There’s been much speculation that Michael suffered from body dysmorphic disorder. With various media pundits, armchair psychologists, and real psychologists alleging he suffered from this disorder, as well as a host of many other mental disorders, normally only focusing on either soundbites out of context, photos taken at odd angles, or worse, just unfounded tabloid gossip. They also almost unanimously ignore the real issues Michael had with his appearance which were beyond his control.
Some of the external factors which influenced his appearance:
What we do know and what is often trivialized in any of those discussions is that: Michael suffered from two disfiguring diseases, vitiligo and lupus. The vitiligo resulted in loss of pigment in almost all areas of his body leaving his skin translucent and not white, and the physical manifestations of lupus resulted in hair loss, skin rashes and skin lesions.
He also suffered from severe acne as a teenager which caused scarring and he suffered a third degree burn on his scalp in 1984, something which according to his autopsy report had never healed, leaving a permanent bald patch.
To compensate for his vitiligo he initially tried to use treatments like PUVA to restore his skin color, but after they failed it was only in 1990, according to jury transcripts from 1994, that he was prescribed creams to even out the remainder of his skin. On top of that, he had begun to wear the glove and long sleeved clothing and heavy make up to hide the visible parts of himself which were not evenly pigmented. Something many vitiligo sufferers empathize with doing.
As a result of his lupus and vitiligo he had his scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes tattooed with dark pigment in order to disguise the recurring loss of hair and pigment in those areas. He also had treatments to his face to help restore the damage caused by his lupus lesions and rashes.
Initially, with the burn, he attempted to have a “balloon” inserted into his scalp in order to expand the skin there in the hopes of growing out the scar tissue, allowing hair to grow naturally there again, but after many attempts this failed. In the mid 90s it seems he gave up and had to start using hair pieces and other wigs to disguise the loss of hair. It’s also reported that he would sometimes wear the fedora to disguise this lump caused by the balloon on the back of his head, too.
With his nose, according to reports from a doctor for the District Attorney in 1993 who had looked over his medical records, it seems that his second nose job in 1983 had resulted in complications due to a flare up he was suffering with his discoid lupus, which was undiagnosed at the time, and because lupus can cause skin in the areas involved to “die”, especially with surgery, he had to have further reconstructive work there to fix it.
He seems to have kept much of this private because obviously most of this would have been embarrassing and traumatic to him, as they would be for most other people.
These very real issues he had with his appearance which were beyond his control were added to how he had been bullied and teased as a child by his father and family over his nose and appearance. This was further compounded by the media who publicly also teased, mocked and vilified him over his appearance and how he was reluctant to seemingly just give them an extensive list of what he had done and why he had done it.
What we also know: According to the autopsy report Michael’s nose had not “fallen off” and there is no evidence that it had ever fallen off.
He never had his eyes altered, his lips thinned, or received cheek implants.
We know most of this from a simple look at his family: Michael, Janet, LaToya, Paris and Blanket all have the same large doe eyes and all the Jackson family have the same cheekbones that Michael had.
He had to go through so much with his appearance, under such scrutiny that it seems inevitable he would feel insecure and anxious about it.
I’m not sure if the media were satisfied in hearing him repeatedly state how unhappy he was with his physical appearance. On the one hand they would question why Michael didn’t feel good about his appearance, on the other, they’d spend countless news articles, TV documentaries, interviews with doctors who’d never met him/best friends who met him at a party once in the 80s, mocking and laughing about his appearance, especially his vitiligo.
So, my biggest problem is not that people want to state Michael was unhappy with how he looked and that he likely suffered from a complex about it, but that they never seem to use this empathy with his plight in order to understand him better, instead only seeming to wish to use this to vilify him further and erase what had really happened to him, ex. “He had body dysmorphic disorder and therefore this proves he had 100 nose jobs; he hated how he looked so this means he never really had vitiligo and just re-creationally bleached his skin; he changed absolutely everything about his appearance, including his actual bone structure. I know that he did all this because he felt he was ugly and so clearly he wished to utterly redo his face from scratch and because we know he had those nose jobs it must mean he was willing to bleach his skin and reconstruct his entire face.”
