The Freakshow and Transformation in Michael Jackson’s Life and Work

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Rita Alves
Independent Artist

“This is my Bible and I want it to be yours… I want my whole career to be the greatest show on earth,” Michael Jackson told his manager, Frank Dileo, and attorney, John Branca, as he handed them copies of a book on Phineas Taylor Barnum’s theories and philosophies. [1] The year was 1984. Around the same time, he was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for the enormous success of his album, Thriller. Between the height of his career and his death in 2009, he had attempted to buy the elephant man’s deformed skeleton, convinced journalists that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber to prevent aging, built an amusement park for himself to live in with his pet circus animals, and magically transformed from a Black man into a white-skinned person of unidentifiable race and gender. If all of these “humbugs,” performances, and transformations are viewed together, one begins to see that Jackson has, in fact, based his career around the nineteenth-century showman’s philosophies, namely, those of the freak show. Medical mysteries, spectacular performance, and magical transformation all play into the logic of the freak show. This paper will explore these themes through visual analysis of Jackson’s music videos, tabloid hoaxes, and physical transformation to show his relevance as a video and performance artist whose life and work are inseparable aspects of a single body of work, a body of work which used performance, surgery, media manipulation, video, and reference to Barnum’s nineteenth century freak show to embody a hybrid culture.

Recognition of Barnum’s influence on Jackson is not an original idea, nor is recognition of the theme of metamorphosis in his music videos. Margo Jefferson and David D. Yuan have written on these topics, but what has not been considered is a holistic visually-based approach to analyzing his music videos, media image, and shifting appearance as a single art concept with his transformation into a self-made freak at its center. [2] This analysis is intended as an introductory survey on a topic which deserves further study. For this reason, breadth will be favored over depth in many of the descriptions. It will be presented in roughly a reverse chronology, beginning with his bizarre image as a fifty year old “What is it?” and the medical mystery surrounding his death, then working backwards to the roots of this persona within his early work, including his music videos and tabloid hoaxes.

What Is It? This Is It.

Jackson’s final performance as a self-made freak seems to answer a question posed by Barnum.  One of Barnum’s most popular freak show exhibits, performed by William Henry Johnson, was titled “What is it?” Jackson’s final performance, including both the planned concerts and the posthumous film, was titled “This is it.” The “This is it” concerts were supposed to take place at London’s O2 Arena in July of 2009, but were interrupted by his untimely death less than two weeks prior to the opening date. [3] One might wonder, is this relationship purely coincidental, or did Jackson plan his entire career as a response to Barnum’s? As we will see, Jackson did, in fact, consciously emulate both Barnum and his performers. As an illustration, let us examine two of Barnum’s freak show performances with particular resemblance to Jackson: the “What is it?” exhibit and the “Leopard Child.”

William Henry Johnson, the original “What Is It?,” was a petite, African-American man who was born with the condition now known as microcephaly and who began performing at Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan in 1860, the same year Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. Barnum marketed Johnson’s show under the title “What Is It?” claiming that Johnson was a missing link between man and ape, not yet classified as a species, and asking the audience members to judge for themselves what this exotic creature was.  The show was popular with its Victorian audiences, and soon imitators began to profit from similar shows. Johnson himself performed for more than sixty years, moving on from Barnum’s Museum to Coney Island and finally Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. [4]

Accounts of the “Leopard Child” are much more difficult to find than those of the “What Is It?” exhibits, but there are at least two extant photographs by Mathew Brady of a young girl with two-toned spotted skin who was exhibited by Barnum. According to Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter Kunhardt, “At the same time that the ‘Leopard Child’ was being exhibited at the Museum, Barnum was advertising a miraculous weed, the juice of which was supposedly capable of turning black skin white.” [5] In Barnum’s time, the disease now known as vitiligo, which destroys skin pigmentation and which Jackson has claimed to be afflicted by, was not yet widely diagnosed. It is likely that, because of her mixture of dark and light skin tones, the child in the pictures was viewed as a hybrid, defying the current system of racial classification. [6]

Jackson was the mastermind behind his own performances much like Barnum himself, but he had uncanny resemblances with some of Barnum’s performers as well, becoming a “What is it?” through mysteriously transforming his own image into an androgynous interracial figure.

