You’ve been hit by a Smooth Liminal: Framing Michael Jackson’s Ailing Celebrity Body
This paper is interested in the construction and performance of disease by the media in the widely publicized life (and death) of the pop music icon, Michael Jackson. It explores the key discourses around “public” diseases – that is disease that acquires public visibility by virtue of its “mediation” by a celebrity-body. It examines how celebrity diseases are “performed” by the media in a variety of ways. The paper uses as texts, Michael Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, Randy J Taraborelli’s popular biography, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (1992), newspaper reportage about Michael Jackson’s health and ailments in leading American dailies like The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post and highly televised interviews and documentaries like Michael Jackson’s 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey and Martin Bashir’s Living with Michael Jackson, televised in 2003.
The paper studies Jackson’s “hypervisible” medical history in the context of larger discourses that “frame” the celebrity’s ailing body. For instance, “frames” of reading the disease or medical conditions – horrific stories of plastic surgeries, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual perversity and excess – are already in place (what Holmes and Redmond term the “conventionalization” of narratives of “damage”) within celebrity discourse. Thus reports about Michael Jackson’s various ailments are almost always framed by narratives about his “eccentric and excessive” lifestyle. Media reportage surrounding his death is evidence of this – news articles about his death by a drug overdose or due to “improper medical care” by a doctor who was not “board certified” simultaneously construct the image of a “star” whose life was “already on the decline”. In addition, celebrity illness also generates a different order of medical discourse about the ethics of celebrity medical care, doctor-patient confidentiality and knowledge and information about specific medical conditions. The ailing celebrity is able, through a “performance” of illness/suffering to articulate a “new self” that can critique medical practices and the culture of celebrity itself. Moreover, media constructions and performances of Michael Jackson’s ailing body also work to transmit stereotypical notions of racial difference and otherness. His chronic skin ailments, Vitiligo and Lupus and his many plastic surgeries are thus often read within “deracination” debates, thus framing his disease and his desire for “aesthetic” or “cosmetic” improvement within a discourse of race.
“The first words from Michael Jackson seem to portend a candid dialogue. ‘Excuse my skin,’ he says. ‘I just came from the dermatologist. So pretend you don’t see it.’ “2 (Edna Gunderson)
Michael Jackson’s health made news in a variety of ways since his ‘early’ entry into stardom, with ailments ranging from eating disorders likeAnorexia Nervosa; psychological problems like emotional trauma from childhood abuse and dissociative identity disorder; chronic skin conditions like lupus and vitiligo; and his addiction to painkillers, to name a few. This paper examines the key discourses around what we can think of as public diseases; that is, diseases that acquire public visibility by virtue of their mediation by a celebrity-body. This paper examines an “extraordinary” 3 and at times, highly controversial, case of celebrity-illness – that of Michael Jackson – and argues that particular notions of illness, the body and medicine emerge through the construction and circulation of the diseased or ailing celebrity body. This paper will use as texts, Michael Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, Randy J Taraborelli’s popular biography, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (1992), newspaper reportage about Michael Jackson’s health and ailments in leading American dailies like The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post, L A Times and highly televised interviews and documentaries like Michael Jackson’s 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey and Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson.
Celebrity and Illness
I argue that Jackson’s medical history is framed by a tradition of “negative discourses” of failure, death, mental illness, notoriety and hate that are also integral to the cultural circulation of fame. As Holmes and Redmond have argued, such “narratives of damage” have been “conventionalized” within celebrity discourse (289). Diseases that acquire public visibility through celebrity-patients thus draw upon pre-existing narratives of “fame damage”, the “patient-as-victim” and the “heroic” to encode particular ideas about the body, disease and medicine. Michael Jackson’s highly publicized medical history draws upon each of these narrative types to enable various modes of representing illness and the ailing celebrity. As Linda Levitt suggests in her analysis of Hollywood’s Dark Tourism, within celebrity culture, there exists a liminal space between the celebrity death and burial (63). This space reveals, she argues, the processes of creating an identity for the celebrity through commemoration that a coalescence of the media and audience members makes possible. During this “in-between” time, the celebrity’s cultural value and identity are re-evaluated by the public. While media coverage surrounding Jackson’s death provides ample illustration of this cultural re-evaluation, I argue that Jackson’s widely publicised and therefore “hypervisible” medical history allowed him to carve out a space of resistance from which an autonomous critique of medicine, illness and racial identity (all of which were points of supreme controversy and debate throughout his career) could be articulated. Narratives of Jackson’s rise to fame are ubiquitous in their references to fame damage (damage caused to the celebrity body by his/her celebrity status), Jackson’s own personal history of abuse and violence as a child and his fragile health and frequent ailments as an adult. Through a seamless interweaving of the pathological with a conventional narrative of prodigious rise to fame, these narratives are able to stage not only cultural re-evaluation but also need to be explored for the “tensions” they confront while representing the ailing celebrity body (The Celebrity-Patient) vis-ˆ-vis its location in a community of common, everyday patients and the medical institution.
