Inner Michael » Michael Jackson- Becoming White

Michael Jackson- Becoming White

Suppose you have worked hard, driven yourself to reach a pinnacle of success and attained a modicum of fame because of your contribution to an industry loaded with not only lots of talent but fierce competition. Suppose you knew that your staying relevant in that industry demanded that you always be inventing something fresh and new to keep people clamoring after your product. Suppose that to keep yourself contemporary and in demand you had to frequently reinvent yourself along the way.

Michael hid his condition for a long time, trying even to hide it from his makeup artist. He didn’t want to reveal this most private of struggles publicly. Yet his Vitiligo was becoming more and more visible, the changes in his skin tone more and more obvious. Yet Michael, ever the perfectionist, didn’t want to disappoint his audience. Eventually there was no choice but to reveal his condition.

Suppose that you have achieved a level of fame where your name and product are instantly recognized round the world. What If you loved your work and loved your audiences and that creating, for you, is like breathing—you can’t live without it. What if your survival hinged on your voice, your body, your appearance, and your overall appeal? And what if that chosen industry is monitored and scrutinized by a very public medium with the power to make or break you and your future—the press? What if there are few in that peering industry who are kind and supportive and what if most are mean spirited and interested only in “the story”—juicy news with details of scandals, foibles and fodder for failure? What if they are just waiting for you to misstep? What if they are perpetually just poised to pounce?

And given all that pressure to stay present and relevant, what if your body, the machine that drives the whole enterprise starts to have some serious problems? What if your body begins to betray you? To turn on itself? What if your whole reason for being is suddenly in question? What if the future is uncertain? And what if a fickle public with a short attention span and an even shorter memory begins to lose interest because you no longer look good? When your life is in the spotlight? What do you do then?

Would you try to hide your imperfections? Of course. We all do it. We wear body stockings; have breast enhancements; take Viagra; use creams and hormones and soaps and perfumes; die our hair or get perms; use augmented undergarments; wear lifts or high heels; work out at the gym; buy the latest fashions; get tattoos or piercings; have hair extensions; get pedicures and nails done; take vitamins; go on a diet; visit the tanning parlor and a thousand other things to remain attractive and relevant.

So when Michael Jackson was diagnosed with Vitiligo—a disease that turns the skin white, around 1983, why was it so difficult to understand how threatening that would have been to someone who made his living on the stage? How is it that when he explained what was going on with his body, some refused to believe him? A disease that mars your face and body must be very threatening to someone who makes their living on stage. It must raise huge self esteem issues—something not foreign to Michael, for he had acne as a teen. It has to feel like a huge betrayal to have your own body, your own immune system turn against you. You must question and blame yourself initially. You must feel a sense of shame and want to hide your blemished body and marred being.

Might it have been frightening and disheartening as the first black entertainer to do so many pioneering things only to see yourself losing your racial identity? Would it hurt to hear yourself being accused of deliberately betraying and abandoning your race? How could the public not understand how painful that must have been for a man who grew up in a famous black family? A man who grew up with James Brown who, for a whole generation of kids, made it OK to be black teaching them to sing: “I’m black and I’m Proud.”

When someone contracts cancer, we do not blame that victim. We do not berate them for the changes to their bodies. We do not condemn the chemotherapy that is a necessary treatment to keep the disease in remission.

Does anyone ask for a disease that causes the body to change into someone unrecognizable? Does one wish for a disease that progresses and engulfs one’s whole being, that makes a day at the beach impossible, that precludes romping in the sunlight with your children because it’s dangerous, that causes you to live your life under umbrellas because your condition gets worse without them? How does one bear the accusations of “liar” from those who feel you are abandoning your own ethnic origins? How does one stand the label “freak” when the changes in your body are involuntary and require concealment in order to keep up the public persona and superstardom status the world has come to expect? How does one not become bitter, angry, less than human? How does one continue to perform center-stage knowing that the makeup conceals a secret and hides a fear that if revealed could repulse even the most loyal of your public?

