Michael Jackson Was NOT The First Black Entertainer To Lose His Pigmentation Due To Vitiligo!
A reader of this blog recently alerted me to the fact that Michael Jackson was NOT the first professional singer and dancer to have lose all of the pigmentation in his skin due to vitiligo! In November 1978, Ebony magazine published a story called “The Man Who Turned White” (page 165), which is about Arthur Wright, an incredible entertainer whose resume includes performances with the Jean Leon Destine Company of Haitian Dancers, the Negro Dance Theater, Broadway, and numerous international tours.
In November 1961, Wright began to notice that he was losing pigmentation in various parts of his body, and like many vitiligo patients, he began to lose self-esteem and self-worth as the disease gradually progressed throughout his entire body. He tried using makeup to even out his skin, but that remedy only lasted so long. After 8 long and agonizing years of using numerous lotions, creams, and pills to mitigate the disease, and 8 years of being started at, taunted, called a “freak”, and losing friends and lovers after “discovered” and rejected by them, he finally decided to undergo depigmentation in order to even out his skin tone once and for all. Under the care of a dermatologist, the process took 3 years, but when it was completed he felt as if a monkey had been taken off of his shoulders. He was finally free! No more stares, no more taunts, and no more living in fear! He was freed from his self-imposed prison!
The reader who sent me the link read this article when it was first published in 1978, but was unable to find it until recently when she did a Google search and found it archived in Google Books! Her detective work is outstanding! Thank you for your contribution! You know who you are!
I initially thought that I would include this in a new series that I’m working on, but instead I will make an entire post out of it, as this bombshell article is certainly worthy of it. I will also include other victims of vitiligo that you may not be aware of. So here is the article in its entirety! (I transcribed it below as the print is very small and may be illegible for many readers.)
THE MAN WHO TURNED WHITE
Incurable disease changes dancer’s skin color and his life
BY RON HARRIS
Five years ago, Arthur Wright sat quietly in the darkness of a New York movie theater while around him moviegoers laughed loudly at the hilarious hit comedy “Watermelon Man”, a rib-tickler about trials and tribulations of a Black man who awoke one morning to find that overnight his skin ad turned white.
For the casual viewer, such an oddity could conceivably have its humorous side. Wright, however, did not laugh. Tears streamed down his melancholy face as he cried softly in the darkness, unnoticed by the enthusiastic audience around him.
To Wright, the story on the screen was more than fantasy, more than a far-fetched situation. For him it was a harsh, agonizing reality. For Arthur Wright, he was the man on that screen – a Black man who woke up one morning to find that his skin was turning white.
At the height of a promising career which included an extended stint with the Jean Leon Destine Company of Haitian Dancers, work with the Negro Dance Theatre, performances before President Kennedy at the White House, a Broadway musical, and Asian and European dance tours, Wright awakened one morning to find that he had become a victim of vitiligo, a skin disorder that robs the skin of color. Quietly, painlessly, the disease had begun its damage; patches of white appeared on his brown skin. Wright was stunned. He couldn’t imagine what was happening to him. He had no idea how his life would be forever changed.
Vitiligo strikes one to two percent of the American population, starting usually as a white spot on the hands or face and gradually progressing over the entire body. Dermatologists say they do not know the cause, or the cure. Vitiligo has been under study by researchers for some 40 years. Doctors have even linked prematurely gray hair to the disease. The disease is painless, does not affect other parts of the body, and is not contagious. Physiologically its damage is minimal, there are no crippling effects, nor is it life threatening. Psychologically, however, it is devastating –especially for Black patients. An otherwise healthy individual finds that overnight he or she has been transformed into a social abnormality, a spotted “freak” in a highly color-conscious society where physical appearance can mean the difference between a good job or the unemployment line, social acceptance or alienation, companionship or loneliness. For Wright, a dancer, singer, and entertainer in the prime of a promising theatrical career, the experience was traumatic. In the theater, physical appearance is as important, if not often more so, than talent. Many once-famous talents have slipped into the realm of the forgotten as their precious good looks began to fade.
