“I’m very happy to be here,” Jackson told the audience. He then looked at Presley who was smiling but also looking nervous. “And just think, no one thought it would last.”
Then Jackson took off his sunglasses, leaned in and kissed Presley. The four-second kiss drew some of the loudest cheers of the night from the crowd and dominated media headlines around the world – with some believing they had witnessed the couple consummate their marriage on national television.
They were the biggest item in show business. And Presley hated it.
“He knew I didn’t like it,” Oprah Winfrey said of the infamous kiss in an interview after Jackson’s death in 2009 in 2010. “I would have been there, uncomfortable. And his hand was blue when we walked off that stage. … I squeezed him so hard. … But as his wife, I needed to do a few things like that.”
The memorable moment in pop culture nearly 30 years ago would be one of many that would follow Presley for the rest of her life. Presley died on Thursday in a California hospital at the age of 54. The death was announced in a statement by her mother, Priscilla, just hours after Presley was taken to the hospital from her home in Calabasas, California. No cause of death was given.
Decades before they married, Presley and Jackson met in Las Vegas in 1974 during one of the Jackson family’s shows at the MGM Grand, according to author J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2009 book, “Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story, 1958-2009.” Presley, who was 6 years old at the time, was a big fan of the Jacksons, especially Michael, who was 16 at the time.
“I always liked him,” Presley recalled of Jackson in a 2009 book. “Michael fascinated me with his talent. I loved watching him dance. He wanted to get to know me better, but I always thought he was kind of weird. In fact, I didn’t want to know him any better than I already knew him.”
The two met again years later in the early 1990s at a private dinner hosted by artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, a mutual friend, in Los Angeles. At that moment, Presley was trying to find herself as a singer. Danny Keough, her husband, produced several songs for her, but she had little confidence in herself as an artist and feared being compared to her legendary father, Taraborrelli wrote.
That changed when Jackson listened to her tapes and told Presley she had “real talent” – a compliment that took the young artist by storm. Strong recalled in a 2009 book that as the two were leaving a party, Jackson shot Presley a piercing look and said, “You and I could get into a lot of trouble. Think about it, girl.”
From there, the two talked on the phone so much that Presley felt like she was seeing a completely different side of Jackson. As rumors intensified that they were together, they met at Trump Tower in New York thanks to Jackson’s friend Donald Trump, who later boasted, “I’ve known this secret for a long time.” Less than a month after she divorced Keough in 1994 , Jackson proposed by phone. Presley and Jackson were married in a private ceremony in the Dominican Republic.
A few months earlier, Jackson had reached an out-of-court settlement over the child abuse claims in a deal that his lawyers said he did not admit to any wrongdoing. Concerned about his failing health and addiction to painkillers, Presley said she “wanted to save him. I felt I could do it,” says Taraborrelli’s book. Part of that was letting the world know that her marriage to Jackson was not a publicity stunt.
“My married name is Mrs. Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson,” she said in a statement to the media after the ceremony. “I am very much in love with Michael and I will dedicate my life to being his wife. I understand and support him. We are both looking forward to starting a family.”
When the MTV Video Music Awards were about to begin in 1994, the announcer at Radio City Music Hall turned the awards show into a wedding reception and introduced the newlyweds to the public for the first time: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. and Mrs. . Michael Jackson!”
Salli Frattini, who helped oversee nearly two decades of the MTV Video Music and Movie Awards, recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2002 that MTV staff were “surprised” when Presley and Jackson passed on the producers’ idea to host the show.
“We came to them with the whole concept [including the kiss], but I’m sure Michael was adlibbing,” the producer said. “We brought them to a private door and kept them in a private part. We kept it very quiet. They came down, did their thing, and when it was over, they left.’
Newspapers around the world led their coverage of the awards ceremony with a kiss, and critics had a field day with what they witnessed. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jackson was “inhuman as ever in a black military jacket”, while Presley looked “relatively normal in a two-piece slinky dress”. The New York Daily News wrote that Presley “looked deeply embarrassed”. And the Daily Telegraph in Great Britain claimed that Jackson forced Presley into a “grotesque display of public affection”.
“Few happily married men feel compelled to kiss their wives in front of an audience, especially in front of an audience of 250 million people,” Tony Parsons wrote in the paper. “But Michael Jackson is either very much in love or very desperate.”
Presley filed for divorce from Jackson in 1996, citing irreconcilable differences, but later said she and Jackson considered reconciling years after their marriage ended. In what would be their last conversation in 2005, Jackson asked Presley if he still loved him. Presley, who admitted to Winfrey years later that she had closed herself off from any emotion toward Jackson, told her ex-husband that she felt indifferent toward him. The answer made him cry, she said.
“That’s part of the problem with my love life,” she once said of her marriages. “I’m looking for someone similar [my father]and no one could compare.”
But they always had that kiss in New York.