Grace Rwaramba, far left, nanny to singer Michael Jackson's children
Paris Jackson, left, Prince Michael Jackson, right,
and Prince Michael Jackson II
An enigmatic woman in Michael Jackson's inner circle
is re-emerging just as the battle over the guardianship
and paternity of his kids continues.
Grace Rwaramba — the Rwandan nanny of
Prince Michael I, 12; Paris Michael Katherine,
11; and Prince Michael II (known as Blanket),
7 — is the woman Jackson insiders describe as
the most maternal personality the children have known.
She left Jackson's employ, perhaps dismissed,
last year but is now staging a comeback that may be
key to the fate of the three young Jacksons.
Indeed, her return to the side of the children
— and the Jackson clan — may reinforce, at least
in the public eye, the family's claim to being
the best guarantors of the children's well-being.
Rwaramba worked for Jackson for 17 years, first
as his secretary and then, after the children arrived,
as their nanny.
According to sources, Rwaramba is resuming
the work she did throughout the children's lives.
Her job ended abruptly in 2008 when
she was allegedly fired by Jackson for
Since his death, however, sources say
Rwaramba has resumed child-caring duties
at the Jackson clan's Encino, Calif.,
compound and was seen taking the children
to Jehovah's Witness classes.
Introduced to Jackson by his friend Deepak Chopra,
Rwaramba was such a constant in the singer's life
that there were even rumors that
they were secretly married.
But according to documents filed in
Nevada's Clark County,
she was married to her first husband
during the majority of her employment
with Jackson and married her second husband,
Joseph Kisembo, in December 2008.
There were other, almost Svengali-like rumors.
"I hear some odd things about her
— this woman in the background with
all of this power, flexing her muscles,"
says former Jackson spiritual adviser Firpo Carr.
"That's not the Grace I know.
Unless she has this other secret life
I don't know about," says Carr.
"She is one of the humblest people
I have been around."
Others are sensitive to the pivotal position
Rwaramba occupied in Jackson's life.
"You have to be aware of the most powerful
nanny in the universe," says
a former Jackson confidant.
"She was the gatekeeper for Michael,
and she wielded that power.
She absolutely did.
Her influence on the children was undeniable.
"Grace was like the mother,
and Michael was the father,"
says Jackson friend and filmmaker
Bryan Michael Stoller, who often visited
"The only person I saw get close to the kids
besides Michael was Grace."
Rwaramba returned at their time of crisis.
The actor Mark Lester, star of the movie
musical Oliver! and godfather
to Jackson's children, spoke to her soon
after the singer's sudden death and
describes her as "shocked and grief stricken."
Still, Lester tells TIME, "she's a
very strong person, and she's
a tower of strength for the children.
She is the closest thing to a mother
that they have ever experienced."
While not sure if her return is permanent,
he adds, "Right now,
it's important they have some continuity."
Carr says some of the talk about Grace
came about as a result of her loyal silence
In a world where former friends and
employees often sold their version of life
with Jackson to the highest tabloid bidder,
Rwaramba maintained her secrets.
There was therefore disbelief at a story
that appeared shortly after
Jackson's June 25 death.
Britain's Sunday Times wrote a piece quoting
Rwaramba allegedly giving explosive details
about Jackson's drug use.
The story cited her attempts to curb
his addiction as the reason she was let go.
"I had to pump his stomach many times.
He always mixed so much of it,
" the paper quoted Rwaramba as saying.
"There was one period that it was so bad
that I didn't let the children see him ...
He always ate too little and mixed too much."
Rwaramba quickly put out a statement
the piece: "I don't even know how
to pump a stomach."
She said she had never spoken
to the Sunday Times: "The statements
attributed to me confirm the worst
in human tendencies
to sensationalize tragedy and
smear reputations for profit."
The incident did little to damage
her relationship with the family.
The next day, Joe Jackson,
the star's father, publicly called Rwaramba
"a good friend of the family and to the kids,"
going so far as to say a more permanent
role in their lives was under consideration.
Rwaramba was also given prime position
in the official Michael Jackson souvenir
book at the lavish public memorial.
"Thank you for entrusting me with
your precious children, my love for them
will never waver,"
she wrote in its final solo entry.
"She is totally dedicated to the children
and will do whatever it takes
to make the children happy,"
Chopra tells TIME. "She will play
a large part in those children's lives,"
Her work may be key as details
of Jackson's alleged drug use emerge.
Addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinksy
tells TIME that children of addicted parents
frequently suffer from a sense
of abandonment, but the caring,
"emotionally available" support that
Jackson set up could provide
a "life-saving link that might help
these children stay healthy.
I'm praying for the status quo
for these kids." In the eyes
of many Jackson watchers,
Rwaramba is that status quo.
Bryan Alexander / Los Angeles
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