Hybridity and Other Humbugs

Not only does Jackson’s final performance reference the “What is it?” exhibit, his shifting appearance does as well. Jackson grew up in the public eye, as an African-American boy with the dark-brown skin color commonly associated with his race. By the late 1980s, his appearance had begun to shift in an unexpected way. If we look at any photograph of Jackson from around 1993 forward, we can see that both his race and gender have become ambiguous. His skin is no longer the dark shade of brown that it used to be. Now it is a ghostly white. His hair remains black, but progressively gets straighter as the years pass. In the most recent pictures his slick dark hair resembles that of an Asian woman. His eyeliner and mascara give his eyes a feminine look and almond shape which are stereotypically thought of as Eastern Asian. The rest of his face could be read as a Caucasian woman’s from a distance, but close-ups reveal a sharply-pointed nose scarred by surgical incisions, evidence of plastic reconstruction. His cleft chin and occasional scruff remain markers associated with the masculine, and his thin, lanky figure would perhaps be more typical of a teenage boy than an adult. He has even been seen wearing traditional Middle Eastern women’s clothing, including a veil and long, black robe. His body is a semiotic hybrid, bearing markers of African, Caucasian, Asian, and various other ethnicities, between man and woman, and between born and made.

Not only does Jackson’s appearance reference the hybridity of Barnum’s performers, his tactics reference those of Barnum himself. The story of Joice Heth, Barnum’s first freak show performer, illustrates this point. Barnum bought Heth from a slaveholder in 1835. He exhibited her as the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. When she died after less than a year of performing, Barnum arranged a public autopsy and charged admission. When the autopsy revealed that she was in fact no older than eighty, Barnum acted astonished. He maintained that he fully believed the story he presented, that he was tricked by the man who sold her to him. The media went wild, trying to get the real story. After the fame he garnered from this publicity stunt, Barnum began performing numerous other stunts for profit, calling himself “Prince of Humbug.” He even gave lectures on “The Art of Money-Getting” and claimed that any publicity is good publicity. [7]

Jackson was well-aware of these hoaxes, and he performed media hoaxes that fit the prototype, for example, incorporating the hyperbaric chamber. Jackson was burned in 1984 by a pyrotechnic explosion during filming for a Pepsi commercial and was admitted to the burn unit at Brotman Memorial Hospital. The hospital had a hyperbaric chamber which used pure oxygen to heal serious burn victims. [8] According to Tarraborrelli, Jackson’s plastic surgeon told him the machine could extend life. Jackson considered buying it but instead decided to sell to the National Enquirer a story that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber in order to live 150 years. This story surfaced shortly after Jackson gave Barnum’s book to his manager, and they both collaborated on the media stunt. [9] Note the similarity in both form and content to Barnum’s hoax with Heth. It is not coincidental that both Barnum’s and Jackson’s first hoaxes involved both the concept of immortality and enhancement of their own bizarre media images.

A few years after this hyperbaric chamber stunt, Jackson instigated another media story. In 1987 he attempted to buy the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, the famed “Elephant Man,” from the London Hospital Medical College where it was displayed in a glass case. Once again, Jackson and his manager, Dileo, collaborated on the media story. [10] As these media hoaxes illustrate, Jackson emulated the tactics of Barnum, the showman and slaveholder, but at the same time he emulated Barnum’s performers, the freaks and the slaves, through his shifting physical appearance. [11] A public who is highly invested in ethnic and gender classification and who is unfamiliar with cyborg theory would be left with the question: What is Michael Jackson? Is he Black or White? Man or woman? Human or man-made? Showman and slaveholder or freak and slave?

