In the years before his death, several theories swirled around Michael Jackson’s skin. Jackson’s skin had been medium-brown in color since he was a child, but the pop superstar’s skin became noticeably lighter during the 1980s.
In his 1991 book Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli accused Jackson of bleaching his skin to appear whiter. Taraborrelli does write that a doctor had diagnosed Jackson with vitiligo in the 1980s, but insists that the condition was the result of skin-bleaching chemicals rather than heredity.
In a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson said a genetic disease caused his skin to appear “blotchy.” He did not divulge the name of the condition, however, fueling further speculation into the actual cause of his lighter skin. Most of the rumors centered on Taraborrelli’s claim that Michael Jackson was bleaching his skin—some even said he was doing it to look Caucasian—while others thought he had xeroderma pigmentosum.
Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) is an inherited condition that causes extreme sensitivity to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight. XP is an autosomal recessive disorder that greatly increases the risk of getting skin cancer. It affects mostly the eyes and skin, damaging DNA in the cells there. Normally, the body repairs this damage. In people with XP, however, the body does not repair damaged skin. This results in thin, blotchy skin. Exposure to sunlight often causes dry skin and changes in skin coloring. For a person with XP, skin can burn after just a few minutes of exposure to sunlight. These sunburns cause redness and blisters that may last for weeks.
Without sun protection, approximately half of children with the condition develop skin cancer by the age of 10 years, and most people with XP develop cancer multiple times throughout their lives. These cancers typically appear on the face, lips, and eyelids but can also develop on the scalp, eyes, and tip of the tongue.
Characteristics of XP include:
- Sun sensitivity
- Ocular involvement
- Greatly increased risk for cutaneous neoplasms
In May 2014, the Associated Press reported on a small village in Brazil by the name of Araras, thought to be home to the largest single group of people with XP. The condition affects more than 20 of the 800 residents of this village. It is especially vexing because most people in the community rely on farming to sustain themselves.
While skin cancer might explain some of the changes in Michael Jackson’s facial characteristics, such as a narrowing nose, the singer did not have this hereditary condition.
Upon autopsy, the coroner determined that Michael Jackson indeed had vitiligo. The condition affects 0.5% to 1% of people worldwide. It is equally common in all ethnic groups but is more noticeable in individuals with dark skin.
In his interview with Oprah, Jackson said his father had the same condition. Indeed, vitiligo is likely the result of variations in the NLRP1 and PTPN22 genes, although other genes usually associated with the immune system may play a role. About one-fifth of people with vitiligo have at least one close family member with the condition.
Michael Jackson left behind a complicated legacy. His youngest fans were not yet born when Jackson was at his professional peak, so many do not remember the difficulties he faced regarding false accusations and rumors in the press. Michael Jackson overcame those challenges to become one of the biggest legends in music history despite the difficulties he faced with his fans, the media, and his own health.
- Duke A. Autopsy reveals Michael Jackson’s secrets. CNN website. May 7, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/07/showbiz/jackson-death-trial/.
- Michael Jackson talks to Oprah—10 February 1993. Michael Jackson’s House website. http://www.mjshouse.com/stories/oprah.html.
- Peres E. Rare disease afflicts Brazilian village. Associated Press website. May 6, 2014. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/ap-photos-rare-disease-afflicts-brazilian-village.
- Taraborrelli JR. Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story, 1958-2009. Hachette Digital, Inc.; July 15, 2009. http://books.google.com/books?id=HNUr4CBd7ksC&pg=PT380&lpg=PT380&dq=the+magic+and+the+madness+skin+bleaching&source=bl&ots=ibQbi882qs&sig=e3R8nxSzGik8yU8G0q4-72lNHJ4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qBOGU8CsDePJ8wGN34C4CA&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=the%20magic%20and%20the%20madness%20skin%20bleaching&f=false.
- Vitiligo. Genetics Home Reference website. Reviewed December 2010. http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/vitiligo.
- Xeroderma pigmentosum. Genetics Home Reference website. Reviewed May 2010. http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/xeroderma-pigmentosum.