Brow Beat

Leaving Neverland Shows How Michael Jackson Exploited Immigrant Vulnerability

The documentary is a story of abuse. For Wade Robson and his family, it’s also a story of otherness.

Wade Robson.
Wade Robson in Leaving Neverland. HBO

For me, one of the most uncomfortable moments in Leaving Neverland—a documentary full of uncomfortable moments—comes early in Part 2, when Michael Jackson, trying to reingratiate himself with the Robsons so they will testify on his behalf, calls and leaves a voicemail in a fake Australian accent. It would be “noice” to see a “mewvie” “tamorroh noight,” he suggests. As an Australian living in the U.S., the chummy familiarity of this moment made my skin crawl. Jackson uses the same terrible, almost-Cockney accent in his message for the Australian Robsons that many of my American friends use on me. It’s a gentle and intimate ribbing, and it’s jarring to my ears to hear it coming from Jackson, both the weirdest and the most normal he has ever sounded. As phony accents go, it’s also just bad. Really, really bad.

Jackson’s fake accent aside, the documentary is full of real, rich Aussie accents, and there are many ways that being Australian plays into Wade Robson’s story. Leaving Neverland goes to great lengths to present the Robsons as an everyday Aussie family,their foreignness somewhat quaint, especially when it comes to how star-struck they were around Jackson. “This little Australian boy who had had this otherworldly, impossible experience,” says Robson of their first meeting, referring to his child self. His first “big America trip” was to dance at Disneyland for Australia Day. When Jackson eventually replaced Robson with another young boy, as he was wont to do, there was an added sting because the new boy was a fellow countryman. “I remember it being particularly hard with Brett because I found out and I knew that he was Australian,” says Robson toward the end of Part 1. “Oh, it’s a new Australian boy as well—like, really feeling replaced.”

Leaving Neverland itself doesn’t address the racial dynamics at play, as Jason King has pointed out here in Slate. But Robson’s identity as an foreigner is on full display as it further complicates the narrative. Though he was a white immigrant from a developed country, Robson’s reliance on Jackson made him—and his family—particularly vulnerable. He; his mother, Joy; and his sister, Chantal, left not just their family but their country because of Jackson, and the fact that he facilitated their immigration only further entrenched his power over them. While all of Jackson’s alleged victims had their lives upended in different ways, the Robsons’ move to the U.S. ripped their family apart, as the brother who stayed behind tells the filmmakers, implying that it even contributed to his father’s suicide. Once in the U.S., the Robsons expected to have regular contact with Jackson—he was, after all, the only American they knew. “I definitely had some sort of idea in my head of the way this was all gonna go down once we moved to Los Angeles, that it really was going to be life with Michael,” says Wade, later describing his sense of isolation after learning that Jackson had found a new favorite. “Here I was, in this new place, in America, and in Los Angeles, but now it’s like, we were alone.”

Joy suggests that Wade’s dance career was their main reason for relocating, explaining that “Wade had been working pretty regularly in Australia but there was only just so far he could go there.” She says that “I felt if he was really going to succeed he needed to move to the United States.” But by her own account, it was Jackson who first suggested her son live in the U.S., with him, as they were leaving Neverland for the first time in 1990. “He said it would do wonders for his career,” she says. When she rejected the idea, Jackson told her, “I always get what I want.”

Whether or not they moved for Jackson, they couldn’t have moved without Jackson. Though the documentary glosses over it, Jackson was vital to the Robsons’ immigration case. MJJ Productions “hired” Wade and Joy, and applied for H-1B visas on their behalf, as well as a H-4 visa for Chantal—no small favor, and one that complicated their relationship. Jackson could have ended their visas simply by firing them. The fact that Jackson helped the Robsons immigrate (along with providing loans and a car) was used to diminish Joy’s 2005 defense of Jackson, as Seth Stevenson reported in his dispatches from the trial. Wade alluded to it again in his own 2013 lawsuit, alleging “this was done by Michael Jackson, MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures for the explicit purpose of allowing Michael Jackson access to [Robson] for sexual abuse.”

Though other families also benefited from their proximity to Jackson (the Safechucks got a house out of it), this kind of assistance tips the power imbalance even further, beyond even the usual Jackson-victim dynamic. Jackson was the Robsons’ visa sponsor, their lifeline to the U.S., making them outsiders beholden to the ultimate insider. Moving to America is not easy, but Jackson offered them an entrée, and Joy Robson, ultimate stage mom, took it. Compared with Stephanie Safechuck, Joy seemed particularly enamoured by the glamorous fantasy being around Jackson entailed, especially compared with life in Australia.

Much of the footage shown in Leaving Neverland from Robson’s semi-famous childhood is probably unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but with each TV interview, I felt a stab of recognition. Many of those interviewing Robson are famous faces in Australia. A younger Derryn Hinch introduces little Wade on a nightly news program: “We may not have Michael Jackson on the program tonight, but we have the next best thing.” There’s an irony to the fact that Hinch, now a senator, earned a name for himself—and was repeatedly convicted for—publicly naming and shaming sex offenders.

Little Wade may have been covered adoringly in the Australian media at the time, but the Australian coverage of Leaving Neverland hasn’t focused much on his nationality. Robson is getting a little more attention than Safechuck in the headlines (e.g., “Michael Jackson Accuser Wade Robson Reveals How Brisbane Dance Competition Led to Abuse,” “ ‘This Is How We Show Each Other Love’: Australian Wade Robson Details Michael Jackson Abuse”), but when I asked my dad back in Melbourne what TV coverage of the documentary had been like, he didn’t even know one of the accusers was Australian.

Perhaps that reflects the fact that, though his story is told through a range of Aussie accents, Wade’s is gone. Though someone suggested on this 2004 message board, long before his allegations, that the Aussie choreographer was faking his American accent, it’s not surprising that his native inflections have faded, given that he moved to the U.S. at age 8. Meeting Jackson changed his entire life, his identity, even the way he speaks. And though he may be finally finding his voice, Wade Robson will never get his youthful Aussie twang back.