Diseases acquire celebrity status through a double mediation: by the spectacular visibility through representation and the diseased body of the star. The Celebrity-Patient is enabled thus, both by his/her own status as “celebrity” and by the popular media, to make his/her ailment or suffering hypervisible. This hypervisibility performs very specific functions for the celebrity body and the celebrity-as-patient. Firstly, it allows us a glimpse of the real celebrity by foregrounding the materiality of the ailing celebrity body. Chris Rojek argues that the body is central to the “routines of behaviour” that establish descent in the public eye 4. “The mortification of the body,” Rojek argues, “brings the celebrity down to earth” (80). Portrayals of declining celebrity health in the media, I argue, make visible such “routines of behaviour” in the celebrity persona and the celebrity body becomes the focus of such a “status stripping ceremony.” 5Public acknowledgement of an illness also reveals a moment of truth for the celebrity and seeks to displace what Marshall describes as the term’s increasing association with a “vulgar sense of notoriety” in the late modern period (4). As Arthur Frank notes, the authority and appeal of the illness narrative lies in the belief that truth is what is produced when a body is at the extremes of suffering (48). Secondly, publicizing an illness provides a platform for articulating a new self 6. Reports of declining health and the visual documentation of a celebrity’s experience of unhealth allows him/her to carve out a space from which to articulate a story of heroic battle, a human and vulnerable side to the public face, a critique of medical practices and the culture of the celebrity itself. Third, the hypervisible ailing/suffering body of the celebrity functions as the medium through which dominant anxieties about the “normative” and “able” body are negotiated7. By articulating their individual stories of illness in public, I argue, celebrity bodies draw attention to particular notions of the “able”, “healthy” and “normal” body. Perceptions of and about the body, as Ramanathan has argued, materialize through very distinct linguistic articulations and are therefore “form-giving” as well as “form bestowing” (9). What is rendered visible about the ailing celebrity body and illness thus bestows and provides a certain form to illness, medicine and the ailing celebrity body (Ramanathan 9).
I intend, in this paper, through an exploration of media representations of the ailing celebrity body to study the key discourses surrounding public disease. As argued earlier, narratives representing Jackson’s medical history offer a seamless interweaving of illness and fame. The following section examines the “construction” of Celebrity Illness via media representations and Jackson’s own illness narrative at two levels: the social/Cultural and, the professional.
The Construction of Celebrity Illness
Michael Jackson’s life story is the now familiar one of a child star who entered the music industry too early to have ever had a normal childhood and later, a normal life. Oprah Winfrey’s 1993 interview with Jackson and Bashir’s Living With Michael Jackson are both illustrative of how the story of Jackson’s rise to fame is always narrated as the story of a lost childhood. His medical history became newsworthy following his accident on the set of a Pepsi commercial in January 1984. Jackson’s scalp was severely burned when a pyrotechnics explosion set his hair on fire while shooting the Pepsi commercial in front of an audience of 3,000 people, who were present to simulate a live concert experience. The several shots of Jackson being carried out of the commercial set on a stretcher, his head bandaged, his body and most of his face covered in blankets and a sequined glove raised to onlookers made news headlines all over the world. Jackson would return to this widely publicized accident on several occasions, to claim that it marks the beginning of his life-long drug use and physical pain. A 1993 article in the New York Times quotes the taped statement that Michael Jackson released in which he confesses to his dependency on drugs. “The pressure resulting from these false allegations, coupled with the incredible energy necessary for me to perform, caused so much distress that it left me physically and emotionally exhausted. I became increasingly more dependant on the painkillers” (“Michael Jackson Ends Tour”). The article goes on to say that Jackson had been prescribed these drugs “after recent reconstructive surgery on his scalp, which was badly burned during the filming of a television commercial several years ago” (“Michael Jackson Ends Tour”). Citing an earlier accident for a present condition allows Jackson to perpetuate the memory of a story of damage. I argue that the construction of Jackson’s illness makes visible certain aspects of a highly publicized medical history. The ailing celebrity body is an instantiation of an inherent tension between the suffering and performing celebrity body. Jackson’s medical history thus works to pathologize his celebrity body at the level of the social/cultural (by situating the suffering celebrity-as-patient outside the community of everyday, common patients as well as the medical institution) and the professional (by presenting illness/the ailing celebrity body as both a cause for and result of the celebrity profession).
Celebrity-as-patient: Constructing the celebrity-as-patient constantly foregrounds the “extraordinary” nature of the celebrity patient and articulates an anxiety about the status of the celebrity-as-patient vis-ˆ-vis a community of “normal” patients and the medical institution. The celebrity-as-patient threatens to re-organize the traditional hierarchy of doctor and patient within the medical institution by locating the celebrity body outside “conventional” medical practices and the community of “normal” patients. An article in the New York Times about an increasing trend of Propofol (a powerful anesthetic, one of several drugs that are believed to have caused Michael Jackson’s death) use among those with “easy access” narrates the story of a doctor-addict. The article emphasizes the appropriate use of the drug while simultaneously painting a picture of persons who commonly become addicted to the drug, among whom Jackson is only one. The writer emphasizes the unusual nature of Jackson’s Propofol use thus: “While Mr. Jackson’s apparent method of using the drug was unusual – with a private doctor in his home – researchers and addiction experts say Propofol abuse is growing, particularly among those with medical access like the Nebraska doctor” (Pam Belluck, “With High-Profile Death, Focus on High-Risk Drug”). The article thus displays an anxiety over the “unusual” use of Propofol by Jackson (outside the hospital, without any medical monitoring or emergency care possible) while simultaneously likening him to “those with medical access like the Nebraska doctor”. Jackson here is thus no ordinary patient; his power of medical access is akin to that of a doctor. Moreover, Jackson’s Propofol use sparked controversy on account of his public insistence that he used it to treat his chronic insomnia. The Times article further underscores Jackson “medical eccentricity” thus:
“Using Propofol as a home sleep aid – as it might have been administered to Mr. Jackson – would be “kind of like me using chemotherapy so I don’t have to shave my head,” said Dr. John F. Dombrowski, director of the Washington Pain Center and a board member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. “You’d never do that” (Pam Belluck, “With High-Profile Death, Focus on High-Risk Drug”). 
