It's eight years since Michael Jackson moonwalked off this mortal coil, and are we any closer to nailing down his legacy? Pop's eternal monarch left a cultural footprint as wide as Neverland Ranch.
His songs will probably still set the club off 100 years from now; his videos are pop-culture moments inseparable from the eras in which they were forged. It’s a body of work forever under analysis.
But cultural critics too often sidestep a huge factor in Jackson’s personality, artistry and perpetually gossiped-about appearance: vitiligo, a condition that affects the production of melanin, causing white patches to develop on the skin. These spots are permanent and become bigger over time. Between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of people are thought to be affected.
Jackson began battling the condition some time around the release of Thriller, in 1982. At first he covered the patches of pale skin with make-up, and although vitiligo is unlikely to have caused his entire body to lighten to its eventual pasty shade, sufferers commonly undergo a treatment that removes all remaining pigment, to balance out their skin tone. Jackson never publicly claimed to have done so.
"We're trying to control it, and using make-up evens it out, because it makes blotches on the skin," he told Oprah Winfrey in 1993. "I have to even out the skin."
Check out the back cover of Jackson's album Dangerous. You'll see the star mid-dance move, white socks pulled up, black hat pulled down. It's the kind of classic MJ image that'll appear in 20th-century history books until the end of time.
His skin tone closely resembles his natural pigmentation. As his sleeve rides up, though, the singer’s right wrist shows a patch of white skin, as though it’s missing the make-up applied to his hands and face.
Vitiligo is rumoured to have been the original motivation for Jackson's single white glove, which would have covered up affected skin
Without vitiligo Jackson wouldn’t have been the same artist. It’s rumoured to have been the original motivation for his single white glove, which would have covered up affected skin. I also suspect it might have been the reason he started to pull his hat over his face, as vitiligo often affects the forehead.
These are key elements of MJ iconography, perhaps worked in as the superstar tried to make the best of a situation outside his control.
One of the most lasting rumours surrounding Jackson is that, in an act of self-hate, he bleached his skin to become a white man. This just doesn’t stack up. The evidence shows his life to be consistent with those of many other vitiligo sufferers.
I first noticed white patches developing on my hands when I was about 19. More than a decade later, stains and specks are visible all over my body. It’s a hell of a thing to watch the colour of my skin degenerate. Monitoring the blotches, knowing they’re only going to expand, is psychologically taxing.
The darker your natural skin colour, of course, the more obvious the white patches. Vitiligo sufferers are often mistaken for burn victims or judged to have a contagious disease. Barring the make-up I use to hide the affected areas, there’s little I can do. A dermatologist once prescribed me a baseball cap, to keep the sun’s rays off my face.
Barring the make-up I use to hide the affected areas, there's little I can do. A dermatologist once prescribed me a baseball cap, to keep the sun's rays off my face
And as a half-Asian man I can tell you that the thought of the melanin in my skin disappearing completely is not nothing when it comes to racial identity. Vitiligo tears down a pillar of self-identity: that the outside matches the inside.
When Jackson's music touched on themes of racial identity his distinct perspective was fully crystallised. Take Black or White, which on its surface offered a simple vision of racial equality: the stripped-to-the-bone ideology that nobody should be treated as inferior because of the colour of their skin. "But if you're thinkin' about my baby it don't matter if you're black or white," MJ sings. He may have been referring in part to his own transformation.
The final few minutes of the uncut Black or White video sees the star transform into a black panther, a symbol of black power. Ideas that Jackson wanted to transform himself into a white man are misguided.
“I am proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity,” he told Winfrey. Jackson never stopped identifying as black. It was his right to do so that vitiligo challenged.
The speculation surrounding Jackson's appearance bled into his music. As early as 1989 he dropped Leave Me Alone, a barbed attack on tabloids that had been speculating about Jackson's plastic surgery. With songs like Why You Wanna Trip on Me, Scream and Privacy, these topics became a ubiquitous presence in Jackson's music.
The true story of his cosmetic medical history will probably never be known. What we are sure of is that Jackson had a condition that robbed more from him than just melanin. Its influence on his life can’t be ignored.
To many, though, there'll always be a duality to Jackson's life: the separation of the young entertainer whose genius exploded out of his skin-and-bone form, one jack-knifing dance move at a time, on the night of the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special, in 1983, from the man who later supposedly left his outer shell an ashen scorched earth. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Perhaps Jackson's defining legacy will be that life is rarely black and white.