Nobody ever chooses to discuss or commend him on how hard he fought to look “normal” and to keep these issues private. He chose to wear make up, gloves, tattoos, long sleeved clothing, hats, wigs, so that people wouldn’t have to see things about him that could make them feel sorry for him, but instead people use this as a means to condemn him. “Well, why didn’t he just show us? Why didn’t he walk around half naked at all times carrying his medical records so that I could see all these things going wrong with him for myself? That’s the only way anyone could really know the truth about him. I really promise I wouldn’t just laugh at him again, and again, and again, the way I did when he spoke about his other problems.”
People also neglect to mention that illnesses like Body Dysmorphic Disorder are rooted in shame. Sufferers are ashamed about the aspect of themselves they hate, they’re ashamed about what they do to disguise it, they’re ashamed at having it brought to anyone’s attention. So wondering why Michael wouldn’t address these issues while at the same time insisting he had this disorder shows that most people don’t wish to understand him, only to continue to label him. In the Oprah and Bashir interview he is visibly distressed and uncomfortable when asked about his skin, his plastic surgery and the bullying about his looks. Even when he isn’t being filmed and is just on audio his voice grows faint as he talks about it. But people still seem to have wished he could have made himself utterly vulnerable for them, to feel humiliated and degraded (it doesn’t matter if people say he wouldn’t have been; he would have felt as if he were), just so people could satisfy their ideas about how and why he looked the way he did.
One of my favorite quotes about this was from, Tom Chiarella, in Esquire Magazine of all places: “I never liked the glove, although when I saw his monstrous hand, I got it. And I admired what he’d done to cover it up. It was never clear to me if that hurt or not, but I imagine it did. Think about the beauty of that. Putting sequins on your open wounds. Think about the entire world staring at the one thing that makes you feel most ugly.”
But the two oldest boys often tease their younger brothers.
“When Tito and Jackie really want us mad,” Michael laughs, “they call Jermaine ‘Big Head,’ Marlon ‘Liver lips’ and they call me ‘Big Nose.’
“My skin broke out real bad. It was tough — especially after everyone had been calling me cute for such a long time. And the more I worried about it the worse I got.”
“I wore hats, I kept my head down all the time, I wouldn’t look at people when I talked to them. I wouldn’t say nothin’ hardly. It was terrible. I felt I didn’t have anything to be proud of. My success meant nothing.”
“On stage I didn’t think about it, it was gone. But when I came off stage, there it was again.”
When asked about cosmetic surgery, Michael defended the procedure, saying everybody did it. “I’m a perfectionist when it comes to skin,” he said.
“But take Marilyn Monroe, and all those people. They got the works. Julie Andrews, Raquel Welch. Even Elvis. You look at his nose and the difference.. it’s true. But nobody ever mentions it.”
“You can clear up physically but still mentally you’re scarred — so you really haven’t improved.”
“I would look in the mirror and I didn’t like they way I looked, so… of course, never print this. Please don’t…”
Adolescence proved awkward for Michael too. He sprouted from just over five feet to five feet ten. Overnight, it seemed, he went from a cute little boy to a gangly teenager. Certain body parts outgrew others, and now Michael was the object of merciless ribbing, especially from his father. “Look at that big nose on your face,” Joseph used to taunt. “I don’t know where you got that from… Bignose.”
(This part seems to take place sometime during the Bad tour)
MJ: The other day, after my video came out,.. I don’t know what happened. They kicked me out of the trailer with my own band and stuff. And I’m on tour and stuff. Traveling with my (I) people and stuff like that. And — “Who was that?” – you know, it was like — I don’t associate with them. Only if there’s a rehearsal, or I have to be on stage. When we’re back in the hotel room. I don’t associate, really, with those people.
