When did you begin this series, and what gave you the idea to start?
I began this series the night before the Los Angeles memorial for Michael Jackson, which was on 7 July 2009. That night there were three Michael Jackson performers on Hollywood Boulevard, each emphasized something different in their performance or representation - one was a kind of physical acrobatic dancer in the style of Michael Jackson, one didn’t dance but was dressed like Michael and accompanied a Madonna impersonator as if they were on a date in the 1980s, and yet another walked about shaking hands and receiving condolences and talking as himself though dressed like Michael.
It became clear to me that these people weren’t so much honoring Michael Jackson as much as they were creating a hybrid identity through their representation of him, in other words they were performing a convergence of their own identity with Michael Jackson’s, and in doing that they were stand ins for the affection that people/their audience had for the real performer. At the time this seemed significant and important, so the next logical step was to find and photograph as many performers as possible.
As I met and photographed performers where I live in Los Angeles and New York City, then in smaller cities around the US, my focus shifted slightly to the idea of Michael Jackson being an African American performer. I started paying more attention - through observation and interviews with the people I photographed - to whether or not race was a significant factor in the performers’ interpretation and representation of him. This means, Michael Jackson’s career was founded in the Black Power Movement (the of The Jackson 5 cartoon show as Black Power Movement-lite), I was curious how his connection to being Black and what that means in North American culture may have impacted the performers.
The book, “The Michael Jacksons”, talks a lot about this connection between Michael Jackson and the impersonators who are currently representing him.
Michael Jackson had such an extreme look at one point--do you know how exactly some of the impersonators achieve their hair and makeup?
I think of Michael Jackson's appearance - his make up and costumes - as existing on a spectrum from the early/mid 1970s until his last public appearance in 2009 to announce his “This Is It” series of performances in the UK. The representers (or impersonators) choose within that range how they will look. Most of them make their aesthetic choices based on what album they like best, be it Thriller, Dangerous, or Bad. These are the three albums most performers work with, choose from the most, and find to be the most inspiring. They may mix and match parts of their Michael Jackson character - the hair from the Thriller album era (mid-1980s), with an outfit from Dangerous (1991), or the smooth straight hair Michael Jackson had in the last decade of his life with the white suit he wore on the HIStory tour, which was in 1997. Many performers wear wigs, and then there are others whose natural hair style and color is kept at about shoulder length - long enough to wear in a simple slightly messy pony tail as Michael Jackson did sometimes.
Every performer has their own way they do their make up, again, it’s what the performer sees as important in their representation as what helps them determine what they will emphasize with their make up. Some use basic drug store make up, some have multiple bottles of foundation and blending tools, spending a upwards of two hours modifying the color and shape of their face, and some don’t even wear make up. When this happens, the de-emphasizing of appearance in this way, it forces audiences to believe in the illusion they want to create through the quality of their dancing.
I'd love to hear a bit more about the "written ethnography which focuses on the interpretation of 'blackness' by the performers.”
I talked about it a little in the first answer. My goal in the project became to try to understand how the performers saw Michael Jackson’s blackness - is this important in what they highlight or emphasize or even eliminate in their performance of him? Are the performers aware of, or are they thinking about, his history as it relates to Civil Rights? Are they aware of how significant it was for him to be one of the first black performers played on heavy rotation on MTV? What is the connection between Michael Jackson and the history of minstrelsy in the US?
The book explores these questions, it seeks to trace Michael Jackson’s history as a performer as a way of linking to the representers. Where was he in his career when they first saw him? How much or how little of his history did they know when they first saw his explosive performances? The Michael Jackson that I know as someone who listened to and watched him in the 1970s and 80s, is much different than someone who came to him for the first time in the 1990s, or even 2000s. This is part of what is explored in the written part of the book.
I also look at how the performers construct their MJ character, what they use, where they get it, why they blend eras together, and then how the impersonator culture ‘works’ - what, say, is the difference in the representation that happens on Hollywood Boulevard vs. a show in Las Vegas. AND there are long pieces dedicated to telling the story of three different performers who have vastly different experiences as their Michael Jackson - Scooby (who goes by the name MJ.5 now) at a back yard birthday party in New York City, another Jovan Rameau, a Haitian immigrant who came to the US in the late 80s and gravitated to performing as Michael because, a) he naturally looks like him, and b) because he saw Michael Jackson as a black man who had a lot of respect. He works primarily on Hollywood Boulevard, where he gets a lot of notice. There is also a section about Jennifer Amerson, a Caucasian mother of two who lives in Florence, South Carolina, who performs for, primarily, African American audiences at birthday parties, reunions and small celebrations around where she lives.
