The cult of personality will miss Michael, who is such a rare item. How self-consciousness can become madness in the greenhouse of celebrity ego. That’s what Michael teaches us. Speaking clinically, of course, his “madness” is merely body dismorphic disorder, the condition which, in a real-life medical way, disproves the “sticks and stones may break my bones” saying. In fact, words not only hurt, they can trigger insanity. I was amazed by a recent Discovery Health case study. With certain personalities all it takes is one comment, and the individual heads down a road of mad obsession. For Michael, there was more than one comment, there was a world telling him he was morphing into an acne-scarred ogre.
I wish the worst in life to all artists. They must suffer. Michael needed to suffer, especially as a young adult, if he was going to be remembered. Natural occurrence was cruel to him when he was so exposed under a worldwide microscope. He endured the horror of public uglification. But that suffering inspired him to recreate himself into his vision of an ideal entertainer. Had his effortless cuteness carried over from boyhood into adulthood, he would not have been inspired to search beyond himself. Adversity inspires.
To understand Michael's story we look first to Christopher Andersen's excellent biography, Michael Jackson Unauthorized (1994). Andersen wisely points out as a teenage star Michael's ego is symbiotic with his good looks. Understand-ing the strong superficiality of pop, Michael knows his cuteness is a key to the success of the Jackson 5, and will be an even more important key to his success as a solo artist. More than most, Michael needs to look good. The slow onset of ugliness devastates Michael psychologically, and Andersen's book tells the story of how acne, and time and genetics turns Michael's teenage world upside down.
Comments from friends about his nose and acne triggers BDD, body dismorphic disorder, when Michael is 14 or 15 in my analysis. Like the patients in the case study, Michael develps a specific fixation on the areas targeted by other's comments - his nose and skin. He has to change the nose, so he falls on it on purpose. Michael's "fall" during a Jackson 5 rehearsal provides him with the perfect excuse to go under the rhinoplastic knife for the first time. For the skin, Michael usurps a movie role. Cast as the scarecrow in "The Wiz," according to Andersen Michael starts leaving his makeup on after shooting. Soon he is wearing stage makeup every day.
Michael's passion for the stage, trumpeted by him repeatedly in interviews of the time, is really a passion for the trappings of the stage - the makeup and fantasy lighting. He gets to hide his embarrassing realities. Make no mistake, Michael really was morphing into an acne-scarred ogre. Other BDD cases differ, but in Michael's case the observations made by friends and family members about his nose and face were completely accurate. Michael looked awful. His nose appeared smashed, sunk into his face and spread out to a monstrous width, while his facial skin swelled into an oily mess of abberations. The pictures are painful, and though available should not be shown, as I do not.
Pictures from the mid to late 80's conversely show what success Michael achieves in making himself attractive. Angles are always well-chosen, but by his late twenties, Michael looks 'different but good' - a rare star accomplishment. The photo above shows him in his best fashion phase - red oxford shirts and slim black pants. Tucked in and fitted, he maximizes the Art Nouveau potential of his physique - characterized by an impractical slenderness. He looks far taller and far younger than he is. Michael's white makeup makes him mime-ish in 80's photos. He sets himself apart with a nod to silent cinema. But the sad loneliness of the mime face, provoking such sympathy, is contradicted by Michael's bouncing walk and self-possession on camera. People could believe the biggest celebrity on the planet is shy at home. The white dress socks with black penny loafers, the gangster hat, the tassles of hair in columnic symmetry, the unexplained armband - a brilliantly designed uniform in my estimation, especially considering his earlier (and later) efforts.
