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How MJ Engineered His Sound and Look

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.

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.


Black America largely viewed Michael's physical transformation through the lens of race, and no wonder. The first single released from Dangerous was "Black or White," and most people, black and white, thought there should have been a question mark at the end of that title. Epic Records described  "Black or White" as "a rock 'n' roll dance song about racial harmony," but it generated little of that — even in his own family. Shortly after "Black or White" was released, Michael's brother Jermaine put out a single from his latest failed album that was titled "Word to the Badd!" and included these lines in the lyric: "Reconstructed/Been abducted/Don't know who you are … Once you were made/You changed your shade/Was your color wrong?" Michael had already made his reply in the most memorable line from "Black or White": "I'm not gonna spend my life being a color."

Jackson's perpetual makeover was motivated more by a refusal to accept limitation or definition than by a rejection of his African ancestry. "What he told me was, ‘I would like to separate myself from the Jackson Five and become me, Michael Jackson,'" recalled his former video tech Steven Howell. What drove Michael was too complex to fit into any one or even any several categories. The discomfort with his racial identity — and disassociation from his racial roots — that rankled so many black people was part of the total equation, but even that was multifaceted. What he especially liked about the first nose job he got was that it left him looking a lot less like the man who had sired him. As a family friend named Marcus Phillips put it, "If he couldn't erase Joe from his life, at least he could erase him from the reflection in the mirror." Michael experienced Joseph Jackson as coarse, violent, and dishonest, sexually reckless and hard-hearted. To some degree, he imputed such qualities to black men in general, but he also fought against that tendency his whole life, and in the end overcame it. Since childhood, he had suffered from a fear of black men he described as "big, tall, mean guys," and yet he dealt with it by surrounding himself with big and tall black men to work as his bodyguards. Reporter and self-described "family friend" Stacy Brown was probably correct when he said that Michael had insisted upon having white children because "he did not want to take the chance that a child of his would look like Joseph." But Brown was overboard and off the mark when he added that Michael "hates people with dark skin." Anybody who ever saw him dance with James Brown knew that wasn't the case. The thing about Michael, though, was that he enjoyed dancing with Fred Astaire just as much.


It was true that at Neverland Ranch Michael was sometimes openly disdainful of black people — or at least a certain class of black people — referring to them as "splaboos," and using the word most often in exchanges with the young white boys who shared his bedroom. Perhaps it was also true that, as a Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputy who interviewed his household staff wrote in a 2003 affidavit, Jackson "bleaches his skin because he does not like being black and he feels that blacks are not liked as much as people of other races." But when Oprah Winfrey asked him about his racial identity in 1993, Jackson responded with a simple declaration: "I am a black American." Deepak Chopra's son, Gotham, who probably knew Michael a lot better than his father did, would say, "It was very disturbing to him that people thought he always wanted to be white."

From Untouchable © 2012 by Randall Sullivan; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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