Another Times article quotes Stacy Brown, a Jackson biographer as saying that the singer received at least one injection of Propofol everyday. While these doctors were all legitimate, Brown stresses, none of them was “ever in a position to say no to Mr Jackson” (Pam Belluck, “Jackson’s Health a Subject of Confusion”). The celebrity-as-patient thus threatens the doctor-patient divide and situates the celebrity body outside the confines of established medical procedures.
In his biography, Randy J Taraborelli describes Jackson’s admittance into a drug rehabilitation centre in 1993, “Michael was officially enrolled in the centre – albeit in a way befitting the King of Pop: He took over the entire fourth floor of the hospital, at fifty thousand dollars a week, and was expected to remain there for about a month and a half” (526). Though the very terms of his admission and stay at the rehabilitation centre were markedly different from other patients, while staying there, Jackson was unable to participate in the treatment “normally”. His status as celebrity prevented him from speaking at group therapy sessions (a primary means of treatment at the center) because of his fear that one of the other patients will go to the tabloids. He was thus given private therapy sessions. Having lived a privileged life, Jackson was unwilling to listen to the centre’s authorities because as Taraborelli describes it, “No one ever told him what to do in his private world, and he expected that it would be the same at the Charter. It wasn’t. Soon, he found himself mopping floors, which he hadn’t done since he lived in Gary” (527). Moreover, Jackson appeared to be getting a quick remedy, as evidenced by his departure from the centre in a few days time, as opposed to the stipulated one and a half month period. Taraborelli said, “it appeared that Michael was having some kind of “quick fix.” Surely, it would take more than a few days, even a few months, for Michael to deal with so many years of dysfunction” (530). The celebrity-as-patient thus articulates an anxiety about the status of the celebrity body within the medical institution and the community and interrogates the celebrity body’s agency in terms of his/her treatment.
The “celebrity-as-patient” is constructed through a situating or contextualizing of the “celebrity” in a history of fame damage, illness or notoriety, as argued earlier. This is an instantiation of the seamless interweaving of the pathological/medical history with a professional history that reveals the inherent tensions between the suffering and “performing body of the celebrity. For instance, a Michael Jackson obituary in the Los Angeles Times began with the following lines: “He owned a statue of Marilyn, studied Chaplin and married Elvis’ daughter. It seemed the perennial man-child would cease to exist if the applause ever stopped” (“Michael Jackson’s Life”). This is a good illustration of how often Michael Jackson’s story has been read alongside that of other famous stars and as the obituary clearly wishes to indicate, stars whose stories of “fame damage” are now iconic.
In his autobiography, Moonwalk, Jackson describes his connection with Elizabeth Taylor:
“So there were sad moments in my childhood. It’s true for any child star. Elizabeth Taylor8 told me she felt the same way. When you’re young and you’re working, the world can seem awfully unfair. I wasn’t forced to be little Michael the lead singer – I did it and I loved it – but it was hard work” (9).
Later, while he recollects the Jackson 5 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Michael Jackson recollects that before the show, Ed Sullivan tells him that he should never forget where his talent came from and explains that it came from God (Jackson). Jackson contextualizes this exchange for the reader in the following manner:
“It was 1970, a year when some of the best people in rock were losing their lives to drugs and alcohol”. And later, “Some people had already said that I reminded them of Frankie Lymon, a great young singer of the 1950’s who lost his life that way” (13).
Very significantly, Jackson also points to the parallels made between his “secluded” life and that of Elvis Presley’s: “people thought that if I kept living in seclusion the way I was, I might die the way he did. The parallels aren’t there as far as I’m concerned and I was never much for scare tactics. Still, the way Elvis destroyed himself interests me, because I don’t ever want to walk those grounds myself” (172).9 Though Jackson appears to deny parallels between himself and Elvis, it is significant that he recognizes the theme of destruction evident in such a comparison. Jackson’s comment is interesting seen in the light of comparisons that were made after his death to Elvis. Bill Wyman’s article in the Salon about Michael Jackson’s death is interestingly titled “Michael Jackson’s Celebrity Suicide”. In the article, Wyman concludes:
“I think it’s fair to classify Kurt Cobain’s death as one brought on by medical problems, specifically the roiling interaction of depression and addiction. Jackson’s death is in this sense more purely a suicide, just as Elvis Presley’s was some three decades ago. Like Presley, Jackson at some point stepped through a door, closed it, and turned the key. What went on behind the door we’ll never know” (“Michael Jackson’s Celebrity Suicide”).
Such contextualizing works to pathologize the celebrity by implying a kind of “predestination” for disease and destruction that is typical to the celebrity body as a consequence of his/her profession. Randy J Taraborelli documents Jackson’s first rhinoplasty thus:
“Michael had been threatening to have the surgery for years, but he was too afraid to actually go through with it. However, in the spring of 1979, he tripped during a complicated dance routine, fell onstage…and broke his nose. Fate had intervened; he had no choice. He flew back to Los Angeles and had his first rhinoplasty” (205).
