Simmering family tensions. Two very different cultural backgrounds. And a "controlling" husband obsessed with privacy... By Sarah Rainey.
The photographs were eye-catching, to say the least. Dressed head to toe in billowing black clothes — an oversized poncho, baggy trousers and a hood that covered her hair — singer Janet Jackson was almost unrecognisable as she strolled hand-in-hand with her husband, Wissam Al Mana, in London in October.
Gone were the thigh-high boots, skimpy skirts and cleavage-baring tops of her heyday. Instead, not an inch of flesh was visible as 50-year-old Janet, then six months’ pregnant with her first child, gazed pensively into the distance.
Bemused fans took it as evidence that Janet’s makeover, from raunchy singer to modest mum-to-be, was complete.
So dramatic was her image overhaul — and her new, low-key lifestyle since marrying Qatari-born Wissam, now 42, in 2012 — that there was even speculation she had converted to Islam to appease her stanchly religious other half (though her so-called ‘Muslim dress’ was later revealed to be £1 000/R17 000 designer menswear from Adidas).
Since the couple’s son, Eissa, was born on January 3, Janet’s low-key way of life has continued.
Friends say the multi-millionaire "absolutely loves" motherhood and has parted company from her son just twice: once to buy baby clothes, three weeks after he was born, and to indulge in some retail therapy with her mother, Katherine, and eldest sister, Rebbie, who were visiting last month.
Bizarre though her transformation appeared, it looked like Janet — notoriously unlucky in love, having been married and divorced twice — had finally found happiness.
"I thought I was jinxed," the singer said after her second marriage broke down. "Maybe marriage isn’t for me? Maybe it’s my fault it never works."
Now, it seems that jinx has struck again. On Sunday, a friend of the couple revealed that the marriage is over: "Sadly, Janet and Wissam have decided that it wasn’t working and to go their separate ways."
The separation is amicable, it was claimed, with Janet planning to stay in London to look after Eissa, and Wissam returning to his business ventures in New York and Qatar.
"They’re both busy people, but determined to be good parents, even if they’re apart," the friend said.
Yet, a very different picture began to emerge, of an apparently controlling, unhappy marriage, from which Janet has been desperate to escape for some time.
Sources say a clash of cultures has driven Janet and Wissam apart, made worse since the birth of baby Eissa, over whose upbringing and day-to-day care they disagree.
While Janet is keen to be a hands-on mother, Wissam, a wealthy businessman with £800-million to his name, has strict views on how his son should be brought up, and has hired round-the-clock staff to wait on his wife and child in their Belgravia home.
The baby has never been seen in public, and Janet was reportedly forbidden from leaving the house while she was nursing. Wissam, too, has disappeared from sight.
Indeed, those photographs last year mark the last time the couple were seen together. But even they do not hark back to happier times.
"Janet thought he had become too controlling during the pregnancy," explains the source.
"She had already allowed him to dictate her appearance and even the way she performed at concerts. It drove her crazy, and she felt she was losing her fan base."
Janet’s performances have, certainly, in recent years, been much toned-down versions of her usual displays — or cancelled entirely.
But the final straw, it seems, came last month when Janet’s 86-year-old mother was forced to return to Los Angeles after a two-month stay with the couple.
Katherine, the long-suffering matriarch of the Jackson family, is embroiled in an unpleasant court case against her nephew-in-law and former driver, Trent, whom she claims has been bullying and spying on her with hidden cameras in her LA home.
She came to England in February to meet her new grandson, but also to seek reprieve from the campaign of abuse to which she claims to have been subjected. She only returned to LA when a judge ordered her to appear as a witness in the case.
Janet, who’s always been extremely close to her mother, was juggling the demands of a newborn with comforting Katherine, but Wissam is said to have shown a callous lack of interest in his mother-in-law’s plight.
"That’s when Janet made her decision that there was no turning back," an insider told American media. "She was worried about her mother — and Wissam showed little to no concern."
For a man who claims family is at the heart of everything he does, it seems strange that he was not more supportive.
But signs all was not well in their unconventional relationship can be traced back to the start.
Janet and Wissam met in 2010 at the summer opening of a new hotel in Dubai. Though known on the Middle Eastern social circuit as something of a VIP, Wissam was far from a playboy.
In fact, he was renowned for his religious principles and sensible business acumen.
Born in Qatar to a wealthy family, he moved to London aged two and grew up to join the family business, Al Mana, which represents major fashion companies including Dolce & Gabbana and Emporio Armani.
Though now a leading global businessman, Wissam rarely gives interviews, shuns social media and claims to spend his spare time "looking at antiques and reading".
In Janet’s eyes, this was the man she had been waiting for. Going public with their relationship in 2011, she declared: "I’m getting older and I feel more settled. We have a deep bond, a deep connection."
Wissam was certainly very different to her two previous husbands. Her first marriage, to soul singer James DeBarge, a spur-of-the-moment elopement in 1984 when Janet was just 18, lasted three months and was subsequently annulled.
