La Toya Jackson, the tabloid-tormented middle child of music’s most famous family, says the decision to welcome television cameras back into her life was an easy one for a single, wonderful reason: At long last, nothing and no one stands in her way. “There is such a misconception about not just me, but my family, as well,” Jackson explains of her new OWN series Life With LaToya. “For the first time, this is something I want to do. I want the world to see me. The Jacksons have always been sort of a secret or a mystery. That mystery has been unveiled.”
Though the show addresses a stockpile of Jackson family dramas in the very first episode — from the long-term manipulation and abuse La Toya suffered at the hands of her manager/husband Jack Gordon to the blistering in-fighting that followed her superstar brother Michael’s 2009 death — there is a charming lightness to its star that manifests itself in her infectious “hee-hee-hee!” giggle.
Jackson says the series is also a natural extension of her 2012 memoir Starting Over, which she wrote in part to encourage other women in controlling relationships that it’s never too late to make a fresh start. Viewers see the 56-year-old (who looks 20 years younger) house hunting with her longtime pal Kathy Hilton, having a campfire heart-to-heart with her father Joe, running her entertainment conglomerate Ja-Tail, dating and even trying her hand at motherhood. And in one of the premiere’s most touching segments, Jackson decides to finally let go of her grief and join her mother on a memory-filled road trip to an annual celebration of Michael’s life held in their Gary, Ind., hometown.
I talked with La Toya Jackson about her family, her business savvy, her past and the opportunity to share her brave new present with TV audiences on Life With La Toya.
CGM: You’re very candid about your past and your family’s difficulties in the series. What made you feel that now was the right time to do the show?
LTJ: I have to be honest with you, Lori, and say that for the first time, I’m just opening myself to the public and letting them see me and my life and who I am. This is what you see. This is what you get. It’s exciting, it’s whimsical and it’s fun. And I like the fact that I can be me.
When I say that, I mean that the Jacksons never really opened up. We would just say, “Hello, how are you?” and do whatever we had to do — whether it was announcing someone at an awards show or whatever. We’d do that and we’d walk away. But now you get to follow me and go inside my life and see what I’m like and see what I do and how I interact with people. I’ve never really had the opportunity to do what I want to do in life — just me putting my energy out there and being who I am.
CGM: In the episode that I saw, you were very open about your years with Jack Gordon and the fear that you felt even after you left him — and how you parents didn’t really let you grow up and make decisions for yourself. So did that leave you susceptible to someone who would allow you to leave the house but continue to control you, since that’s all you knew?
LTJ: My parents believed that you shouldn’t leave home unless you were getting married — especially the girls — and that was one of those things where I felt like, “Well, geez. Will I ever get married? Will I ever get out of here?” But my parents couldn’t travel to Japan [for an appearance] with me, so they sent Jack. And he took my passport from that point on and didn’t let me go back. He took over my career. He took over my name. And made the public believe that I was something I was truly not.
What you see on this show — that’s who La Toya has always been. That’s me. But I wasn’t allowed to be me because he controlled me. Once he took my passport away, he said, “You are never going back.” He said, “You better go out and say this and do this and do these things or else you’ll get beaten.” And he threatened my family. He threatened my brother. So here I was — trapped.
It took years, but I was able to get away and escape and now I feel free and I can start over. And I think any woman can start over and I’m encouraging them to do that. To never think that their situation is too bad and they have to remain in it.
CGM: Was it also important to you to show that women in our age demographic can charge headlong into life and love and new adventures with the same gusto as women half our age?
LTJ: Yes! I have to be me. And when I finally left Gordon, I realized that I hadn’t experienced anything in life. I was just like a 16-year-old. I’d experienced nothing. Because I was sheltered before I went with him — I was strictly Jehovah’s Witness — and then he took me away and never brought me back. I didn’t really associate with the rest of the world. We were told to only associate with Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I would just go to meetings and come back home. So everything was kind of new to me— and it was embarrassing to let the world know that everything was new to me.
When I did Armed & Famous, I had never seen a drug in my life. They had to give me a special course to teach me what each one was, because I had never seen those things. So finally it was just like, “You know what? Forget it. This is your life. Just start over. Just be yourself and don’t worry what other people think. If you don’t understand it or don’t know what it is, don’t worry about it!”
CGM: You’ve done several seasons of Celebrity Apprentice, and on Life With La Toya we see you working at your company, Ja-Tail Enterprises, with your partner Jeffré Phillips. Tell me about the process of discovering that you are a talented businesswoman.
LTJ: As you know, I grew up in a show business family with singers and dancers and the whole bit. And at a very young age, I told my father, “I don’t really want to be a part of the musical thing. I want to be the businessperson behind the scenes. I want to go to school for business law. That’s what I really want to do.” And he said, “Everybody in this family is going to dance and sing.” But I did manage to go to school for business law for a very short period — I’d get up very early in the morning and go. But my father said, “No. You’re going to sing.”
My heart has always been on the business side of things. I used to tell my mother, “Gosh, I watch the brothers and everything they do and they need someone to look over their contracts and read them for them.” My mind was always geared in that direction. Although the musical part took over me — and don’t get me wrong, when I did it, I liked it — that business aspect was always there.
And I’m still behind the scenes. I’m still doing the business aspect of it. That will never leave me. And that’s how Ja-Tail [short for "Just Another Timely Adventure In Life"] was organized and put together. Jeffré and me, we have the same goals and the same thoughts and we built this company on what we love and what we wanted to see. That’s what it’s all about.
CGM: You’re also open about the aftermath of Michael’s death and the tailspin into which it threw both your family and your own personal evolution. Your road trip with your mom back to Michael’s annual memorial in Gary is pretty touching.
LTJ: In the beginning, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go there. I would just cry and cry and cry. Finally I said, “You know, if his kids can do it, you can do it. Get a grip and move forward, because this is what he would want you to do. He would want you to get over it and move forward. He would want you to get over the sorrow, get over the pain, get over the crying. And it took me a while to that, but I was able to do it and to move forward and see the people and how they honor him and just bask in it and enjoy that fact that he is so loved by the world. And that helps a great deal.
Michael was a child at heart and our lives are so parallel. He didn’t get have those experiences, either. My other brothers did — they had girlfriends and friends. They moved out at a young age and got married and lived their lives as normally as they possibly could. But for me and my brother, it was a different.
This is a side they don’t know about him. This is a side they don’t see: How even as a little boy he loved giving to people and caring for them, and how he would buy sweets and just give it away to the kids in the neighborhood. And that’s who Michael was. And he was that way until he passed.”
Life With La Toya premieres Saturday, April 13 at 10:30pm ET/PT on OWN.