How Elvis, Princess Di and Jacko ascended into the select pantheon of modern-day celebrity saints.
Michael Jackson is alive and is buying a new home in a remote part of Ireland. Or is it Mexico? Mere detail hardly matters; it is the underlying story, which is important – Michael Jackson did not die from a massive heart attack on 25 June 2009 – or so it is claimed.
The alleged “Michael Jackson is dead hoax” has been widely exposed on the Internet. At least five different sites are actively monitoring the rumours, the gossip, the sightings and the dedicated disbelief of many fans unable to face the fact that their hero no longer moonwalks the Earth. 
Michael completes the improbable trinity of himself, Elvis Presley and Diana, Princess of Wales – celebrity icons who are as alive in fantasy and legend as they ever were in real life.
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was Elvis,” to quote from one Elvis poet, and it was with the death of the King of Rock and Roll in 1977 that the process of the modern secular canonisation of celebrities began (see FT166:42–47) although rumours about John F Kennedy having survived assassination had been circulating for many years by then.
There have been, and continue to be, a gallery of minor celebrity saints, people like Jade Goody and George Best, but there are only three major, mega-international examples. The reputations of Elvis and Diana have grown as the years have passed to the extent that in the case of Elvis he is now immortalised as a demigod. The story of his birth is told as an earnest parody of the nativity of Jesus. He was born in a house little bigger than a stable, his most dedicated fans say, and at the moment of his birth a strange blue light shone over the humble dwelling. Might a similar myth be told about Michael Jackson in 30 years time?
SINNERS TO SAINTS Like the mediæval saints of old, Elvis, Michael and Diana have not been canonised by any formal procedure, but by popular acclaim. The process has followed a similar pattern in each case.
On each occasion, it started with the announcement of the death, which triggered a huge wave of mourning, with fans weeping openly. Quickly, the transgressions of life and sordid circumstances of death were overlooked and flowers, messages and prayers were laid at places associated with the stars. No one living or working in central London can forget the astonishing scenes in the first week of September 1997 when cellophane-wrapped bouquets blocked the main traffic arteries of the capital. Similarly Elvis fans from Memphis talk with reverence of their small part in history when the crowds gathered outside Graceland 20 years earlier to catch a glimpse of the momentous comings and goings following Presley’s demise.
And very rapidly, as the mourners gathered and began to talk amongst themselves, and fans watched television at home and twittered and brooded on the news, the rumours started to emerge.
Stories of murder and cover-up rapidly spread. In the case of Diana, the rumours have still not been put to rest despite an extensive and expensive inquest. She has become in the minds of some both secular saint and martyr, killed by a vengeful and fearful establishment. As for Michael, new allegations and questions emerge weekly. Was he killed by his unscrupulous entourage for financial reasons, to collect on the insurance or to avoid having to fulfil an impossibly demanding and lavish O2 performance contract?
The next phase began as the fans’ tears dried and they began to ask other questions. Were the funerals of the three stars genuine or were they all elaborate charades, with empty coffins being buried?
Some fans say that Elvis has left a clue hinting that he is not really interred at Graceland. His middle name, Aaron, should have two ‘A’s, not just one as it does on the grave. Similarly, many fans are convinced that Diana is not buried on the island at Althorp – she’s actually in the family tomb in the nearby parish church, they say. The twist on the same story in the case of Michael Jackson is the claim that the star died many years earlier and a double had been playing the part ever since. The real Jackson corpse lies in an unmarked grave in the grounds of the Neverland Ranch.
Not long after the corpses have been buried (or not), along come the psychics who claim to be able to make contact with the dead stars and to reveal the true meaning behind the deaths. There are several Elvis and Diana channellers feeding the fans bland reassurances from the other world. In 2003, British psychics Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker made a television show based on a séance with the dead princess. She was still working with children, she told the Hamilton-Parkers, having fun and spending time with Mother Teresa. 
Reports have also been posted of the dead stars being seen, either in physical or spiritual form. Elvis ‘gas station’ sightings became a standing joke in the US. Diana has been seen in ghostly or angelic form on many occasions. One website, specialising in reporting such sightings, quotes the following story, dated 12 October 1997 from a Joseph P Barnes: “I hardly know where to begin. One minute she wasn’t there, and the next minute she was. She was glowing, and had some sort of halo around her face. Her gown seemed almost transparent, and I could swear she had wings.”
More recently, apparitions of Michael Jackson have appeared – for instance, on a tree stump in California and on a car bonnet in Britain.
Like Michael Jackson, Diana had the reputation in life of being a healer. She revived the tradition of the royal touch, cuddling babies and holding hands with AIDS patients. Michael Jackson often made a point of touching and ‘blessing’ disabled and sick children. YouTube carries a recording of a healing tape supposedly sent by Michael Jackson to his ailing Japanese friend Akio Morita, one of the founders of the Sony Corporation, who reportedly played the tape three times a day as instructed. In death the healings continue, it is claimed. There are reported Michael Jackson healings in Budapest, Prague and Rome. “I have spoken with two families of three who are claiming that Michael’s ghost, or his angel, appeared at the bedsides of their children late at night and healed them of cancers, as one parent describes it, ‘With love and a touch’. I have confirmation in one instance from a doctor who says that he didn’t see Jackson but is willing to sign an affidavit saying that an 11-year-old boy he didn’t expect to live more than a day or two is now recovering at home with no sign or symptom of the leukæmia that was killing him, thanks, according to his mother, to Michael Jackson’s angel appearing at his bedside.” A report to be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps, as it is attributed by a Michael Jackson website to the US journal Your World Report.