What would later be referred to in the popular press as Michael Jackson’s obsession with and addiction to plastic surgery is thus predestined, precisely because of his extremely visible and public life.
Jake Coyle writes in an article in USA Today about the “Thread of Pain” that ran through Michael Jackson’s career and states “Jackson was a passionate performer and an exceptional dancer, renowned for his choreographical perfection. Ailments were, or at least began as, a byproduct of his dedication” (“Thread of Pain “). Michael Jackson’s ailments are here very explicitly linked to the demands of his profession. The next section explores the influence of the profession on the celebrity body, but it is noteworthy that Coyle highlights the exacting nature of the celebrity profession and its subsequent consequences of declining health and eventual death for the celebrity body. Coyle’s emphasis on Jackson being renowned for perfection, however, performs another cr\thereby setting him apart, even within a history of fame damage or predestined destruction, as an “extraordinary” case of a celebrity patient.
Jackson’s ailments, as noted above, are often seen as a direct consequence of the impact of his on his body. In his autobiography, he writes about the terrorizing experience of being mobbed by fans in his days with the Jackson 5 (90). Being in the public eye constantly made him “weary” and this was as he describes it, one of the “side-effects” of his album Thriller. Jackson’s medical and professional histories are both inextricable as reports of his declining health coincide with reports of a career on the decline. A 1995 article in the New York Times which appears after Jackson was rushed to the hospital after collapsing during rehearsals for an upcoming concert describes his health and career thus: “His illness forced the postponement of a highly publicized television special that promoters hoped would reach a worldwide audience of 250 million people and help restore luster to the singer’s sagging career” (“Jackson May Have Heart Ailment, Doctors Say”). The article goes on to describe the presence of family, members of the press and fans outside the hospital but constantly underscores the damage caused by the illness to Jackson’s attempt at a “comeback” – “But perhaps in a testament to Mr. Jackson’s waning popularity, the reporters and photographers far outnumbered the fans who gathered outside in the chill air, never numbering more than two dozen at a time” (“Jackson May Have”). While Jackson’s collapse at a rehearsal implies a rigorous and exacting professional life, the article situates his illness within a broader framework of a career on the decline (it also revisits his child molestation charges and confession to being dependant on painkillers in the past year) and thereby articulates specific notions of the able or “normal” celebrity body. Immediately following his death, newspaper coverage focused on the “impossibility” of Jackson’s planned comeback concerts and often, even the “inevitability” of his death. For instance, Pam Belluck’s Times article quotes Jackson’s biographer Stacy Brown who echoes Jackson’s family’s worries that he would be unable to rise up to the pressure of fifty concerts, given Jackson’s history of panic attacks before concerts that would result in hospital visits and last minute cancellations. The same article features a comment by Taraborelli:
“I think that most people felt he was going to have trouble getting through 50 concerts. How do you do that, even if you’re Madonna? Many people were worried that this was going to be very upsetting to his system” (Pam Belluck, “Jackson’s Health a Subject of Confusion”).
The comparison to Madonna is noteworthy, given the singer’s very public image of being health-conscious.
Moreover, a considerable gap between Jackson’s last public performance and his forthcoming concerts in London at the time of his death became a subject of scrutiny. A public performance is also evidence of health and ability for a star, as evidenced by dance teachers and choreographers whose comments were featured in Jake Coyle’s USA Today article following Jackson’s death. They foreground the importance of constant practice, the demands made by the dance on the dancer’s body and the physical inability to stop dancing. A back-up dancer at Jackson’s upcoming show comments that “The heart is a muscle. If you don’t build it up little by little, you will have problems and start cramping up. I don’t know what his lifestyle was before he started rehearsing” (“Thread of Pain”). It is important to note at this point that Jackson was also constructed as a professional whose obsession with and dedication to his profession led to his declining health and eventual death. This plays a very crucial role for the circulation of particular notions of illness and medicine and the able body. Pam Belluck’s New York Times article “Jackson’s Health a Subject of Confusion” highlights the “extraordinary heroism” of Jackson’s life with a quote from Taraborelli who says, “Any normal person would never have been able to survive the kinds of things that Jackson survived” (“Jackson’s Health a Subject of Confusion”).
