Unhappy King of Pop

February 13, 1993

Pop singer Michael Jackson's interview with Oprah Winfrey last Wednesday was ostensibly meant to dispel a long list of misconceptions about the 34-year-old star. But even viewers sympathetic to the reclusive "King of Pop" may have come away with the feeling Mr. Jackson and Ms. Winfrey raised more questions than they answered.

Did Mr. Jackson bleach his skin and undergo plastic surgery to deny his racial and sexual identity? The singer says no, though his explanation of recent changes in his appearance seemed incomplete. Ms. Winfrey did not press the matter.

Regarding his complexion, for example, Mr. Jackson said he suffered from a skin disorder over which he had no control. Later reports quoted experts who surmised Mr. Jackson may have vitiligo, a malfunction of the immune system that causes a loss of pigment in patches of the skin. Mr. Jackson implied that his heavy, chalk-like makeup was necessary to compensate for the effects of his disease. But that didn't explain why he also wore eyeliner and lipstick.

Similarly, Mr. Jackson dismissed rumors of having undergone numerous operations to obliterate his African-American facial features. Yet the plastic surgery he acknowledges having clearly effaced not only his racial identity but also his gender.

Liz Taylor, a friend of Mr. Jackson's, appeared to declare him "the least weird man I've ever known." She was much more convincing when she described Mr. Jackson as extremely "shrewd."

That he certainly is, which makes it hard to escape a suspicion that everything about this event was carefully stage-managed. Perhaps Mr. Jackson merely wanted to pump up his sagging record sales by portraying himself as a misunderstood genius, who underneath the hype and glitter is just a gentle, innocent soul tortured by painful memories of an abusive, lonely childhood.

Doubtless many of the 31 million viewers who tuned in last Wednesday will give Mr. Jackson the benefit of the doubt. They may feel better about liking his music. And in the curious way that Hollywood works, the fans' faith could actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy: If Mr. Jackson's record sales go back up as a result, giving his career a new boost, he may indeed find that he has at least one less thing to be unhappy about.

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