When Michael Jackson (search) became a superstar more than three decades ago, irresistibly cute with his apple cheeks and dandelion Afro, perhaps the most startling thing about the child phenom was just how adult he appeared to be.

Though a diminutive 12 years old (his handlers said he was 10 to make him seem even more precocious), Jackson commanded the stage like a veteran. With his vocal prowess and dazzling footwork, he truly seemed inhabited by an old soul.

In his 1988 autobiography "Moonwalk," Jackson recalled an early talent show when one competitor referred to him as a midget. "My feelings were hurt," he wrote, "(But) Dad explained they weren't laughing at me. He told me I should be proud, the group was talking trash because they thought I was a grown-up posing as a child."

Yet as he grew older, Jackson was unwilling — or unable — to adjust to a grown-up world. Apparently scarred by the lack of a real childhood, a painful adolescence that included verbal and physical abuse at the hands of a demanding stage father, and finally the pressures of fame, Jackson devoted much of his adulthood to recapturing the carefree atmosphere he never was able to enjoy.

Jackson always maintained that his affinity for children was non-sexual, and on Monday a jury agreed, finding that Jackson did not molest a 13-year-old former cancer patient. But while Jackson left the courtroom a free man, he also emerged as a broken, tragic figure with his once-brilliant career now in tatters.

Jackson's acquittal did provide some hope for his future. "He's absolutely capable (of a comeback), he has an amazing talent," Island Def Jam CEO and Chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid (search) told The Associated Press after the verdict. "This is one of the greatest performers of our time."

Still, perhaps no other entertainer has plummeted from such stratospheric heights to the depths of notoriety like Jackson, who has been a superstar since he crooned "I Want You Back" in 1969, when he was 11.

Jackson was born in gritty Gary, Ind., surrounded by poverty and crime. With nine children, his mother, Katherine, and his father, steel worker Joe, looked for a way to keep their children off the streets. Music was a hobby at first, but Joe, a former guitarist, saw it as a way out of the ghetto. While Jackson has said he was never forced into show business, by the time he was 8, he already had a full-time job with a stern boss.

"He was a great trainer," he said of his father in "Moonwalk," but added, "We'd perform for him and he'd critique us. If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch."

Even as a child, Jackson wowed audiences, and by the time he and his brothers reached the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy (search), they had already built up a national reputation on the amateur scene. Gordy signed the Jackson 5 to his powerhouse label and they immediately started churning out hits: "I Want You Back," "ABC," "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "I'll Be There" represent just a sampling of their classic catalog.

But Jackson was still missing something.

"There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can remember looking at those kids playing games. I'd just stare at them in wonder — I couldn't imagine such freedom, such a carefree life — and I wish more than anything I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away and be just like them," he wrote in "Moonwalk."

As a solo artist and with his brothers, Jackson sold millions of records and made some of pop's most revered classics by the time he reached puberty. Then he made the tricky transition from prodigy to adult pop star with the stunning "Off The Wall" album in 1979. And in 1983 he became an international icon with the release of "Thriller," still the best-selling album of all time, with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.

At his peak, Jackson had the world spellbound. His moonwalking "Billie Jean" performance on the 1983 "Motown 25" TV special was a mesmerizing moment on par with Elvis Presley swiveling his hips or The Beatles singing on Ed Sullivan. And at a time when music videos were primitive performance clips, Jackson revolutionized the genre with elaborate choreography and dramatic plotlines — even 21 years after it was released, his 15-minute "Thriller" mini-movie, directed by John Landis, is considered one of the greatest videos ever made. Jackson also helped break the color barrier on MTV when it was rock (code word for white) oriented.

Given how unpopular Jackson has now become, it's hard to imagine that 20 years ago, he was not only the world's most popular entertainer, but the most beloved.

President Ronald Reagan persuaded him to come to The White House so he could give Jackson a special award — and take a photo with the world's most famous pop star. Former first lady and Doubleday book editor Jacqueline Onassis personally wooed him to write "Moonwalk." When Jackson's 1987 album "Bad" was released, with the video for the title track directed by Martin Scorsese, CBS deemed it worthy of a prime-time special. And a 1984 Time magazine cover story described Jackson as "the good boy, the God-fearing Jehovah's Witness, the adamant vegetarian ... the impossibly insulated innocent. Undeniably sexy. Absolutely safe."

Those are the last words anyone would use to describe Michael Jackson anymore.

Now only his most die-hard fans would describe him as visually appealing — years and years of plastic surgery have transformed Jackson from a handsome, somewhat androgynous figure into a strange, feminine oddity. Though in his autobiography he claimed he's only had surgeries on his nose and his chin (to create a cleft), his face now seems more mask than man. Coupled with the evolution of his skin color from milk chocolate to vanilla (he suffers from vitiligo, a rare condition that robs skin of its pigment over time), visually he's an unsettling figure.

