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.)

Michael first revealed in his 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey that his skin had become steadily more pallid as a result of the hydroquinone bleaching agents (such as Solaquin Forte, Retin-A, and Benoquin) prescribed by Dr. Klein to blend the discolorations caused by vitiligo. Michael had in fact begun to lighten his skin long before he met Klein. As early as the late 1970s he and his sister La Toya were using Porcelana, an over-the-counter skin bleaching cream marketed to black Americans. Arnold Klein’s introduction to his life was still years away when Michael began to tweeze his eyebrows daily, and to wear eyeliner and mascara. He wasn’t trying to be either white or a woman, merely a more finished product. “I do want to be perfect,” he said in 1986. “I look in the mirror, and I just want to change to be better.” He hated looking at pictures of himself between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. “Ooh, that’s horrible,” he told Robert Hilburn when, while working together on a proposed book, they came across a photograph of Michael as a teenager. He quickly shoved it under a stack of papers.

The plastic surgeries continued for some time after he became a patient of Arnold Klein. Dr. Hoefflin gave Michael his third nose job immediately after the twenty-sixth Grammy Awards ceremony at which Michael had cleaned up for Thriller. He was upset by photographs he had seen of himself standing alongside Diana Ross; her nose was so thin and his was so fat, Michael explained to the doctor. Hoefflin, a plastic surgeon who up to that time had been best known for enhancing the breasts of Playboy bunnies, would undertake multiple cosmetic procedures on Jackson over the next decade and in the process become one of Michael’s intimates well before the advent of Arnold Klein.

Public remarks about what Hoefflin was doing to Jackson’s appearance were heard as early as his performance on the Motown 25 special, but in 1983 those were mostly complimentary. Michael’s lean and limber physique, slightly narrowed nose, Jheri curled hair, and lighter, smoother complexion were all part of what made him the first icon of a postracial reality. “Pretty” was perhaps a better word to describe him than “handsome,” but he was no more androgynous than Mick Jagger. People were startled, though, when they saw him on the Bad cover in 1987. Michael had received a fourth nose job from Hoefflin in 1986, and a short time later decided he wanted to have a cleft in his chin. He followed this with a procedure to have permanent eyeliner tattooed around his eyes and another surgery to thin his lower lip. There was a sharp cut to his cheekbones that hadn’t been there during Thriller Time, and Dr. Klein’s bleaching creams had dramatically lightened his skin tone. Pancake makeup had been applied, and a pink tattoo defined the perimeter of his lipstick.

It didn’t help that his antics in the tabloids had inaugurated the epoch of Wacko Jacko, or that he insisted on speaking in that breathy whisper so reminiscent of the one Marilyn Monroe had used when she serenaded Jack Kennedy at his birthday party in 1962. The really strange thing, to a lot of people, was that Michael seemed to flaunt his surgeries. After the cleft was cut into his chin, he made appearances all over L.A. in a surgical mask, wearing the thing like it was an accent to his wardrobe, akin to his black fedora and big sunglasses.