Too toxic to touch? Tribute acts in the age of #MeToo

You’d think it’d be a hard time to be a Michael Jackson impersonator – yet business is booming for some acts mimicking problematic stars. Jack Needham finds out more

“I use the same makeup as Michael. I can’t have my face running when I’m sweating on stage,” says CJ, one of the UK’s leading Michael Jackson impersonators. “And when my makeup looks good I look at myself in the mirror and think: ‘Yeah!’”

I’m backstage at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre being talked through CJ’s cosmetics routine. The room is littered with black faux-leather trousers; hanging up are a dozen or so jackets, no doubt worth a small fortune, used to create the culture-defining Michael looks. I can’t help but jump as CJ opens a small carry case to reveal a wig-wearing mannequin’s head. His show, Jackson Live in Concert, promises to be quite the spectacle – for those who have left their moral dilemmas at the door.

CJ discovered the music of Michael Jackson when he was four years old. The moonwalk, the mystique: he quickly became obsessed. “I was always watching Michael, practising his dance moves, trying to sing like him,” he says. As he grew older, his talent for mimicry developed, and Jackson’s artistry provided an alternate reality when CJ served in Iraq in 2004. “Michael wrote about healing the world, making it a better place ... in Iraq I’d listen to those songs. They took me away from what was going on.”

Returning home he found work on a building site, but spent weekends performing Thriller in social clubs and holiday camps; CJ is now 32 and his show is supremely polished. But after the documentary Leaving Neverland detailed child abuse allegations against the King of Pop, his livelihood is under threat.

“It’s been a mad few weeks,” he sighs over the phone from his Cheshire home. “Michael is such a big part of my life, it puts question marks over my career.” He describes his life after Leaving Neverland as “trial by media … The public are the jury in this. They’re the ones deciding my fate.”

It’s not only Michael Jackson tribute acts that have been left in a tricky position. In the wake of #MeToo and Operation Yewtree, many once-beloved stars have faced allegations of being immoral or criminal. It puts impersonators – whose earnings depend on the reputations of the stars they mimic – in a moral quandary, especially while the truth of the various allegations is being investigated. Are they allowed to carry on regardless? Or should they face the public wrath, too?

Jimmy Jemain has performed a Cliff Richard tribute act ever since he tasted fame as a 1990 Stars in Their Eyes finalist. A self-confessed “bit of a rebel” as a kid, he praises Cliff for taking him away from a life of “cars and motorcycles” in his home county of Hertfordshire. But his livelihood was rocked in August 2014, when historic sexual offence allegations were made against Richard. “I never believed a word of it but it knocked me back,” recalls Jemain in a tone alarmingly similar to Cliff’s. “The workload was going down, I suffered with depression, but I’m thankful his fans stood by me. I kept the flag flying.” Once Cliff was cleared of all wrongdoing, Jemain was back to work within three weeks and is now “bigger than ever”.

Jimmy Jemain as Cliff Richard.
Jimmy Jemain as Cliff Richard. Photograph: Myung Jung Kim/PA

Of course, Richard always vehemently protested his innocence and was never arrested with any offence let alone charged. For other musicians whose performances are attached to a celebrity name, the situation can be far more toxic. Pete Phipps performed alongside Gary Glitter as the drummer with the Glitter Band during their 70s heyday, backing two of his biggest glam rock hits: Rock’n’Roll Part 2 and Leader of the Gang. “I didn’t like his record but it was £25 a week,” he says. “We had no idea about what Gary was doing.”

Glitter, arguably the UK’s most reviled former pop star, was first arrested in 1997 after thousands of child pornography images were discovered on his computer; he was later jailed in Vietnam after sexually assaulting two children, and is currently in prison in the UK for historic child sex offences. In late 1997, the Glitter Band joined the singer on a 25th-anniversary tour, just after the pornography charges surfaced. “On the first day, we were called into Gary’s room; he told us he was innocent, we went ahead with the tour,” recalls Phipps. Once the tour ended, “that was the last we saw of him”.