But for a long time, despite his growing "wacko" personality — his alleged plot to buy the Elephant Man's bones, or to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber so he could live to be 150, his crotch-grabbing dance moves, and reclusive personality — Jackson did seem to be an innocuous figure, an asexual persona more interested in children's games than adult relationships.

That all changed in 1993, when a 13-year-old playmate accused him of molestation. That year, Jackson had been riding high — he had successfully diminished his weirdness factor with a sympathetic, highly rated Oprah Winfrey prime-time interview; his album "Dangerous" sold millions of copies and was still on the charts; he was on a sold-out world tour; and had gotten a legend award from the Grammys, at age 34.

"I don't read what is written about me and I didn't know how many people thought I was weird and bizarre," a jovial Jackson said before an adoring audience of industry watchers at the Grammy ceremony.

But in an instant, he became an accused pedophile, an almost permanent stigma. It became even more difficult to separate him from the accusations after Jackson, despite maintaining his innocence, settled a civil lawsuit by the boy for a multimillion price tag. The boy then stopped cooperating with authorities and no charges were filed.

The episode put a dark spin on Jackson's formerly endearing penchant for all things childlike.

"I remember driving with him one day," friend Jane Fonda said in a 1983 interview about Jackson, "and I said, 'God, Michael, I wish I could find a movie I could produce for you.' And suddenly I knew. I said, 'I know what you've got to do. It's Peter Pan.' Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, 'Why did you say that?' with this ferocity. I said, 'I realize you're Peter Pan.' And he started to cry and said, 'You know, all over the walls of my room are pictures of Peter Pan. I've read everything that (author J.M.) Barrie wrote. I totally identify with Peter Pan, the lost boy of never-never land."'

At first, that didn't seem all that bizarre. He wasn't that far removed from his teen years, and his other eccentricities hadn't come into full public view.

But somewhere down the line, his fixation on reliving his childhood began to get a little weird — even creepy to some. Maybe it was when, in 1984, he carried 13-year-old pint-sized Emmanuel Lewis affixed to his arm like a stuffed animal won at a carnival, with date Brooke Shields on the other. Or when he christened his 2,700-acre Santa Barbara estate "Neverland" — when he was nearing 30. Or his numerous friendships with young boys, from Macaulay Culkin to Sean Lennon.

After the 1993 child molestation allegations, it became more than weird — to some, it was damning.

Rosie O'Donnell, a frequent Jackson critic, scoffed at the idea that Jackson could be innocent in a 1994 interview with The Los Angeles Times: "They say that about priests; they say that about people's fathers and their brothers and the elementary schoolteacher and the soccer coach. They say it about every man who is accused ... Wake up."

Still, for all of his problems, Jackson's career — while diminished — was still viable. A marriage to Elvis' daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, thrust him back in the spotlight in late 1994, and in 1995, he released a double-disc set, "HIStory" containing his greatest hits and new material, much of it detailing his frustrations over the child molestation allegation. The album sold more than 2 million copies in the United States and included the No. 1 hit "You Are Not Alone," but was considered a commercial disappointment because of the stunning successes of his previous albums and the amount of money he spent to record the album and shoot videos).

Later, he would divorce Presley and marry Deborah Rowe, a nurse for his plastic surgeon. They had two children, Prince Michael and Paris, before divorcing. Rowe gave Jackson full custody, though she is now fighting for custodial rights. Jackson later had another child, nicknamed Blanket (the mother's identity never was released), whom he infamously dangled over a balcony while showing him off to fans.

In 2001, Jackson released another album, "Invincible," on the heels of a star-studded tribute concert. It sold 2 million copies, but any modest success was obscured when Jackson got into a fight with Tommy Mottola, then the head of Sony records, accusing him of racism and sabotaging the project.

Given the road he was on before his 2003 arrest, it's unlikely that Jackson would have ever restored his tarnished image or regained the universal appeal he enjoyed in his heyday. But he was popular enough, with respect and admiration in the industry, as well as top-notch talent willing to work with him.

Now, even with his acquittal, it's unclear whether he'd be able to salvage his career in any form. For many, his guilt was already determined, despite evidence that did not prove the contrary. And given the unseemly allegations — a penchant for drinking, a trove of pornography and a dangerous pattern of letting young boys into his bedroom — the public has been left leery and weary.

Almost no one in the music industry approached by The Associated Press prior to the verdict wanted to comment on what his future might hold. Mariah Carey, a comeback queen herself, simply offered prayer and sympathy for Jackson in a recent interview, as did legend Aretha Franklin.

"My heart goes out to his family," Franklin said. "It's just hard really, one way or the other. It's really hard for me to judge in any way."

Still, esteemed producer Rick Rubin, who has produced everyone from Johnny Cash to Jay-Z, said in today's world, no scandal is insurmountable — especially for an extraordinary figure like Jackson.

"I think he can always have a career making music. People will always be interested in what he does," Rubin said. "Regardless of any other things going on in their lives, people are always interested by the great acts, and there's no questions he's one of the greats.

"Regardless of anything else going on, he's still Michael Jackson."