MJ Studies Today LIII


In this column, Kerry Hennigan discusses the matter of Michael Jackson’s wearing of masks and some of the speculation that has arisen around his motivations for this, given the precautionary measures recommended during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Does this mean, as some tabloids have suggested, that Jackson prophesized such a pandemic?.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts and MJ blogger.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LIII (14-06-2020).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 6, No. 4 (2020). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-liii/

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“I need my privacy”: perceptions of Michael Jackson’s mask-wearing as prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  By Kerry Hennigan

© Kerry Hennigan

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it hardly seems strange to see people wearing masks to guard against catching or spreading the virus.  It was probably inevitable then, that the tabloid media would find an angle (based on a questionable source) to justify inserting Michael Jackson’s name into a headline about something as topical as the coronavirus.  But did his wearing of masks mean Michael was a germaphobe or a pandemic prophet as the tabloids suggest? [1]

While it must be appreciated that Jackson could have had any number of reasons over the years for wearing his signature face masks, according to his 1988 autobiography “Moonwalk”, it was all began with a visit to the dentist to have his wisdom teeth pulled.  Afterwards the dentist gave him a surgical mask to wear home to keep out the germs.  “I loved that mask,” Michael explained.  “There’s so little privacy in my life that concealing a little bit of me is a way to give myself a break from all that.” [2]  Whether it was concealing himself behind a mask, sunglasses, a scarf wrapped around his head, or another form of face covering, it was his way of dealing with being one of the most recognisable individuals on the planet.

In addition to craving a bit of privacy, Jackson was also very sensitive about his appearance.  As a teenager he was taunted by members of his own family about his big nose and his acne-plagued complexion.  As an adult, he would be beset with the auto-immune skin disorder Vitiligo which is something that runs in his father’s family.  Following his success with “Thriller”, Vitiligo began to have a noticeable impact on his appearance, requiring an increasing reliance on make-up and the use of prescription creams to even out his skin tone.  According to the World Vitiligo Foundation, “many patients feel isolated and devastated by its impact on their relationships and personal and professional lives.” [3]

Consider the magnitude of the devastation for the likes of Jackson, who was destined to seldom be out of the spotlight.  His comments on his appearance to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in 2000-2001 came following his being photographed unflatteringly by the press and paparazzi at a public event.  “I wish I could never be photographed or seen and I push myself to go to the things that we go to. I really do,” Jackson said. [4]  Yet he would then become excited about the prospect of making movies – a medium he loved and longed to make his mark in.  How does that equate to a man who doesn’t want to be seen?

For Jackson it was about creative control – being able to control the lighting and the way you were photographed.  Harrison Funk, who was trusted by Jackson and who photographed him many times over the years, confirms that he had to adapt the lighting because of the changes in Jackson’s complexion due to the Vitiligo.  “I think the problem was Michael wanted badly for his skin to look even-toned,” Funk said in a 2018 interview.  “I didn’t have Photoshop back then so I lit Michael myself and had specific techniques to make him look at his best.” [5]

The desire to control when and how he was photographed or depicted hardly makes Jackson a freak.  Let’s be honest, the tabloid media love photos of celebrities caught off-guard or not looking their best.  Paparazzi thrive on getting such shots; they are worth a lot of money to them.  How he was perceived by his fans – and the public – was important for Michael, especially given his insecurities about his appearance. He is not the first nor will he be the last famous individual to use various means to overcome perceived flaws or to secure for himself a little bit of privacy. The mask, whether to hide behind or cover a dermatological issue, had also become one of Jackson’s “signatures”.  It was like his single white glove in the early to mid-eighties and his fedora post his Motown 25 performance of Billie Jean.  It was part of what identified him as Michael Jackson in the eyes of the world. [6]

At times he incorporated different sorts of masks for his disguises when going out in public and hoping to be undetected.  But those who knew him were probably seldom, if ever, fooled by these efforts.  Having photographed Jackson holding up a book over the lower half of his face for a World Book Encyclopedia advertisement, Funk knew that Michael’s eyes were his most defining feature.  “I knew I could capture his soul by focusing on his eyes and that’s exactly what happened with that photo,” the photographer said. [7]

As someone whose voice was his livelihood, there are common sense reasons for Jackson to be guarding against infection on his travels.  As a well-read individual who cared about the health of the planet, he may also have thought a pandemic might be on the horizon for humanity, given what we were pumping into the air and flushing down our drains.  He spoke out publicly on deforestation and climate change, so for him to envisage a virus pandemic is not such a stretch.  But he would certainly not have been alone in having such concerns.

If the tabloids would like us to believe Jackson was a pandemic prophet because of his mask-wearing, perhaps we should just be grateful that, in this instance at least, it’s not something that they are maintaining is an example of his “weirdness”.  They did that when he was alive, but it would be irresponsible to suggest it in this time of COVID-19 precautionary measures.  Not that a global pandemic would stop them from disparaging Jackson.  As Michael himself asked in “Moonwalk” – what happened to truth?  Did it go out of style?  I think we all know the answer to that.

“I need my privacy, I need my privacy
So paparazzi, get away from me.”


[1] Filmbeat “Michael Jackson ‘Predicted’ Coronavirus Like Pandemic And Always Wore Face Mask, Says Ex Bodyguard” published online 27 March 2020.

[2] Jackson, Michael. Moonwalk. Arrow paperback edition 2010 p. 272

[3] World Vitiligo Foundation “About Vitiligo. Vitiligo Facts” https://globalvitiligofoundation.org/about-vitiligo/vitiligo-facts/

[4] Boteach, Rabbi Shmuley The Michael Jackson Tapes Vanguard Press 2009 p. 84  [NB: This book is used as a resource for the interview transcriptions it contains – not for Boteach’s judgemental assessment of his former friend.  KH]

[5] Hobbs, Thomas “Michael Jackson’s personal photographer…” in The Guardian published online 21 June 2018.  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jun/20/michael-jackson-personal-photographer-harrison-funk-mandela

[6] Hennigan, Kerry. “Michael Jackson’s single white glove: an enduring pop culture icon – everything old is new again – MJ Studies Today XLI (15-05-2019).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, no. 4 (2019). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xli/.

[7]  Hobbs, Thomas.  The Guardian.

[8] From the song “Privacy”. Written and composed by Michael Jackson, Rodney Jerkins, Fred Jerkins III, LaShawn Daniels and Bernard Bell. Released on the album “Invincible” 2001.
Michael Jackson “Privacy” (Audio) on YouTube https://youtu.be/IAX8rVcbUIQ


Photo montage “Privacy” compiled by Kerry Hennigan.  No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this educational, not-for-profit exercise.