It was the night of November 22nd, 1961, five days after the closing of the Broadway musical “Kwamina”, in which Wright had performed, that the disease struck. Wright, then 34, had retreated to his Brooklyn apartment to filter through new job prospects and consider the idea of acting classes. “It was a Thursday morning” Wright recalls, staring blankly at a marble-topped table in his Manhattan apartment while slowly scanning his memory for details of that disastrous day, “All week I had been at home trying to rest and decide what I was going to do next. I went to the bathroom to shave, and when I turned on the light I saw that the whole area where I shave had turned completely white. I just stared in the mirror. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Finally, I turned off the lights and stood momentarily in the semi-darkness. Then I just sank to the floor and moaned and cried.”
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. Here I was a dancer in perfect health and this happens. Why me?” Well, immediately I became a hermit. I didn’t go out of the house for more than a week. Finally I realized that I would have to get out of the house if I was going to work, but how could I face people looking the way that I did? My roommate suggested that I try using makeup to cover up the white spots. Being in the theater, I was familiar with applying makeup. I stood in the bathroom for nearly an hour putting it on, making sure every detail was perfect before I went out. I vividly remember walking down the street to the corner and looking into a store window. What I was shocking. In the bathroom of my apartment the makeup looked even, the same color as my face. But in the sunlight it was a different color than my skin. I looked like a clown. I ran back to my apartment and cried.”
What followed that memorable day was eight years of suffering, Wright says –eight years of being laughed at, talked about and singled out in crowds. They were years of applying facial makeup daily. Eventually, when the disease spread to the chest, thighs, arms and legs, makeup had to be applied to Wright’s entire body before he appeared on stage. Meanwhile he consulted eight dermatologists in New York, Chicago and Washington, and even in Europe. Each offered a different cure. None worked. There were numerous pills, lotions, creams and balms which purportedly would restore Wright’s skin to its once rich brown color. None worked. There was deep depression and a short barbiturate addiction, the results of a cure prescribed by one dermatologist. There was the loss of friends, the loss of lovers, and there was fear – fear that the makeup mask he so diligently applied each morning would be discovered, his condition revealed, and the rejection that usually followed the unmasking repeated.
To escape the stares and cruel comments, Wright, originally from the tiny town of Elizabeth, LA., plunged himself into his work. “I had to work,” he says, his hazel brown eyes pleading for comprehension of his plight. “I knew that as long as my mind was occupied I wouldn’t dwell on the disease and what it was doing to my body. Work became a near obsession. I was out every day audition for parts.” Work came in the form of a one-year tour of Europe where he was billed as “The Colored Recording Star from America,” although he had never layed down a single solo track. It also included nightclub work in Chicago.
But even work, including jobs as a mail clerk in a New York department store and with the U.S. Postal Service, was not enough to erase the suffering Wright felt because of his affliction. In 1969, after eight years of hoping that some new medical discovery would be made that would return his color, he grew tired of being neither totally Black nor White and went to Washington to see Dr. Robert Stolar, a renowned dermatologist. Under Dr. Stolar’s care he underwent depigmentation, a process of removing color from the skin by applying a special cream. Dr. Stolar has prescribed the treatment for more than 50 Blacks afflicted with the disease.
“It took three years to make the decision to have that done,” Wright says. “I just couldn’t believe that there was not some way I could get my own color back. Plus, I didn’t want people thinking that I wanted to be White. During that time everything was ‘Black Is Beautiful’ and ‘Be proud of being Black,’ and here I was getting ready to undergo a process that would turn me white. But I decided that I couldn’t live as I was for the rest of my life. I couldn’t continue my life running away from people, living partly as a hermit. I had to do something, and depigmentation seemed to me to be the only way out.”