The impersonators do their work as Michael Jackson for a variety of reasons – some because they have a talent dancing in a style that is similar to his, some because bare a natural resemblance to him, and some because they see that portraying Michael Jackson in a professional way (meaning one that involved the receipt of money for their performance) as an opportunity to build their own brand as a singer/dancer/performer. But surprised me the most about looking at the people who represent Michael Jackson professionally is how invested the audience is in them - how much genuine love and affection the representers’ audiences have for them, and, in turn, how that affection keeps the representers dedicated to what they do.
Do the various impersonators try to also embody Michael Jackson’s worldview as a part of their lifestyle?
Many of them see Michael Jackson as a great humanitarian, someone who was concerned about human’s impact on the environment, about race relations, and about children. I can think of a few impersonators who have built their local reputation, which I guess you could call their career since they are performing locally, on this kind of thoughtfulness. Jen Amerson, who performs in eastern South Carolina, returns the dance floor after her performances to pose with every person (and usually this means children) who wants to have a photo with her. Mjx Jackson, a performer in New Jersey holds classes where he teaches kids how to dance in the Michael Jackson style. He does this while dressed as Michael Jackson, which adds to his mystique. Even the way they communicate on social media, by ending a post with “Much MJ LOVE”, or something similar, signals an encompassing of what they perceive to be the values he projected to the public.
In your research, did you witness any episodes where race was an issue between one of the tribute artists and their audience?
It’s funny, when I surveyed the impersonators and tribute artists most of them said there was no issue with them being of a certain race – that may or may not have been Michael Jackson’s, but when I observed a couple of them interacting with audiences, or spent time asking questions in an extended interview context, it was clear that there were some issues there. I never saw incidents where an audience or audience member made a comment about a performer’s race, but one performer, Jovan Rameau said that he frequently hears comments when he’s on Hollywood Boulevard, things directed at him about his skin color being too dark to stand in for Michael Jackson.
What do you hope this book adds to the already massive #MJ culture?
Michael Jackson has been gone for almost five years. The last few years of his life weren’t his best in terms of maintaining a positive public reputation and creative output. There was so much conjecture and rumor that swirled around him, in fact one of the impersonators told me that in the last few years of Michael Jackson’s life he was not hired often for private parties, and when it was it was as a joke. But with his death, as we’ve seen when other artists and performers die, the value of his artistic contribution has been, and is being reevaluated. Glee, American Idol and America’s Next Top Model have all air episodes centered around Michael Jackson’s songs and look; Phillip Tracey, and Irish designer recently used him as the inspiration for a line of head wear. It’s very exciting to see his work being appraised at different cultural levels.
“The Michael Jacksons” isn’t really a celebration of fandom, though there are aspects of that in the story, it’s instead it offers a possibility for understanding yet another aspect of the impact of Michael Jackson – his ability to remove race from performance in popular music. I’m not saying he did this completely in his own work, nor, perhaps, was that his intention, but when talking with the impersonators and tribute artists that are currently working in his image, it’s clear that Michael Jackson was a figure who transcended contemporary notions of racial categorization and, in most cases, has allowed for the performers to do the same.
Anything else important to know?
“The Michael Jacksons” consists of about 100 pages of analysis and story telling, and 35 portraits of performers working at all levels around the US. It is being pre-sold on our website, www.themichaeljacksons.com, this means that we are working within a publishing model where we need to sell a number of copies of the book in order to print it. We will sell this way through 15 February 2014, then, when we reach our goal, we’ll release the book in May 2014, just in time for the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death this June.
Thanks bunches, Lorena!
Read more about "The Michael Jacksons"
About Lorena Turner
LORENA TURNER teaches photography in the Communication Department at California State Polytechnic University to budding journalists, artists and anthropologists. Lorena has been working on The Michael Jacksons since June of 2009 with the objective of uniting photographic documentary production methodologies with sociological research practices. She lives in Los Angeles and New York City.