If you told me 10 years ago that La Toya Jackson's media presence in 2013 would eclipse that of all of her siblings except for her dead brother Michael, I would have laughed at you harder than I ever laughed at her — and I have laughed at La Toya Jackson hard over the years. An entertainer of sorts whose underdog status is tattooed on her existence given her DNA and failure to achieve even Rebbie's levels of chart success, La Toya has long been something of a pop cultural joke, defined by desperation that living in the Jackson family shadow produces. From nearly a dozen failed attempts at pop stardom to multiple Playboy layouts to hotlines of the psychic and Jackson Family Secrets variety, to telling all about her notoriously private family whether by book or by press conference, La Toya's decades of bidding for attention resulted in what seemed to be an impossible to overcome public scorn.
But then, something happened to La Toya: reality TV. Given the medium's commodification of eccentricity, it was there that La Toya flourished with her Kewpie-doll persona, her titmouse voice, her Wizard of Oz munchkin laugh and the worldview of someone who was kept in a cage for decades. Emancipated from her abusive marriage to the now-dead Jack Gordon, whom she says forced her to make all manner of terrible career decisions including Playboy and addressing the press to say that her brother Michael was a child molester, La Toya grew increasingly bolder over a reality TV career arc that has included The Celebrity Apprentice twice, Celebrity Big Brother UK, multiple guest spots judging RuPaul's Drag Race. With her genuinely odd (and, in my opinion, endearing) demeanor and birthright, La Toya Jackson is the perfect reality specimen. Her existence begs to be studied, and OWN has answered the plea with Life with La Toya, a 10-episode reality show that starts tonight.
The premiere of Life with La Toya is mostly inert. It captures La Toya moving into a hotel (so she can move somewhere else after, I think?), talking to childhood friend Kathy Hilton, taking a road trip back to her hometown of Gary, Indiana, with her mother Katherine and doing a lot of explaining about the current chapter of her life that finds her starting over (also, Starting Over is the name of her most recent memoir, the contents of which negate much of what was printed in her 1991 book La Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family).
What it lacks in action, it makes up for in personality — La Toya giggles, poses, uses the word "mediocre" to describe the kind of place she'd like to live in (as in "not too big...mediocre") and asks her right hand Jeffré Phillips, "What do I know how to play?" because she can't remember what card games she knows. She says with a straight face, "Picture Buckingham Palace, that's my style." She says with a mere smirk, referring to the tour bus Katherine inherited from Michael, "Rock it, mother, rock it." In the season preview package that concludes the episode, she seems to have an emotional breakdown when Kathy Hilton asks if she's a virgin. In another scene, we watch her sitting down with her father Joseph (she calls him by his first name), in the most literal attempt at a heart-to-heart that I have ever seen: "I wish that my heart could speak to your heart. If hearts could speak to each other without us verbally speaking, meaning if my heart can tell your heart what my heart truly feels about your heart, but..."
I watched this premiere earlier this week in OWN's New York office. Also there was La Toya, Phillips (who is prominently featured on the show) and their small entourage. After the screening, there was an informal Q&A with the assembled writers, La Toya and Phillips, who often interjected to explain or contradict things La Toya said. (They disagree, for example, on whether she has ever actually "dated" before this point in her life: she says yes, he says she met with men when she was younger with no real agenda to ever see them again, thus though she went on dates, she never really was dating anyone.)
I asked La Toya if she likes her show. She does. I asked if she likes watching herself and she said it's "very difficult." So she likes difficult things, I can relate. I asked if it ever gets confusing that she has two nephews and a dog named Prince. "It's kind of cute sometimes because when Prince is playing with Prince, I'll go, 'Prince, stop it!' And they'll both look," she told me, punctuating this anecdote with her trademark giggle: "A-hee hee hee."
I asked what it's like to be the most relevant Jackson — the only other remaining one with any shot at a continued career is Janet, who's had exactly two songs to go Top 40 in the U.S. since her exposed boob undermined everything at the 2004 Super Bowl. La Toya is the cult favorite, the family representative, the astonishingly conflict-avoidant, level-headed Jackson (she steered far clear of that whole Katherine Jackson kidnapping debacle last summer). "I think that we have a very talented family, a very wonderful family," is how the Jackson family diplomat responded. "That's nice of you to say that, but I think all of my siblings are very special. Every last one of them. Very special and very talented. Every last one of them."
After the Q&A, I cornered Jackson for some more questions. I asked if she has a sense of humor about her much-derided musical catalog, as she seems to exhibit in the opening moments of the show when she recaps her career. "You have to live life lightly when it comes to that," she told me. "Music has never been a major factor in my life. It was something I was pushed into doing. It's not my main focus and never has been, and that's why I can take it with a grain of salt."
("Bet'cha Gonna Need My Lovin'," though, I don't take with a grain of salt so much as heaping mounds of joy. It is her masterwork. I told her this and she seemed vaguely flattered.)
I wondered if her fans ever freak her out. Yes, they do. "They do a lot of interesting things," she told me. "They'll pop out of nowhere. It's like 'Oh my god where'd you come from? How'd you find me?' I know it's out of love, but it's like, 'Oh my,' because there are always those who are a little bit different and believe you belong to them."
I asked her what the weirdest question she's ever been asked was. She told me that was a good question before answering, "I think this was the strangest, and I didn't have a clue what it meant and everyone started laughing. A guy said, 'Will you be my slave? I will be your slave if you be my slave.' I go, 'That's weird. Slavery doesn't exist.' I didn't get it. That's probably the strangest. I don't know if it was the weirdest. I thought it was weird, and I didn't know what it meant at all."
So it was the strangest, not necessarily the weirdest, although La Toya thought it was weird but had no idea what she was talking about.
La Toya was taller than I expected (her leopard-print platforms helped) and, though eccentric as ever in her speech, she was more assertive than I would have predicted. I told her that given her life and general manner, she is perfect for reality TV — if anyone needed a show (and make no mistake: no one needed a show but whatever, they're still giving them out), it was her. She seemed to agree, especially given her perspective as someone who grew up simultaneously sheltered from the general public and exposed to its greatest aspirations in the form of celebrities and lifestyle luxury.
"There's a lot that I don't know, and I'm not going to try to hide it or run from it," said La Toya. "That's who I am." For knowing what she doesn't know, one could make the argument that La Toya Jackson is, of all things, wise. Whoever would have thought?