It took five years for the process to be completed, but Wright stopped wearing makeup after only three months when his face became all white. “I was so happy not to wear another speck of makeup that I didn’t know what to do,” he says, clasping his hands in a moment of jubilation. “You have no idea what a relief that was. I was so glad to be released from that bondage. It had become such a routine that it was as natural as breathing, as brushing my teeth or combing my hair. Every day when I went to the bathroom for the ritual, it was like standing in front of a mirror behind someone else, making that person up and then superimposing myself. You see, without the makeup, it wasn’t me. I had to recognize my own face before I could go out, and that person with all those spots was not me.”
Wright’s battle with the mysterious vitiligo not only changed his exterior self, it also changed his attitude about many things, about life itself. For nearly 12 years after the disease first struck, he could not talk about his condition. Today, he speaks of it freely. He has even written a book about his experience entitled “Color Me White”. He has yet to find a publisher and has considered publishing the manuscript in Europe, along with a second book of poems he wrote while undergoing depigmentation in Washington. Since moving back to New York, Wright has spent most of his time painting and working on his book of poems. Two of his most recent works, one an abstract and the other a self-portrait, are among the numerous Brazilian, African and Afro-American paintings that line the walls of his apartment. “I started painting while I was in Washington to pass the time, but I really began to get into it,” he says. “I find the concentration needed to paint to be very relaxing.” He has also started to revive his singing career. “I’ve written a number of tunes and I also have some new arrangements of ballads that I am putting together,’’ he says. “I will never be able to dance the way I once did, but I still have my voice.” Wright says he is no longer the focus of stares and snide remarks, though he admits, “I get the strangest looks from Orientals. But I’m not self-conscious about it at all. Now if somebody stares, it doesn’t bother me because I know it’s not because of the spots or because I’m wearing makeup.”
After some 17years of “being in a prison,” Wright has resumed his active life. He doesn’t have as many friends as he did in 1961, but now that is by choice. “My old friends who stood by me are still here, and there are some new friends, but my approach to people has changed. I’m excited about my new self and I’m anticipating meeting new people, but this time the relationships will be much deeper because of my maturity.
“Somehow I knew that this whole thing happened for a reason,” he says softly, “and that was to make me a better person. This experience has made me much more compassionate. I suffered a great deal because of the skin condition. I mean I suffered. I was a very outgoing person when this happened, always on the go, doing things and loving people. But after this I became that sort of hermit. I lost a lot of friends, and that hurt. I was afraid of people, afraid of being rejected. I had no sex life, for years and very little when I started back. I ran away from anybody who showed any interest in me. I didn’t want to be rejected, and I couldn’t know if they would accept me with those spots all over my body.
“I met people and they didn’t want to shake my hand because of the spots. I was a freak. When I rode the subway people would laugh, giggle and point at me, because when my makeup came off my lips they were pink and there I was with this dark complexion and pink lips. I found that a lot of people that I thought were my friends were just phony people, and I started getting rid of all phony people around me. A lot of people let me down because they fitted in the category that I didn’t think they fitted in. The whole thing caused me to lose faith in people and distrust them. It really made me see the stupidity of the average person when dealing with other people, how they hurt people unwittingly. The impact of it all was hurt. I was exasperated, and sometimes I was angry. Now I know that it is like to have one leg or one arm, and I learned about that while I had a perfectly healthy body. I have learned that it is the interior, what’s inside, that counts. Because of that lesson, at this moment I have the greatest inner peace that I have ever had in my life. After eight years of inner turmoil and ridicule from outside I am at peace with myself, and that means a helluva lot to me.
Pretty amazing story, huh? What really stood out to me was the addiction that he had for barbiturates AS A RESULT OF A PRESCRIPTION FOR HIS VITILIGO, and not because he wanted to “get high” strictly for “recreational purposes”. This is exactly what happened with MJ and his dependence to painkillers (which he admitted to in 1993, and it was due to his scalp surgery). His drug use was a result of treatments for vitiligo (a symptom of the autoimmune disease Lupus), his scalp burns, and his back pains that were a result of his fall from a prop during a concert. He wasn’t a recreational drug user!
