By: Julie Ane
If ’70s teen dream sensations The Jackson 5 are your older siblings, is it really any stretch of the imagination that you would go into show business and be just short of great at it? At the tender age of 7, Janet Jackson did just that.
As a guest on her brothers’ variety show in 1974, the youngest of Joe and Katherine’s nine children strutted across the stage in a feather boa and sashayed her way into an iconic career with a sparkling Mae West impression. She watched her brothers perform it was as if it were her destiny to do the same. And that she did.
Over 30 years and 100 million albums later, 44-year-old Janet Jackson continues to make waves around the world. She’s been a part of launching careers in entertainment, giving early shots to dancers, choreographers and artists who later became amazing performers in their own right. You’ll easily see Ms. Jackson’s flair morphed into the likes of Ciara, Beyoncé, Britney and countless other stars who have been influenced by the pop icon’s extraordinary performances and enduring visionary style.
As Janet grew up before our eyes, it was hard to deny those chubby cheeks and sassy one-liners. From 1977 to 1982, Janet spent most of her time in our living rooms with various acting gigs. Her most famous roles were battered child Penny on the series Good Times, and as Willis Drummond’s love interest Charlene on Diff’rent Strokes. She also debuted her own self-titled album in 1982 on A&M records, under the guidance of her father Joe Jackson.
Soft-spoken, wide eyed and innocent, Janet’s schoolgirl style was prim, proper and ladylike at all times – with just a touch of tomboy. She recently revealed in an issue of Health Magazine that producers used to bind her chest on Good Times (when she was 11), and expressed the the experience often made her sad about the way she looked.
In 1984, she took on the role of Cleo Hewitt in the television series Fame for a season, maintaining her soft, feminine style and some pretty tame ’80s hair.
Janet’s second album Dream Street hit shelves in October 1984 as well, and her fierceness was beginning to show. We didn’t know it at the time, but the 18-year-old had secretly married her boyfriend James DeBarge just a month before the album’s release.
During her live performances with the Fame cast, we started to see the true potential of Miss Jackson’s on-stage confidence.
Janet’s marriage was brief, annulled just a few months later, and it wasn’t until she parted ways from under her father’s rule that she really began to own her edgier new style.
From Dream Street to a dream team, Janet paired up with Prince protégés, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to create the 1986 smash album Control. Janet quickly left the softer girly teen look for all black everything – blazers, jeans and big black hair.
With catchy tunes of fiery independence and cleverly composed dance videos choreographed by L.A. Lakers cheerleader Paula Abdul, the youngest Jackson established herself as a shining star.
Janet’s hair got bigger (bangs even!), and her wardrobe transformed into a funky, unisex street style with rock & roll edge. In the “What Have You Done for Me Lately” video, Jackson, Abdul and future choreographer Tina Landon all got a little nasty, and fans loved this new Janet!
By the time the “Pleasure Principle” video was released, 21-year-old Janet toned down her look and showed off her toned body without revealing any skin. Her tied up t-shirt, skinny jeans and sneakers kicked off a naturally sexy “girl next door” trend, as the song itself became the new independence anthem for young women worldwide.
The video won a 1988 MTV Video Music Award and Billboard Music Award for Barry Lather‘s choreography, and set Janet apart from every aspiring pop princess of her era.
In September 1989, Janet released her fourth album Rhythm Nation 1814 with Jam and Lewis. This time the team took a different musical spin, mixing funky danceable beats with socially conscious messages. The style and dance in the video for her first single “Miss You Much” fused flowing Hip Hop movement, a masculine militant look and female angst.
In this behind-the-scenes clip from “I Miss You Much,” you can catch some words from Tina Landon and a quick glimpse of Janet’s future husband René Elizondo.
And of course the final video was epic…
Donning military gear (which is back in style over 20 years later) and her signature black, 23-year-old Janet and her army of background dancers stepped with extreme precision to a record-setting #1 album and the most successful debut tour by any recording artist.
The “Rhythm Nation” video set even more trends in music and fashion, and was nominated alongside Paula Abdul‘s “Opposites Attract” video at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. The “Best Dance Video” category was taken, however, by MC Hammer‘s “U Can’t Touch This.”
In keeping with the androgynous outerwear theme, Janet went 1930’s retro the “Alright” video in 1990.
