In 2009, Randy Phillips was CEO of AEG Live, the promoter behind Michael Jackson’s 50-date This is It residency at London’s O2 Arena. Jackson, who hadn’t toured since 1997, died on June 25, 2009, two weeks before the first show was to take place.
Phillips, who is now first president/CEO of Livestyle, met Jackson 20 years earlier. Though he has not yet seen the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, he talked to Billboard about his relationship with Jackson and his thoughts about the accusations against Jackson alleged in the film. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were your initial thoughts upon hearing about the documentary?
Like most of the public, I didn’t even know about it until Sundance when it premiered. And then, of course, I read all the coverage and the reactions. It was very troubling.
Did you think ‘Why now?’
One thing we’ve learned in the era we’re living in — with the #MeToo movement and everything else — things always come out. There is no such thing as a cover-up anymore.
You knew Wade Robson, who, along with James Safechuck, tells his story in the documentary. Did you two ever discuss Jackson and the alleged abuse?
No. I knew him as a working choreographer. And I hired him for a project years and years ago. I knew him professionally.
When’s the last time you talked to Robson?
It had to have been 15 years ago. I had a meeting at his house. I can’t even remember the project.
Did you ever see Michael with children?
As far as the time I spent with Michael, I never saw him with children because when I got re-involved with him in a heavy way it was for the This is It tour and he had three children of his own. He seemed like a very doting, disciplinarian father. So other than the things I felt — maybe the kids were a little isolated because they traveled with him all the time and stuff like that — I never saw [a different] side of it. But that doesn’t mean I can doubt or not doubt what these gentlemen are saying at this age now [in the documentary]. I just had no knowledge.
When did you first meet Michael?
I represented him in a sponsorship endorsement deal [in 1989] with LA Gear. I did all the meetings with him and the company — the design of the shoes and all that — so I was very heavily involved with him and we became pretty close, fast friends on that deal… so when he decided he wanted to go back out on the road, he asked for me. [LA Gear sued Jackson in 1992, accusing him of fraud and breach of contract].
Did you see anything suspicious during that earlier time?
No. He had a condo in Westwood, in a high rise. We would have all our meetings there and it was just him and sometimes Bill, his security guy. There was never anyone else there, but the executives from LA Gear who were dealing with the design of the shoes.
Do you think Jackson’s reputation can weather this?
If this were five or 10 years ago, I’d say yes. And even now, hardcore Michael Jackson fans are not going to want to believe the worst as any semblance of truth, so they’ll stick with him. As far as the general public, we’re living in different times.
How do you think this will affect Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough, the Broadway play inspired by his life?
If you’re asking me, will it kill it? I don’t know. It depends on the investors and their research. I think probably everyone involved now is going to have a bit of a wait-and-see to see how this thing plays out in the public.
If you were in charge of the estate, would you have sued HBO?
All [the lawsuit] did was make more people aware of the documentary. My strategy, if I were involved in this, would have been to put out an alternative viewpoint depicting Michael’s innocence and why this couldn’t have happened. I would have battled it idea for idea as opposed to trying to get an injunction.
Can you estimate the estate’s legal bills for this as it continues to fight HBO?
I can’t even imagine (laughs). It makes me wish when I finished law school I’d gone into practicing litigation, as opposed to the entertainment business.