Black or White: The Sad Truth behind Michael Jackson’s Skin Color

Black or White: The Sad Truth behind Michael Jackson’s Skin Color

In November 1991, Michael Jackson released the first single for his Dangerous album: Black or White– a catchy song which infused the styles pop, rock and rap. It remained No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six continuous weeks and was his most successful solo single since Beat It.  In Black or White, while Jackson communicated social themes of racial discrimination and social injustice, it was also a song in which the Pop Icon could lash out against public and media speculations pertaining to his skin color. In the song’s rap verse appears the line “I’m not going to spend my life being a color”- and even though Jackson makes it clear that he would not be concerned in what the public may make of his skin color, in reality it was not so.  Given that Jackson struggled with insecurities relating to his physical appearance throughout his lifetime, it is likely that rumors concerning his skin color may have taken a considerable toll on the singer’s self esteem and confidence.

Despite Jackson’s contribution to pop culture and music history, there has always been an air of controversy when it came to his skin color. The singer’s skin had been a medium brown color throughout the entirety of his childhood and youth.  However, in the 1980s it gradually grew paler. In 1987 following the release of his music video for his single Bad, for the BAD album, made it seem that Jackson had suddenly transitioned into a white man almost overnight.  This change gained widespread media coverage along with rumors that Jackson was bleaching his skin. By 1995, with the release of the History album, it was more than obvious even to his most dedicated fans that the man of Thriller (1982) looked nothing like the man who had recently married Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie.

The popular “bleach skin rumor” (believed by many even to date), contains the narrative that Jackson purposefully used skin whitening products to lighten his skin color to become a white man. This was because he supposedly “hated” or was “insecure” about his race and appearance. Adding fuel to this rumor, many believed that Jackson may have changed his skin tone to further his career ambitions in a music industry that was prejudiced against black artists.

Yet, none of this was true.

Michael Jackson had Vitiligo; a rare skin condition in which although the singer and his family repeatedly stated at interviews, failed to garner influence over public and media skepticism. Their claims are now given credence as Jackson’s autopsy results confirmed that the singer did indeed suffer from the condition.

Vitiligo, is an autoimmune condition which affects about 1- 2% of the world’s population. It causes white patches on the skin. Although it can occur to people of all skin types, it is more noticeable if the person has a dark complexion, as in Jackson’s case. People who have this condition typically first start seeing signs of it beginning between 10 and 30 years old. The spread occurs quickly for most, for others over a span of years and for a lucky few, the white patches do not spread. According to studies, approximately 30% of people who had the condition had inherited it from family- this remains true of Jackson’s case. Contrary to popular belief that Jackson may have chemically induced the condition, at the time this was not medically possible. However, Jackson did use popular medication that was available to treat vitiligo. Jackson’s personal dermatologist, Dr. Arnold Klein, while confirming that the singer suffered from the condition stated that creams such as Benoquin and Hydroquinone were used as treatment to even out his skin tone. To make things worse, Jackson also suffered from another skin condition called lupus, which can also cause loss of skin pigmentation.

Although not fatal, Vitiligo can cause a sense of embarrassment and shame to people. Even today, despite increased awareness about the disorder, people with vitiligo tend to get uncomfortable stares from onlookers in public.  The lack of awareness coupled with the magnitude of Jackson’s fame, made the situation altogether worse for the singer who could never truly get away from the glare of public and media interest surrounding his life. In a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson publicly admitted for the first time that he suffered from the skin condition. An emotionally distraught Jackson told Winfrey “I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin. It is something that I cannot help. But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me.” While slamming reports of that he was ashamed of his race, Jackson angrily retaliated by saying “What about all those people who sit out in the sun to become darker- to become other than what they are? Nobody says anything about that”.

The singer revealed to Winfrey that the condition runs in his father’s side of the family. A claim confirmed by his brother, Jermaine Jackson in his biography, You are not alone: Michael, Through a brother’s eye. In the book, Jermainestated as a teenager that he suddenly developed a white patch on his thigh. Upon medical examination this was confirmed to be vitiligo by a doctor. However, unlike Michael’s it did not spread and medication was deemed unnecessary. Furthermore, Michael Jackson’s eldest son, Prince Jackson was rumored to have inherited the disease where in 2010 pictures from a Hawaii vacation surfaced where the singer’s son could be seen with a patch of de-pigmented skin on his right underarm. Later on the family confirmed these rumors to be true. Jermaine Jackson whilst responding to the old rumor that Michael’s children, Prince, Paris and Blanket were not his biological offspring, confirmed in an interview that Prince did indeed inherit vitiligo from his father stating “They are Michael’s kids, 100 per cent. I’ll tell you why, Prince already has signs of vitiligo, spots on his body”.

The singer told Winfrey that the condition emerged between the periods when he recorded the albums Off the Wall and Thriller. Jackson’s narrative was confirmed by his long time makeup artist for 25 years- Karen Faye who stated that she used to use heavy makeup to even out Jackson’s skin tone from the beginning itself dating to the shoots in the music video for Thriller. However, as time went by Faye confessed that the patches became too large to be covered by makeup and  later on she had to even out the makeup in relation to his new pale skin tone.“We were always trying to hide it and cover it for the longest time until he had to tell Oprah and tell the world” said Faye in an interview. In the end, according to Faye, the condition got out of hand to the extent that Jackson would have to be in” complete full body makeup”, where every inch of his body needed to be covered in makeup,  so “it was easier to make the transition to him being the lighter shade he is”.

In fact what many people (including some fans) don’t realize is that the iconic single glove which characterized Jackson’s on stage persona was worn initially to cover up vitiligo, which first appeared on the singer’s left hand. Actress Cicely Tyson, a long time friend of Jackson’s revealed in an interview that in the 1980s she and Jackson shared a fashion designer. At the time the designer revealed to Tyson that he was creating a glove to help Jackson hide his vitiligo. The glove made its first appearance in Jackson’s spectacular Motown performance of Billie Jean in 1983. Due to the popularity it generated, Jackson continued to wear it as a fashion accessory leading him to be eventually dubbed as the “The Gloved One” among fans.

The skin condition made it impossible for the singer to travel directly out in the sun. Often Jackson would be seen in public wearing long sleeves, long black pants and a black fedora hat with bodyguards holding an umbrella over his head.  This is because sun burn poses a severe risk for those with vitiligo, as the condition leaves affected persons with low amounts melanin that is required to protect one from the sun’s harmful UV rays. In the 1995 interview with Diane Sawyer, Jackson was asked by Sawyer if he wished if he was the color he was used to be. With his then wife Lisa Marie Presley present, Jackson responded in the affirmative stating, “I love black. I envy her (Lisa Marie) because she can tan and I can’t”.

No celebrity to date had undergone the extent of public humiliation as Michael Jackson did over physical appearance. While it was bad enough that Jackson suffered discrimination as a black artist in the music industry, he faced alienation from the black community as well. Black comedians in the likes of Eddie Murphy, Steve Harvey in their standup comedy shows would make insensitive jokes about Jackson stating that the singer with his pale skin and long straight hair, planned in becoming a ‘white woman’. Although the Jackson did have plastic surgery to alter his face, in no way did this impact his skin condition. His struggle with vitiligo was authentic, and as reiterated by Jackson in the interview with Winfrey it was something he had no control over. Today, World Vitiligo day is celebrated on June 25th in memory of the late King of Pop who suffered discrimination from the condition and died on 25th June 2009.

– Rtr Nirmali Amaresekara

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