But again, Michael is ill, and not just with BDD. For further understanding of his psychological condition we turn to literature and Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. For those unfamiliar with the novel, read it and experience in its opening chapters the funny and brilliant speeches of Lord Henry Wotton, a wit much like Oscar Wilde in real life, who poisons Dorian's mind with his eloquent deconstruction of all things moral, and his skillful elevation of all things beautiful, and who through excessive flattery causes Dorian to become conscious of his own beauty. Dorian suddenly envies his portrait, which unlike him will not grow old and ugly. Here the novel turns supernatural. Dorian, sick by the knowledge his beauty will fade, gives his soul for the picture to grow old and he remain young. Thus the effects of time are projected onto his portrait instead of him. The portrait will age, but he will not. He will stay beautiful forever. Long story short, the wrinkling, uglifying portrait, with its message of truth, steadily drives Dorian to madness, murder and suicide.
The connection is clear. Michael finds himself in a Dorian Gray situation. Surrounded by pictures of himself as a boy, with a fresh, vibrant, well-proportioned face and flawless skin, Michael envies his earlier self. Through makeup and plastic surgery, Michael seeks to reclaim that self. But as the unmatched scholar of Wilde Camille Paglia notes in her chapter on Dorian Gray in Sexual Personae (1990), the beautiful boy can attempt to remain a beautiful boy, but can do so "only at the price of perversion, decadence, and mummification." In other words, it won't work out. For Michael, obvoiusly, it hasn't. Presently he looks fat and grotesque, worse than he would have had he never altered himself. Dorian ends a withered, wrinkled corpse sprawled under his portrait. Paglia: "A hideous heap, he is identified only by his rings, as if he were charred in a holocaust."
Paglia might see Michael as a type of Decadent, like Oscar Wilde, who asserts the principle of person as "object d'art." "Life has its masterpieces," says Wilde, "just as poetry has, or sculpture or painting." Maybe we should view Michael as an artist of life, who attempts to employ plastic surgery and other medical technologies to heighten the power of his personality, to go beyond the coincidences of natural occurrence and constuct himself on a celebrity canvas through his taste and whim. Paglia discusses Oscar Wilde's uniquely amoral conception of "personality": "It is not character shaped by education or ethics...It is a visual construct...a radiant icon, the godlike summation of the visible world." For Wilde personality is what you look like first and foremost. Andersen suggests Michael's ultimate goal with plastic surgery was to look like Diana Ross, the fellow Motown artist he so idolized as a boy. Like Wilde, appearance is utmost in Michael's mind. He can be just like her by looking just like her. The narrowing of the nose has extra-visual effects - felt as well as seen. He can buy Diana Ross's charisma for the price of another rhinoplasty.
Andersen ends all mystery as far as Michael's sexual attraction to boys. Michael has used his enormous staff of bodyguards to sneak little boys into his bedrooms and pacify questioning parents since the mid-eighties. He has been paying off parents for his entire adult life, well before the 20-some million in 1993. If not for money, Michael would be in jail. But Paglia points out what many people do not realize: pederasty has a history. Michael's boy-love was once an accepted practice of what scholars and historians have always called Antiquity's most advanced civilization -- Athenian Greece. Shockingly to our ears, she offers the following defense:
"These days, especially in America, boy-love is not only scandalous and criminal but somehow in bad taste. On the evening news, one sees handcuffed teachers, priests, or Boy Scout leaders hustled into police vans. Therapists call them maladjusted, emotionally immature. But beauty has its own laws, inconsistent with Christian morality. As a woman, I feel free to protest that men today are pilloried for something that was rational and honorable in Greece at the height of civilization"(116).
As allegations continue to bring Michael back into the news, we don't hear this side of the discussion. We don't hear the 'yes, he is molesting boys, and it's okay' argument, not even from the once-public Camille Paglia, as far as I know. Would she publicly defend Michael's pedophilia as okay because it was okay for the ancient Greeks? Or would her distaste for Michael's scrapbook personae turn her hypocrite? Somebody should find out.
Were Michael a beautiful and charming man, we might hear an occasional defender. But his monstrous appearance makes sympathy for the seduced boys central to the equation. Michael's status as a man under the spell of beauty doesn't figure in. He's too grotesque physically to accept as human. BDD has rendered Michael a self-demonizer. He does not allow us to see him fairly. He wears the face of evil.