Last week, Harry Connick Jr. made international news by shooting down a blackface parody of the Jackson brothers on an Australian talent show, indicating that the road of Michael Jackson imitation is paved with peril.
But for the most part, said Frederick Henry, “Michael is hot again.” And Henry would know: Here in Las Vegas, he performs as Jackson in American Superstars, a show at the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino on the Strip that also offers takes on Britney Spears, Carrie Underwood, and Elvis. Jackson’s death has reignited the industry of his impersonators, and Tribute to the Legend, Michael is now the featured part of the Stratosphere program—one of several places you can see “Michael Jackson” in Vegas.
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Michael Jackson Impersonators.
There is no irony allowed among Michael Jackson impersonators. In their world, his genius was never diminished—not by any accusations hurled his way, not when critics panned his final disc, Invincible, in 2001 (to those who make a living performing as Jackson, it is a masterpiece). And, by the way, don’t call them impersonators—these are tribute artists.
Like Elvis, Jackson had a distinctive look and voice, qualities that lend themselves to imitation—and Vegas loves to replicate success. Jackson was ubiquitous here in effigy long before his death, but because his popularity waned after his legal tribulations tainted him, the market for Jackson clones saturated. Fredrick Henry, for one, left Vegas for many of those lean years.
Times have changed since the singer’s death on June 25: Jackson tributes are front and center again. The Jackson-centrism taking place at American Superstars, which also includes billboards on I-15 and signage in the casino, is just one example of a show using this moment to put their Jackson, Henry in this case, forward in the marketing lineup.
“You can get a Mini-MJ for $2,500 plus expenses. That is recession priced,” said Las Vegas impresario Jeff Beacher, whose cast of little people performers features Michael Jackson.
Or, as another Jackson impersonator, Michael Firestone, put it: “The day after he died people started crying as I performed. Now, it happens two or three times a day. Since he passed I regularly see, like, 65-year-old white men come up to me and cry. You can tell these are the people who three months ago hated Michael Jackson. Deep down I know they feel guilty. Everyone knows he did not do anything wrong.” (Jackson impersonators, online and in person, tend to discuss his death as almost a martyrdom, and seem oblivious that anyone could dissent from that.)
Then there is Beacher’s Madhouse: a Vegas show that mixes vaudeville gimmicks, foolish contests, B-list celebrities and lots of jiggle into a bachelor party experience that fills a Las Vegas showroom—first at the Hard Rock, now at Mirage. Its impresario is the giddily opportunistic Jeff Beacher, who proudly chases pop-culture trends with a cast of little people that create ripped-from-the-headlines impressions: mini-Britney Spears, mini-Donald Trump and, why not, even mini-Kevin Federline.
Beacher said that since Jackson’s death, he has been exporting his Michael Jackson impersonators around the country to gigs from casinos to corporate functions. “You can get a Mini-MJ for $2,500 plus expenses. That is recession priced,” he said.
And what are they buying for that money? “The music is upbeat. People love little people. It is a high energy thing. I have always had a Michael Jackson in the show. But since the guy died people want to see the impersonators more than ever and I can just send them on the road without the rest of the Madhouse.”
In his role as a “Dealertainer” at Imperial Palace on the Strip, Michael Firestone, 30, would deal blackjack for a couple hours in costume and makeup and then get up to sing a Jackson song in front of the casino. There was no camp, kitsch, or dissonance to his pure love of Michael Jackson. Firestone has worked to get each move exact, practicing endlessly surrounded by mirrors.
“Some of the guys think they are Michael Jackson,” said Firestone, setting himself apart from others who share his profession. He said he is simply happy to have spent the past dozen years making money by impersonating his hero. “Michael Jackson is the greatest, and I love what he stands for.”
A military brat who was always moving, Firestone found some special call in Jackson’s music as a child when Thriller came out. “I did not really look like him, but I was shy and so people said I acted like him. Everybody danced like him.”
Firestone is white, and wears a lot of makeup to make himself even whiter as Jackson. (Henry, who is black, takes 90 minutes in the makeup chair for his Jackson performance.) In 1998, Firestone moved to Las Vegas to begin his career imitating Michael Jackson. By then, the real performer had already been tarnished by allegations of inappropriate contact with children. But Firestone never worried once about how that side of Jackson could hurt his ability to earn a living as an impersonator. Firestone said: “Before he died, no one mentioned it, but you knew what some people were thinking. I always knew he was innocent and so do the fans.”
Shortly after this interview took place, Firestone stopped showing up for work, leaving Imperial Palace without a word of notice—though not, it should be noted, without a Michael Jackson, since he was one of two. Nevertheless, it was certainly a mystery. According to the resort’s publicist: “I swear to God he fell off the face of the Earth. It is 100 percent insane.” There were rumors, she wrote, that he had taken his act and defected to Hooters.
During the conversation, he had expressed concerns that a flood of wannabe wannabes would pour into Las Vegas in the wake of the singer’s death with no quality control—bad crotch grabs, high-pitched squeals, shoddy Moonwalks, and second-rate robot dances.
“I am already starting to see it,” Firestone said.
It was integrity of the tributes that seemed to be his main concern. And even in his vanishing, Firestone was true to Michael Jackson’s form—strange disappearances and broken commitments were a part of the singer’s life, after all.
Perhaps Firestone's impersonation is now perfect.
Richard Abowitz is on the staff of Las Vegas Weekly and writes the Movable Buffet blog and column for Los Angeles Times. He covers and music and culture, and for a decade has chronicled the rise and continuing fall of Las Vegas.