Janet Jackson is driving. She has stopped her black Range Rover on a narrow London street and starts honking. She’s been complaining about the city’s perpetual construction and the resulting detours. But there are no jackhammering rigs in front of her right at the moment. Yet she’s still blowing her horn. I realize she’s lowered the window on the passenger side — on my side — and she’s waving frantically at a group of women and children on the sidewalk several yards away. Honk, honk! Hooooooonk! Finally, a woman with shoulder-length, sand-colored hair looks over at the vehicle, recognition suddenly flashes across her face, and she shouts a greeting and waves back. And I realize that Jackson, the record-breaking musician who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, has been expending all this energy and holding up traffic in this mightily congested city so that she can shout a hello to her five-year-old son’s former teacher.
This moment stands out to me for a single reason. It’s one of the rare opportunities when the extremely famous Jackson gets to be on the opposite side of the shouting, when she is the person showering someone with delighted recognition and that someone is distracted, nonplussed and then, finally, graciously accepting of the gushing enthusiasm. Fame has a way of making the mundane consequential.
Jackson has lived in London going on six years. It would be an exaggeration to call her an Anglophile and she has not picked up an accent, which is to say she hasn’t absorbed the culture into her system. If she could live anywhere, Jackson would be back in California, the state she calls home, with the overwhelmingly warm and sunny weather that she loves, not here, in a city that is regularly cloaked in cold dampness. She stays because this is where her son was born. The discussion of her residence fades away on the whispering treble notes of her voice. She is not loud, but she can be firm. She’s a reminder that certainty does not have to be defined by booming volume and heavy bass.
During the pandemic lockdown, while the rest of the pampered Western world was figuring out how to make sourdough bread, Jackson was learning to drive. She wasn’t starting from scratch; she had a license. She was learning to drive in London, which meant remembering to stay to the left.
“Two things relax me, the ocean and driving. So I had to learn how to drive. I was tired of drivers driving me everywhere,” Jackson says. “When I need to clear my head, I would go for a drive before, when I lived at the beach back home. That was always my thing.”
Rick Owens coat, T-shirt, and dress. Archived Prototype headband. Pebble London neckpiece. Lillian Shalom rings. To create a similar makeup look: Les 4 Ombres Eyeshadow in Lumières et Vibrations, Le Crayon Yeux Eyeliner in Noir, Les Beiges Healthy Glow Bronzing Cream in Sunset, and Rouge Allure Lipstick in Rouge Angélique by Chanel. Photographed by Tom Munro. Fashion stylist: Patti Wilson. Hair: Larry Sims. Makeup: Preston Meneses. Manicure: Michelle Humphrey. Production: Farago Projects.
She still finds relaxation behind the wheel, despite the kerfuffle that ensued when she was photographed clutching her mobile phone as she was tooling around London — ostensibly driving while distracted. And she even delights in the charms of a scruffily bearded man who takes it upon himself to be her personal parallel-parking guide — as gentlemen like to do — as she maneuvers into a space just around the corner from Pulbrook & Gould, where she’s turned up to buy Christmas ornaments.
How many people does it take to purchase ornaments? Approximately seven. Two sales representatives, one personal assistant, three friends and associates, and one journalist who has been riding shotgun in order to document the moment. Is it an authentically mundane errand in the life of a superstar? No. Yes. Maybe. When a customer strolls in for a consult on foliage, he seems oblivious to the Grammy-winning singer in his midst who is mulling the purchase of acorn-shaped baubles.
When the store’s speakers start playing Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” Jackson’s sneaker-clad foot begins to tap and soon enough her hips are twitching and her arms are swaying and she’s dancing right there in the fancy little shop on Buckingham Palace Road. And no, a crowd is not gathering.
Jackson buys me a Christmas ornament — a little felt Santa perched atop a pair of wooden skis. I offer this as evidence of her graciousness — and also full disclosure. It’s a very nice Santa.
I have come to London to talk to her because she has executive produced Janet, a documentary about her life in which she gets to tell her own story, in which she gets to control her narrative. The process, she tells me, was not particularly pleasant, mostly because she does not like being interviewed because she doesn’t think she’s very good at soul-searching on demand, at speaking her truth in pithy sound bites. I’m also here because it feels like a thousand essays and musings, as well as an hour-plus New York Times documentary, have been busy reassessing her musical influence, her prescient feminism, and the culture’s misogyny, racism, and prudishness that led to her social shaming in the aftermath of the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, when her breast was exposed for about half a second by one Justin Timberlake — white, privileged male.
So, later in the evening, we meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant not far from Piccadilly Circus, where she arrives wearing the same black athleisure pants and hoodie she had on earlier, only now they’re topped with an enormous Rick Owens puffer coat. She’s 55 years old and still has the high, round cheeks of Penny Gordon Woods, the character she portrayed on Good Times that introduced her to the world. Her dark hair hangs in long braids highlighted with streaks of cobalt blue. Her glasses are tinted, but they are stylish rather than camouflaging. She is a lovely, famous head floating atop a cloud of black.
Jackson isn’t trying to hide in plain sight. She long ago made peace with the realities and illusions of control. “It’s only God who’s in control of it all. You know what I mean?” She begins our meal with a silent prayer of grace.
