Sometimes it's not good to be the King, even if you're not really one — just ask professional Michael Jackson impersonators.
Impersonators of the "King of Pop" are closely watching the developments in Jackson's child molestation case, and they're worried about the ramifications if he is convicted. Business hasn't been booming since Jackson was arrested and charged with nine counts for allegedly victimizing a 12-year-old boy who spent time at his Neverland Ranch.
Some impersonators and lookalikes fear that a conviction would kill not only the singer's career, but theirs as well.
"I'm concerned, simply because I love what I do," said Kenny Wizz, a Las Vegas-based entertainer who has been impersonating Jackson for 20 years. "I worry that I won't be accepted in the same way. … I wouldn't want to develop another character at this point. I love doing his character, and with everything that goes on, that I see in the media, it makes me nervous.
"I've gotten [comments such as] 'So, you like little boys,' things like that," Wizz said. "Some people figure, 'Hey, this is the closest I'll ever get to Michael Jackson, so I'll say this to you.' "
Since criminal charges were filed, some corporations have been hesitant to hire Jackson impersonators — or have canceled previously scheduled bookings. It's one thing for a celebrity to be as famous for his eccentricities as his musical talent. But alleged child molestation is no laughing matter.
"I've had some corporate parties where they had booked Michael Jackson [performers] and then they pulled out," said Ron Bartels, owner of the Massachusetts-based Lookalikes-USA. "Then I've had some corporations where they hire a Michael Jackson impersonator and then when the charges came up, they said, 'Oh, you better calm it down.' So you have to be careful how you book them [Jackson impersonators].
"Some people have ordered impersonators and thought it would be funny to have Michael Jackson show up in handcuffs and then bust out of them and dance around," Bartels said. "But those are novelty acts."
Shades of 1993 … But Worse
The latest molestation allegations are a case of dejá vú for Jackson impersonators. When a 13-year-old boy made similar allegations against Jackson in 1993, they felt a backlash.
"I was [performing] in Japan at the time and I was kind of glad I wasn't in the States when things were going on," said Wizz. "I heard about some of the things some other guys had to go through."
Jackson was never charged because the alleged victim refused to testify against him. The star always denied any wrongdoing but settled a civil suit filed by the boy's family for reported millions. He could never entirely escape the scandal, however.
"[It was] just because of the way Michael Jackson's camp handled it — it put a dark cloud over things," said Joby Rogers, who has been impersonating Jackson since 1984. "I've worked with Michael, talked to him and he told me he gets hit with literally hundreds of lawsuits. You don't know which ones to fight. I like the way he's been handling this [case]. He needs to fight back and get everything out in the open."
Fear of the Pee-Wee Herman Effect
But the difference between the 1993 scandal and the case against Jackson today is that he has been criminally charged and could go to prison for more than 20 years. Jackson performers fear a conviction will condemn them to the same fate as Pee-Wee Herman impersonators after actor Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in a Florida movie theater in 1991.
Pee-Wee Herman appealed to children with his Saturday morning kids' show and a series of successful movies. But after his arrest, Pee-Wee's Playhouse took on a new, sinister meaning.
"When Pee-Wee Herman was arrested, business went down [for impersonators] 100 percent," Bartels said. "No one wanted any part of him."
The Man — and the Impersonator — in the Mirror
The fortunes of an impersonator often mirror those of the celebrity he imitates. If a celebrity is always in the news — but not overexposed or an accused murderer or molester — his impersonator will be in demand. However, a change in image could damage both the celebrity and impersonator.
"With Britney Spears, calls for her have slowed down a bit with things she's been doing with her life lately, like the marriage, etc.," said Rob Garrett, the founder of RHRN Entertainment, Las Vegas' largest celebrity impersonator company. "She used to get a lot calls for birthday parties. She doesn't get those calls anymore. She's lost that wholesome image."
Michael Jackson lookalikes have never been more popular than Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators. The demand for Jackson impersonators may have reached its peak in the 1980s, when he was a media darling riding the success of his legendary album Thriller and moonwalking his way into pop icon status.
Some directors for celebrity impersonator agencies say the demand for Jackson impersonators began to wilt long before his arrest in November. Maybe it's been Jackson's inability to escape the 1993 allegations. Perhaps it was the relative lack of success of albums in recent years such as Blood on the Dance Floor, Invincible, and his latest, Number Ones, a collection of his No. 1 hit songs.
Maybe Jackson became too eccentric.
From dangling his infant son over a balcony in Germany in November 2002 to repeated statements about sharing his bed with children — and the misperceptions that follow them — it can be difficult for a casual Jackson follower to separate the legendary performer from the man offstage.
"I have not heard of any performers being pulled after they were booked," Garrett said. "He [Michael Jackson] has not been convicted by a jury yet, and I think people are still waiting to see how things turn out and not acting hastily.
"Still," Garrett continued. "There are guys waiting by the phone, and it's not ringing. They're concerned."
Focus on the Entertainer, Not the Accused Pedophile
The phone is ringing for some Jackson impersonators these days. But they're often interview and booking requests for satirical venues.
"I got a call from The Daily Show the other day," Rogers said. "I got a call from the guys who made Scary Movie 3 about that spoof they did on Michael. When I asked them what it was about, they hemmed and hawed, beat around the bush, and I turned them down. My career aside, I just don't want to do that to Michael, from one human being to another. The last thing Michael needs right now is a national movie spoofing him."
The turmoil and circus surrounding Jackson does not look like it will subside for months. For now, the King of Pop's court of lookalikes will hope for the best, continue to entertain and try to make their audience focus more on their performance and Jackson's legendary talent, not his notoriety.
"People have been so back and forth," Wizz said. "But I'm a professional. I like do 'Billie Jean' and the moonwalk, all the old stuff. … And my job is to entertain people and help them forget about other worries and troubles."