What He Is Is All of These, A Hybrid.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries in the visual arts have used transformation of their own bodies to address the concept of hybridity. The list of postmodern artists whose work addresses ethnic and gender hybridity would be too long to enumerate, but a short list of relevant works in which artists transform their own bodies could include Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait photographs, Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being advertisements and performances, and Orlan’s project, The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. For the sake of brevity, only Orlan’s project will be discussed here.

The French performance artist, Orlan, began her ongoing project, The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, in 1990. The project consists of a series of plastic surgeries which the artist undergoes to change her physical features to match the “ideal” features of historical and mythological women.  She does not choose a single face to emulate. Instead, she takes features from several different women, including the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the forehead of the Mona Lisa, and other features from artists’ representations Europa and Psyche. The surgeries take place in front of video cameras. Orlan, the doctors, and nurses wear sequined gowns, and throughout the procedures Orlan reads literary texts related to the theme of the particular performance. Some of her performances are broadcast live to galleries around the world. [12] Similarly to Jackson, Orlan uses surgery as a medium of self-transformation into a grotesque hybrid which embodies themes addressed in her earlier work. For most of her career, Orlan has used her own body as a vehicle through which to address intersections between feminist and religious ideas, but until The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan her methods did not permanently alter her appearance. Barbara Rose, in her article “Is it Art?: Orlan and the Transgressive Act,” questions the validity of Orlan’s art, but finally concludes:

“…Orlan is a genuine artist, dead serious in her intent and fully aware of the risks and consequences of her elaborately calculated actions. In the end, the two essential criteria for distinguishing art from nonart, intentionality and transformation, are present in all her efforts.  The photographs, videos and posters that are the residue of her performances are composed, structured and highly self-conscious. To conclude that Orlan’s taboo-challenging investigations are esthetic actions rather than pathological behavior forces us to reconsider the boundary that separates “normality” from madness, as well as the line that separates art from nonart.” [13]

I ask, could not the same be said for Jackson?

The Music Videos

Rose’s statement names two criteria for “distinguishing art from nonart”: intentionality and transformation. The first part of this paper began to set up an argument about Jackson’s artistic intent by showing parallels between his off-stage career and Barnum’s in addition to evidence of his conscious emulation of Barnum. The following section will expand on the argument for intentionality through visual analysis of his music videos, tracing the same themes of physical transformation and the freak show which were seen in other aspects of his career. Jackson referred to his music videos as “short films,” indicating that he considered them theatrical productions on the level of cinema rather than simple advertisements for the music. [14] Let us begin with a description of a famous example:

The setting is the 1950s, as is evident from the style of convertible sports car which emerges from the dark fog. A young man wearing a letterman’s jacket and a young lady in a purple petticoat skirt are in the car. They get out of the car and begin to walk side by side. This is a rural scene at night—both eerie and romantic.  The couple is surrounded by darkness with trees barely visible in the moonlight. They stop walking. “Will you be my girl?” he asks as he pulls out a ring. She accepts but then he cautions, “I’m not like other guys.” Then shifting clouds reveal a full moon. He cringes in apparent pain. She seems worried—he looks to be suddenly sick… until he looks at the camera. We see that his eyes have turned yellow, teeth grown into fangs, and his ears are covered in wiry grey hair. He howls at the moon as hairs continue to grow rapidly from his hands and face, his ears grow to points and fingernails become claws. She howls at the sight of him.  She begins to run through the forest. He chases her. She falls and he hovers over her. She is afraid. Then the scene cuts to the audience in the movie theater, allowing us to see that we were watching a film within the film. The same couple we just witnessed on the screen is sitting in the audience, but this time in 1980s fashion—the lady is wearing a jean zip-up jacket with curly hair freely flowing, the man is in red leather. He is enjoying the film, smiling and munching on popcorn. She clenches his arm in fear.