G: Not any of them?
MJ: No, I don’t associate with them. I stay off to myself.
G: Why? Isn’t there anybody you could be real close to?
MJ: No. I feel uncomfortable – It’s like… okay, this is my band, we got Michael here, we got so-and-so.”
G: (Started, interrupted by Michael)
MJ: “We got Sheryl, we got, you know, Jennifer.” And, I just don’t associate with people.
G: Do you, um? Okay. Maybe is it hard for you to (sigh) to be so open?
MJ: I just–
G: In a way, In a way, and to be looking at someone in the face or having someone look at you in the face cause you don’t want them to… ’cause…
MJ: You know what, I don’t want them to get close and I don’t want them to see into my soul. And then I deal with this anorexia thing… I feel sad…
G: Don’t, Michael. You look really good. (Silence) You look really good.
MJ: (After a silence – very low, strained) I don’t look good. I (inaudible)
(Sometime after Latoya posed for Playboy)
MJ: Joseph used to beat us all the time and… (inaudible) dance… would… He would, he would just… get to me. And I bought into that, he was like, “Oh you put on a few pounds.” The only thing that I could control in my life, what with Motown… ’cause they tell you – in the interviews, when we used to go on Carson or Mike Douglas or whatever back then, when we used to do interviews as the Jackson Five, you know when you’re in this kind of business they kinda like, they like…okay, girl… “Do you have a girlfriend?” “No.” Do this… You know got, it’s like, they dictate to you everything. What you wear, what you sing. ‘Cause back then we weren’t allowed to sing our own stuff and do our own stuff. They dictate to you what you can wear… If you’re on an interview, if you’re going on Carson, “This is what you say, this is what don’t say.” The only control I had over my life was eating. I had no control. We had no control. *clears throat* I didn’t, I didn’t… I wasn’t like my brothers. People, they’re angry and they take it out on others. I was angry and hurt, and I took it out on myself. And being brought up with Joseph and stuff like that… when we were rehearsing on 2300 – where we used to live. It’s like, If I danced wrong, if I sang the wrong note, I’d get the hell beat out of me, I’d get thrown in the basement. So instead of taking that out on other people, I withdrew and I’d take it out on myself. There was nothing I could control in my life but my eating. And Joseph told me, “Oh, you’re… oh you have such a big nose.”
G: He told you you were too…?
MJ: Yes. When I was little. “You look so, you don’t look like my child. Your nose is so big,” and this and that. They used to call me Big Nose and stuff. And instead of retaliating on them, I just did it with myself.
G: Michael? Are you happy with your face?
MJ: Yeah. I’m happy with my face and stuff.
G: Are you happy you did all that surgery?
MJ: Yeah. Because I don’t wanna look like “(inaudible)”[like that? Like him?] G: Well, you don’t? (laughs)
MJ: I mean, people tell me, “Oh, yeah, you’re really Janet”. Or “Oh, (low voice) before LaToya posed nude.” Sayin’ “Toya and you is the same person and stuff.”
G: Who said that? (laughs)
MJ: Oh, god, it was in the media!
G: That’s just bad.
MJ: Toya even wrote that in Playboy. She said, “Well, at least I can put the rumor to rest that Michael and I aren’t the same person.”
MJ: And showin’ her breasts and stuff like that. Then they say, “Janet and Michael are the same person.”
G: (chuckle) That’s crazy.
Oprah : So I’m wondering for you, being this cute little boy who everybody adored and everybody who comes up to you they’re pulling your cheeks and how cute, how adolescence going through that duck stage where everything’s awkward, and I’m wondering when you started to go through adolescence having been this child superstar, was that a particularly difficult time for you?
Michael : Very. Very, very difficult, yes. Because I think every child star suffers through this period because you’re not the cute and charming child that you were. You start to grow, and they want to keep you little forever.
Oprah : Who’s they?
Michael : The public. And um, nature takes its course.