The band never officially broke up in the wake of Glitter’s disgrace, but were “virtually written out of history” as Phipps describes. Their records were banned, royalties dwindled and their music was deemed abhorrent by association. “Until 1997, we were doing 250 shows a year; in 1998 we didn’t have one.”

Phipps became a drum teacher soon afterwards. “Did parents question …” I ask. “Oh yeah,” he interjects. “The question is always: ‘Did anybody know?’ Of course nobody knew. We were devastated, but you can’t equate the impact of this on us against the impact it had on his victims.”

After a recent German tour and summer shows planned for the UK, the Glitter Band are enjoying a tentative, unlikely resurgence. What about the songs banned from mainstream play? “Audiences want us to play those songs,” he says. “They like the music even though these awful things happened.”

Fortunately for these tribute artists, fans tend to overlook a lot for the sake of art, from the irritating – Morrissey’s political bile because of their love for the Smiths – to the outright criminal (festive mornings are still soundtracked by Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You despite his conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003).

“Rather than Phil Spector as a person, we focus on the early 60s, which felt like a new era,” says Gert Geluykens, manager of Da Doo Ron Ron Ron – A Tribute to Phil Spector. “The show is a tribute to the music of Phil Spector, not a glorification of him. He’s not an interesting specimen, he’s a very unpleasant man.”

Jerry Lee Lewis, meanwhile, married his 13-year old cousin and saw two other wives die in suspicious circumstances, but Great Balls of Fire remains a classic. “As a person, Jerry is very questionable,” says Jerry Lee Lewis tribute performer Peter Gill. “But you’re not paying tribute to the person, you’re paying tribute to the performer. So it depends on how much of a pedestal you want to place him on.”

CJ Michael Jackson
CJ gets ready to take the stage as Michael Jackson. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

So what of Jackson’s increasingly wobbly pedestal? There have been nearly three decades of allegations against the singer, culminating in those from Wade Robson and James Safechuck in Leaving Neverland. Safechuck says that Jackson taught him to masturbate at 10 years old, and “married” him in a mock ceremony; Robson says he was made to fellate Jackson at the age of seven. But according to CJ, “these allegations are no different to what’s happened to MJ for the past 30 years. His music has still carried on; why should this be any different? It’s not swayed how I’ve thought about Michael in any way.”

As the highest-paid dead celebrity of 2018, Jackson’s legacy remains too valuable for his estate to let the name be scandalised, no matter the allegation; the estate sued HBO over Leaving Neverland, calling it “a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda”.

CJ views Leaving Neverland as just another slander on Jackson’s legacy, although he hasn’t seen it. “I don’t watch documentaries that have no facts to back them up,” he says with conviction, repeating the point every few minutes.

Whether born of genuine love for Jackson, or self-interest, given his line of work, there is something a little uncomfortable about CJ’s devotion to the singer. Yet while emulating the crotch-grabbing of a suspected paedophile might seem distasteful, many fans don’t have a problem with it; the Michael Jackson West End musical Thriller Live has extended its run to 2020 amid the controversy.

Back at the show in Liverpool, CJ is soundchecking Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. A few hours later, via jet-black wigs and razor-sharp contouring, he is transformed, appearing under the spotlight to Scream. His tattoo sleeve is covered, and the northern accent is swapped for an MJ squeal; he “shamones” to Black or White and gyrates on the floor to Earth Song as hijab-wearing dancers chant “what about us”.

“The documentary has left some things unanswered but these shows are fun,” says concert-goer Robert. “There are kids here who’ll have a little dance and that’s what they’ll go home with. The music will never change. Someone else can be Michael’s judge, not me.”

“I try to separate the art from the artist, and with Michael the art is bigger than the man,” says another attendee in the theatre bar. “It’s not like he’s benefiting from it any more,” replies his friend.

For the audience of kids in sequinned gloves, and their tipsy parents, it is as if Jackson himself had chosen Liverpool as the location for his reincarnation: crowds fill the aisles to spin and kick the air without restriction, and arms clamour towards the stage as CJ reaches out into the crowd. If tonight is anything to go by, the MJ economy is too big to fail. But closing with Man in the Mirror is a fitting climax for a unique type of fandom – one that should perhaps take a look at itself.


Jack Needham

The GuardianTramp

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