Let’s look at what MJ had to say in his groundbreaking 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. I personally remember watching in disbelief as he explained his disease, as I had never heard of it before at that time. He discusses his vitiligo beginning at 6:15:
Did you notice how at 7:18 he mentioned that it’s in his family? In July 2010 Joe Jackson confirmed in this article that his aunt also had vitiligo, and when MJ started showing signs of the disease it wasn’t a big surprise:
During Jackson’s life, there was speculation as to whether he truly had vitiligo, but the official autopsy report from the L.A. County Coroner noted that he did, in fact, suffer from the condition and had noticeable “patches of light and dark pigmented areas.”
Other members of the Jackson clan have noted that the condition runs in their family.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Chris Connelly, Joe Jackson said his son had vitiligo, and attributed Michael Jackson’s whitened skin to the condition.
“Everybody tryin’ to make a big thing out of it … They say — ‘He try to paint his self white.’ That’s not true. Michael got vitiligo,” Joe Jackson said. “We saw it comin’ on him … at [an] early age. You know, just a little spot. My aunt had the same thing.”
Here is an interview from 1996 where he once again confirms his vitiligo. He answers multiple questions from fans, and at 1:25 he answers why he wears surgical masks when he’s out in public: it’s because of his vitiligo, and his desire to keep as much of his skin covered as possible! I had always questioned why he did that, but it makes perfect sense now, and now we as fans can articulately and accurately answer that question whenever others ask why he wore the mask.
And pay attention to what he says about the tabloids!
And here is a video of Latoya confirming that MJ’s oldest son Prince also has vitiligo (read the subtitles), so it indeed runs in the family (and it confirms that Prince is MJ’s biological son, as well as Paris and Blanket).
A few days after this interview aired, Geraldo Rivera dedicated an entire episode to dissecting everything that was said. Guests on his show include the author of “Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story” J. Randy Taraborrelli, editor of the National Enquirer tabloid Mike Walker, and New York Daily News columnist Richard Johnson. The most interesting guests, however, were the three vitiligo patients who described their everyday struggles!
In part 1, the infamous stories about MJ sleeping in the hyperbaric chamber and his desire to purchase the Elephant Man’s bones are discussed, as well as his plastic surgeries and sex life (or lack thereof). Pay attention at 8:10 to how Mike Walker brings up the young girls in MJ’s hotel room in Japan, which dispels the myth that it was only boys who got to hang out with him. And of course, at the very end, even Walker admits that despite MJ’s weirdness, “the things he does for children are wonderful!”
In part 2, they claim that it was MJ who forced MTV to call him the “King of Pop” (which I highly doubt), and Richard Johnson questions his claims of vitiligo, although Taraborrelli gives an incredible rebuttal to Johnson’s doubts. Walker confirms that the glove and surgical masks were used to hide vitiligo splotches as Geraldo as the three patients discuss their experiences. (Look at the photo of MJ’s hand below as he holds a cat.) They show a clip of Latoya denying that MJ really has it as well. The highlight of this part is the diehard MJ fan who calls the three guests slimeballs for judging MJ!
In part 3, they have a dermatologist who thoroughly explains vitiligo, and how to treat it, including “bleaching” creams that are only available through a dermatologist. There is also a member of the Vitiligo Foundation who made a plea for MJ to be their spokesman so that he could bring awareness and understanding to the disease. After hearing her plea, I’m surprised he rejected it!!
In part 4, they continue discussing the vitiligo, and Geraldo read on-air a letter from Dr. Arnold Klein, which was sent to Geraldo at the request of MJ. They also bring up a rumor that MJ addressed in the interview about a “white boy playing him as a kid in a commercial”. It was a misunderstanding because the media painted it as MJ wanting to be white, but in reality (based on the kid’s background) it was probably Wade Robson (one of MJ’s closest friends), and he was chosen because he was a great dancer, and MJ wanted him to be in the commercial. Mike Walker was honest enough to admit the real goal of all tabloids exist: to make money!