Control, her third album, released in 1986, set Jackson on the trajectory toward stardom. It was a full-throated Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production in which she declared her independence. Jackson stepped away from the overarching authority of her parents — specifically her father, Joe Jackson — and set out to craft her own public image and career.
It was her way of announcing that if she was going to do this music thing, she would do it her way. Music had not been her earliest desire. She wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. She wanted an intellectual adjacency to an industry that had been conquered by her brothers as The Jackson 5 and then later by Michael Jackson, King of Pop.
“We would always write music growing up. We had a studio at my parents’ house; it’s still there actually. So any time of day or night, if you couldn’t sleep or had an idea before school, after school, you could go in the studio and put it down, your idea, musically. So I did that and I put this idea that I had down and played all the parts on it and, like a genius, I left the tape on the machine and when I came home from school I was so embarrassed,” Jackson says. “They were listening to the song.”
“My father, some of my brothers. I was so embarrassed. And that’s when my father said, ‘I think you should become a performer.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no! You don’t understand. I want to go to school. I want to go to college and study business law and support myself by acting,’” says Jackson, who at the time had a small role on Diff’rent Strokes. “That’s how it all started.”
Control was a blockbuster album in real time and the music remains relevant. But it was never intended to be a rallying cry for anyone other than Jackson herself. “Writing about your life, you never, never — at least I didn’t — think about looking decades ahead,” she says. “You just write [about] what’s going on with you; at least I did.”
Yet in hindsight, the song — the album — turned out to be a throat-clearing introduction to the current conversation about young women, power, and the public gaze. The issues Jackson encountered, such as having her desires overruled simply because she was a woman, as well as being subjected to the cultural expectation that she be thin, thin, thin, are the same topics that are today the subject of lawsuits and social media outrage.
“It was difficult at times being a woman and being told, ‘No, you can’t.’ Why? ‘Because women don’t do that,’” Jackson says.
“I was never a girly girl. Even as an early teen, I always had on a suit with a tie or suspenders.”
But now, women are coming into their own and taking charge of their identity. They’re defining their own beauty standards, Jackson says with admiration. Here she pauses, concerned that her next words, as anodyne as they are, might be misconstrued or deemed politically incorrect because she is commenting on other people’s looks. She plows ahead quietly but firmly, because all parsing of appearance is not equal, and to understand how it impacts our thinking, it bears discussion. Women have gotten “comfortable in their skin, in their size, in being full-figured and I love that, as opposed to back in the day,” she says. “You had to always be thin and always look a certain way. And now it’s all accepted and it is all beautiful and I absolutely love that.” Specifically, she admires Lizzo, who has made the case for a large woman to flex and preen and cavort onstage. Jackson is blissfully unaware that this stance has brought Lizzo accolades and ruthless criticism.
For years, Jackson’s signature style was fully buttoned up. Covered. In the video for “Control,” she’s wearing close-fitting black trousers, a coordinating shirt, and a blazer with linebacker shoulder pads. She remained committed to that aesthetic through her next album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. During that phase of her music, she was a social justice warrior uniformed in black, dancing in black combat boots, with a long ponytail poking out from a black baseball cap. She rejected the sexualization of her body. In doing so, Jackson offered proof that it was possible to have personal agency without making one’s body the centerpiece of the work. In the “Rhythm Nation” video, she would be a groundbreaking star without showing skin. She made space for performers such as Billie Eilish and Janelle Monáe, who entered the mainstream while rejecting the scantily clad pop star trope.
“I was never a girly girl. I was always a tomboy. So it was always about pants, suits, even as an early teenager. I remember when my brothers got their star on the Walk of Fame and other awards they got, and I look back on pictures and I always had on a suit with a tie, a bow tie, or suspenders,“ Jackson says. “Always loving black and never wanting to expose any part of my body, I felt most comfortable to cover it up to here.”
With her 1993 album Janet she reconsidered modesty. For that cover, she’s topless, although it’s implied rather than revealed. Nudity was made plain on the cover of Rolling Stone, for which the only things shielding her from a waist-up, full-frontal reveal are two hands placed strategically over her breasts. It was an affirmation of control, Jackson says. Control, there’s that word again. She was taking ownership of her sexuality and her insecurities and putting her adult self in front of the public.
Today, such a spectacle is virtually a cliché: A woman doesn’t have full authority over her body until she feels she has the freedom to expose it. Participation in the skin game is a rite of passage for child stars who want to assert their adulthood. But before it became any of those things, it was a revelation. Jackson helped establish the vocabulary for the body-love messages espoused by Lizzo, as well as Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Miley Cyrus, and countless others.
The Janet era was about “embracing me and trying to learn to love me for me, my body, all of that,” Jackson says. “Trying to feel comfortable in embracing that. Throwing myself in the lion’s den. Just going for it, wanting to do something different.”
The decision was akin to opening a door. “It took a lot of work, a lot of work,” she says. “It was something very tough, very difficult. But I’m glad I walked through it. I’m really glad I got in. It was a way of accepting and loving, accepting yourself and your body.”
