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Beauty According to Janet Jackson

“It’s vulnerability. It's power. It's confidence.” The singer on becoming a mother at 50, her late brother Michael, and her long struggle with self-esteem.
Sep 05, 2018 @ 8:00 am

At a Janet Jackson concert, what hits you immediately are, well, the hits themselves. There are so many of them, she is forced to do multiple medleys. And the videos! So sharp and iconic in their aesthetic: “Love Will Never Do” (in all its Herb Ritts glory), “Runaway” (where a wide-eyed Janet bounces around the world), and “Scream” (the aggressive pop classic with brother Michael) flash on huge screens and smack back into your consciousness.

There is so much in the canon of Janet, she jokes about it onstage. And that’s before she launches into “Rhythm Nation,” hitting “Say it if you want a better way of life” not only pitch-perfect but with a resonance only living 30 years beyond the song’s release can bring.

I met Janet, now 52, in 2009, a couple of months after Michael’s death. I was interviewing her for a story, and to say the conversation was sensitive is an understatement: Janet had not yet spoken about her brother publicly (apart from at his funeral service), and for a fearless performer, she is famously, tangibly shy.

I met her in a recording studio. There were cartoons playing on the TV, and she spoke in a near-whisper. I had to lean in to hear every word. And I felt immediately protective of her.

For some reason — maybe it was the way we met or how different we were — we became friends. We hung out on and off for a couple of years but slowly lost touch. Janet was entering another world — marrying a Qatari businessman, Wissam Al Mana, in 2012 and giving birth to a son, Eissa, in 2017, at 50. The marriage deteriorated, and the two separated soon after.

VIDEO: Behind The Scenes of Janet Jackson's Cover Shoot

Then, in November last year, I got a message on WhatsApp from a name I didn’t recognize: “Laura is this u? My goodness!”

And there she was again. I’m so happy Janet is back, for all the reasons. And where better to celebrate than on the cover of our Beauty issue? Janet occupies the place in women’s memories that turns us into girls, a place of loyalty and vulnerability (it says everything that she has had the same team around her for two decades). But after a traumatic end to a marriage and a new life as a mother, she is back.

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LAURA BROWN: You were on your State of the World tour this summer. So glad I was able to see it.

JANET JACKSON: It was great. Alexander Wang did these incredible outfits for me. Some of them didn’t breathe so well, so I was warm, but I love the warmth. I love to sweat — it was all good.

LB: So you were just putting yourself in a sauna and just dancing around every day. And in the middle of preparations, you lost your father, Joe. I’m so sorry.

JJ: It’s very tough. But it was also difficult coming back because I was very much behind [with] rehearsals.

LB: When your parent is not well, it’s strange to go into this vacuum and then back into the world.

JJ: I didn’t know if I wanted to cancel the tour. But I think my father would’ve wanted me to continue.

LB: Did you spend some time with him before he passed?

JJ: I for sure had some time. He is in a better place. I’ve said this before, but you’ll never forget [the pain]. The hurt is always there, but you learn how to move forward.

LB: Was he lucid? Were you able to talk?

JJ: By the time I got there, not as much, but he still communicated.

LB: And you went back for rehearsals immediately. What is that sensation like when you first step onstage for a new tour?

JJ: It’s beautiful. You feel the love of the people, of the audience. You feel their energy, their excitement.

LB: And you just get out there and flip your hair?

JJ: Yeah, when it’s in my face. [laughs]

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LB: Tell me your routine on a show day from when you wake up in the morning.

JJ: My son, Eissa, wakes me up in the morning around 7:30 or 8. I change his diaper. Breakfast is prepared, and he has that. I’ll go back into my room. That’s when I answer my mail. Because overnight I get a ton of mail.

LB: Do you have a million emails when you wake up?

JJ: I hate it.

LB: You’re running an empire of you, girl. And then what?

JJ: I’ll wash my face, brush my teeth, climb back into bed, answer more mail, make my calls, and around 10 a.m. I’ll have my breakfast, and my son has his second breakfast with me. He sits on my lap, and we eat my breakfast together. Most of the time I’ll start getting ready at 11. So I will have showered and everything by then. I’ll either work out or try to work out at the venue.

LB: How important is it for your happiness and mental health to have a trainer and work out every day?

JJ: It’s very important. First of all, it helped me with my pregnancy. When I was in New York, I was walking and doing stairs every day. The doctor said as long as you’re not feeling any pain or having any problems and it’s not too much for you, more power to you. It’s great exercise, releases those endorphins.

LB: Did you do it when you were stressed out?

