x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Man in the mirror

For professional Michael Jackson impersonators, the performer's death is more than the loss of a hero.

The Michael Jackson impersonator Devra Gregory, who uses the stage name
The Michael Jackson impersonator Devra Gregory, who uses the stage name "Dev", is in talks about producing a tribute show.

While generations of Michael Jackson fans around the world mourn the passing of the self-styled King of Pop, others are cashing in on what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity. But while the merchandising companies have lost no time in cranking out millions of souvenirs to satisfy fans' craving for one last piece of their idol, many of the singer's best-known impersonators say they are too upset to perform.

Adrienne Gusoff, who founded www.bubbygram.com, the New York-based agency of celebrity impersonators, has a stable of 12 Jackson clones on her books. She sent each of them a letter of condolence when he died. "For most of them, it's like losing part of themselves or like a death in the family," says Gusoff. As they struggle to recover from the loss of their hero, most are declining to book jobs or work immediately, saying it's too soon after his death.

"It's just too fresh. It would be like going to a funeral and discussing business," she says. One of her most badly hit impersonators, who is based in New Jersey, announced he was taking a couple of weeks off work to travel to Los Angeles and mourn closer to Jackson's home. While Jackson's death came as a huge shock to all his clones, those who impersonate only the singer are finding it particularly difficult emotionally, Gusoff says.

"Impersonating someone who is dead is one thing, but when the person is alive, it's vibrant. They eternalise them, they grow up with them and age with them and when they die it's like losing a part of themselves," she says. One of the world's most famous Jackson impersonators, Joby Rogers, says he feels like he has a lost a friend and has not watched television once since learning of his hero's death.

"I don't want to see any negativity," he says. "There are journalists who were so rude to him when he was alive and now they are all claiming to have been good friends with him. The hypocrisy is appalling," he says. The son of an Italian mother and an African-American father, Rogers, 42, grew up in Connecticut listening to the Jackson Five. People began remarking on his resemblance to the singer when he was a child. He has been impersonating Jackson since he was 17, when friends convinced him to play the singer in a high school show. He says it is not a performance he now cares to remember in any detail.

Nevertheless, one father was sufficiently impressed and offered to manage Rogers's career. He went on to play at local clubs and children's parties before landing a role in an off-Broadway show where the cast of female impersonators taught him the make-up techniques he still uses today. Rogers now supplements his income as an impersonator by teaching make-up artistry at two schools in Connecticut and by writing entertainment reviews for local publications.

In 2000, Rogers appeared as Jackson on the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine. But the greatest achievement of his career came in 2005 when the King of Pop himself chose Rogers from 115 of his clones and approved him as his "official" impersonator, sending him a signed letter to that effect. Jackson also gave Rogers a personalised platinum Thriller album as a token of his appreciation for Rogers's work.

"Michael Jackson had a major impact on my life. Thanks to him I've seen the world," says Rogers, who has travelled to Brazil, China, South Africa and Europe. Following Jackson's death, Rogers received calls to go to Germany, Dubai and South Africa. But while he is honouring previous bookings, he says it is too early to confirm any new performances. "I would hate it to look like I'm trying to capitalise on this," he says.

"I think there is going to be a mourning period," Rogers says. "I think there will be a period of negative press and then I think impersonators of Michael Jackson are going to be in great demand, especially from people who never got to see him while he was alive. It's going to be a different show now. It's going to be a tribute act." Other impersonators, such as Devra Gregory - who uses the stage name "Dev" and is, to her knowledge, the only female Michael Jackson impersonator - believe the show must go on, even if it is painful.

She performed for the first time since Jackson's death on Sunday in front of several hundred people at a San Diego bar. "I had very mixed emotions about it," she says. "I felt awkward, but like it was an honour to him as well. "As for the audience, they loved seeing Michael. Only one woman was upset. I think she must have been a very big fan." She is now in talks with agents about producing a tribute show later this month.

Dev learnt of the singer's death as she was packing up her belongings to move to a new apartment. She says she went into shock and felt numb for two days. "It wasn't until I was in my new home that I just sat on the floor, broke down and cried for hours," she says, her voice choked with tears. She is 50, the same age as the singer was when he died. She trained as a ballet dancer and says she was not a Jackson fan before she began impersonating him, preferring to listen to classical music.

It took her a year to perfect her routine, dance moves and the make-up. "At first it was just a career move, but when I began to study Jackson's music and dance moves, I became a fan," she says. For years, the lack of any new hit material meant that media attention focused on Jackson more as a weirdo than a singer or dancer. However, according to Gusoff, in the five years before he died, demand for Jackson impersonators picked up again. As nostalgia for the 1980s grew, people wanted Jackson clones to entertain guests at their Eighties-themed parties.

In the same way that we now tend to remember Elvis Presley in his heyday rather than as the obese man squeezed into the white sequinned suit, and Marilyn as young and beautiful rather than miserable, Gusoff, Rogers and Dev all believe Jackson's death will change how the star will be remembered. "For a long time now Michael Jackson has been Wacko Jacko," Gusoff says. "It's been all about his weirdness. Now he's gone, people are starting to remember him as a brilliant entertainer again. As a new generation gets to know him, this is how they are going to think of him and the weirdness will fade into the background."

Ironically, it is not the Jackson impersonators who pursue plastic surgery to perfect their resemblance, but the legion of Elvis clones. Elvis still tops the popularity charts for impersonators, followed by Frank Sinatra ("very popular at Italian weddings") and Marilyn Monroe ("great for men's birthdays"). According to Gusoff, Jackson will remain in the top 10, but she is cautious about predicting whether his death will increase his popularity.

"There may be an upsurge, but it remains to be seen to what extent. He certainly won't fall off the radar, though. That's for sure. A good Jackson impersonator does provide great entertainment. They put people in a festive mood and that's what clients want." Those who wish to make it as Jackson in the highly competitive world of celebrity impersonators need to be talented singers and dancers in their own right. For this reason, Gusoff does not believe Jackson's death will herald a sudden explosion of impersonators.

"Michael Jackson is one of the hardest stars to impersonate - much harder than Elvis or Marilyn. You really have to be able to move, and just the make-up alone takes up to two hours." Nor does Gusoff believe Jackson's death will change the way he is portrayed by impersonators, who have always avoided mocking him - who, it must not be forgotten, is also their bread and butter. "People who hire celebrity impersonators are fans. They want to see a tribute, a recreation, not someone making fun of their hero," she says.

Rogers adds: "Everyone is reaching out to us now. After all, we're all they have left."