Her second, to Mexican-born dancer-turned-video-director Rene Elizondo, took place in secret in 1991. The truth was only revealed in 2000 when Janet paid him a settlement of £8-million after a messy divorce.
With Wissam, she was determined things would be different.
They announced their engagement in 2012 and secretly married shortly afterwards in a ‘quiet, private and beautiful ceremony’ believed to have taken place in Dubai.
Wissam declared Janet his "dream woman", posting an ode to her on his website in which he thanked her "for your divine love, your eternal support and for being my best friend".
Yet it wasn’t long before cracks started to show. Sources say that Janet’s family didn’t take to Wissam and voiced misgivings early on. Her sister, La Toya, was kept completely out of the loop about their relationship, saying later: "I didn’t know Jan was married until I heard about it through the media."
Janet is said to have wanted a lavish, five-star wedding with friends and family present, but gave in to Wissam’s demands for something low-key, in keeping with his conservative nature.
It was, she would soon discover, the first compromise of many.
Though early pictures of their relationship show a tactile, smiling couple, frequently venturing out together in public, these, too, began to dwindle.
Their appearances became scarcer, their moods frostier.
Janet didn’t wear her wedding ring — ostensibly because she was so terrified of losing the huge sparkler that she stored it in a safe — and the affectionate glances and hand-holding stopped completely.
On stage, Janet’s performances were noticeably muted. In 2014, on her Rhythm Nation tour, she wore long-sleeved, loose-fitting outfits (a drastic change from the figure-hugging PVC catsuits with which she had made her name) and refused to perform raunchy dance routines. She then eliminated any mention of the word "sex" from her next album, Unbreakable, in 2015.
Fans couldn’t help but notice the difference. Some even produced spoof ‘Missing Person’ posters with Janet’s face on them, querying what had happened to the singer they so adored.
She then cancelled the UK and European legs of her 2016 tour just days before she was due to take to the stage, announcing she would be postponing her performances indefinitely, as she and Wissam had started planning a family.
In place of her X-rated lyrics, she wished fans "Inshallah" — meaning "God willing" — at the end of every show, and even featured the Arabic word in the chorus of one of her songs.
Her most recent message to fans on her official Twitter account ends with the phrase "Al Hamdu Lillah", which translates as "Praise God". A previous tweet said simply: "I miss you guys."
Janet never confirmed nor denied her supposed conversion to Islam, but friends say she began immersing herself in Muslim texts very early on in her relationship. On visits to Wissam’s family in Qatar, she ditched her make-up and hair extensions and shrouded herself in traditional clothing.
"She feels like she has found a home with her new religion," a friend said then. "She has spent a great deal of time studying it. The days of raunchy dance moves and sexual lyrics are long gone."
Religious conversion was not a new concept to her: having been brought up as Jehovah’s Witnesses, her older brother Jermaine converted to Islam in 1989 and there are even rumours Michael did, too, shortly before his death in 2009.
It wasn’t so much her husband’s religion, but his introversion — verging on reclusiveness — that started to drive Janet away. Having settled in London to appease him (they also have a home in Doha, Qatar, and an apartment in the Trump Tower in New York), she resented that Wissam refused to meet her family and friends and tried to keep her away from the public eye.
Though keen to step back from the spotlight, Janet — the woman who once posed topless for Rolling Stone magazine and became the most searched-for woman on the internet after flashing her nipple at the 2004 Super Bowl — wasn’t used to such a staunch rejection of the world in which she’d made her £120-million fortune.
Eissa, whose name means "God is salvation" in Arabic, arrived at a time when the pair hoped a baby might help paper over the deepening fissures in their relationship.
Janet had always wanted a child, telling an interviewer in 2011: "Everyone tells me, for the longest time, they’ve told me: 'Oh, you’d make a great mother.' They would tell me: 'You’re very nurturing. You’re very mothering, and you take care of people all the time.' "
Having a baby at the age of 50 — making her the world’s oldest celebrity mother — was no easy feat, and experts suspect she may have had IVF or used donor eggs (if she hadn’t already frozen her own). Though the delivery was said to be "stress-free", any couple who has been through IVF knows the strain it can put on a relationship.
Cynics may look at the timing of Eissa’s arrival and the break-up of her marriage and wonder if Janet stuck it out simply so she could achieve her dream of motherhood.
Others have pointed to the rumoured pre-nuptial agreement between the couple, reputed to involve a £400-million payout to Janet if the marriage broke up after five years. Neither party has yet filed for divorce, but the fact that around five years have passed is nonetheless intriguing.
Whatever the truth about the break-up, fans are already wondering whether it may signal a return to the Janet they know and love.
One thing’s for sure: she hasn’t lost it. Her most recent album, Unbreakable, the first since 2008, went straight into the US charts at No 1 — another bone of contention, perhaps, for her seriously-minded husband.
With him out of the picture, there is no telling what Janet’s next reinvention may be.