JJ: I had major moments of slacking off and moments when I was going for it. So it depends on where I am or what I’m doing at that time in my life. Really, there are times when I just cannot get it in. And I’ll say, “OK, you’ve got to get up at 5 in the morning to do this.” But when you go to bed at 2, that’s not good. There have been times when I’ve called Paulette [Sybliss, her trainer] and said, “I’m not going to make the workout."

LB: And what does she do?

JJ: She knows how crazy my life is, and she understands it. Sometimes I have an emergency call and I’ll say, “I really want to work out, but I don’t know how long this is.” She’ll say, “If you want, I’ll wait for you.” And other times when I’ve been so mentally exhausted, we’ll just take a 2-mile walk and talk, and it feels so good.

LB: You had a child at 50! That’s unbelievable — it says a lot about what your body can handle.

JJ: I give it up to Paulette. She’s incredible. And she never made me feel like I have to deprive myself of anything. She would say, “What do you like? OK, I’m going to put that in. What do you enjoy? OK, I’m going to put that in.”

LB: What’s your guilty-pleasure food?

JJ: I don’t eat meat anymore, just fish occasionally and veggies. But I love catfish. I love a fried fish. But I’m also crazy about grilled fish. I love Snickers.

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LB: What treats did you like when you were a kid?

JJ: There were a lot of sweets that I have only tried as an adult. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Is that the little round one? I just tried that last year for the first time. It’s very good. I finally tried a KitKat a couple of years ago.

LB: If you had a day off on your own, what would you do?

JJ: It involves my baby. I would take him to the museum, take him to the park, or we might have some Jackson family playtime with his cousins.

LB: Can you get around unbothered, or no?

JJ: I get bothered and recognized, but I do it anyway. I just try to be cordial and smile. And just keep it moving, really.

LB: How did you adjust to fame so young?

JJ: From the beginning. It’s so funny — my brothers talk about it to this day. We would play to a crowd of 20,000 people, and the next day we were at home. My parents would make us get up at 7 in the morning. Why? We had to rake the whole yard. Now, we’re talking about 3 acres. Every leaf had to be gone out of that yard. You had to clean all the animal cages and wash all the animals. We had a house-keeper and chefs growing up. And the house-keeper was there to watch us take care of our rooms. Make our beds, vacuum the floor, mop the kitchen. She was there making sure we did what our parents wanted us to do.

LB: So you were never floating off into another universe.

JJ: Never feeling that, or why should I have to do this or that. [Those chores] kept us grounded. Taking the trash out late at night. We did it all [while] singing. We would make up songs. I had to stand on top of a swivel chair in order to do the dishes because I was so short. That’s how young I was. Someone else would be cleaning the counters and kitchen tables. Someone else would be sweeping the floor, and we’d sing a three- or four-part harmony.

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LB: I love the distinction between the funny banalities of domestic life and the legend of the outside world. What lessons from your upbringing would you like to instill in Eissa?

JJ: The foundation of being grounded and also of a higher power. Knowing who he is and that we are all equal no matter the race or gender. And that he is to be respectful towards others but also that others are respectful to him.

LB: Did you and Michael ever talk about self-image?

JJ: I remember growing up and being in this business was always this important thing. Because it was the thing. And you had to be a certain size, you had to be thin to be an entertainer. Stupid crap like that. That’s just this business I’m in. I think it’s changed, thank God. People are more accepting of others. Which is the way it should’ve been from the jump. That can really mess with you.

LB: What would you say to teenagers in the industry now?

JJ: It’s tough. They have to know who they have to be and who they are. Not what someone else wants them to be, not what they think they should be by looking at someone else. Individuality is beautiful. God made you as you are, and that’s beautiful. You are unique, special. You don’t want to look like someone else or be that other person.

LB: Would you ever mentor anyone? You turn grown women into 8-year-olds. That’s an amazing power.

JJ: Thank you. I just want to do the right thing with what God has given me. You can easily go down the wrong path, take that wrong turn, and there are those who look up to you, following you. I just want to spread love. And not having anything weigh on my mind, my heart, my soul so I can sleep well at night. Knowing that I didn’t do anyone dirty.

LB: When do you feel most like yourself?

JJ: When I’m with my friends and family. We used to have a family day when someone would take a day out of the month to host and everyone would come. It would be my house one month, another family member’s house the next month. And not necessarily their house — you got to choose what it was that you wanted to do. Go camping, have a barbecue ... My mother is the one who normally pulls everybody together now.

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LB: Your mom managed every iteration, every challenge of a big family. Can you imagine? You’ve just got one baby!

