Maybe you have hidden this pain. Maybe you’re wondering what it would be like to make us think you’re reading The Story of O and your man is whispering lines from Beauty’s Punishment by Anne Rice while he’s dripping wax on your decolletage. Maybe your left nipple and your tongue are both pierced. Maybe right now it’s all about spankings and nipple clips and surrender. Like, wouldn’t it be fun all of a sudden to relinquish your feigned tranquility and beg for the pain you trust your lover not to give you too much of.

Then you redo Rod Stewart’s 1976 “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” because that song was massive when you were, like, 11, and you sing it with the “girl” references intact so it seems to your public that you’re into girls. And if some factions of your public are girls into girls or boys into girls who are into girls—then they know you support that. Maybe this sticky marketing convolution is from whence your new art comes. Maybe, in this day, it’s from where all art comes.

Or maybe Janet Jackson really feels lonely. Because she sounds more convincing, more alive, on “I Get Lonely” than on The Velvet Rope’s bland-ass title song, better than when she’s singing about any of that tie-me-up-tie-me-down, gettin’-freaked-from-behind “rope burn” stuff. Janet’s “velvet room” is the ho-hum part of The Velvet Room. She says herself she wants to feel a “soft” rope burn. Whatever. When it’s down to ropes, feel the heat or get out the kitchen.

When was the last time you had a big laugh?
When I get tired, I get so giddy I start crying. I laugh so hard, I can’t breathe; and then that becomes funny to me. Just last month. René was pretending to be an actor in a film, he had a cigar in his mouth. It was so funny, I couldn’t stop. On top of it, we had wine. Wine makes me giddy too. Just a couple of sips and—

You’re gone?
I’m a lightweight is what they tell me. When I take a couple of sips—you know how it normally goes to someone’s head? With me, it goes in the opposite direction.

[Laughs] So it’s on after that?
I’m telling you. Literally, it takes two sips and, oh my God!

You’re looking for René?
Somebody! I’m just joking.

I’m curious where sex fits into your life now.
Are you kidding?

Do tell.
[Laughs] Please, could I not?

So is sex about bondage and domination for you now? Are you and your lover playing fun games with power?
[Laughs] You mean, like pain? Are we into pain?

Yes, are you into pain, Miss Jackson?
No, no…but I’m told I have a high tolerance for pain.

How would you know?
From the things I’ve gotten pierced, I suppose—my nipple, my tongue.

Okay, then. In some of your photos you look strong and in control, but there’s one picture of you where your wrists are up. I’m wondering how you got to that place.
It’s a part of me. On this album, you hear that. For instance, about [the song] “Rope Burn,” someone said, “You know, that’s a painful thing.” But it says “soft rope burn”—nothing to really harm a person. I’m getting deeper into my fantasies, into what I like and don’t like—that’s the other side of this album. It all goes back to feeling special. There’s a song on the album called “Anything.” It’s about pleasing a man. There are people who are into pleasing others, and people who are into being pleased. Some nights you feel one way; some nights you feel another. Pleasing someone else and seeing them enjoy—you become aroused.

What’s your idea of ecstasy? Is it the old candles and flowers?
It’s all that. There’s a point where you could go too far…..I’m not into that real painful stuff.

The idea of a velvet rope to me is, like, you’re constrained, but nicely.
Exactly. It’s soft. Instead of it being crass, there’s still something classy about it. The candles, the flowers, the wax, the ice…

The whole nine?
Yeah. Trying new things.

How did you come to name the album The Velvet Rope?
That’s what I’ve been exposed to all my life. That’s what I still see every single day in my life.

Which is what? Pain blanketed with a nice little covering?
That need to feel special. There are two sides to the velvet rope: those who want to be on the other side and those who are on the other side.

It depends where you’re standing.
Take a nightclub: those outside of the club, waiting to be chosen—they wish they were inside. Once inside, they think they’re the shit. But there’s another velvet rope—the V.I.P section. They wanna be in that section, but they can’t be.

Does anyone get to that point where they’re finally on the right side of the velvet rope?
Where the grass is greener?

I guess you never get to it.
I don’t know. We’re all born special, and somewhere along the way, we lose knowing that. We want that specialness. When you feel special, you don’t need a rope to validate you. You know who you are.

You’re always on the right side if you have your own rope.
That’s where I’d like to be.

Sittin’ here her with my tears
All alone with my fears
“I Get Lonely”

I Get Lonely” is a gigantic voicey song that takes you right up into the spirit of Dru Hill’s recent Jermaine Dupri-remixed “In My Bed.” The song starts with the beautifully overblown chorus—” I get so lonely / Can’t let / Just anybody hold me / You are the one / Who lives in me my dear / Want no one but you.” After that, it’s official; you’re singing it until next year. There’re, like, 40 Janets singing the chorus, and she harmonizes with herself like she’s the Pips. Honey butter. This is where she wins. Makes pop. Art. Hits you where? In the head the heart the booty.

So why do some people dis Janet? Is it that when a person gets so large—at a certain point—they can no longer be trusted? Does it get trite automatically?

There are no questions about who Janet is when she’s making music like this (or 1989’s “Escapade” or 1989’s “Miss You Much” or a long list of others). Janet Jackson is not just Michael’s sister—because so is LaToya. And Rebbie. Janet is Janet is Janet. And maybe when you get that huge—so big that you’ve got to look for you in your own life—nothing is regular anymore.

Can you imagine a day when you put out a record and people aren’t interested?
It can very well happen with this record. The applause will die, it happens to every single person in this business. It’s like in my song “You.” Does what they think determine your worth? By getting this applause, are you worthy? Without the applause, are you worthless? And that’s what a lot of artists have trouble with. Maybe their music is not what it used to be. Maybe people aren’t paying as much attention to them as they did in the past. But those things happen, and you have to understand that you’re special and it’s okay. I’d rather for people not to know what I am, what I have, or who I am, and to accept me for me.

Do you ever have that option?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

Have you gone through things with friends, where you realized they were just being your friend because you were Janet Jackson?
Hell yeah! Or just being my friend because I lived right down the hall from my brother Michael when I was younger.

How do you know when somebody’s really your friend?
I think the truth comes out; you can’t fake it forever.

Is there any place you can walk the streets and no one points at you?
[Pauses] So far it hasn’t happened. So I don’t know if there is.

I’m just curious because—
Would I like it?

Would you?
I can’t have my cake and eat it too.

This VIBE Q feature originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Danyel Smith | Cover photography by Mario Testino