Oprah makes Michael Jackson pale

IT WAS an embarrassing question to ask anyone, let alone the painfully shy Michael Jackson, but Oprah Winfrey finally managed to get to the bottom of an issue that has mystified millions of fans and generated countless yards of speculative newsprint. Why was his skin getting so much lighter? And then the rabbit-punch: was he turning white because he did not like being black?

For a brief moment, the better part of the most powerful nation in the world was on the edge of its armchair. Two-thirds of all viewers in the United States had tuned in to see the reclusive pop idol give his first televised interview for 14 years, and this was a matter that needed clearing up. Jackson responded by becoming weepy.

No, he did not bleach his skin - he had a pigment disorder, probably inherited from his father's side, which made his skin blotchy, so he used make-up to even it out. 'It's something I can't help, okay?' He was, he had stressed earlier, 'proud to be a black American'.

If Jackson needed reassuring about his popularity - and apparently he has been worrying about falling sales - then his 90-minute exchange with Winfrey was considered so important by one Californian television station that it occupied all of its late-night news bulletin. There were interviews with fans, biographers, journalists - even doctors, who have confirmed Jackson could have a condition called vitiligo.

His interview, conducted at his huge Californian ranch, ranged over most of the issues that the world is most nosy about. He confirmed he had plastic surgery, but 'very little' beyond a nose job. Was he dating anyone? Yes, the actress Brooke Shields. And then, another cruncher: was he a virgin? The 34-year-old pop idol looked even more pallid than usual: 'Aaaww, how could you ask me that question? . . . I am a gentleman, I'm a gentleman.' It was private, he explained. And so it remained. Eventually, his close friend Elizabeth Taylor was drafted in, to say he was 'the least weird man she had ever known'.

But not before Winfrey had squeezed one more biggie. Why does he always grab his crotch when he's dancing, upsetting mothers across the world? It was the music's fault; he couldn't help it. 'I am a slave to the rhythm,' he said. Then, just as it was getting steamy, the interview was interrupted. The smoke alarms in his mansion had gone off.