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Is Beyoncé the New Michael Jackson?

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In August 2008, recording artist and actress Beyoncé Knowles featured in a magazine ad for cosmetics giant L'Oréal Paris and their Feria hair colour range. The ad drew controversy when the company were accused of deliberately lightening her skin in the photograph. (A charge they vehemently denied). This led to rumors that Beyoncé herself was using skin bleach. There had also been a prior unsubstantiated claim that during her time in the R'n'B group Destiny's Child, her father Mathew Knowles persuaded her to use skin treatments in order that she stand out as the lightest member of the band.

Since then the accusations leveled at her have failed to dissipate, and indeed were further fueled by a subsequent paparazzi image of the singing star shopping in Los Angeles in February 2011, displaying very pale skin on her face and legs.

There was more controversy on January 17, 2012 when the Grammy award-winning singer's record company released a startling new promotional picture for her album, '4', which originally came out in 2011. The image -- featuring Knowles reclining on a leopard print sofa as a light-skinned blonde with straight hair and dark red lipstick -- is unrecognizable from previous images of her. The photo sparked fresh outcry in the press. "White out of order!" screamed a headline in The Daily Mail.

Right from the beginning of her career, Knowles racial ambiguity has been seen as a key selling point, allowing her to crossover to a wider audience. "Beyoncé has become a crossover sex symbol a la Halle Berry, a black girl who's not so overwhelmingly Nubian that white people don't appreciate her beauty," said Touré in Rolling Stone. In fact, the effectiveness of Beyoncé's crossover beauty is such that a number of her fans are actually not sure whether she is black or white. According to Google's search statistics, approximately 400 global Internet users type the phrase "Is Beyoncé black?" into their browsers every month.

Critics have accused her of setting a bad example to young people of color around the world, who may be negatively influenced into believing that light skin is more attractive. These are the kinds of concerns that are believed to be driving the market for dangerous skin-lightening creams that are currently used within ethnic communities.

But it is difficult to see how Knowles and her fellow black female R'n'B contemporaries can be held to account for a generation of aesthetically insecure young women of color from around the world. Indeed, the use of skin-lightening creams within the African American community actually pre-dates the era of black celebrity by some distance. The first products appeared on the market in the 1890s, when there were no nationally famous black role models for women to be influenced by. This suggests that the real reasons are somewhat more complex and deep-rooted that some would admit.

Nevertheless, despite all this there is no proof that Beyoncé's pale skin is not simply the result of bright studio lighting or the glare of a paparazzo's flashbulb, as opposed to skin bleaching or manipulation via Photoshop. Beyoncé is naturally light-skinned, (her mother is a Louisiana Créole -- a mix of African, Native American and French), and so it doesn't take much lighting to make her appear pale. Nevertheless, her critics still argue that it is politically incorrect of her not to promote a darker image.

The debate is beginning to veer very close to accusations once directed towards another R'n'B icon, Michael Jackson. For 20 years he was vilified by the media and members of the public for bleaching his skin, under accusations of not wanting to be black. But upon his death in 2009, the autopsy confirmed what he'd stated all along -- that he suffered from the skin disease vitiligo, which stripped away his brown pigment, turning him pale. With Jackson gone, it now seems as if Beyoncé has been positioned in the crosshairs as pop's new bogeyman for pale-skinned blackness. Is she destined to be perpetually vilified over the issue, just as Jackson was? Time will tell.

'Black Beauty' is out now.
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