Jackson’s celebrity body is thus doubly pathologized (through damage by fame and by illness, framed by a tradition of similar stories of fame damage) and works to perpetuate the primacy of the able body by reading Jackson’s “declining health” within a discourse of “heroism,” “dedication” and “professionalism”. 10 For instance, Taraborelli quotes Jackson’s family’s11 reaction to his multiple plastic surgeries to underscore the frivolity of such an Lose Weight Exercise in narcissism that is exclusively available to the celebrity. “When Michael told Katherine he was going to have a cleft put into his chin, she thought he was going, as she put it, ‘overboard.'” And later,
“As Katherine told a friend of hers, Michael explained, ‘I can afford it, I want it, so I’m going to have it.’ It was as if he were buying a new car instead of undergoing painful, appearance-changing plastic surgery. Whereas most people can only fantasize – ‘Wouldn’t a new nose be nice, and maybe a new chin too?’ – Michael could afford to make those whims a reality. ‘And I think if more people could afford it, they would do it too,’ his sister Janet has reasoned. ‘I see nothing wrong with it.'” (347)
The celebrity patient further problematizes the boundary between the ailing body and suffering, where “pain” is something not exclusively bound to an experience of illness but is undergone voluntarily by the celebrity-body for the purpose of aesthetic enhancement. In a Fox-TV documentary titled The Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Were Never Meant to See, Jackson released previously unseen footage from his interviews with Martin Bashir. The Michael Jackson Interview was Jackson’s response to Living With Michael Jackson, which he later felt was a biased presentation of his image, “a gross distortion of the truth” (qtd. in Taraborelli, 607). The Michael Jackson Interview features Karen Faye, Michael Jackson’s long time make-up artist, among other friends and family featured on the show, to talk about his medical conditions: an aspect of Jackson’s life which, the documentary alleges, was largely ignored by Living With Michael Jackson. Faye talks about Jackson’s skin disease, vitiligo and describes the extent of damage caused by the condition to Jackson’s body. The documentary and Faye stress on the “need” for vitiligo patients to wear make-up to even out skin tone and to avoid direct exposure to the sun. Faye says “we were trying to cover it and hide it for the longest time until he just had to tell Oprah and tell the world that I’m not trying to be white, I have a skin disease”. Faye’s confession of having to “cover” and “hide” the condition yet again pathologizes the celebrity-body while simultaneously highlighting the need for concealing or erasing evidence of disease. It is on account of his hypervisibility that Jackson is compelled to hide what is arguably one of the most visible and disfiguring medical conditions.
Narratives about Jackson’s ailments thus present an inherent tension between illness/suffering and professionalism, understood as rigor of performance for the celebrity as well as the duty to strive for perfection. Jackson’s ailing body is framed as “extraordinary” both in terms of his access to medical procedures and also, perhaps more interestingly, in terms of pain/suffering (his many cosmetic surgical procedures) necessitated by his celebrity status. The celebrity-patient is set apart from the individual as patient on account of these necessary medical interventions (plastic surgery) required by a hypervisible profession. This hypervisible profession, thus mediated by the ailing celebrity body is seen as being both a result of (the effect of the profession on the celebrity body) and cause for (the celebrity-patient situated outside conventional medical procedures and communities of patients) illness/suffering. The construction of Jackson’s ailing body thus, through an act of heroic erasure of disease and submission to transformative surgical procedures, makes “visible” his “dedication” and “professionalism” and secures the primacy of the “able” body.
As argued earlier, Jackson’s widely publicised medical history allowed him to carve out a space of resistance from which an autonomous critique of medicine, illness, racial identity and the culture of celebrity could be articulated. Through reports of declining health and the visual documentation of a celebrity’s experience of unhealth, a story of heroic battle is narrated, while simultaneously presenting a human and vulnerable side to the public face. A new self is negotiated by the ailing celebrity, in turn framed by pre-existing narratives of a heroic fight against damage caused by illness and fame. The following section explores how the circulation of the ailing celebrity body is aided by a spectacular visual iconography of change and examines the new self”negotiated by the celebrity-patient firstly, through a performance of illness and secondly, by negotiating the “real”. 
Circulating the Ailing Celebrity Body
Performance of Illness
The construction of celebrity illness is contingent upon the “performance” of illness and suffering through several “routines of behaviour” and a spectacular visual iconography of change that are focused on the celebrity body. In their study of several contemporaneous cultural anxieties and fascinations that emerged during the spectacular Michael Jackson child molestation trial in 2005, Epstein and Steinberg draw attention to a major theme embedded in the trial and the media coverage that surrounded it – “the iconic and characteristic popular representation of Michael Jackson himself as a figure of rupture and ruin” (444). Performing Michael Jackson’s various illnesses draws heavily on the “professional damage” wrought on his body by the exacting nature of his work, as demonstrated in the earlier section. In addition, Jackson is also constructed as a professional who paid the price for perfection with his declining health. Jackson has constructed the image of a “perfectionist” very carefully throughout his career. On his interview with Oprah, for instance, Jackson states that his very appearance is something that he works on to “perfection”. When questioned about his transformative plastic surgeries, Jackson confirms his insecurity about his appearance and attributes it, as he has several times later, to being teased about his large nose by several members of his family, especially his father. When asked if he is satisfied with what he sees now when he looks in the mirror, Jackson responds with “I’m never pleased with anything, I’m a perfectionist”. Jackson thus presents, in his very appearance, a constant strive for perfection. When Oprah asks if he ever intends to marry, Jackson acknowledges his love for the family life while simultaneously stressing that right now, he is “married to my work, married to my music”. Jackson performs his illness through a skillful mediation of the demands of his profession and his duty to meet them. He describes a visit to the hospital for breathlessness in Moonwalk thus:
“A blood vessel had burst in my lung. It has never reoccurred, although I used to feel little pinches and jerks in there that was probably my imagination. I later learned that this condition was related to pleurisy. It was suggested by my doctor that I try to take things a little slower, but my schedule would not permit it. Hard work continued to be the name of the game” (138).
