The Real Reason Michael Jackson Wore Surgical Face Masks

Considering the recent pandemic, face masks have become more and more commonplace the world over.

But when Michael Jackson was first photographed sporting his own surgical attire, it only added to his eccentric public persona during the mid 1980s. Along with ‘Bubbles’ the monkey and photographs of Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, his new accessory became a source of ridicule and speculation for the press and public alike.

Many rumours and related articles have surfaced over the years. Suspicions included disasters with plastic surgery, the AIDs epidemic and the King of Pop’s radical efforts to avoid paparazzi intrusion. So, what was the real reason behind Michael Jackson and his prolonged fondness for surgical masks?

Michael Jackson was first seen wearing a surgical mask in June 1986. In his autobiography, Moonwalk, Jackson said he was initially given a mask by a dentist to keep out germs after he had his wisdom teeth pulled.

Although at the time, press speculated that the mask was worn due to a recent image transformation. As People magazine noted, the mask ‘has nothing to do with the pollen count or the epidemic spread of a disease’, but has ‘everything to do with a new, Kirk Douglas-style cleft in his chin’. This statement was further supported when Jackson appeared a month later with Liza Minelli attending her father’s funeral, sporting a new dimple in his chin and a jawline still slightly swollen.

Because of Michael Jackson’s changing appearance during this period, articles circulated that Jackson’s masks were necessary because he had suffered from a series of plastic surgery disasters. In 1988, New York magazine ran a story claiming Jackson wore masks because of repeated rhinoplasties that had left him without any nasal hair, leaving him vulnerable to airborne dirt and germs.

Because of the medical association, many suspected that Michael Jackson was in fact paranoid and a germaphobe. Unfound rumours speculated that Jackson was wearing surgical masks to prevent himself from contracting HIV during the AIDS mass hysteria of the 1980s. While others suspected he wanted to protect his voice, by not breathing in the L.A. smog or catching germs from fans during public appearances.

This would explain why Michael Jackson would often wear masks while on tour and travelling internationally, having suffered from numerous throat issues including Laryngitis during his HIStory Tour. Upon his death, Jackson’s autopsy confirmed he had some persistent lung problems throughout his lifetime.

Having performed throughout his childhood in smoky bars and clubs, Michael Jackson’s throat unfortunately suffered from long term damage. During his days with his brothers and even during the first leg of his Bad Tour he sang every song live, but this became increasingly impossible for the artist. Jackson worked very hard to preserve his voice, spending hours warming up and drinking almost scalding hot water to keep it protected. While on extensive tours and with thousands of fans lined up to see him perform, the masks would often be used to protect his voice and his overall health.

However, it is likely that Michael Jackson was also protecting himself from the more tangible threat of the public, instead of any illness they may have been harbouring.

Michael Jackson had a long history of shyness in public places. As his fame skyrocketed, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the relentless attention he would receive. During the Thriller era, Jackson resorted to wearing sunglasses to the majority of public events. Being perceived as mysterious and aloof, he was often pressured to remove them for the photographers and fans.

After years of fame Jackson learned that the best way to survive was to shun personal publicity and keep a low profile as much as possible. As he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I’ve been accused of being obsessed with my privacy and it’s true that I am… people stare at you when you’re famous’, the disguises ‘conceal just a bit of myself’.

Michael Jackson’s former tour attorney, Alan Mintz, stated in 1988 that the masks were a ‘superb camouflage’. Saying, ‘First if you see somebody coming toward you in a surgical mask you’re alarmed, you do not embrace somebody wearing a surgical mask’. Much like his signature fedora hat and sunglasses, the masks allowed him breathing space in public places.

Since he was followed by paparazzi everywhere he went, the mask took pressure off him to constantly look perfect, to smile, to speak, to perform at all times. This anxiety surrounding his appearance intensified further as he struggled with Vitiligo and Lupus, becoming highly allergic to the sun; giving him further reasoning to cover his face.

In later years, Michael Jackson was known to resort to decoys in order to escape from intense crowds of fans and paparazzi. At these times it was simply more practical to disguise himself in a way that was easily replicable for others. Although this had its disadvantages as demonstrated when Jackson was visiting London in 1996. While wearing his trademark hat and black surgical mask, it was too much for a Covent Garden fire-eater. He mistook the ‘King of Pop’ for an impostor and aggressively removed his surgical mask. When he realized the man was Jackson, he complained the superstar was taking away his business, and as a result Jackson laughed and gave him a ‘substantial financial contribution’.