Michael Jackson's 'Final Curtain Call'

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Dave Hogan / Getty

Michael Jackson addresses a press conference at the O2 arena in London on March 5, 2009

For days, rumors have circulated that Michael Jackson was startin' somethin'. And Thursday afternoon, before a couple of thousand screaming fans at London's 02 arena, the King of Pop revealed what has been referred to as "the worst kept secret in the world" — namely, a 10-concert residency beginning July 8 — his first slate of shows in 12 years.

"I love you so much," said Jackson, 50, barely audible over the whooping of his loyal supporters who crowded a shopping arcade outside the arena. "This is it. I just want to say that these will be my final show performances in London." (See pictures of Michael Jackson on the way to age 50.)

Jackson arrived on stage nearly an hour and a half late (London's rush-hour traffic was reportedly the reason) and spoke for just over three minutes. "I'll be performing the songs my fans want to hear. This is the final curtain call."

British media are speculating that Jackson, who has been staying at the $11,000-a-night Royal Suite at the Lanesborough Hotel, is staging this comeback — for which tickets go on sale on March 13 — to help pay off the debts he has incurred since a court cleared him of sexual-abuse charges in June 2005. (He hasn't performed a full concert since then.) In November 2008 the singer reached an undisclosed settlement with Sheik Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the prince of Bahrain, who was suing Jackson for $7 million over claims he reneged on a contract for a new album, autobiography and a stage play. Jackson has maintained that the advances he received from him were gifts.

At Thursday's announcement, Jackson wore a black, military-style top with silver sequins and looked predictably wan. Despite his rather expressionless face, he seemed sincerely moved by the audience's warm reception and, during an erratic exit, once again conveyed his affection to his fans. "I love you. I really do," he said, panting breathily. "You have to know that. I love you so much. Really. From the bottom of my heart." He then made two peace signs, turned, pumped his fist, turned again, struck a fierce pose and blew a kiss before disappearing. (Watch Jackson's top moments at the Grammys.)

Fans and journalists had lined up for hours, clutching memorabilia and wearing T shirts, and numerous individuals posing as journalists were removed from the media line. "I'm sorry, but you're not on the list," the doorman told one blonde woman with a slight accent, to which she replied, "But I've come all the way from Norway!"

Rebecca Kellner, 17, left school early to attend the event. "It's like meeting one of your childhood heroes, even if I just got to see him," she said between gasps. "He was more collected than I thought he was going to be, and that made me more confident that he can do the shows."

Jackson underwent rigorous health checks to prove his fitness ahead of the announcement, and AEG, the group that owns the O2 arena, has reportedly obtained insurance to protect against Jackson falling ill and canceling performances. Last year, photographers captured Jackson in a wheelchair wearing pajamas as his children pushed him. Nevertheless, AEG Live chief Randy Phillips says Jackson has a three-year plan worth $400 million with the company that could include concerts and the development of a 3-D movie based on the legendary "Thriller."

The O2 is the venue Prince played for 21 nights in 2007 and where Britney Spears is doing eight nights this June. As for Jackson, who hasn't released an album of original material since 2001, his last substantial series of shows came in 1996-97, when he played 82 concerts in 58 cities as part of the HIStory tour. And, of course, there have been some embarrassing moments that infamously earned him the nickname Wacko Jacko. Stories of personal, health and financial problems have constantly cropped up, and he's currently trying to stop an auction of thousands of his personal possessions. (See pictures of the auction items for sale.)

But Jackson's music may well prove to be the driving force behind the brand. Gemma Lal, 18, traveled four hours from Northhampton and believes Jackson's music, particularly "Earth Song," is as relevant as ever. "It's not just a song," she says. "He talks about the earth and how we can help people." For a singer who has faced some very public lows, the first person to benefit could be Jackson himself.

Watch TIME's video "Appreciating Michael Jackson, the Musician."

See TIME's 1984 cover on Michael Jackson.