Jackson overrides his doctor’s recommendations to rest on account of an unyielding schedule. An LA Times article about Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the documentary feature released after his death, describes what the writer calls Jackson’s “new dimension” in the following manner after revisiting other popular dimensions of the singer that have attained a high degree of visibility – his many eccentricities captured on film and his 2005 child molestation trial, among others: “the movie presents a competing notion of the “Thriller” singer. Jackson as the boss, a perfectionist and creative visionary who was personally invested in the smallest details of his show” (“‘A New Michael'”).
This description of Jackson’s new dimension is a crucial aspect of performing celebrity illness. Reports of declining health and the visual documentation of a celebrity’s experience of unhealth, as argued earlier, allows him/her to carve out a space from which to articulate a story of heroic battle, a human and vulnerable side to the public face and provides a platform for the emergence of a new self. Interestingly, the same LA Times article describes how, those working with Jackson on what was his last rehearsals, did not see any signs of drug abuse. The article instead focuses on the ‘new’ Jackson, who was a picture of health and energy and was personally invested in the smallest aspects of the show. Alongside this description of Jackson’s professionalism however, is juxtaposed a different narrative of illness: the effect of Jackson’s professionalism and obsession with perfection on his body. Those working with Jackson on his London tours describe his exacting nature as a performer, however, as the article describes:
“Jackson’s exacting nature took a physical toll on him that is visible in the film. Ortega said the singer had been losing Lose Weight Exercise and grew fatigued from missing more and more sleep as the production’s London deadline neared” (“‘A New Michael'”).
Another team member says, “He’d go for periods of time without eating or sleeping because he was so immersed in what we were doing” (“‘A New Michael'”). Such descriptions not only highlight the heroic but make visible the real effects of the celebrity and illness on the celebrity-body, a theme I return to in the latter half of this section.
The performance of Jackson’s illness is also aided by a spectacular visual iconography of change. That is, his physical transformations over the years have achieved an almost iconic status within popular culture. Michael Jackson’s public transformation also made possible the circulation of particular images of celebrity illness: his body and face became the site on which ideas of ruin, neglect, narcissism and an obsession with youth and appearance were negotiated and played out. For instance, Kathleen Parker’s article in The Washington Post following Jackson’s death titled “The Lost Boy in Neverland” refutes the assumption that Jackson died from an overdose of prescription medication. Instead, she writes:
“But drugs aren’t really what killed Jackson, are they? They may have lead to the stopping of his heart, but Jackson’s death spiral began decades ago. You could see it in his face. Michael Jackson’s identity crisis wasn’t subtle. There could hardly be a more vivid physical manifestation of a human being’s chaotic psyche than Jackson’s ever-changing visage”.
Parker’s description is interesting for several reasons. It illustrates the cultural fascination and anxiety over Jackson’s continuous physical transformations. However, Parker’s description is interesting also because she situates Jackson’s transformations within a framework of illness and ruin, rather than race. Jackson’s face becomes for Parker, an index of gradual corporeal decline – the “death spiral.” The visual iconography of Jackson’s transformations thus also “frame” his physical decline, his “chaotic psyche” and “obvious” identity crisis, thereby pathologizing “aesthetic” changes to the celebrity body. Jackson’s deracinating surgical Lose Weight Exercises and his “claims” of suffering from vitiligo are thus viewed as the consequence of or thereason for a deteriorating physical and mental condition. The ailing celebrity body also circulates to uncover the “real” person behind the celebrity persona. The following section will examine the various ways in which the presentation and circulation of the ailing celebrity body attempts a negotiation of the real or material.
Negotiating the Real
As David Marshall has argued, “The celebrity exists above the real world, in the realm of symbols that gain and loseWeight Exercise value like commodities on the stock market” (6). The “materiality” of celebrity illness, premised as it is upon a discourse of the “real” and on “physicality,” seeks to facilitate a glimpse of the “real” celebrity body. A diagrammatic recreation of Jackson’s coroner’s report in The Daily Mail following his death is evidence of this. The article’s headline reads “Pin-Cushion Jacko: Post mortem reveals 13 puncture marks on his body” and an inset diagram claiming to reproduce the one drawn in the coroner’s report is framed by the caption “Laid Bare, Singer’s Terrible Secrets.” In the case of Jackson, constructing and presenting celebrity-illness is often contingent on an appeal to the truth or reality. His interview with Oprah, for instance, makes several attempts to present the “real” facts and makes several attempts to establish a “real” and “unmediated” access to Jackson through Oprah. At the start of this very highly rated interview12, the camera pans to Oprah standing inside Jackson’s sprawling Neverland ranch. Addressing the viewer before entering Jackson’s home, Oprah describes him as “the most elusive star in the history of music. With this interview, she declares, “the silence is broken.” Oprah’s interview with Michael Jackson attempts to create the “familiar” (like Jackson’s family’s accounts of his illness) to better negotiate the “real” facts about Jackson13. It is thus significant to note, at this point, that it is within the confines of this “real” and “familiar” setting that Jackson first confesses to having a skin condition that has altered his appearance. Over the course of the interview, while attempting to dispel several “untruths” about Jackson, he says “Do not judge someone unless you meet them one on one,” thereby lending further credibility to the current “one-on-one” between him and Oprah (this is significant because Oprah “visits” Jackson in his “home” without even the distracting presence of a studio audience). Moreover, negotiating the “real” celebrity illness is also typically focused on the “real” celebrity body. Jackson skilfully fends off questions about the number of plastic surgeries he has undergone, by moving the focus away from his body. Belittling the popular interest in his transforming physical appearance, he says that what people should really take an interest in is the “anatomy of his craftsmanship.” The “genius” of Jackson’s artistry is certainly as popular a subject as his physical appearance14. Such descriptions of brilliance and “genius” in the light of declining mental and physical health in the celebrity body play an important function for verifying the authenticity of the anatomy of Jackson’s craftsmanship. In contemporary culture, as Harper argues, mental illness fulfils a double function by not only guaranteeing the celebrity’s “reality as a suffering subject just like us; it also contributes to the perception of his artistic authenticity” (316).
