Congratulations, Kenny – you’re now dubbed the world’s Number 1 Michael Jackson impersonator. How did this all start?
I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I was a street performer during the time that the Thriller album came out. People would tell me that I resembled the photo of Michael Jackson on the cover of the album because at that point his look wasn’t too extreme and he had that short curly hair and so did I. That was the style at the time. People saw me as a street performer, and as that album became more prominent, people suggested that maybe I should dance as Michael Jackson. I never thought about it because I was more into break dancing. And then I just finally gave it a go and I guess the rest is history.
Your performance in Michael Jackson: HIStory II is a way for fans and the public to connect with Michael Jackson, and in many ways you act as a link to the past. Tell us about the experience of performing as a tribute act.
I have to say that it’s helped me heal from the shock of his death. It’s made me feel good that now when I perform I see smiles in the audience, everybody’s wrapped up in the moment. Even if it’s only for a couple of hours, people want to escape. I will never say that I am Michael Jackson on stage, there’s only one Michael. We’re just trying to give the public the experience of a concert setting because there are a lot of fans that never got the opportunity to see Michael Jackson perform. So we’re trying to create that atmosphere. We’re not trying to duplicate it exactly because no one can do that. But I get a lot of people coming up to me after the show telling me that they felt like they were at a Michael Jackson concert. That’s what we want people to feel because the show is all about good energy – there’s nothing sad about it. There’s one moment in the show where we present a tribute video, but that’s really an opportunity to honour the fact that we don’t dwell on it throughout the whole show.
How did your career change after his death?
I was in Las Vegas when it happened and I just abruptly retired my act. I didn’t let anyone know, it was something that I felt just had to happen out of respect. At that point, I had been doing my act for 25 years and I just felt that I couldn’t go any further than his career had taken him. I’m just a tribute act, just something for people to enjoy and that I enjoy. I didn’t know how to continue. Then I started getting a lot of phone calls and messages from people all over the world who had seen my show asking me what I was doing, asking me not to stop but to please keep performing. It took me a long time to understand but what I realised is that these fans were still healing. Of course we’ll always have his music and his videos, but his fans needed something in front of them to help them get over that grief. It was tough for everybody. It was tough for me and I still deal with it today, but it was such a strong outcry from people asking me to perform. I didn’t do anything right away because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was cashing in on his death. It’s one thing to honour someone while they’re still performing, but I didn’t know how to feel about going on when he wasn’t going on. I didn’t know how the public would react.
Did you ever meet Michael?
I did not. I’ve known several people that were in his circle that probably could have let me have the opportunity to meet him. But I’ve always said that, for one, I’ve studied him for so many years that I feel like I already know him and, secondly, I carried a certain amount of respect for Michael from a distance. I think I need that distance to be able to perform the way I do. Not to disrespect anyone else, but there are some people who do what I do who have met him and then base their whole career on that. It’s not about me and it will never be about me. I’m not really comfortable with my name up in lights. The production is all about respect at the highest level. I do study a lot and I know a lot about him. Even just the way he walked, the way he smiled – people don’t know how much of this goes into a performance besides singing and performing.
Which part of Michael Jackson’s career are you most drawn to?
I started during the Thriller era so that will always be special to me. There were so many great songs that came out of that album, and so much innovation with video clips came from that album. He did a lot of great things after that, but I think that album made him really anxious to take himself further. He wanted to challenge himself artistically. I have an appreciation for that because I went through school as an art student, so I always look at things artistically. That’s why I really enjoyed learning how to do the makeup that I put on to look like Michael, the shadowing and contouring. It took me about 5 years to learn how to do this properly, learning from other makeup artists.
You’re clearly a natural born performer, not many people know that you were an art student. If you weren’t performing, would you be pursuing your art?
Probably. I used to do a lot of painting. As a matter of fact, that’s how I met Latoya Jackson. She once was performing in Atlantic City and I knew she was coming, so about a week before I did a huge canvas painting of her and I was taken up to her hotel room in a private elevator by Janet Jackson’s boyfriend at the time, Renee. I gave Latoya the painting just as a fan, I didn’t tell her what I did for a living. She was so overwhelmed by the painting. Janet and Katherine Jackson were also in the room. Katherine (Michael and Janet’s mother) had seen me perform in Las Vegas. After the show, she told me she was very impressed and to keep up the good work. I was nervous because I knew she was going to be in the audience, but in the back of my head I told myself not to try too hard. I was just really happy to meet her.
How do keep your performance so fresh after all these years?
It does sometimes blow my mind when I think about how long I’ve been doing it. I've done 15,000 shows in Las Vegas alone. I’ve worked a lot and sometimes I don’t know how I keep going. I guess that it’s just part of what I do. I’ve seen a lot of people do what I do come and go. You have to have the right approach mentally. You have to do it for the right reasons and the right way. A lot of people think that I have this big entourage and go to crazy parties, but it’s not like that. I have to go straight back to the hotel room after a performance. Touring is not as glamorous as you might think. But I tend to get by because of the energy of the audience. They feed me energy which becomes adrenalin and that fuels me. Michael used to have oxygen tanks side stage! I don’t have oxygen tanks, but there is definitely a lot of conditioning that keeps me fit. It’s a different story after the show, that’s when I really feel it. Going back to a silent hotel room after all of that energy can feel pretty crazy.
For so many of us, Michael Jackson was a bit of an enigma, especially towards the end of his life. But for all of us, he represented something different. What did he represent for you?
He was the ultimate entertainer, the greatest of our time. Even coming up in The Jackson 5 you couldn’t help but notice this guy in the middle. Yes, he was the lead singer and all but it was more than that. It was the way he danced as well, you just don’t get that in a lot of young performers. He kept that creativity inside of him as he grew older into his teens and pre-adulthood he just got wiser and broader in the way that he wanted to present himself artistically. It was like a movie or a book with lots of chapters that you wanted to follow what happened next. Michael was so good at what he did and he wanted to be better than he was last time. That’s what he had instilled inside of him, that’s what made him great. It wasn’t just to do with his music, but who he was as a person.
What do you believe Michael Jackson’s biggest legacy has been?
Well there’s so many. There’s the work he did with charities outside of music, the time and effort he gave to that. With his music, he was an innovator of a lot of things that we use and see today. MTV and Michael made a good marriage and they both took advantage of that. He had a good position in life as part of The Jackson 5 and the whole Jackson family but when he became a single artist, he took it further. He made it a new beginning and started over again. He was an extreme person. There aren’t a lot of entertainers who, in the latter part of their career, are able to pick up new younger audiences but Michael could and that’s saying a lot. Of course, he wasn’t perfect. He was human. For every plus there’s a minus, and not everyone will like you and when you’re in the public view like he was, it can really hurt you. Not everybody likes what I do, and it does get to me sometimes. But I understand what I do, that I’m not trying to be Michael Jackson, I am just trying to honour him as best I can.