It was an emotional moment few could ever forget. On July 7, 2009, an 11-year-old Paris Jackson took the mic while on stage at L.A.'s Staples Center during a memorial service for her father, music legend Michael Jackson, who had unexpectedly died two weeks earlier at the age of 50.
"I just wanted to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine," a trembling-voiced Paris told the crowd, "and I just wanted to say I love him so much," she added before breaking down and falling into the arms of her aunt Janet.
Now, as the 12th anniversary of Michael's death approaches, Paris, 23, is telling all about her father, her unorthodox childhood and the inner demons she's hidden from the world.
"She's been opening up like never before," says an OK! insider, adding that the singer-songwriter is eager for people to finally know the truth about her dad in the wake of the damning 2019 documentary. (In Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck claimed Michael sexually abused them as children.)
"Her dad was everything to her," adds the insider, "and she wants to speak out in his defense."
Paris' upbringing was anything but ordinary. She and her brothers Prince, 24, and 19-year-old Bigi (in 2015, it was reported he preferred the name to Blanket) often accompanied their superstar dad as he traveled around the globe for tours and appearances.
"Michael took them everywhere: Las Vegas, Morocco, Ireland," says the insider, who also notes that their life away from the spotlight wasn't always over the top. "It's not what people think. They'd go on nature walks where Michael would point out flowers and trees. At home, he was just Dad."
Despite his fortune — Forbes once reported Michael earned a whopping $2 billion before his death — the insider says Paris wasn't spoiled. "Michael was loving but firm and taught his kids the value of earning things they wanted."
When Michael wasn't on the road, Paris spent her days being homeschooled and playing hide-and-seek at their father's 2,700-acre Neverland Ranch estate, where the insider says Michael kept an extensive library. "If Paris wanted her dad to buy her something, she had to read a bunch of books first."
There were dark days in the early 2000s when Michael was arrested on charges of child molestation and later put on trial (he was acquitted in 2005). "Friends say Paris could sense Michael's distress as the lawsuit played out," says the insider. "It was harrowing to see their dad going through so much pain. He always kept the kids away from the public spectacle, but it was confusing for Paris and her siblings to feel like there were always people out to get him. Even when he was going through something privately, they could tell when their dad was down."
Medical issues also seemed to plague the singer. "Sometimes, he'd sleep until noon," says the insider.
Michael died of cardiac arrest, and the autopsy later found acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication to be the cause.
In 2009, his death was ruled a homicide, and his physician, Conrad Murray, served two years in jail after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
"Paris has had issues with depression and went to rehab twice," notes the insider. In 2017, she admitted to multiple suicide attempts and drug abuse (she said some of her 50 tattoos cover track marks).
"Paris," adds the insider, "is a very sensitive soul."
The airing of Leaving Neverland was a blow for the Jackson family. At the time, Paris stayed silent, and tweeted that she didn't feel it was her "role" to discuss the allegations.
"There's nothing I can say that hasn't already been said in regards to defense," she wrote. "I'm just [trying to] get everyone to chill out and go with the flow, be mellow and think about the bigger picture."
The insider says she ultimately just wants to move on. "Paris has no ill will toward the accusers. She doesn't believe their claims, but she doesn't feed on negativity and feels nothing but love for everyone."
Through it all, Paris (who's single since she and her boyfriend of two years, bandmate Gabriel Glenn, split last August) has relied heavily on her godfather, Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin. The actor was close with Michael and insists he never witnessed the singer engage in illicit behavior.
"If I had something to speak up about, I would totally do it," Macaulay has said. "But no, I never saw anything; he never did anything."
Paris and Macaulay share a special bond, says the insider. "They've got each other's back and will defend Michael together to the end of time."
Today, Paris' main focus is her music. "While a lot of her talent must come from her dad, she's got a unique style," says the insider of the star, who released her first album, Wilted, in late 2020.
While money isn't an issue for Paris (she and her brothers reportedly get an $8 million yearly allowance from her dad's estate), she's determined to pave her own way and feels all the cash in the world won't bring her beloved father back.
"Paris isn't into fancy things like cars and houses or even clothes or jewelry," says the insider. "She lives way beneath her means and has said that money will never heal her suffering." Songwriting has been a cathartic experience.
"Paris grieved so long for her dad," says the insider, "but she's more at peace now. She thinks he's watching over her, and she wants to make him proud."