How MJ Engineered His Sound and Look

An excerpt from Untouchable traces the King of Pop's focus on music and his skin-color issues.

Michael Jackson biographer Randall Sullivan (Russell Young); Untouchable (Grove/Atlantic, Inc.)
Michael Jackson biographer Randall Sullivan (Russell Young); Untouchable (Grove/Atlantic, Inc.)

(Special to The Root) — What many people didn’t understand about Michael Jackson was how hard he tried to get it right. His early training had turned him into an artist who pushed himself and everyone around him to correct even the slightest imperfection in a performance. Michael’s attitude in the studio was, “I am here to be the best in the world, to be better than best, in fact, and you had better try to do the same if you want to work with me.” He would not tolerate shortcomings. That approach was what carried him to the overwhelming success he achieved with Thriller, and it was also what left him stuck there. He devoted more than four years to his follow-up album, Bad, determined, as he said at the time, to make the record “as perfect as humanly possible.” He was confused when critics complained that it was as if he had tried to apply a thousand coats of aural lacquer to Thriller, to make pretty much the same album, only shinier. Jackson spent another four years on Dangerous and then read in the New York and Los Angeles newspapers that the album was an “overproduced” facsimile of Bad. It was as if he believed that polishing the surface of his work to a high gloss would blind people to the increasingly hollow core that lay beneath. Along the way, he lost interest in authenticity. What he wanted was flawless artifice. It was the same goal he pursued in the reconstruction of his face.

Michael’s first two plastic surgeries resulted from a fall onstage that broke his nose. The initial operation in 1980 left him with a breathing obstruction, so he had a second surgery to correct the problem, this one performed by Dr. Steven Hoefflin. He was delighted with the cosmetic outcome and with Hoefflin.

Michael had been ashamed of his appearance ever since hitting puberty. All those “big nose” and “liver lips” taunts he heard from his father and brothers were like the soundtrack to a movie that ran in his mind, the one where he saw the expressions on the faces of strangers who were startled — even slightly horrified — by how blemished his skin had become. “I’d hide my face in the dark,” he told Oprah Winfrey during their 1993 interview. To improve his complexion, Michael tried giving up the fried food he loved and went on a macrobiotic diet that at one point was reduced to seeds and nuts. At 120 pounds he was delighted by his sinewy “dancer’s body.” His face grew slimmer as well, and the weight loss seemed to bring his cheekbones to the surface of what had been an unusually chubby childhood face.

What actually conquered his acne, though, were the able hands of Dr. Arnold Klein. Beginning in the late 1980s, Klein applied a series of treatments to Jackson’s skin that ranged from drainage and excision (“acne surgery”) to corticosteroid injections of cysts and retinoid prescriptions. Chemical peels and dermabrasion smoothed the scarring on his cheeks and forehead. Even as Michael marveled at the improvement of his appearance wrought by Klein, though, he was shaken by the doctor’s diagnosis of lupus, the mysterious autoimmune disorder that in Jackson’s case manifested itself most notably as vitiligo, a condition that results in patchy depigmentation of the skin.

Treating any autoimmune disease is, like attempting to cure acne, a process rife with psychological implications. Numerous studies have indicated a link between childhood trauma, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, and lupus. Physicians who deal with the disorder invariably find that a sensitivity to the mind-over-matter aspect of lupus and the conditions that result from it is the largest part of their treatment program. The emotional bond that forms between doctor and patient in such cases stretches the definition of medical practice. As a result, Klein went along for nearly twenty years with the story that the steady lightening of Jackson’s skin was entirely the result of vitiligo and the courses of treatment he applied to it.