She took her look and sound to new places with the ballad “Come Back to Me” (co-starring René Elizondo) and the rock-infused “Black Cat,” which she wrote herself and co-produced with The Time’s Jellybean Johnson. At that point, Janet’s signature key earring was still a part of her wardrobe, however all other signs of baby Janet were gone.
We’d give you a prize if you knew where the key came from, but if you’re a longtime fan, you have to know the answer…
For the final single and video “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” Janet switched things up and took her look all the way back to the basics, donning a wispy, sun-touched wig, a halter top and jeans. Nevemind that it was nearly winter when the video dropped, girls wanted that look!
Hunky actors Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Djimon Hounsou, both Calvin Klein models at the time, co-starred in the video as well.
By 1991, Janet had more than proven herself as a force to be reckoned with, and signed a multi-million dollar recording contract with Virgin Records. At an estimated $50 million dollars, it was the most lucrative contract signed by a recording artist at that time. That wasn’t her only collaboration that year, as she also secretly married René.
In May 1993, Janet’s fifth album was released, simply entitled janet. She now had experiences to share, and her music evolved along with her life events.
And who can forget that Rolling Stone cover? The full exposure (literally) of her album cover art, Janet appeared topless with soft, shoulder-length hair, and only René’s hands covering her exposed breasts. It was the beginning of a more sexually expressive Janet.
Janet’s music reflected the growth of a budding bombshell with hits like the Grammy-award winning “That’s The Way Love Goes,” “If,” and the ever so sultry “Anytime, Anyplace.”
The respective videos validated this newfound sensuality, and Janet quickly became every boy’s dream and every man’s fantasy.
Janet braided her hair and took on her first starring role in the John Singleton-directed movie Poetic Justice, alongside Tupac Shakur and Regina King. The film hit at #1 at the box office its first weekend in July 1993.
Though she received mixed reviews for her big screen debut, she received an Oscar nomination for the Poetic Justice theme song “Again.” The video co-starred actor Gary Dourdan, best known for his role on CSI from 2000 through 2008.
The Janet World Tour started in November 1993 and went on until April 1995. With pyrotechnics, elaborate theatrics, 100 costume changes and 50 costume makers, this was more than a tour – it was an extravaganza!
This tour also reflected Janet’s sexual metamorphosis as she rocked a golden honey tasseled mane and an array of costumes that showed off her amazing body. Off stage, she often sported her versatility with short hair cuts, which she pulled off with a confidence and ease that just added to her appeal.
In 1995, Janet collaborated with big brother Michael, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for the hit single “Scream” from MJ’s HIStory album.
Sporting a short, spunky wig, dark eye make-up reminiscent of “Black Cat” and futuristic garb, Janet was not just an R&B diva – she was a rock star!
Nominated for 11 MTV Music Video Awards in 1995, the work came away with “Best Dance Video,” “Best Choreography” and “Best Art Direction.” To date, the video remains the most expensive video ever made, clocking in at $7 million.
In October 1995, her first compilation album Design of a Decade was released. The past 10 years had been a whirlwind and brought Janet to superstar status, but the hectic schedule began to take its toll. The next two years took Janet through a deep and dark road of self discovery, as she suffered secretly from depression and anxiety.
Despite the personal setbacks, she renewed the Virgin Records contract for an astounding $80 million, and her sixth album The Velvet Rope was released in October 1997. The project debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200.
Janet’s style reflected this time of self assessment and personal growth. She emerged with hair of crimson red, visible body piercings and a sadomasochistic bend to her song lyrics and styling.
The Velvet Rope album was full of these new piques of interest, and the tour was nothing short of a Broadway musical event with ornate costumes, decorative set designs, stripper poles and the flawless dance routines Janet had become so famous for.
Before the tour was over, Ms. Jackson separated from René Elizondo.
The new millennium brought about yet another reinvention for Janet, albeit a more mature look. The midriffs were at a minimum, with long-flowing soft waves, suits, form-fitting dresses and designer heels.
Her acting career reemerged and was on an upswing with her second film The Nutty Professor II, which opened at the box office at #1.
Shortly after, her seventh album All for You debuted at #1 in April 2001, and more touring ensued. For the title song’s video, Janet once again embraced her inner tomboy with loose men’s jeans, but between her skin-bearing halter tops, long hair and in-your-face lyrics, the final presentation was sizzling!