JJ: Yes, she actually did it 10 times. One of us passed away, a twin. But yeah, no nanny either. It was just the help of her mother and my elder sister, who is 16 years older than me.

LB: Do you remember the first time you wore makeup and how it made you feel?

JJ: Well, the first time I wore makeup, I think I was 8 or 9 years old, because I was working. So they had to put makeup on me for some of the shows, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until I turned 13.

LB: Because then you were like, “Oh, there’s something to this — there’s a currency.”

JJ: And it was too much. Too much makeup. I had on too much blush.

LB: Did you have little clown cheeks?

JJ: Yeah, I looked like I had a sunburn! [laughs]

LB: Do you remember going on a date in your teens?

JJ: I remember going on a date with someone and not wanting to go. My family wanted me to go. He was sweet but a lot older than me. I wasn’t into the guy thing at that time.

LB: When was the first time you felt sexy?

JJ: I would say not until I was well into my 30s. I got out of a funky relationship and finally got back to me. I went to therapy, which was all about finding that thing you like about yourself. The realization that, you know what, you’re not so bad after all. I’m not saying you’re great or you’re the best, but it’s not as bad as you were made to feel that it was.

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LB: So you were in a situation in which you were faulted and you compromised yourself.

JJ: Loving that someone and trusting that someone, you believe that person when they tell you [things]. You think they’re being as honest with you as you are with them. It was all to control the brain. That was around the time of All for You.

LB: How sexy were your 40s, then?

JJ: There were times when I felt it, and there were times when I didn’t feel it.

LB: I think you’re in your bones now. You’re lighter.

JJ: Thank God. That’s because a ton of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders.

LB: What were you insecure about before that you are more secure about now?

JJ: I would have to say my body. A lot of it has to do with experience, getting older. Understanding, realizing that there isn’t just one thing that is considered beautiful. Beautiful comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

LB: How do you deal with being photographed?

JJ: I’m better about it, for sure. It’s not what it used to be. And when those moments come about, I don’t look. Therapy helped a great deal with that. I had to find something in my body that I loved, and that was difficult for me to do.

LB: What is it?

JJ: At first, I couldn’t find anything. I would look in the mirror and start crying. I didn’t like that I was not attractive. I didn’t like anything about me. But I wound up falling in love with the small of my back. And then from there I found more things. And then finally realizing my smile isn’t that bad after all. I thought I looked like the Joker because it was so big.

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LB: You thought your smile was bad? The best smiles in the world belong to you and Julia Roberts!

JJ: That’s sweet, but to me, I looked like the Joker!

LB: What do you think makes a woman beautiful?

JJ: Lots of different things. It’s vulnerability. It’s power. It’s confidence. It’s happiness. It’s seeing the goodness in the soul. It’s spirituality. It’s being selfless and what you do for others before doing for yourself.

LB: When do you feel most beautiful?

JJ: I feel like I’m being corny here, but it’s just the honest truth: I feel most beautiful when I’m with my son, because of the gift that God has given me and that he allowed me to do so at that age. My baby is so sweet and so healthy, so happy and so full of love.

LB: Is it easy for you to make new friends?

JJ: No, because I’m always putting up a shield. You don’t know where people are coming from. You might really like someone, but still. I’ve made maybe two new friends in the past year, if that.

LB: I’m always amazed that you don’t retreat. You have lots of money and could be doing your thing. What makes you curious to be in the world?

JJ: The world is still going on, and there are still things to do. I’m still young. There are things to experience.

LB: Where do you want to be when you’re 80?

JJ: I’d love to be a grandma. I’d love to, hopefully, still inspire people with my work, whatever it is. And more than anything, I know I’m going to be helping people and inspire others to do the same. I feel that is what I was put on this earth to do. I want to help women who are abused and suffering from being in relationships where men have them gagged, have their hands tied. No woman should go through that.

LB: No, of course not.

JJ: It’s enough that we’ve gone through that. We need to recognize those problems, what makes that happen, and reverse it. We need to be able to recognize those things before getting into a relationship. Even within yourself, what is it about you that is attracted to that? I stand on that side of the fence, you know. There’s a lot of work I have to do for myself. Enough of anyone trying to manipulate me. You don’t even deserve to be in my presence. I’m allowing you to [be here].

Photographer: Robbie Fimmano. Styling: Julia von Boehm/Streeters. Hair: Cassidy Blaine. Makeup: Preston Meneses. Manicure: Marcela Mejias. Set design: Cooper Vasquez/The Magnet Agency. Production: First Light Production.

For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 14.