It was only a matter of time before LaToya Jackson headlined her own reality show – the tabloid-magnet is a realty TV producer’s dream: a flamboyant and recognizable personality with ties to some uber-starry celebrities – namely her legendary brother, the late Michael Jackson, and her superstar sister, Janet. Like Michael and Janet, LaToya Jackson also tried her hand at a recording career with some spotty success; instead she became more famous for being the black sheep of the Jackson family, publicly denouncing brother Michael during his early 1990s child molestation scandal. She also accused father Joe Jackson of sexual abuse, and maintained that mother Katherine knew of all this violence, but merely tolerated it. LaToya Jackson is also known for her extensive plastic surgery, which also prompted jokes that she, Janet, and Michael were the same person. All of this would make for a startling and scrumptious reality show.
But Life with LaToya is not that kind of show. Because it’s aired on Oprah Winfrey’s struggling OWN channel, the scandals are meted out. It appears that Jackson’s reconciled with her eccentric family, because Katherine makes frequent appearances. Also mentions of Michael and Janet are warm, without rancor or bitterness. Instead, Life with LaToya is a fly-on-the-wall presentation of a potentially interesting celebrity who turns out to be startling normal.
Let’s get some of the obvious out the way – yes, Jackson’s physical appearance has changed a lot since childhood. But despite the late night comics’ pot shots, Jackson’s an attractive woman – obviously nipped, tucked, and pulled and at times she looks like an anime character, but she’s not the human caricature she once was – this is partly due to her resistance to skin-whitening procedures and jet black fright wigs she favored in the 80s.
Speaking of the 80s, Jackson has an interesting relationship with her former life. She has come out in the last few years blaming her public exploits on her Svengali-like manager, the late Jack Gordon, who allegedly threatened her life, abused her, and forced her to participate in the public witch hunt against Michael, as well as her participation in seedy affairs like posing for Playboy, shooting videos for the magazine, and performing at strip joints.
But this all seems behind her. According to Life with LaToya, the performer is intent on rehabbing her image and having a normal life. But all this is difficult when one is LaToya Jackson. Like every reality show featuring a celebrity, the cameras follow their subject in seemingly mundane tasks, while trying to tie together some loose plot lines – in Life with LaToya this can include working on her career, maintaining her brother’s legacy, dating, taking exercise classes, and even looking at adopting children.
One thing I noticed when watching Life with LaToya is just how rigidly the show follows reality shows – at times the slavish devotion to the genre’s tropes felt satirical – it reminded me of watching the Queen of Jordan episodes of 30 Rock, that featured Tracy Jordon’s reality show star wife, Angie (Sherry Shepherd). Along with Jackson, Life has other personalities, including Katherine, the Jackson matriarch, a business manager with impeccable eyebrows who may have romantic designs on the lady, and most interestingly enough: Kathy Hilton – yup, that Kathy Hilton, Paris’ mother, who is billed as “LaToya’s Best Friend.”
All of this makes the show just strange enough to make it watchable, though Jackson does come off surprisingly sympathetic. Some of her idiosyncracies are annoying – her tee-hee-hee giggle is especially infuriating, given that Jackson is a middle-aged woman in her mid 50s. The confessional interviews are also ridiculous, obviously blue-screened with Jackson commenting on the proceedings in her rink-dinky voice, with fussy, stagey hand gestures.
But there are times when Jackson is charming, despite the absurdity of her situations – in one ridiculous episode, Jackson announces that she wants children. After a less-than-successful stint with a mechanical test baby (which she dragged to a date, and quickly passed off to her ubiquitous security guard), she is tasked with babysitting. Before taking care of her charges, Jackson wanders through the aisles of a supermarket, pretty helpless at doing “regular people” things like picking up Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (“does the cheese come inside?”) and diapers, and her damsel in distress act attracts the sympathetic attention of a kind store clerk who walks her through her shopping list – it’s clear that LaToya Jackson’s about as comfortable in a supermarket as George H.W. Bush is.
But even when realizing that Jackson is a bit of a silly mess, what is interesting about Life with LaToya is just how normal its star is most of the time. She’s not particularly witty or intelligent, nor is she outrageously profane or offensive; instead, she comes off as somewhat fragile, kind, if a bit of a light weight. She doesn’t terrorize minions with diva antics, nor does she spout off stupid catch phrases (we don’t get a “hell to the no”), and she doesn’t have an archnemisis to tussle with; instead, Jackson goes about her strange, insulated existence. And because of this, Life with LaToya is pretty hard to recommend, because it’s not the campy guilt-fest one would expect from a project with LaToya Jackson attached to it; and the inspirational feel of the program (Oprah Winfrey’s to blame for this) does get trying. It’s a surprisingly restraint affair, that will have the viewers wonder “What’s the point?”