I conclude by reflecting on the ambivalence evoked by Jackson’s ailing celebrity body, situated as he is, outside the realm of conventional medical practices, threatening to re-order the hierarchy between doctor and patient. The new self articulated by his spectacular visual iconography of change and through the performance of illness is situated in a counter-hegemonic space within the very discourses that seek to other Jackson’s medically eccentric celebrity body. Jackson is able, as argued earlier, to carve out a space of resistance from which an autonomous critique of medicine, illness, racial identity and the culture of celebrity can be articulated.
Conclusion: Evoking Ambivalence
Both Michael Jackson’s interview with Oprah as well as Living With Michael Jackson provide for the viewer a visual history of Jackson’s rise to stardom juxtaposed with the history of his physical transformations. This extremely “public” physical transformation has enabled Jackson to re-negotiate his identity as a Black artist and as celebrity patient. Media constructions and performances of Michael Jackson’s ailing body also work to transmit stereotypical notions of racial difference and Otherness. His chronic skin ailments, vitiligo and lupus, and his many plastic surgeries are thus often read within “deracination” debates, framing his disease and his desire for “aesthetic” or “cosmetic” improvement within a discourse of race. Kathy Davis frames cosmetic surgery as “an intervention in identity – that is, a person’s sense of her embodied self – than as a beauty practice15” (74). Jackson’s highly visual transformation has then allowed him to articulate a new self, one that Davis argues, transgresses “the boundaries of race, gender, age and sexuality” (85). Questions about his physical transformation, moreover, have on several occasions offered Jackson a platform to critique the racial discourse that frames his plastic surgery. He says, both in his interview with Oprah and Bashir, as well as others, that white people often spend hours in the sun, invest in tanning lotions and visit tanning booths to “become darker” and “other than what they are” but “nobody says nothing about that.” In Living With Michael Jackson, for instance, Bashir questions Jackson about his racial preferences while choosing a surrogate mother for Blanket, Jackson’s youngest son, and proposes that the surrogate was perhaps a white woman, given Blanket’s “light” complexion. Although Jackson asserts that he didn’t care about the surrogate’s race and only required her to be healthy and denies having any knowledge as to the identity of the surrogate, when faced with Bashir’s proposal that she was white, he responds in the negative and reveals that she was indeed black. Refuting the link that Bashir draws between Blanket’s light complexion and his possibly white surrogate mother, Jackson says, “Black people were called colored people because we come in all colors. From very white, as the white of my hand to very dark, as dark as your shirt”. He goes on to say that though Paris’s (his eldest daughter) blue eyes are often perceived as being inherited from Debbie Rowe (Jackson’s second wife, who was white) there was an equal possibility that this inheritance came from Jackson’s father, who also had blue eyes, thereby underscoring the versatility of his racial identity once more. Jackson appropriates the very white of his hand, the most iconic and widely contested image that abounds in the deracination debates that surround his physical transformation (caused by both illness and his profession) to critique the racial discourse within which his celebrity-body is interpreted. He presents his transformation as merely an instance of ethnic diversity, again performing an erasure of disease to celebrate instead a cultural heritage whose multiplicity normalizes such a difference. In addition to evoking ambivalence through a critique of racial discourse, Jackson also situates himself outside of the patient-role to portray himself as not only sufferer but also as “healer”16.
Jackson has regularly portrayed himself as a “healer”, through charitable activities for ailing children17 and through individual relationships with sick children. Most notable is the case of Gavin Arvizo, a twelve-year old cancer patient who is a primary focus in Bashir’s Living With Michael Jackson. Bashir narrates how Gavin believes that he “overcame his cancer because of his friendship with Jackson.” Gavin’s sister later describes the terminal diagnosis offered to her family by Gavin’s doctors, who asked them to “prepare for his funeral.” After his miraculous recovery with the help of Jackson’s “friendship,” however, Gavin even experienced “growth spurts” during the course of his chemotherapy. While Gavin’s sister describes how Gavin is now miraculously taller than her after he was so close to death, Jackson says to her, “See, medicine don’t know it all, do they?” Jackson’s identity as healer creates a certain degree of ambivalence by allowing him to transcend the physical (his own status as celebrity patient) and professional roles commonly assigned to him. Through his extreme, public physical transformations, Jackson is able to articulate a “counter-hegemonic” identity within the very discourse that seeks to “other” him18.
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1 Adapted from Michael Jackson’s song, Smooth Criminal from his 1987 album, Bad .
2 The start of a Michael Jackson interview that ran in USA Today on December 14, 2001.
3 In his study of ‘celebrity patients,’ Baron H Lerner highlights the importance of such ‘extraordinary’ stories of ‘public illness’ for ‘ordinary’ Americans. Illness and medicine entered public consciousness along with debates about doctor-patient confidentiality, consent for experimental treatment, death and dying and medical errors which such cases highlighted (3).