I pause for a bit and consider where the conversation has led us: to the gridiron in Houston. It’s impossible not to ask about that Super Bowl incident because if revealing her body, if walking into the lion’s den had been born out of a desire to empower herself, what did it mean to have an entire country seemingly slip into a fugue state and become intent on stripping away that hard-earned autonomy just because of an unexpected glimpse of her breast? After quickly offering an apology for the national upset, it seems Jackson formally discussed this subject only once: during an interview on Oprah Winfrey’s old talk show, in 2006, when she said the moment had not been planned.
At that time, she pledged never to go into it again. But here she is leaning into the subject of her style — including her nudity — as a tool for defining herself not only in the public consciousness but also in her own mind. I wonder how she got through the storm. “What’s really important is going back to having that foundation. Not just family, but God. That’s what really pulled me through,” Jackson says. She adds: “It’s tough for me to talk about that time.”
All these years later, how does she process being a talking point in today’s debate about systemic racism and entrenched gender bias? That past imbroglio, after all, wasn’t over indiscriminate violence, extreme profanity, or sexual assault. It was simply anger over a Black woman’s body thrust into the public’s jaundiced gaze. “Whether I want to be part of that conversation or not, I am part of that conversation,” Jackson continues with a certain amount of resignation. Yet she’s not disheartened by the renewed interest. “I think it’s important. Not just for me, but for women. So I think it’s important that conversation has been had. You know what I mean? And things have changed obviously since then for the better.”
Noir Kei Ninomiya jacket. Manuel Albarran helmet. To create a similar makeup look: Tattoo Studio Smokey Gel Pencil in Smokey Grey, Color Tattoo 24 Hour Eyeshadow in Risk Maker, Nudes of New York Palette, and Lifter Gloss in Amber by Maybelline New York.
If one could tease apart the many layers of success, it’s likely that fame would be the part that most people would choose to jettison. The money and the accolades are keepers, but fame is a sneaky, bossy bastard. It’s the aspect of accomplishment that can leave a person isolated or forever lashed to their 20-year-old self. Fame is a complication, particularly for women when they mature, speak out, and make the decision to please themselves and not just everyone else.
Fame is more gracious and accommodating of men over the course of their careers than it is of women.
Bruce Springsteen, 72, is an éminence grise whose words are given serious consideration in the public domain. Madonna, 63, is a nuisance. Jackson believes, hopes, that she can continue to address weighty matters in her music and perhaps along the way help right that imbalance. “I feel like I’ve laid a little foundation for myself, so that if I ever choose to, I would be able to continue on that path,” she says. “Musically, what I’ve done, like doing ‘Rhythm Nation’ or doing ‘New Agenda’ or doing ‘Skin Game,’ creating those bodies of work with Jimmy and Terry, I feel like I’ve laid a certain foundation.”
“I would hope that I’d be able to continue if I choose to. You know what I mean? But only time will tell,” she says.
Jackson glides into her sixth decade of life with her faith in God ever stronger, her faith in her family unshaken, and her faith in her fans shored up. Marking the 35th anniversary of its release, her loyalists recently propelled Control to the top of the Apple Top 40 U.S. Pop Album Chart. Jackson responded on social media with heartfelt thanks. Her fans were not merely celebrating her music; theirs was a sustained rebuke for the damage the culture wars have done over the years to women, people of color, and others who are on the wrong side of the power structure.
It’s against this backdrop that Jackson feels as confident as any famous person can be that she will be welcome to mature and evolve under the public gaze. She will be allowed to age without judgment — or at least with a manageable amount of it. “I’m very fortunate to have a very loyal and loving fan base. And I think they will always accept me for who I am,” Jackson says.
“Everyone would always want to stay young and this and that,” she continues, “but it’s inevitable. I mean, we’re all going to get there.” For a woman who gave a generation of young girls an anthem about controlling one’s destiny, some things are beyond even her determined sway. So she’s thankful for those distinctive cheeks, the ones that she says she’s long been teased about, the ones that give her a perpetually impish face. One fan on Instagram, Jackson says, wondered if she’s been artificially plumping them up. She has not. She’s simply been taking the advice of her trainer, which was that being too thin can make your face gaunt. Not addressing any procedures she may have had in the past, but looking instead to the years ahead, Jackson says she will not overly fill, freeze or stretch her face, nor will she merely rely on good genes and luck. “There’s another road,” she says. “It’s a little bit of zhuzh.”
“I don’t know when my day is coming, but at some point it’s going to come and I can choose which path I want to take. I do hope I age gracefully,” she says, because, of course, who doesn’t? “It’s either a little bit of zhuzh or gracefully.”
Jackson will control what she can. And let the rest go.
Photographed by: Tom Munro
Fashion stylist: Patti Wilson
Hair: Larry Sims
Makeup: Preston Meneses
Manicure: Michelle Humphrey
Production: Farago Projects
Barber: Mark Maciver of SliderCuts
Custom Extensions: Marjolein of SaltyDreads
Braids: Shaunna Burke of The Braid Concept
Top Image: Rick Owens coat. Archived Prototype headband. Pebble London neckpiece. Lillian Shalom rings.