Friday, November 27, 2009

The Michael Jackson Thing...

In much of the interviews, public speaking or media that I have been fortunate to be a part of since August, I cannot remember any occasion when Michael Jackson was not mentioned at some point or another. Since August, many people ask me questions about MJ, and though I have never had the honour of meeting him or attending one of his concerts, I most certainly always felt that I had a connection to him, indeed via his music as did many of us (I owe my love of dance to him), but more importantly through our shared experiences of living with Vitiligo.

Aged 18 - Dancing a Michael Jackson Tribute at my finale dance show before leaving for university

Granted, my journey has not been entirely the same as his and I am not here to discuss any other aspect of his life other than his Vitiligo nor am I going to discuss whether he bleached his skin or not as I firmly believe that if he DID bleach his skin, it was because of his Vitiligo and NOT because he wanted to be a white man. This notion in itself is completely ridiculous and were it true, there would be a vast amount of people trying to achieve, or achieving (if it's indeed possible) the exact same thing in today's world that we would have heard of by now... Just to be clear, there are a great deal of people, mainly women, who attempt to bleach or lighten their skin in Asian countries as well as West Indian countries and the effects are devastating. It is impossible to achieve an even tone of white that is that many shades lighter than your original skin tone; one's skin tone may even out through lightening creams, it may even lighten a shade or two, but let's be realistic: Michael Jackson did not bleach his skin in order to become a white man.

I was offered the option to depigment the remainder of my dark skin patches once my skin was 80% white. This was after trying a number of treatments to try and bring back my original skin colour. The word that rang in my ears with the depigmentation option however, is one I will never forget:


At the age of twelve and on the brink of puberty, I did not then and still do not now believe that I was old enough, mature enough or responsible enough to make that kind of decision. Furthermore, knowing that Michael Jackson is the prime example to come to mind when something like this is put on the table, I think subconsciously I knew what this would mean for me as well. It wasn't just about getting rid of patchy skin to look somewhat 'normal'. This was about changing my ENTIRE IDENTITY - ethnic, racial and cultural. I was no Michael Jackson, but people in society are just as judgmental of each other as they are of those A-listers. I knew, judging from what he must have had to go through, that if I ever chose to bleach the remainder of my skin, that I would be judged for it by people who did not even know me.

Well, isn't it ironic that my skin decided to depigment itself in the end, bleach or no bleach? This doesn't happen to the majority of people with Vitiligo. I am not the first person to completely and naturally change from black to white (thanks to this year's experience, I have since met three other individuals like myself), and I doubt I will be the last, but it is rare enough to be a pretty amazing thing - Amazing to experience as well as to hear about for you I am sure.

Frightening as hell. Even today.

When my story came to light, there were many (I mean MANY) different opinions voiced. Most of the responses I received or read were incredibly positive and uplifting and very very supportive. And then there were the others:

"It would seem she became white from head to toe - even her hair straightened out for the picture in the papers!" (Well then I guess I shouldn't say anything about women who consistently go to ridiculous lengths to put weaves or hair extensions in their hair to get luxuriously straight locks... I never thought that blowdrying [not chemically straightening, like other women do] my naturally mixed race hair would have been an issue for people...)

"She has been disowned by the black community, the association of which I am the President... She is not one of us... Who is joining me?"

"She would never be accepted by white people - her high forehead, broad nose and flared nostrils prove that she is not white..."

"She is missing the frontal lobe that would ever make her a white woman..."

"This girl is a RACIST" (after I was misquoted on a website in a different language as having said that I was lucky to now be white... What I had said was that I was fortunate that my skin changed to one colour so that at least I could assume some sort of normalcy especially during my social years)

On the one hand, this makes me laugh... Me, a racist?! My roots are Dutch, Creole, Portuguese, British and Indian; I was born in Trinidad & Tobago but raised in Israel, Syria and Cyprus; I speak four languages and my best friends are Greek/Swiss, Mauritian, Lebanese, Ukrainian and British whose religions range from Muslim to Atheist, Greek or Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic and this was NEVER a problem for us during our years of friendship... And I'm racist because of a skin condition I have no control over?!

Ignorance is really a mysterious thing. Upon reading these comments, you can only imagine how I felt. So I stopped reading. None of this had anything to do with my story, none of this had anything to do with what I had revealed. If people who did not know me could say this about me within 24 hours of the story being on the Internet, I could only imagine what it felt like for the world's greatest entertainer who had been in the spotlight his entire life.

However, more recently, I was sent a link to my bit on the Today Show for MSNBC that had been posted up on YouTube and  what was really interesting to read was the ongoing discussion in the comments section below the video... And of course, the discussion turned to Michael Jackson - did he or didn't he?

But the issue that really made me want to write this post was a host of questions that kept popping up:

  • Why didn't the media show this before? 
  • Why is this girl only coming out now that Michael Jackson is dead? 
  • Where was she all this time? 
  • Why was this not made a bigger issue during his lifetime?

First of all, "this girl" has always existed, and I have always had Vitiligo. Whether or not anyone chose to bring this to the media or not was never my concern. The problem with society is that most of the time we are ignorant to what is happening around us. People with Vitiligo have always been around, they walk past you every day, but many people never noticed until they read my story and became aware of it.

Furthermore, it has only been six years since I turned completely white. Before that, my skin was patchy like any other Vitiligo sufferer. So once again, where was I all this time? I was trying to live like a normal teenager on a Greek island in the Mediterranean... where were you?

Why am I only coming out now that Michael Jackson is dead? Correction - I am not "coming out" anywhere to anyone. I have always been out there, it was just up to society to notice me (as well as other people wtih visible skin conditions) for me and not for my skin. I had no desire to personally contact any newspaper or TV station to tell them about myself; I was contacted... I don't believe that I am any different to all of the other skin disease sufferers out there so why would I expect to be noticed rather than someone else?

The interview for the story that appeared in the newspapers about me actually took place at the end of May/beginning of June 2009, long before Michael Jackson's passing, and was only meant to be featured in a small column in the health section. I will stand up for the media in this one instance for using the opportunity of Michael Jackson's untimely and unfortunate death to make this story a lot bigger than it was going to be. Had it not then become a double page spread because of the link to Michael Jackson's own Vitiligo, then so many people (and so many of you) would still be oblivious to the devastation that Vitiligo can cause, because so many people would still not know anything about it. This is the one time I would say that in taking advantage of a situation or opportunity, the media actually has helped to make a positive difference, both in my life and in the lives of many others who now feel like they have a voice and not just a skin condition that makes them different.

I hope that I have cleared up that little misunderstanding - I did not seek to make myself public because of Michael Jackson's passing, my story was being documented long before that. I've been called Michael Jackson for years (according to one person "the resemblance is certainly there!")... It just so happened that what was going to be a small writeup that most people would have probably skimmed past at any other time, became a much bigger deal because it had links to such a huge star like Michael Jackson, who passed away as my interview was being processed.

One more comment I'd like to share with you that was written following my NBC interview, and I'm glad it was made:

"I guess the world really does owe Michael Jackson an apology for what we as a society put him through."

May he truly find some peace now.