The film is Thriller. These were the first two transformations—from man to werewolf, and from performer to viewer. In this film alone Jackson undergoes multiple transformations—after the scene described above, he turns into a zombie, then back to a man and a zombie again. Jackson built his entire career around the concept of transformation. He has permanently transformed his body into the freakish character discussed previously, but he also transforms himself through costumes and animations in many of his films. In addition to Thriller, the theme of transformation can be seen in Remember the Time, Speed Demon, and Ghosts.

The video, Black or White, is another case in point, addressing Jackson’s transformation into a hybrid character. A rap segment of the song, Black or White, states “I’m not gonna spend my life being a color.” Shortly after that statement, Jackson is seen dancing on top of the Statue of Liberty. The scene is pasted onto a backdrop containing the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. The location is New York, Paris, and San Francisco—symbolically he is everywhere. This was during his transition years—he is not the pale figure we would come to know a decade later, but neither does his skin appear to be dark. His skin is a pale shade of brown; his nose is small—not the one he was born with, but human nonetheless. His hair is long, stringy and wavy.  Just as the scene is a collage representing the world, so is his appearance. The film cuts from Jackson dancing to a portrait shot of a middle-aged, heavyset Asian man. He shakes his head back and forth, which causes his face to magically morph into a young, thin black woman. She shakes her head and becomes a red-headed woman of similar age, who becomes a black man with dreadlocks and a beard, who becomes an Indian woman. These iterations continue for about a minute, cycling through several ethnicities of men and women. The transformations are reminiscent of the computer imaging used by plastic surgeons to show patients possible outcomes of reconstructive surgeries. Here Jackson, whose color and nose would suggest has already had a few procedures done, would have been familiar with this type of imaging. The morphing faces and his shifting physical features carry the same message of hybridity and mutability.

There is a wealth of material yet to be covered on the topic of transformation in Jackson’s films, and several of his films also explicitly reference Barnum and the freak show. Analyses of freak show references in his videos have been excluded from this paper because they would require a discussion of a Modernist/postmodernist dialectic in Jackson’s work which has too many subtleties to unravel here. As we have seen, the same ideas of transformation, hybridity, and Barnum’s freak show present in Jackson’s physique and media hoaxes also pervade his videos. The unprecedented ingenuity with which he created these music videos while his contemporaries thought of the genre as mere advertisement, in addition to his reference to them as “short films” provides evidence of his artistic intent. If intentionality is present in the films, and the same themes are present in his appearance, publicity hoaxes, and trials, then we can conclude that there is strong evidence for intentionality in these aspects of his work as well. Transformation plays out in Jackson’s work in much the same way as in Orlan’s. Therefore, according to Rose’s criteria for distinguishing art from nonart, Jackson qualifies as an artist, “dead serious in [his] intent and fully aware of the risks and consequences of [his] elaborately calculated actions.”

Jackson based his entrepreneurial style of showmanship on Barnum, but he also embodied the freaks Barnum employed. His hybrid appearance referenced both the ambiguity of many nineteenth century freaks and a composite image of everyman. In Jackson’s career, boundaries between performance on and off stage and behind the camera were blurred. He created an elusive, gender-bending, interracial, post-human persona through the use of expanded media, which included video, body transformation, and media manipulation. His work has been appropriated by contemporary artists, including the Bruce High Quality Foundation, Lorraine O’Grady, Paul Pfeiffer, and Jeff Koons, as a symbol of both the death of Modernism and the birth of postmodernism, representing elements of postmodern culture from cultural hybridity moving into the mainstream and the present circus-like state of media saturation, to the loss of belief in America which has occurred in the last half-century and deepened in the last decade.  Jackson is a tragic character, the king of a foreclosed-on Neverland, the showman turned slave, the Modernist whose technology failed him. He is a model for the limits of progress. There will probably never again be an artist to rise to his level of fame and fortune, but there will probably also never be another to fall as low. With “reality” television and social networking technology, we are all freaks now. [15] By becoming a freak and also representing everyman, Jackson foreshadowed this decentering of popular culture. Instead of fifteen minutes of fame, we all get a thousand hours.