4 Rojek highlights the intertwined nature of descent/falling and ascent/rising within celebrity culture. He argues that the very same apparatus that makes the celebrity’s ‘rise’ possible – the mass media – also revels in contriving his/her downfall, sometimes with the collusion of the celebrity himself/herself.
5 Holmes and Redmond have argued that the emphasis on ‘failures’ in celebrity culture may work to individuate and humanize the celebrity and facilitate an ‘apparent’ ground levelling between audience and celebrity (290). Examining Britney Spears’ recent public ‘performance’ of shaving her own head in front of paparazzi cameras at a local hair salon in California, Moya Luckett signals to the public ‘appeal’ in witnessing celebrity ‘unmasking’ and ‘collapse’ – a shift from the desire to see ‘perfect’ images of ‘stars’ (41).
6 “Being open about celebrity terminal illness, Rojek argues, “presents the celebrity in an out-of-face relationship with the public and ultimately reveals the resilience of the veridical self. The disintegration of the body produces a new surface on which the self coheres and continues in a different kind of dialogue with the public” (87).
7 As Holmes and Redmond have argued, the celebrity body “is often implicated in the construction of hegemonic notions of masculinity, and femininity; in stereotypical ideas about racial difference and Otherness; and in normative assertions about sexual desire and class relations” (124).
8 In the Michael Jackson biopic, Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story, produced by VH1 in 2004, Elizabeth Taylor is portrayed as Jackson’s only ‘celebrity-friend,’ thereby evoking parallels between her own public battles with drug addiction, her ‘early’ entry into stardom and Jackson.
9 Writing about Michael Jackson’s courtship of Lisa Marie Presley, Randy J Taraborelli highlights the factors that would ‘naturally’ have brought the two together. “Lisa was Elvis’s kid,” he writes, “she’d been around ‘strange'” (509). And later, while describing the emotional support Lisa Marie offered to Jackson after he confessed to being addicted to painkillers he writes, “Lisa Marie Presley was also sympathetic; she, too, was a recovering addict” (518).
10 As Goggin and Newell have argued about Christopher Reeve’s ‘heroic’ celebrity status however, such a status works to knit together a set of discourses, the most important of which is the primacy of the able body. Celebrating Reeve’s “individual resilience and resourcefulness and his authenticity,” they argue, “functions precisely to sustain the ‘truth’ and the power relations of disability” (22).
11 Michael’s sisters, Latoya Jackson and Janet Jackson, have testified elsewhere to their brother addiction to drugs. In an interview with ABC News following her brother’s death and in a recent Oprah Winfrey interview, Janet Jackson describes ‘interventions’ staged by the family to help Michael Jackson recover from his addiction and his ‘denial’ about his drug problems. Latoya Jackson describes her brother’s drug problems in her autobiography Latoya: Growing up in the Jackson Family.
12 The 90 minute Oprah interview with Michael Jackson was the fourth most-watched entertainment program in 1993.
13 As Marshall has argued about the TV show host, specifically in the case of Oprah, her ‘celebrity’ status is mediated through ‘familiarity’ and a narrowing of the gap between her real and fictional life, in direct contrast to that of the star. The TV Show host Oprah is thus constructed as presenting herself. Her interview with Michael Jackson, Marshall argues, “allows us to see the mystery of the celebrity Jackson personality” (143).
14 A New York Times article titled “Jackson Being Treated Abroad For Addiction, Lawyer Says” that assesses the damage done to Jackson’s career after child molestation allegations and his confession to prolonged drug use quotes Danny Goldberg, then senior vice president of Atlantic Records as saying, “As of this moment, I don’t think it’s had any effect on his career. People expect brilliant musical artists to be mercurial and controversial” (“Jackson Being Treated Abroad For Addiction, Doctor Says”).
15 Davis draws attention to the politics of beauty in the case of ‘ethnic cosmetic surgery,’ and argues that when people of colour or ethnically marginalized groups undertake plastic surgery it is framed within a political discourse of race rather than beauty. Jackson’s multiple plastic surgeries and his changing skin colour, Davis argues, can easily be read within discourses other than racial erasure. Likening his surgical transformations to those of the body artist Orlan, Davis also highlights Jackson’s ‘playful’ sexual border crossings.
16 Highlighting Jackson’s interest in anatomy, Silberman argues that “Michael intuits and channels what facilitates popular interest in a spectacular freak, a character in a situated social fuss larger than he represents by synecdoche” (427). Moreover, through his all-too-public physical transformations, Jackson’s body “remains in play” (434).
17 Jackson has spoken about his ability to understand the pain of sick children, his charitable organization, Heal The World Foundation and how he visits hospitals all over the world while touring on the At Large With Geraldo Rivera Interview (Feb 2005) and the CBS ’60 Minutes’ interview in December 2003 (“Jackson Interview Transcript”). Bashir’s documentary as well as Jackson’s own The Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Were Never Meant to See , both focus a segment of the program around underprivileged children’s visits to Neverland.
18 As Coleman-Bell has argued in her study of the sporting body of Serena Williams, racist hegemony opens up a (counter) space for certain forms of otherness that it brings into discourse to marginalize and discredit. Within this (counter) space, these forms struggle for autonomy and agency and articulate resistance (197).