In part 5, J.Randy Taraborrelli said that he hoped MJ would issue a Christmas album, but as we all know that never came to fruition.
Here are some other interesting stories from people who have vitiligo:
- Darcel de Vlugt, a 23 year old woman, gave an interview on the Today Show on August 25th, 2009. She describes being called “spot” and a “Dalmatian”, and being told that her disease is contagious. You can see how traumatized she is over her childhood experiences as her eyes well up with tears!
- Luke Davis, a 46 year old biracial (half Nigerian half Irish) man who lives in England. On July 24th, 2009, he wrote about his life experiences in the Daily Mail, and he refuted the notion that racism is dead in the following excerpt:
In many ways, despite society’s insistence that racism is a thing of the past, my life is better as a white man.
Much as this country proclaims that it is tolerant of every creed and colour, my experience shows this is not the case.
While this might sound shocking, I believe I’m only stating what every black man living in this country knows.
For instance, I was recently offered a job as a butcher, which I know I wouldn’t have got were I black. How can I be so sure? After offering me the job, the owner of the business discreetly reassured me that it was not an establishment where black people were allowed to work.
Of course, my blood ran cold. Until that point, he’d seemed like a genuinely good bloke and I was astounded he was even capable of thinking such a thing, let alone saying it.
I couldn’t bring myself to accept the job: I would have felt like a traitor to my own heritage.
As a white man, I also no longer have to live in fear of experiencing the physical and verbal assaults I used to endure as a black man – attacks that my black friends still endure.
At a school reunion a few years ago, I watched an old acquaintance of mine – who is black – being subjected to racist name-calling by a group of drunk white men.
I was furious, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved that the fact my skin is now white meant I could just get on with my night in peace.
- Lee Thomas, a black news anchor, wrote a book in 2007 about his experience with vitiligo called “Turning White: A Memoir of Change”, and the photo below is from 2007, and you can see in the 3 videos below the photo from a September 2011 interview how much the disease has progressed!
I found a site that contains a sideshow of photos from the 1800’s that shows how blacks with vitiligo were used in circuses and advertised as “freaks” for the public’s entertainment! It is purely disgusting to think that people would pay their hard earned money to stare and laugh at other human beings who were “different”, but I guess I can’t say that I’m surprised, considering that many of these photos were taken during and just after slavery, an institution that considered black people to be totally inferior and unworthy of freedom.
That slideshow contains dozens of photos, and I have included several here for you to see. As you look at the faces of the “freaks”, try to think about what MJ, Arthur Wright, Lee Thomas, and every other vitiligo patient has had to endure! All of their stories are so similar to one another!
Notice how in the video below, not only does “journalist” Juliet Huddy call MJ a “freak”, but she says that his face was falling off!
Let’s look at this photo of MJ from the 70’s, and notice the painful look on his face, and just imagine what MJ had to go through, being in the public eye and having to battle this disease.
On a final note, let’s take a look on what was the cover story in that November 1978 issue of Ebony:
Whoa! What a coincidence!! I bet MJ cringed as he read about Wright’s experiences, which were an unfortunate foreshadowing of what he would endure in only a few years’ time!
This was a very depressing post, and I’m sure the stories you’ve read here have disturbed many of you, so I want to end this on a positive note! Here is a video from the Dr. Oz show, where he showcases a revolutionary new treatment for vitiligo patients called “Microskin“, which is a described as follows:
Microskin is a simulated second skin which is formulated individually to color correct skin conditions. It is a light liquidized application which is applied on to the epidermis (top layer of skin). Microskin is not a cream, and doesn’t have the makeup appearance like other camouflage products. Once applied, Microskin is durable, flexible, and it won’t rub off on clothing or linen. It’s waterproof and allows your skin to breathe. Microskin is suitable for all genders and skin types.
Look at the sheer joy on this lady’s face as she sees the end results of her treatments for the first time, and is awarded with one year of free treatments! If only this treatment had been available years ago! MJ, Arthur Wright, and the others wouldn’t have had to suffer in seclusion!