Oprah : It does?
Michael : Yes, and I had pimples so badly it used to make me so shy, I used not to look at myself, I’d hide my face in the dark, I wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and my father teased me and I just hated it and I cried every day.
Oprah : Your father teased you about your pimples?
Michael : Yes and tell me I’m ugly.
Oprah : Your father would say that?
Michael : Yes he would. Sorry Joseph.
Oprah: How much plastic surgery have you had?
Michael: Very, very little. I mean you can count on my two fingers, I mean let’s say this, if you want to know about those things, all the nosey people in the world, read my book Moonwalk, it’s in my book. You know, let’s put it this way, if all the people in Hollywood who have had plastic surgery, if they went on vacation, there wouldn’t be a person left in town.
Oprah: Mmm, I think you might be right.
Michael: I think I am right. It would be empty.
Oprah: Did you start having plastic surgery because of those teen years because of not liking the way you looked?
Michael: No, not really. It was only two things. Really, get my book, it’s no big deal.
Oprah: You don’t want to tell me what it is? You had your nose done, obviously.
Michael: Yeah, but so did a lot of people that I know.
Oprah: And so, when you hear all these things about you, and there have been more…
Michael: I’ve never had my cheekbones done, never had my eyes done, never had my lips done and all this stuff. They go too far, but this is stuff that happens every day with other people.
Oprah: Are you pleased now with the way you look?
Michael: I’m never pleased with anything, I’m a perfectionist, it’s part of who I am.
Oprah: And so when you look in the mirror now and so the image that looks back at you are there days when you say I kinda like this or I like the way my hair…
Michael: No. I’m never pleased with myself. No, I try not to look in the mirror.
SB: You have to live a long and happy life. But do you really think that one day you will decide to become a recluse and disappear?
SB: Live at Neverland and lock up the gates. Will that be it?
MJ: Yeah. I know I am.
SB: But why? Because you don’t want people to see you grow old?
MJ: I can’t deal with it. I love beautiful things too much and the beautiful things in nature and I want my messages to get out to the world, but I don’t want to be seen now… like when my picture came up on the computer, it made me sick when I saw it.
MJ: Because I am like a lizard. It is horrible. I never like it. I wish I could never be photographed or seen and I push myself to go to the things that we go to. I really do.
SB: Michael, some people have written that your father used to say that you were ugly. Is that true?
MJ: Uh-huh. He used to make fun of… I remember we were on a plane one time, ready to take off, and I was going through an awkward puberty when your features start to change. And he went, “Ugh, you have a big nose. You didn’t get it from me.” He didn’t realize how much that hurt me. It hurt me so bad, I wanted to die.
SB: Was that a hostile remark aimed at your mother, “You didn’t get it from me?”
MJ: I don’t know what he was trying to say.
SB: Don’t you think your father instilled in you a belief that you are not handsome? So you tried to change your appearance a bit, and you are still not happy. So really you have to begin to love your appearance and yourself and all of that.
MJ: I know. I wish I could.
SB: We all have problems with our appearance… The other night, Thursday night, you looked fantastic [Michael had gotten all dressed up for Denise Rich’s Angel Ball cancer fundraiser]. You were the best looking guy there. So you don’t like being photographed?
MJ: I wish I could never be photographed and I wish I could never be seen. Just for entertainment so I design the dance the way I want it to look, and film the way I want it to look.
SB: Now you want to do movies?
MJ: I love movies, but I can control it, you see. I can’t control how those pictures come out with the lighting and my expression at the time. Arggh.
SB: If a child said that to you, “I hate being photographed,” what would you say to that child?
MJ: I would say, “You don’t know how beautiful you are. It’s your spirit that’s…”
SB: So why are you prepared to say that to everybody except yourself?
