Michael Jackson’s skin was, at times, indicative of his relationship with his fans: shocking, mysterious and unanswerable. We watched his skin change from a smooth cocoa brown to near-translucent over the last 20 years of his career, until he was almostunrecognizable as the same person that jigged in the famous "Thriller" clip. In fact, a source who saw Jackson’s body postmortem described his body as "lily white from head to toe," to CNN. Yet another called his skin "paper white…as white as a white T-shirt."
MJ always denied that he was intentionally lightening his skin, instead he asserted that he was losing melanin because of a medical condition called vitiligo. According to the National Vitiligo Foundation (NVF), it is a condition characterized by white spots on the skin that can vary greatly in their size and location. Vitiligo affects about one percent of the population and is generally caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and immunologic factors. Most cases are less severe than the King of Pop’s appeared to be, with the majority of their skin remaining its natural color.
Michael spoke to Oprah Winfrey in 1993 and said, "I’m a Black American. I am proud to be a Black American. I am proud of my race, and I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity of who I am…I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin. It’s something I cannot help. When people make up stories that I don’t like who I am, it hurts me."
CNN spoke with broadcaster Lee Thomas, an African-American who penned a book about his experience with vitiligo called Turning White. "I have to wear sleeves and carry an umbrella," he said. "It totally makes sense to me."
He even began to wear one of MJ’s signature accessories.
"I got [white spots] on one of my hands, so I used to wear a glove to hold a microphone," said Lee, who has won an Emmy for his work in TV news. He began to see white spots on his scalp at age 25, before they began to appear on his hands as well.
"Before I got this, I thought, ‘What’s up with Michael Jackson?’ " Lee admitted. "Then I get the disease, and it’s like, ‘Holy crap, there really is a disease called vitiligo, and it does what?’ "
Casting aspersions on a person’s change of skin color is "not malicious ignorance, but it is definitely ignorance," Lee told CNN.
And while the condition can affect anyone, it’s more noticeable on those with darker skin. Treatment is available and usually includes body ointments and pills along with UV-light therapy. These methods are about 60 to 70 percent successful, Dr. James Nordlund, a dermatologist who specializes in skin color disorders, told CNN.
"The problem with vitiligo is, you end up with two colors," said James, a board member with the NVF. "Everyone stares, wonders what’s going on, and people ask if you had a burn. Kids ask what’s wrong with you. It takes a tough soul to deal with that and not be affected."
When treatment to restore pigment fails and the condition continues to spread, many patients choose to lighten the rest of their skin to match the spots.
"People want to be their own color," James said. "Most of the time, most want to be their own color, but if they can’t, the second best is, ‘Look, I’ll be one color, and I’ll be white.’ "
James thinks that MJ’s trademarks (gloves, lipstick and umbrellas) were consistent with the development of vitiligo, which normally begins on the face and hands. He never treated Michael, but he was invited to a planned symposium on vitiligo at Neverland Ranch. That meeting never took place for unknown reasons.
For more on Michael Jackson’s life and death, see S2S‘s coverage here.