1. J. Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991), 357.  Celebrity biographies must always be cited cautiously.  I consider Taraborrelli’s book to be the most reliable among the dozens of Michael Jackson biographies available because it is the one most often cited by academics, including Margo Jefferson, Seth Clark Silberman, and David. D. Yuan.
2. For a description of Barnum’s influence, see Margo Jefferson, On Michael Jackson (New York: Pantheon, 2006), 5.  For more on Barnum in addition to a note on metamorphosis in Jackson’s music videos, see David D. Yuan, “The Celebrity Freak: Michael Jackson’s ‘Grotesque Glory’,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York and London: New York University Press, 1996), 371.
3. Nesta McGregor and Jonathan Blake, “Feature: Michael Jackson’s UK return,” BBC Newsbeat, March 5, 2009, (accessed March 2, 2012).
4. Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 134-5.  See also James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 119-29 and Bluford Adams, E. Pluribus Barnum: The Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 161.
5. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter Kunhardt, P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 188.
6. For a discussion of the role of Barnum and his racially ambiguous performers in antebellum political discourse, see James W. Cook, Jr., “Of Men, Missing Links, and Nondescripts: The Strange Career of P.T. Barnum’s ‘What is It?’ Exhibition,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York and London: New York University Press, 1996), 149-55.
7. Benjamin Reiss, The Showman and the Slave (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 1-3 and Phineas Taylor Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs, 1st ed. (Buffalo, New York: Warren, Johnson & Co., 1872), 71-77, 121, 455-505.
8. Yuan, “The Celebrity Freak,” 373. Jackson’s burns were not serious enough to require treatment in the hyperbaric chamber. He only posed in it for the picture.
9. Taraborrelli, The Magic and the Madness, 356-7.  See also Yuan, “The Celebrity Freak,” 373 and Seth Clark Silberman, “Presenting Michael Jackson,” Social Semiotics 17, no. 4 (December 2007): 426.  The hyperbaric chamber story ran in the September 16, 1986 issue of the National Enquirer.
10. Yuan, “The Celebrity Freak,” 375-6.
11. For more on why the hyperbaric chamber and elephant man’s skeleton stories can be considered hoaxes, see Yuan, “The Celebrity Freak,” 373-6.
12. Barbara Rose, “Is it Art?: Orlan and the Transgressive Act,” Art in America, February 1993, 83.  See also Alyda Faber, “Saint Orlan: Ritual as Violent Spectacle and Cultural Criticism,” TDR (1988-) 46, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 85.
13. Rose, “Is it Art?,” 87.  Rose references a psychoanalytic publication, VST, Revue Scientifique et Culturelle de Sante Mentale 23/24, Sept.-Dec. 1991, which was devoted entirely to Orlan.  It was determined that Orlan’s surgeries are indeed art, rather than psychopathology.
14. John Branca and John McClain, Michael Jackson’s Vision (New York: MJJ Productions, Inc., 2010), 2.  Pamphlet accompanying the boxed set of music videos, Michael Jackson’s Vision.
15. Jon Dovey, Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 4.



Rita Alves is an independent artist based in Portland, Oregon.  She is an adjunct faculty member at Portland State University and is represented by Blackfish Gallery, an artist-owned cooperative in Portland.  Her work has been included in group shows in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Portland, with recent exhibitions including “Seriously Funny” at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago and “Where are we now? Artists reflect on America 10 years after 9/11” at Chemeketa College Gallery in Salem, Oregon.  She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2006 and Master of Fine Arts from the New York Academy of Art in 2010.  Her paintings and installations often involve themes of absurdity, spectacle, reflection, concealment, and carnivalesque americana.  Her interest in Michael Jackson is longstanding, stemming from the general atmosphere of the generation she was born into and what she considers relevant to its culture.