The new millennium also brought with it a bevy of new female artists in the pop market, which only seemed to make Janet work all the harder to hold on to her crown. She began dating Jermaine Dupri in 2002, and seemed happier than ever both personally and professionally.
In March of 2004, Janet released her eighth album Damita Jo, which debuted at #2 on Billboard. Whether the project was overshadowed by 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” incident alongside Justin Timberlake just a month prior to the album’s release, or that it was not fully supported by her label, Damita Jo sold just one million copies.
By industry standards, it was considered a failure, and it was Janet’s only album up to that date where all four singles failed to break the Top 40.
MTV refused to air the video for her second single “I Want You,” but true fans still supported. Style-wise, it wasn’t much of a progression from the All for You project.
Ever the consummate professional, Janet apologized for her mishaps and moved on.
In September 2006, the superstar released her ninth and last album with Virgin, 20 Y.O., which debuted at #2. During promotion of the album, Janet posed for the cover of US Weekly, which became one of their best-selling issues. Notorious for her yo-yo dieting, the 40-year-old once again shed excess pounds and looked awesome!
She also appeared topless on FHM Magazine‘s cover and inside the pages of King Magazine, ultra-confident in her provocative poses…
In January 2007, Forbes ranked Janet as the seventh richest woman in entertainment – it’s hard to beat Oprah!
That same year, she scored another box office hit with Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, her third consecutive film to debut at #1.
In February 2008, Janet won an NAACP Award for Best Supporting Actress, and dropped her 10th studio album Discipline. The ever-evolving entertainer hit the airwaves with a more danceable sound and a futuristic softcore S&M look to boot. The album was criticized incessantly about its sexual content, but it’s not like we didn’t go through this with Janet on every album after The Velvet Rope… In fact, both All for You and Damita Jo came with Parental Advisory stickers.
The record debuted at #1, but failed to go platinum. In the essence of a true superstar, Janet ignored her critics and hit the road with the Rock Witchu Tour in 2008.
Soon after, Janet began filming Why Did I Get Married Too? with Tyler Perry, and was on-set when she learned of her brother Michael‘s death on June 25, 2009. Janet spoke days later at the BET Awards, thanking fans for their love and concern for the family. Even in her extreme sadness, Janet exuded class in her all-white outfit and long curly hair.
In September 2009, Janet led a powerful dance tribute to Michael on the MTV Video Music Awards, bringing back several key choreographers she and Michael had worked with in the past, including Travis Payne, Tina Landon, Wade Robson, Gil Duldulao and Brian Friedman. Other notable dancers in the piece include Cris Judd, Laurie Ann Gibson, Tyce Diorio, Jeri Slaughter and Dave Scott.
She did an exclusive interview and stylish photo shoot for the Harpers Bazaar October issue, further discussing her feelings about mourning. Janet had also ended her relationship with Jermaine Dupri, and was back to living the single life.
Janet also released the video for “Make Me” in the U.K., going all-out in the dance arena. She did multiple scenes for the video, sporting all types of hairstyles, including her new signature short cut.
As 2010 kicked off, Janet continued to work at a feverish pace. In April, Why Did I Get Married Too? hit theaters, and over the summer she headlined the Essence Music Festival. The internet was abuzz with fan videos, and there was no denying that the sexy 44-year-old still had that “it” factor!
Now Janet is in the big screen spotlight again with her role as Joanna in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, which hit theaters on November 4, 2010. Playing alongside an all-star cast in the powerful film, Janet’s tough-as-nails character is a far step from the doe-eyed little girl we first saw on television over three decades ago.
All-in-all, you can’t pigeonhole this incredible and complex artist. Janet Jackson is at once sweet and sassy; naïve and worldly; conforming and provocative; confident, sexy and ever so vulnerable. A woman… yet still so much that same little girl, sashaying across life’s broad stage.
It has been over a year since the death of Michael Jackson, and as the world comes to terms with such an enormous loss, you can only admire the strength and fortitude that Janet has shown through the firestorm. Sporting a new ‘do and a new man, Wissam al Mana, she exudes grace and poise that reinforces the belief that she never was just an average girl to begin with.
Sure, she has dealt with the same everyday issues of weight, relationship turmoils and family feuds, but she never was quite like everyone else. Whether it was innate, or something she picked up from her talented family, she took it, ran with it and made it her own. In Janet Jackson’s quest to be more than just a famous little sister, she took on the biggest challenge of her life: to become the best in her own right… to be just Janet.