RITUAL AND PILGRIMAGE In due course, rituals and acts of devotion have been started and have become well established. In particular, these are associated with anniversaries. Tens of thousands gather for the torchlight procession through the grounds of Graceland on 16 August every year – now a well-established date in the American calendar. Similarly, crowds gather on the last day of the same month at Kensington Palace in London to remember Princess Diana. The gates are once again adorned with flowers, teddies, balloons and hand-made cards.
Graceland is already a place of pilgrimage all year round. Elvis followers travel from around the world to be shepherded through his home, to stand by his grave and to write a message on the Graceland wall. For Diana fans, there are three places of special significance – Kensington Palace, Althorp (her ancestral home), and the Place De L’Alma in Paris (where she died). Michael Jackson fans have had a choice of four places to visit with their tributes – his rented Holmby Hills mansion, the Jackson family home in Encino, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his Neverland Ranch.
Yet many Michael Jackson fans believe they have no need to pay homage to a dead hero. If they are lucky, and keep their eyes open, they will see him for themselves, alive. On 8 August 2009, he is said to have visited a toyshop in London and, when questioned by fans, admitted to having hoaxed his own death. On 30 September, he was supposedly seen rushing through Miami Airport.
There are two main problems with such reports. Firstly, there are dozens of extraordinarily convincing Michael Jackson tribute artists at large, any one of whom could be the source of a Michael Jackson sighting. And secondly, if Michael Jackson orchestrated his disappearance, it might be supposed that the last thing he would want is to be spotted by adoring fans. He would surely move around in disguise, perhaps having undergone further plastic surgery.
And Michael Jackson is not just seen in public. It is claimed that he has also kept open a line of communication with his fans through a friend called Cassandra Gretchen-Sims. Fans are fiercely divided over whether she is a genuine conduit or not, but through her Michael is said to have explained the circumstances of his supposed death.
“Tell them I had to do it. I had no choice. If I had tried to do the London shows we had scheduled, I would have died for real. Tell everyone – tell all my fans that the stories of drug abuse and addiction sadly, are true. But I’m not dead. I’m getting stronger and drugs are behind me. I’ll never take another drug, not even an aspirin. Tell my fans I’m sorry for putting them through so much sadness and turmoil.”
The tone of the message resembles that of similar Diana and Elvis messages from beyond the grave. There are apologies for causing fans grief, claims that there was no alternative and promises of better things to come.
COSMIC MESSENGERS And, as the years passed following the deaths of Elvis and Diana, stories began to circulate that the lives, deaths, legacies and examples of both had a wider cosmic significance. The old seer Nostradamus, who is usually good for a quote, duly obliged with a prophecy linking Dodi Fayed’s father, Mohammed Al Fayed, and the princess:
The penultimate of the surname of the prophet Will take Diana for his day and rest… 
For Michael Jackson, a Nostradamus pastiche of unknown origin is doing the rounds:
The boy king who walked backwards is silenced And the children gather no more around the throne Tears fall across the territories And fires will rage thereafter
The cosmic significance is reinforced by the language of the fans. In the Elvis religious doctrine, which has evolved over the last 30 years, the King of Rock and Roll is described as coming as a Messiah-like figure from the Blue Star of Orion. Cinda Godfrey’s book The Elvis-Jesus Mystery was marketed as the “Shocking Scriptural and Scientific Evidence That Elvis Presley Could Be The Messiah Anticipated Throughout History”, and sought to prove Elvis’s true identity using the Bible.
In letters left at Kensington Palace, Diana is called both the Queen of Hearts, her self-styled designation, and the Queen of Heaven, echoing Catholic references to the Virgin Mary. It is early days in the canonisation of Michael, but one fan blogged “Michael, I love you; You’re every star that shines in the world to me. Michael, can’t you see that it’s true? Michael, I love you!”
The strength of the legends can be monitored in financial terms. In October 2009, a clump of hair believed to have been trimmed from Elvis Presley’s head when he joined the Army in 1958 was sold for USD 15,000 by a Chicago auction house. There were 200 Elvis-related items for sale on that occasion and one of his shirts sold for USD 52,000. In 2005, a replica of Diana’s wedding dress was bought by an American buyer for £100,000, even though the princess had never worn it or even tried it on. Is it only a matter of time before Michael Jackson relics appear on the market at highly inflated prices?
Elvis was, at his end, a bloated drug-abuser who died alone in his bathroom. Diana perished in a drink-drive car crash embarking on a night of passion with her latest playboy lover. Michael Jackson died from unnatural causes with his reputation still stained by allegations of pædophilia. How is it that, in death, the less savoury facts of these celebrities’ lives have been set aside and myths allowed to blossom in their place?
It could be argued that human beings need myths. Until the modern secular age, religion provided the stories of the improbable and the supernatural; today, people invent religion substitutes to meet their spiritual needs.
Perhaps the post-mortem legends associated with Michael, Elvis and Diana are simply extensions of the legends of their lives. Even before they died, fans were making extravagant claims on their behalf: Elvis was the King, Diana the wounded healer, Michael the eternal child. They were more than celebrities, they were archetypes – both figures of mass media culture and symbols from our ancient past.
Through premature death they have attained immortality. To say they never died is much the same as saying they live on as legends, more powerful and influential in death than they could ever have expected to be in life. Sales of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson recordings have soared, the ghost of Diana continues to haunt the British Royal Family and will loom over the next two coronations, firstly that of her unfaithful husband and his mistress and later that of her son.
No true fan can be shifted from his or her belief. Is not the word LIVES a rearrangement of the name ELVIS? Will not Diana be for eternity the mystical virgin bride and mother of the future king? And Michael? He is the Peter Pan who will never grow old.