Observers, of both the professional and armchair variety, had a field day yesterday analyzing Exhibit A in the court of public opinion: Michael Jackson.
The entertainer's television interview Wednesday night apparently only added to the questions that swirl around this poster child of contradictions, this child-like man, this black of a whiter shade of pale, this reclusive celebrity (or is he a celebrity recluse?).
It was as if many of the 31 million observers of the show wished pit bull John McLaughlin rather than doe-eyed Oprah Winfrey had been asking the questions. Issue No. 1! What's this "skin disorder"? Issue No. 2! Only two plastic surgeries? Issue No. 3! Your father smacked you around? Issue No. 4! What's wrong with your voice? Issue No. 5: Brooke Shields?
We tried to address these issues, in no particular order, with various "pundits" -- dermatologists, a psychologist, a speech pathologist, child abuse specialists, a Michael Jackson biographer and other observers of the passing scene.
"From what he said, about its running in his family, it sounds like he has vitiligo. But just looking at him, you could not say that's what he has," said Dr. Elizabeth Whitmore, director of Johns Hopkins Hospital's outpatient dermatology clinic, who saw the Wednesday night interview.
Vitiligo, which affects about one in 200 persons, causes a loss of pigment in patches of the skin -- turning those areas totally white -- as opposed to the overall lightening in tone that Mr. Jackson appears to have developed over the years. But, Dr. Whitmore noted, since the entertainer appeared to be heavily made up, his actual skin tone perhaps was hidden. (Besides the cosmetic problem of blotchy skin, the only real danger of vitiligo is the affected areas are sensitive to the sun and thus potential skin cancer.)
While Mr. Jackson said "there is no such thing as skin bleaching. I've never seen it. I don't know what it is," doctors say there are both prescription and non-prescription preparations that can lighten skin.
Dr. Steven B. Snyder, also a dermatologist, said if Mr. Jackson has vitiligo, it would make more sense to darken the patches that have lost pigmentation than lighten the surrounding skin. Doctors can use light and drug therapy to induce re-pigmentation, or patients can wear makeup that resembles their natural skin tone, he said.
"I was so impressed with Michael Jackson as a humanitarian . . . but I felt he was deceiving the public with this skin disorder and saying he only had two plastic surgeries," Dr. Snyder said.
J. Randy Taraborrelli, who wrote the 625-page biography, "Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness," two years ago, also is skeptical of that figure.
"It would certainly appear he's had more than two plastic surgeries," said Mr. Taraborrelli, noting the changes in Mr. Jackson's appearance since he last interviewed him in 1982. "I think he has basically been unhappy in his life and wanted to change it, so he started with his appearance."
Oddly, and sadly, for someone who has manipulated his appearance as much as Mr. Jackson has, he still seemed unhappy with it.
"When he said he didn't like looking in the mirror, my heart went out to him," said Gloria Goldfaden, executive director of the Annapolis-based group, People Against Child Abuse. "I felt very saddened that he seems to be wrestling with terrible self-esteem issues, which is extremely common among children who have been abused."
Mr. Jackson's pained relationship with his father -- who he said beat him and made fun of his adolescent pimples -- rang true with Ms. Goldfaden and another child abuse-prevention specialist, Dennis Cardiff, program coordinator with Parents Anonymous of Maryland. They said his apologetic tone toward his father is typical among abused children.
"I saw a man who is loved by millions around the world . . . but I also saw a very lonely and very sad human being," Mr. Cardiff said. "He has come to believe the negative information he received from his parent."
Both child advocates said they hoped Mr. Jackson's openness about his childhood will help others in similar pain.
Other observers wondered what effect Mr. Jackson's new openness would have on young people, especially African Americans.
"I felt like saying, 'Michael, this is the real world,' " said Richard Rowe, host of a WEAA-FM talk show on African-American male and family issues and director of Project RAISE, a mentoring program for youngsters. " 'You could do so much more as a role model for African-American children.' Even as he talked about how proud he was of his race, at the same time, he's lightened his skin. He's had plastic surgery. He's taken himself out of his race -- and even his gender. Michael's not sure of who he is. I didn't get a sense for how he related to women. Brooke Shields -- I'm not sure what that was about."
But another WEAA talk show host, Larry Smith, came away from the TV show with a more positive view of Mr. Jackson and accepts his explanation of his skin disorder.
"Michael Jackson doesn't have any obligation to re-affirm his ethnicity," Mr. Smith said. "He's a performer. He's an individual. African Americans are not a monolithic group."
Jim McGee, director of psychology at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, said Mr. Jackson reminded him of star athletes he's counseled over the years, especially those, such as figure skaters, who by the nature of their sport have to begin their rigorous training early in life.
"Their early childhood experiences are so unusual, so out of the mainstream, that it does funny things to them. They frequently have little contact with other children," he said. "They usually don't look back very fondly on it.
"This is pure speculation, but when a person sees himself as a product, there's always a sense of having to 'fix' the product," Dr. McGee said of Mr. Jackson's plastic surgeries. "They can be very successful, yet simultaneously very unsure of themselves."
Yet, Dr. McGee said, anyone trying to read things into the interview needs to remember that Mr. Jackson is first and foremost a performer.
"The problem is, it is so difficult to distinguish between the person and the persona," he said. "When the camera is on, you should always assume they're performing."
That is perhaps why his voice seems higher than in the past, speech pathologists speculated. People with musical backgrounds can more than others easily manipulate their voices to a different pitch.
"It's very easy. I work with transsexuals who do it all the time," said Linda Spencer, an Owings Mills-based speech pathologist. "What happens is you use muscles to cause the vocal cords to stretch, and the longer they become the more rapidly they vibrate and the higher the pitch of your voice." (Women's vocal cords generally vibrate at 200 hertz; men's at half that rate.)
Another speech pathologist, Cara Erskine, of Johns Hopkins Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Services, said she thought this might not be such a good idea, especially for someone who makes his living off his voice.
"You're putting a strain on your voice by doing this," she said. "It's not a comfortable thing to do."
While Mr. Taraborrelli, the biographer, has since gone on to other projects (currently, Madonna), Michael Jackson remains fascinating.
"I think he's at a point where he feels like experimenting. It's like he's feeling the waters and seeing what it's like to be a celebrity who gives interviews," Mr. Taraborrelli said. "The real Michael Jackson remains to be seen."
Jackson interview scores big ratings
Pop star Michael Jackson's live interview Wednesday night with Oprah Winfrey reached a projected 31 million homes.
Preliminary overnight ratings from 29 cities give the ABC show a 40.9 rating and a 57 share, the A.C. Nielsen Co. said yesterday. If the numbers hold up when ratings for the nation are calculated, they would compare to 1992's Super Bowl, which garnered a 40.3 rating and a 61 share.
In the Baltimore area, according to overnight numbers of the Arbitron ratings service, the interview recorded a 46 rating and 57 share. The largest group of viewers were women 18 to 49, who gave the show a 47 rating and 69 share.
That means almost 7 of 10 women in this area watching TV at that time were watching Mr. Jackson and Ms. Winfrey.