MJ: I don’t know. [He said this in a voice of confusion and resignation]
MJ: I have thrown up in his presence because when he comes in the room and this aura comes and my stomach starts hurting and I know I am in trouble. He is so different now. Time and age has changed him and he sees his grandchildren and he wants to be a better father. It is almost like the ship has sailed its course, and it is so hard for me to accept this other guy that is not the guy I was raised with. I just wished he had learned that earlier.
SB: So why are you still scared?
MJ: Because the scar is still there, the wound.
SB: So you still see him as the first man. It is hard for you to see him as this new man?
MJ: I can’t see him as the new man. I am like an angel in front of him, like scared. One day he said to me, “Why are you scared of me?” I couldn’t answer him. I felt like saying, “Do you know what you have done?” [voice breaks] “Do you know what you have done to me?”
SB: Do you think it’s important to tell children they are beautiful?
MJ: Yes, but not to overdo it. You are beautiful inside. Do it that way. Prince looks in the mirror and he’s combing his hair and he says, ” I look good.” I say, “You look okay.”
Interview regarding the tapes:
Springhill, Fla.: Why did Michael think he was ugly?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: What I write in the book is that all of us living in this culture have somehow been conditioned to believe that we are not attractive. There is too much self-loathing with regards to appearance in America. Michael was guilty of it, as are so many of us. In his case, he referenced the fact that his father made hurtful comments. But there can be no question that a culture that promotes external appearance over internal beauty is going to produce a glorification of youth over wisdom and Michael relates in the book that he desperately feared growing old.
For one of Jackson’s final music videos, 2001’s Guys and Dolls-in-Cuba-style “You Rock My World,” director Paul Hunter simply resorted to hiding the star’s ravaged features as much as he possibly could — there’s even an extended dance sequence where Jackson performs entirely in silhouette. “One of the tricks that we did was we said, ‘We’re in this gangster world, so let’s come in with some swagger, get your hat brim pulled down, get a doo-rag going,” Hunter says. “What I tried to do was not call too much attention to it.”
The summer of 2001 found us on the set for the You Rock My World video, when John McClain, a long term adviser to the Jacksons, called me. He had met with the director, he said, and reported, “They want to use make up to darken Michael’s skin for the video. They also want to fill in his nose with putty.” He wanted me to suggest these cosmetic effects to Michael. He clearly didn’t know Michael at all.
I was stunned. And I refused.
“John, I cannot have this conversation with Michael. There’s no way he’ll ever go for anything like this. If you need to, go ahead. But I’m not doing it.” I didn’t want to get involved.
A little while later I was back in my hotel room when the phone rang. It was Karen Faye, Michael’s makeup artist, calling from Michael’s room. She was supposed to be getting him ready for the video shoot, but he had locked himself in the bathroom and she had no idea why. She asked me to come to the room immediately.
When I arrived, I heard Michael inside the bathroom, freaking out and throwing stuff around. Clearly John McClain had talked to him about the proposed changes to his skin and nose, and he was extremely pissed of. I tried to get his attention, but the chaos inside the bathroom went on. Finally I heard him bang something with such force that I got worried. I started trying to break down the door.
At last, Michael let me in. He was sitting on the floor. He’d been in the middle of having his hair cut when he’d heard the news, so his hair was half long, half short. He was holding his hands over his face, sobbing.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “They think I’m ugly? They want to put putty on my nose? What the fuck is wrong with them? I don’t tell them how they should look. Fuck them.” Talking through his tears, he kept saying, “They think I’m a freak, they think I’m a freak, they think I’m a freak.”
Seeing him crouched on the floor, sobbing and with his hair half cut, was devastating, to say the very least. This was the second time in recent days that I’d seen him break down. Although for years, the media had been mocking and attacking his appearance, Michael didn’t always react so strongly to what people said about him. It depended on the day. Sometimes he didn’t care what people though. He was a strong guy. Then there were times when enough was enough, and he would break down. The fact that his supposed allies were criticizing his appearance at a time when he was in such a fragile state was too much for him to bear.
