Michael Jackson lived one of the most unique lives of anyone to grace the Earth. He shot to superstardom at just 11 years old as the lead singer of the Jackson 5. Becoming the world’s biggest star during the most awkward phase of childhood would be something that would haunt Michael later in his life.
This wasn’t easy on Michael, considering his biggest critic was also his abuser. Joe Jackson’s violent ways were an open secret for many years. Later, Michael would admit to being beaten with all varieties of objects by his father as he melded the Jackson 5.
Aside from physical abuse, Joe would routinely berate Michael’s looks. He taunted him for his “fat nose” or “[racial expletive] nose.” This would plant the seeds of insecurity in Michael about his appearance.
As Michael got older and his star continued rising, he grew increasingly fretful about his appearance. As a child star, he was adored as the cute little brother. As he went through puberty and suffered acne, among other changes, he was publicly and privately ridiculed. He became self-conscious, hiding behind hats and posing to minimize his perceived worst features.
As Michael’s solo career took off, rumors that he altered his appearance began to spread. His self-consciousness was quietly growing behind the scenes as he created Thriller and began to see changes in his skin. In 1984, Michael suffered a second-degree burn to his scalp on the set of a Pepsi commercial, which would require treatments to hide burn scars.
The public would have even more questions about Michael’s appearance when his skin started appearing lighter. In 1986, Michael was diagnosed with vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to lose their pigment. For years, tabloids accused Michael of betraying his race and bleaching his skin. They accused him of wanting to look like a white woman.
Michael finally spoke on the matter in a 1993 interview with Oprah. She asked about a rumor that Michael wanted a white child to portray him in a commercial.
“That is so stupid. That is the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy,” Michael replied.
“Why, number one, it’s my face as a child in the commercial, me when I was little, why would I want a white child to play me? I’m a Black American, 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.”
Oprah then went on to question Michael’s changing skin color. “Number one, as I know of, there is no such thing as skin bleaching, I have never seen it, I don’t know what it is,” Michael replied.
“I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin, it’s something that I cannot help. Okay. But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am it hurts me,” Michael continued.
Michael explained he started seeing changes years earlier and that he just tried to even it out with makeup. He admitted to having plastic surgery, which he wrote about in his autobiography, Moonwalk. Oprah asked if Michael was pleased with his appearance.
“I’m never pleased with anything, I’m a perfectionist, it’s part of who I am.”
A lot went on in Michael Jackson’s life that year. He was first accused of child molestation. The subsequent investigation and additional surgeries related to his burn years prior would lead to Michael’s painkiller addiction, which he touched on in a statement he gave from Neverland refuting allegations against him.
“As you may already know, after my tour ended, I remained out of the country undergoing treatment for a dependency on pain medication. This medication was initially prescribed to ease the excruciating pain that I was suffering after reconstruction surgery on my scalp.”
During the speech, Michael also slammed the Santa Barbara Police Department for what he felt was improper conduct.
“I have been forced to submit to a dehumanizing examination by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department earlier this week. They served a search warrant on me, which allowed them to view and photograph my body including my penis, my buttocks, my lower torso, thighs, and any other area they wanted. They were supposed to be looking for any discoloration, spotting, blemishes, or any other evidence of a skin disorder called vitiligo that I have previously spoken about.”
“The warrant also directed me to cooperate in any examination of my body by deposition to determine the condition of my skin including whether I had vitiligo or any other skin disorder. The warrant further states that I have no right to refuse this examination or photographs, and if I failed to cooperate with them they would introduce that refusal at any trial as an indication of my guilt.”
“It was the most humiliating ordeal of my life, one that no other person should ever have to suffer. Even after experiencing the indignity of this search, the parties involved were still not satisfied. They wanted to take even more pictures. It was a nightmare, a horrifying nightmare, but if this is what I have to endure to prove my innocence, my complete innocence, so be it.”
Some of Michael’s most politically charged music came from that era. Hits like “Black or White” and “They Don’t Really Care About Us” cemented Michael’s dedication to the Black community. It is in this community that his complicated history is most greatly dissected and understood for its elements.
Michael talked about his frustrations with the experience in July 2002, when he spoke in Harlem in conjunction with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
“I’m here to speak for all injustice. You gotta remember something, the minute I started breaking the all-time record in record sales — I broke Elvis’s records, I broke the Beatles’ records — the minute [they] became the all-time best selling albums in the history of the Guinness Book of World Records, overnight they called me a freak, they called me a homosexual, they called me a child molester, they said I tried to bleach my skin,” he told the crowd.
“They did everything to try to turn the public against me. This is all a complete conspiracy, you have to know that. I know my race. I just look in the mirror, I know I’m Black. It’s time for a change. And let’s not leave this building and forget what has been said. Put it into your heart, put it into your conscious mind, and let’s do something about it. We have to! It’s been a long, long time coming and a change has got to come. So let’s hold our torches high and get the respect that we deserve. I love you.”
In 2003, Michael would again face child abuse allegations. During this trial, he was evaluated by a mental health professional named Stan Katz. Stan would refer to Michael as “this regressed 10-year-old.” In the years since, many mental health professionals have also speculated Michael suffered from body dysmorphic disorder.
Although Michael was acquitted of all charges against him, his physical and mental health suffered from a second trial. He often appeared gaunt and frail when he showed up to court proceedings. He would live out the next few years quietly before announcing his last tour in 2009, which would never come to fruition.
Michael Jackson’s death 11 years ago left many with more questions than answers. Is it possible that a man’s childhood could scar him so deeply that he lacked the ability to grow up? Did he flounder with a childlike mind in a very predatory adult world? Many of those inquiries will likely go unanswered.
It’s impossible to look at Michael’s history and not see the struggles that disproportionately impact the Black community today. Michael grew up being revered as a part of Black culture while criticized for his Black features. Throughout his life, he struggled with feelings of his success being discredited while also dealing with immense self-loathing. He did not, or perhaps could not, cope with his mental health and childhood trauma in a way that would allow him to flourish in adulthood. His experience, and the toll it took on his life and legacy, can’t be overlooked in the greater conversation of who he was and what truly happened to him.