There are binary views on the controversy around Michael Jackson (MJ) after the recent airing of the documentary Leaving Neverland. But no matter which side you are on, one question lingers: Should you separate MJ the person from MJ the artist?
Maybe the singer would have cleared the air if he were to be alive or else he would have shied away from the intense public gaze; but MJ’s ardent impersonator Michael Firestone is clearly on the side of the gloved one. At the outset of his tribute show I AM KING, brought to India for the first time by BookMyShow, 40-year-old Firestone was emphatic on this. In an email interview, he said, “I don’t separate MJ the artist from MJ the person. He was the perfect artist and a perfect person. He was proven not guilty and the reason he was not guilty is because the guy accusing him now was the one who said he was not guilty. This is all for money and relevance. I do feel bad for his family... his children and mother. All because a wannabe victim wants to make money.”
With that aside, the interview carries on about Firestone and his impersonation of MJ. For the records, Firestone was chosen as one of the two official MJ impersonators for the Michael Jackson Laser Spectacular shows in theatres and casinos in North America and he has starred in several MJ tribute shows before the series I AM KING.
The uninitiated can watch one of the many videos on Internet of Firestone singing MJ’s songs. They are a revelation. At first glance, Firestone seems like a ‘healthy looking’ MJ. Physically, the impersonation is impressive; the pale white skin - hard to achieve even for a Caucasian - the eyes, hair; are achieved meticulously with his makeup alone taking a couple of hours. The dance moves are good, be it the moonwalk, robot dance, crotch grabs or pelvic thrusts. What makes Firestone stand out is his voice, which resembles MJ’s distinctive style replete with thin high pitched notes. “I started dancing and singing around my house when I was about 5 years old. I loved his music, his performances and music videos! I taught myself how to sing and dance. I performed at school events, talent shows and parties.
At 16, he had a recording contract and at 18, Firestone moved to Las Vegas after bagging a contract to do “tribute work” (which is how they phrase impersonation). “At 18 I was offered my first professional job as a Michael Jackson tribute artist at a casino in Las Vegas,” he said. In his performances, as seen in the videos, Firestone occasionally breaks away from MJ’s character on stage and talks to the audience as himself. It is his way of assuring MJ’s fans that he is not into assuming the persona of their idol entirely. But for the majority of his performance, he regales them with songs like Billie Jean, Thriller, Human Nature, and We are the World. Talking of the hardcore fans, who he acknowledges are not his, Firestone says, “They are MJ fans. And I hope to put on a concert making them feel like they are back in time and remembering MJ.”
But what’s probably etched in his memory is the meeting with MJ himself. About 15 years ago, Firestone met MJ at Los Angles and later spoke to him on phone a few weeks after, when they “talked all night about everything, life and art mostly.” MJ had also corrected a few moves during their meeting and later Firestone sent across a video of his performance. “I never performed for MJ,” he said although he did send a video of his performance to MJ later. He has met Randy and Joe Jackson as well. “They were nice and supportive. We didn’t really talk about work. Just a normal meet/hang out. I know Joe has seen me perform and said ‘keep up the good work’.”
Firestone talks of his love for music. He plays the guitar and piano, and writes his own music. “I will have a record out by summertime.” There are some challenges of performing MJ continuously (I AM KING has seen over 100 shows so far). “Performing night after night starts to get difficult. I have to take care of my voice in between performances and warm up properly.” His favourite song? Human Nature, he replied.
The series has travelled to several countries including Israel and has seen over 100 shows. As he puts on the makeup and costumes, he “kinds of just naturally get into character”. However, it is not just about MJ. Steven Tyler and Prince are Firestone’s other favourite artists. “There are no other artists that I emulate professionally but jokingly, I can do a pretty good Frank Sinatra.” It is a wide range then; right from the high pitched voice of MJ to the sonorous notes of Sinatra. “But I do love performing as Michael Jackson. It’s the best plan B in the world. If I can’t perform as myself I am happy performing as MJ.”
What: I AM KING
When: March 16th 8 pm and March 17th 4 pm & 8 pm
Where: St John’s Auditorium