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 yet-established reasons. 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 Neverland. "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 about Jackson. 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 disavowing 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," says Carr. 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.