This wasn’t the Michael Jackson that existed for the rest of the world. This wasn’t Michael Jackson the icon. This was Michael Jackson at his most vulnerable, his most human, being pushed to the brink. While it had become a habit for me to force him to face painful truths, this time there was no truth at stake. There is no objective right or wrong to a person’s appearance. Michael had been ignoring headlines about his appearance for years, so my advice to him now was simply not to listen.
“We can walk away from this,” I said. “They need you, you don’t need them.”
I canceled that day’s shoot and told everyone involved that we would start fresh the next day. Michael and I returned to our rooms and stayed in for the remainder of the day. Before leaving, I spoke to John McClain and the director of the video, Paul Hunter.
“John,” I said. “I can’t believe you said what you said to Michael. We’re going to finish this project, but there will be no more conversations regarding Michael’s appearance in the video. If that’s a problem, we’ll walk off the set for good and deal with the consequences.”
Bashir: Did your father and your brothers tease you about your appearance, as an adolescent?
MJ: My father did. And some cousins did.
Bashir: What did your father say?
MJ: Oh God. It was pretty embarrassing. They used to tease me real bad about it.
Bashir: It’s cruel, isn’t it?
MJ: Yeah. It used to hurt me. I don’t think he realized how much he would hurt me.
Bashir: What sort of thing would he say?
MJ: He would tease me about how I looked and he would say, “Well, you didn’t get it from my side of the family. Must’ve been from Kate-” Kate, he would always say, meaning my mother. “You didn’t get that from me, you must’ve got that from her.“
Jackson also gave the teen the blue silk germ mask he was wearing that day – which he told Elatab he wears “only because he feels ugly sometimes.”
“Oh God no. We had many talks about that (his looks). He had that inner light but he always considered himself to be extremely ugly. He said he’s not a handsome man.”
Puberty is always a potential thief for a child star: it threatens to take away the image your dream is built on. Michael and I both struggled with acne; mine still stubborn and raging as an 18 year old, his rabid and new at 14. A liking for fried food and soda in dressing rooms had caught up with us. Like me, Marlon – who also suffered – accepted the break outs without too much angst, and I didn’t think Michael would be any different. I didn’t appreciate how much he worried about the threat his acne posed to his image because he never really spoke about it. We didn’t really talk about that sort of thing. What “cool” teenage boy does? We Jackson brothers were especially bound that way. We had been taught so much about pride, respect and performance that we had never learned the art of easy communication. We didn’t check in with each other unless it was album talk, tour madness, choreography ideas, basketball plans or girls. So Michael suffered quietly as his features changes and his skin flared up with pimples Indeed he locked it deep inside, except for the odd worry he expressed to Mother.
Michael’s acne was a confusion he wasn’t expecting. And then there was his nose. It widened noticeably and he hated it. In fact, he hated his nose so much that he found it hard to look at himself in the mirror. This wasn’t just typical teenage self consciousness: it became a full blown inferiority complex. The more he looked at himself, the unhappier he felt. In fact, he was painfully brittle during conversations with anyone, always looking down to avoid eye contact.
His comfort zone, as always, was the stage or platform of press interviews, when reporters spoke of how “energized”, “inquisitive” and “ebullient” he was. In performance mod, Michael’s teenage woes were well concealed behind makeup or the performance’s personality he projected. Offstage, our merciless teasing only made matters worse, but teasing is what brothers do, and we all had to go through it. When my acne kicked in, they – including Michael – called me “Bumpy Face” or “Map Face” and Marlon was “Live Lips.” I even received a second label, “Big Head,” because my head was, apparently, too big for my body. So when Michael was called “Big Nose” it was just part of the common initiation into manhood – but he struggled with it. Not that we knew so until much later.
Michael always recalled Joseph using the tease, and that was what hurt him most – hearing it from an adult’s lips and from the man who had driven home the importance of image all our lives. “Hey, Big Nose, come over here,” said Joseph. Michael said nothing and cringed each time.
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit