Wade Robson reentered the spotlight with HBO’s 2019 Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland. The film dives deep into Jackson’s relationship with the celebrity choreographer, who claims he was molested by the pop star for seven years during the 1990s. His story appears alongside that of second accuser, James Safechuck, but why is Robson’s name the one that sounds so familiar?
Children of the early aughts are undeniably familiar with Robson’s work. The star penned hits for *NSYNC and guided Britney Spears’ most seminal performances. He’s worked with an American Idol and stood in for a pop star. He may have even broken up the most iconic couple of 2002, if you believe the tabloids.
In Leaving Neverland, Robson finally opens up about his alleged untold truth, which he reportedly kept a secret for most of his life — and the Jackson estate isn’t happy. According to People, the estate sued HBO and lambasted the doc as « another rehash of dated and discredited allegations. » Here’s a look at one of the men behind the documentary.
Robson’s dance moves got him discovered by Jackson
Wade Robson was considered a prodigy by early aughts pop queen Britney Spears. The truth is that he might have actually been — she wasn’t exaggerating. His dance moves have been on-point pretty much since birth and are what led the choreographer to Michael Jackson in the first place.
According to People, the Australian native was five years old when he won a national Michael Jackson dance-impersonation contest. The first prize was meeting the King of Pop, who later called the boy on-stage during a concert in Brisbane to show off his « Smooth Criminal » routine. Esquire reports that after the concert, Jackson invited Robson and his mother up to his hotel room where he asked the pair to get in touch if they ever came stateside. Two years later, the family visited Disneyland, his mom gave Jackson’s personal assistant a ring, and the « Thriller » singer invited them to his recording studio. They stayed the weekend at Neverland Ranch, and the first alleged assault took place.
He was replaced by Macaulay Culkin in ‘Black or White’
Most of us know Jackson’s « Black or White » video from Macaulay Culkin’s performance. The young star was fresh off his massive Home Alone success, but the part was originally supposed to go to Wade Robson. Losing the role ended up breaking the budding choreographer’s heart.
According to The Daily Mail, Jackson encouraged Robson’s family to move to Los Angeles. When they finally did, the King of Pop didn’t contact them for weeks. It wasn’t until 1991 that Robson finally saw Jackson on the music video’s set, and that’s where he discovered the role he had allegedly been promised was snatched by the Home Alone star.
« This was the first time I came up against the new friend Macaulay Culkin, » Robson said (via The Daily Mail). « Macaulay was where I was in my previous trips, right by Michael’s side every moment. And now, I was kind of on the sideline as far as being Michael’s friend, and being his favorite and that was really confusing. »
He’s responsible for Britney Spears’ iconic snake
There are few moments more culturally significant than Britney Spears wearing an albino python as a scarf during the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards. That moment can be chalked up purely to Wade Robson, who told People the star « hated » him for the suggestion and « broke out in hives » following the performance. Who knew you could be allergic to a snake?
When the « Oops … I Did It Again » singer first met Robson in 1999, he was 16 years old. « He’s a friggin’ baby, » she said (via People). That baby ended up choreographing the pop star’s first large U.S. tour and went on to make his mark on some of Spears’ defining moments. According to Cosmopolitan, the choreographer is responsible for the « I’m A Slave 4 U » and « Oops … I Did It Again » videos (red pleather jumpsuit notwithstanding), Spears’ Super Bowl Pepsi commercial, and her 1999 VMAs performance with *NSYNC. In other words, children of the late ’90s owe Robson a lot (at least, if they were the type who were allowed to watch MTV).
He co-write some of your favorite *NSYNC songs
Wade Robson has no formal musical training, but the star did spend some time in the short-lived hip hop project Quo as a pre-teen. While most of us probably haven’t heard Quo, it’s a safe bet that we have heard some of Robson’s work. Ever wonder why that music gets you high? Yup, it’s the famed choreographer, who also served as a producer on some of *NSYNC’s tracks.
According to People, the star co-wrote four songs with Justin Timberlake for his boy band’s seminal 2001 album Celebrity, including the anthemic single « Pop. » His connection to « Pop » went even further when he replaced an actual *NSYNC member in the song’s music video. Joey Fatone was reportedly injured (hopefully not from a CGI shark attack), so Robson filled in.
Robson has an impressive number of actual writing credits — especially for someone with no real musical training. The star penned a song for American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini (though we’re crossing our fingers he had nothing to do with From Justin to Kelly). He also performed and produced on Aaron’s Party, which might have less than a single star on AllMusic, but remains the only Aaron Carter album that really matters.
Is he the reason for Spears’ split?
There is a slight chance that Wade Robson may have broken bro-code. The star was rumored to have dated Britney Spears after her split from Timberlake, which is scandalous if you consider the fact he collaborated with the *NSYNC star. According to Us Weekly, Spears secretly hooked up with the dancer behind the boy bander’s back, and they dated for about a year following the pair’s 2002 split. Sadly, there was no matching denim to speak of. She must’ve left that in Timberlake’s bedroom dresser.
While Robson didn’t co-write Timberlake’s solo hit « Cry Me a River, » the choreographer probably does deserve some credit. According to Rolling Stone, the song is about how Timberlake discovered the pop star’s alleged affair with the dancer after finding a note in her room. It was the night they were set to perform on Saturday Night Live, but the pair never reconciled (allegedly).
Though we know Spears has a documented affinity for dancers (that’s seriously the only way the whole Kevin Federline thing could have possibly happened), Robson told People the tabloid rumors about his lusty fling with Spears are « unfounded. »
The real reason Robson didn’t come forward
Leaving Neverland was a shock to so many because Wade Robson previously testified in support of Michael Jackson. In the early 1990s, when Robson was just 11 years old, he went on TV to insist that his relationship with the King of Pop was an innocent friendship — even if they did share a bed. In both 1993 and 2005, Robson took the stand to support the « Thriller » singer after he was accused of child molestation and faced a number of abuse charges. So why did he flip the script?
According to an Esquire profile, the choreographer was terrified to come forward, and he lied on the stand because he feared what would happen if he told the truth. He hid his alleged abuse from his family, friends, and wife, Amanda.
« The idea of this truth coming out and Amanda knowing about it and my family knowing about it and everyone in the entertainment business and my career knowing about it, I mean, was just a ridiculous idea that was never going to happen because, in my mind, my whole life would be over, » he said in Leaving Neverland (via Esquire).
Jackson’s 1993 case ended in an alleged $26 million settlement, according to the BBC. Jackson’s 2005 cased ended in his acquittal on « four charges of child molesting, one charge of attempted child molesting, one conspiracy charge, and eight possible counts of providing alcohol to minors » (per Esquire).
His mother convinced him to testify a second time
Though Wade Robson testified in 1993, and the King of Pop ended up settling with his alleged victim’s family out of court, Robson didn’t want to get involved again when Jackson was accused of molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo in 2004. According to Esquire, Jackson reached out to the star and begged him to testify anyway.
« At some point, I worked up the courage to tell Michael that I don’t want to testify. I remember silence on the phone for awhile, » Robson said in Leaving Neverland (via Esquire). « He said, ‘I understand it’s really hard and it’s tough to go through this with all of the media and everything, but we can’t let them do this to us. We can’t let them take us down.’ Us, us, us. »
Robson ended up turning to his mother, who told the star that « he should support his friend » or else Jackson might « end up in prison. » Robson obliged, and in May 2005, he told the court he hadn’t been abused by the pop star. Both his mother and wife, who arrived with him to the courthouse, were not yet aware of his alleged abuse.
Having a child changed his mind
Though Wade Robson hid his alleged abuse for years, the choreographer’s perspective changed when his son, Koa (above right), was born in 2010. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey (via People), Robson admitted he’d probably still be keeping his secret if his son wasn’t in the picture. He started seeing himself in his son, which pushed him to come forward.
In Leaving Neverland (via Esquire), Robson explained how he started seeing images of the « sexual stuff that happened » between him and the pop icon as if it was happening to Koa. This helped him open up to his therapist for the first time.
« My immediate emotional reaction to having those images is just this rage and disgust and violent feeling, » he said (via Esquire). « Like, I would kill anyone who did anything like that to Koa. What I started thinking was, how can I have such clear feelings—negative, horrible feelings—about the idea of that sexual stuff happening to Koa, but when I think about me and Michael, I don’t feel anything. »
Esquire reports that the choreographer opened up to his wife hours after finally telling his therapist. Amanda reportedly « just caved in, like someone punched her in the chest. » In 2013, Robson came clean to the world on the Today show and announced he’d be filing charges against Jackson’s estate.
A Leaving Neverland screening started Robson’s healing
The first public screening of Leaving Neverland was like an awakening for Wade Robson, who had suffered in silence for years until his 2013 Today show appearance. Coming clean seemed about as terrifying as he expected and garnered a wealth of negativity — both from the press and the Jackson estate. According to The Guardian, the dancer’s case against the Jackson estate was thrown out when a judge ruled that Robson waited too long to file.
For Robson, the screening was one of the first time he felt publicly supported. When he walked on stage to a standing ovation, the dancer broke down in tears.
« I started crying, and I didn’t really know why in the moment, » he told Rolling Stone. « When I thought about it after, I realized I never witnessed public support for telling this truth before. The big moments of healing still unexpectedly [continue] to happen every day. »
He almost quit dance forever
Wade Robson was one of the most prolific choreographers of the early aughts — from Spears’ historical python scarf moment to his work with Pink, Usher, Mya, and *NSYNC. His talents transcended the stage and moved onto the small screen when he landed an MTV dance-battle show called the Wade Robson Project in 2003. Years later, he earned two Emmy awards for Outstanding Choreography for his routines « Ramalama » and « The Hummingbird and the Flower » on So You Think You Can Dance. He served as a choreographer, performer and guest judge for the hit series, according People. He also choreographed and performed on Dancing with the Stars in 2007. Unfortunately, Robson took a step back from his craft while reckoning with his alleged childhood abuse. That’s when he primarily shifted over to yoga and believed he was done with dancing forever.
« My relationship with dance had become tainted, » Robson told DanceTeacher. « Michael Jackson was the reason I began dancing at the age of 2. He was my main inspiration and my mentor, but he was also my abuser. Dance was so intertwined with him and the abuse that I couldn’t separate them. »
Robson began teaching dance again in 2017, starting with a public class at a local dance studio.
He lost his father to suicide
Wade Robson was close with his mother who became a default momager when his dance career started taking off at a young age. He didn’t have the same relationship with his dad — especially after Robson moved to Los Angeles. The more time he spent with Michael Jackson, the further his father was pushed into the background.
« Early on, I remember Michael telling me that I could call him Dad, » Robson wrote in a gutting blog post. « My heart jumped at the chance, I began to, and in return, he would call me, ‘Son.’ This made me feel incredibly special. »
Not long after Robson won the dance contest that put him on Jackson’s radar, his father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As his health declined, the pair only occasionally talked on the phone and saw each other about every two years. This wasn’t always a positive experience for Robson, who struggled with his dad’s emotions.
« His mental and emotional state just really continued to degrade, » Robson said during Leaving Neverland (via Oxygen). « He was doing things like disappearing in the night and going on walks through the city, through LA, and catching buses, and we’d have to find him. »
In July 2002, Robson noticed he had several missed calls from his mother as he was leaving a Hollywood recording studio. He soon discovered his father had taken his own life.
He doesn’t want to ‘cancel’ Jackson
There’s been a lot of debate over how we handle the celebrities who have allegedly done harm. According to Billboard, Spotify enacted a new « hate content and hateful conduct policy » that led the streaming service to remove music by alleged abusers XXXTentacion and R. Kelly from its official playlists. But what do we do with Jackson, the highest-selling artist of all time? How can we erase a culturally significant artist who racked up more than 1 billion sales?
According to Robson, erasing Jackson isn’t the solution. The choreographer told Rolling Stone that it’s impossible to « cancel » something that has already happened.
« I wish I could cancel what happened to me, but I can’t. If I tried to — if we all tried to — then it’s just going to keep happening. So we have to talk about it [and] try and be more comfortable with simultaneity, » he told Rolling Stone. « Great songwriter, great dancer, great performer, even did some great charitable things, and was also a vicious predator of children in a sexual way. It’s really tough to swallow, but these things are both true. »