Vitiligo is a disease that causes its host to lose pigmentation in the skin. Pasty white patches begin to appear and as the disease progresses, more and more skin takes on that pasty hue. Universal Vitiligo, the severe form, which Michael Jackson had, affects more than 80% of the body. The disease erases pigmentation making the skin eventually appear transluscent. In the beginning stages the skin becomes blotchy as the body begins to attack its own melanocyte cells that produce skin color. As the disease progresses, more and more of the body turns white until an African American becomes more white than black. What remains then to treat it, is to even up the skin tones. In the beginning, a black person could use dark makeup to cover the de-pigmented areas. But as more and more of the body is affected, full body makeup becomes impractical. Later, as one becomes more and more white, destroying the remaining pigmentation to even out the color of the skin becomes the one viable option.

Sunlight aggravates the condition and speeds the progression of Vitiligo. Sunscreen becomes imperative. Spending time at the beach or in direct sunlight can cause severe problems. Living under an umbrella to block the sun would at least slow the disease and prevent skin problems or reactions to sunlight. It seems the umbrella created mystery and cast more than a reasonable lack-of-sunlight shadow on Michael Jackson. Metaphor for mysterious? Oh yes, and very effective for it drew attention. And how Michael loved attention; his career, of course, depended on it. But how did it become a metaphor for not just mystery but darkness?

How did Michael take the risk when he stepped out from the most personal of places—one’s medical record and history and gave a public interview, revealing with great trepidation that there is something wrong with his body? That his immune system is not working properly, that he is struggling with issues of trust of his own body that appears to have betrayed him? That his identity, his appearance and all that he stands for has created for him, an existential crisis because an involuntary disease has made its home in his body—a body that is important for stage presence, for performance, for identity, for status, his work and his life? How does he then reconcile revealing that most intimate of secrets of his life and then be called a liar? What is more intimate than one’s own body? What is more preciously guarded? What is more threatening to a star on stage, than involuntary changes in health and appearance?

Would we have called the cancer patient a liar? Would we have condemned her for seeking treatment for a life threatening illness? Michael deserved our compassion, not ridicule. Where was the understanding for this man who was dealing with an illness that threatened his very life as he knew it and as we knew it? Where was the the message: “you are still beloved?” Still relevant? Still human? Still the Michael we have grown to expect, to love? The Michael that we have made larger than life? The one we expect to dazzle us? The one we expect to be perfect in our eyes? Where was our humanness? Our compassion?

National Vitiligo Foundation:


  1. Highlighting Evidence said . . .

    I think that was a well written piece and a reminder of what Michael must have gone through over and over many, many times. Even I myself work to understand his choices and I agree with what has been written here. As an artist whose career was taking off, he still had plenty to give and without deterrent, continued in his pain.

    We do have to learn to understand each other and not judge all the time. He was a human being. We all come face to face with decisions at times.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Anonymous said . . .

    Well, I have to say I agree with everything ,and sometimes I have to explain to some friends what is vitiligo and that our beloved Michael sufeered from that disease.
    (sorry any mistake,english it´s not my first language)
    I miss Michael the greatest entertainer,but I miss Michael the human being.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  3. sueann15 said . . .

    Thank you Barbara for this stunning analysis. I wish the whole world would read this. When I think of the humiliation dear Michael faced my heart hurts. And he just kept loving us more. Love and Peace.

    Posted February 5, 2010 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  4. Kim said . . .

    Thank you Barbara for this very insightful article. When I read through the article, I was able to really get a sense of what Michael must have been thinking. I have often thought that having this disease must have played havoc on his mind because of the line of work that he was in. How does one deal with that type of disease in general, let alone having to deal with it in front of the entire world? Michael really have had to develop significant strength and courage to deal with the disease. This article only helps me admire Michael even more if that is even possible. I think about the things that I have endured and think about what Michael went through and I gain strength and courage because I follow his lead. God Bless Michael, an inspiration for L.O.V.E., courage, strength, compassion, integrity. Thank you and I love you more.

    Posted March 28, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  5. marga1961 said . . .

    From the Netherlands: Barbara, I want to thank you for this enlightening article. Vitiligo is a terrible desease. My husband has it, he was 14 years old when he saw the blotches. His whole life was destroyed and still is. People always ask him questions about it. Especially kids. It’s hard to deal with. What our Michael had to endure! Always in the spotlightsl; he was such a very very shy man. He often wanted to hide from the public, except for his real fans I think. This man was a huge gift: his caring heart, his genius, his real interest in people, his soft spoken voice, he always trusted everybody, was a great father, very intelligent, well read, concerned for the planet, animals and people. His book Dancing the Dream is so touching. What a guy, what a loss.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

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