In HBO’s “Leaving Neverland,” Wade Robson describes in searing and graphic terms how his mentor during his childhood, Michael Jackson, was also his alleged sexual abuser — and how he continues to grapple with the ripple effect the abuse has had on his life, family and career.
“He helped me tremendously. He helped me with my career. He helped me with my creativity, with all of these sorts of things,” Robson, now 36, says at the beginning of the two-part documentary, airing Sunday and Monday. “And he also sexually abused me. For seven years.”
If Robson’s name rings a bell, it’s because he went on to become a respected and sought-after choreographer, working with some of the biggest names of the late 1990s and early 2000s — Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Pink, among others — and on big events and TV shows, like the Super Bowl halftime show and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
I just was never really able to enjoy my work. It wasn’t fun. The more success I gained, the less fun it became. It was just more about pressure.” Wade Robson
Robson got his big break in 1999, when Spears hired the then 16-year-old to choreograph her first major tour.
Expecting him to be in his 30s, she exclaimed: “He’s a friggin’ baby!” according to a 2003 People magazine profile of Robson.
During a segment on Robson for ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2000, Spears sung his praises, hailing him as “a genius.”
“He’s just like a child prodigy, seriously. He’s a genius. He’s amazing,” she said.
Robson worked with Spears throughout the height of her career, choreographing music videos for hits like “Oops I Did It Again,” as well as her commercials for Pepsi and her performance at the 2001 Super Bowl.
He also choreographed her 1999 and 2001 MTV Video Music Awards performances, according to Spears’ backup dancer Aminah Abdul Jillil.
The MTV performance famously featured Spears donning a giant albino python while performing “I’m A Slave 4 U” from her third album “Britney,” widely considered a departure from her earlier pop-friendly hits.
“She hated me for that,” Robson later said about the snake, confirming that it was his idea. “She broke out in hives.”
“If any one person is making the younger generation savvy about what it takes to create a memorable dance, it is Mr. Robson,” proclaimed a 2001 New York Times profile. It also hailed Robson’s work on one of Spears’ Pepsi commercials, declaring that “its 90 seconds of raw energy, an electric combination of hip-hop, rock and techno styles, make other music commercials look quaint.” (The profile briefly noted how Jackson was “an important booster” in Robson’s early career.)
Robson also choreographed and co-wrote several songs for *NSYNC and filled in for band member Joey Fatone in the music video for “Pop.” He also briefly appeared in Spears’ 1999 video for “(You Drive Me) Crazy.”
Rumors swirled that Robson may have been the cause of Spears’ 2002 breakup with then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake — and the inspiration for “Cry Me a River,” one of Timberlake’s first solo hits after leaving *NSYNC.
According to Rolling Stone, Timberlake found out that Spears may have been cheating on him with Robson “when he discovered a note in Spears’ room in February 2002, on the night that the two pop stars were scheduled to appear on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Spears tried to make amends, but a shaken Timberlake refused to reconcile.”
At the time, Robson denied the rumored affair to Us Weekly magazine, which regularly ran cover stories about the Spears/Timberlake saga.
In 2003, Robson hosted his own short-lived show on MTV, “The Wade Robson Project,” a competition that sought to find the best amateur dancers across the country.
He went on choreograph some of the most memorable routines on the competition show “So You Think You Can Dance,” receiving Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography in 2007 and 2008.
Jackson played a key role in launching Robson’s early career, beginning when Robson was just a toddler who became obsessed with emulating the pop icon’s signature dance moves.
“I remember just watching the [“Thriller” music video] over and over again, pausing, rewinding,” Robson says in the documentary. “I would just try over and over again to really perfect the complexities of Michael’s movements.”
When he was 5, Robson won a Jackson-themed dance contest. The grand prize was meeting the singer at a concert in Robson’s hometown of Brisbane, Australia, during Jackson’s “Bad” tour. Jackson invited Robson to perform on stage with him and Stevie Wonder.
Robson and his family again met Jackson while on a trip to the U.S. in 1990, and stayed at his Neverland ranch in California’s Santa Barbara County.
That was when Robson contends the abuse began, and he says it continued for seven years after Jackson helped him, his mom and his sister move to Los Angeles to pursue the boy’s dream of becoming a dancer. Jackson cast him in several music videos.
Jackson, who died in 2009, denied the sexual abuse allegations made during his lifetime, and his family members and estate continue to defend him against the accusations.
They, along with other critics of “Leaving Neverland,” have seized on the fact that Robson and the other accuser featured in the documentary, James Safechuck, previously defended Jackson against other sexual abuse allegations. Robson twice testified in Jackson’s defense: privately during a 1993 investigation and publicly at a 2005 trial.
“Leaving Neverland” director Dan Reed has said that one of his aims in making the documentary was to show how some sexual violence survivors do not understand until years later that what they experienced was abuse — especially when their alleged abuser was someone close to them.
Robson says in the documentary that it wasn’t until he became a father that he fully realized that Jackson, whom he considered a father figure, had sexually abused him.
“I didn’t believe or understand that the sexual stuff that happened between Michael and I was abuse,” he says in the documentary. “I still had absolutely no understanding that I was affected, or any feeling that I was affected negatively.”
Around the time his son was born in 2010, Robson was set to direct his first feature movie, “Step Up Revolution,” the fourth installment of the “Step Up” dance franchise. But he stepped down due to growing stress and anxiety related to the alleged abuse, and experienced multiple mental breakdowns.
Seeking help from a therapist, he started to come to terms with his past, and in 2013, unsuccessfully sued Jackson’s estate over his allegations.
His success and fame may have masked his trauma, he now realizes.
“I just was never really able to enjoy my work. It wasn’t fun,” Robson says in the documentary, discussing how he poured himself into his various projects and became consumed by them. “The more success I gained, the less fun it became. It was just more about pressure.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.