Meet the world’s greatest Michael Jackson tribute artist: Kenny Wizz

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When Kenny Wizz answers the phone from his temporary rehearsal base on the Gold Coast (the L.A. native’s show is a Las Vegas mainstay), I’m struck immediately by the man’s voice. Although pitched naturally lower than the King of Pop’s pre-pubescent frequency, there’s something undeniably “Michael-ish” about his soft, breathy speech and gentle, polite manner. This is a guy who clearly lives and breathes Michael Jackson.

Personally shattered by Jackson’s 2009 death, Wizz quietly retired his act out of respect—despite the calls of promoters and agents keen to cash in on the morbid resurgence of MJ fever. However, during a soul-searching sabbatical, Wizz came to the conclusion that grieving fans might receive some comfort from his live performances—the closest they’ll ever come to the genuine article—and returned to the stage.

This month sees Wizz bring his celebrated HIStory II show to Australia, where he’ll personally perform Michael Jackson’s hits with an unprecedented level of stage-production, choreography, and the kind of show-stopping moments Jackson was famous for. Taking a break from his preparations, Kenny had a chat with us about a very unique 28-year career pretending to be arguably the most famous performer of all time.

Brett Hamm: So when did you first become a Michael Jackson fan?

KW: Oh…that’s hard to say. I mean I’m from Los Angeles, so pretty much in that area, or around the country at that time, everyone pretty much grew up with Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5. So I’ve been listening to it since I can remember on the radio as a young child. But you end up becoming a fan automatically because the music was so good. So I would say early, very early, as a young child. Maybe six or seven years old.

BH: When did you first start impersonating Michael Jackson?

KW: That would be 1984.

BH: And how did that come about?

KW: Well, I grew up as a street performer. I was a street dancer, or what they called a street dancer back then. And during that time, that was when break-dancing and that kind of stuff was coming on and everyone had their little dance crew and we used to go and perform late at night at the shops. And that was right around the time the Thriller album came out.

A lot of people used to see us performing there and they used to tell me that I looked like his picture on the cover of the album, with the curly hair. Because that was the style at the time, everybody had that curly hairstyle and they used to say I resembled that. And the more popular that album had become, more people started to notice it and more people started to say it. I just kind of laughed at it a lot and minded my own business. I just think I tried it because so many people were always saying it. And I guess the rest is history.

BH: Yeah, but obviously starting out with people suggesting you should give it a try to becoming the world’s premier Michael Jackson tribute artist, I mean that’s a pretty big jump.

KW: Yeah, for me it’s still…I wake up and I still don’t know how I got the point where I am [laughs]. It happened all so quickly, but I can remember how it happened and when it happened and the feeling and emotion I had. But I think it was a simple transition for me because I’ve always loved to dance, and that was the thing. Because like I said, we were street performers, you know doing the moonwalk at 14 years old. That was a street dance, the moonwalk, and Michael Jackson made it popular because he’s on the worldwide stage.

But the thing is, I’ve always loved two things, music and dancing, and I think when I started off trying to do that I just saw it as another opportunity to perform. Then people began taking more and more notice until an agency signed me—a look-alike agency. They started getting me commercial work and special appearances, parties, things like that. And it kind of went from there.

You know, I’m still learning to this day about the industry, but I’ve learned so much thinking back to 1984. I still have to practice. I still have to rehearse. It’s not something where because of experience you just get up and do it. I mean even Michael Jackson himself constantly rehearsed himself, was constantly looking for ways to improve himself. His creativity couldn’t just come to a halt or end. So he to reinvent himself.

BH: Did you ever meet Michael Jackson?

KW: I did not met him. I’ve known several people in his circle. And if I really wanted to meet him I could have had that opportunity. I’ve always said it would have been nice to meet him, but I don’t feel any regrets about not meeting him. I mean his mother has seen me perform in Vegas, Jermaine has seen me perform before, I’ve met Janet, I’ve met Latoya, and several family members. But even with that, that was never my main goal.

It was always just the presentation, to be able to present something in the right sense and in good respect. And his mother herself told me I was doing a good job and to keep up the good work, so I never felt like I needed any validation. But that does help inspire you and let you know you’re doing the right thing in the right manner.

BH: Do you remember what you were doing when you found out Michael Jackson had died?

KW: Yes. I was in Las Vegas and I was on my way to a friend’s house and I got a text message from a friend. I actually never erased it. I’ve still got it on my phone. It said ‘Did Michael Jackson pass away?’ It had a question mark. But based on the person that sent it, I thought it was just someone playing a joke so I didn’t pay any attention or text back or call or anything.

But when I started hearing some things here and there and when I got to my friend’s house, I said let’s turn on the TV just to see what the commotion is—I don’t know if it’s PR or this or that, I don’t know. And I turned on CNN and they had all these conflicting stories and I saw about twenty seconds of it and just turned the TV off and didn’t want to hear anything else about anything. It was maybe denial or whatever, but at that point there was nothing confirmed. And I know how Hollywood works or the news media where somebody can go to the hospital for a Band Aid and it turns into an overdose or something.

After that, I was due to go on vacation the following week. By then it was all confirmed and I had people calling me from all over the world. I had to turn all my phones off and on vacation I just stayed in the hotel, curtains drawn and didn’t want to go out or anything. I felt like I knew him anyway because you spend so much time studying character. It was kind of hard to take.

BH: Have you ever regretted putting all of your personal talents into impersonating another artist?

KW: No, because I’ve done several things for myself. I’ve written music, I’ve produced music, I’ve arranged music. Not that often have I performed it live for myself and that’s just because I’m more interested in creating music. I could have had opportunities to be an artist myself but I really don’t…I understand the kind of work that goes into that. And the industry is so, I don’t know, it’s so controlling. I really didn’t want to get myself into that.

But what I’m doing now, it gives me a difference because I’m doing a tribute act as an artist that has already been established. It’s a lot easier for me. I don’t have to deal with music companies and they want to do this, but I don’t want to do that…it’s an established act already. But I don’t want to make that sound like it’s so simple. It’s an established act, but the act it’s based off of is the greatest entertainer in the world, who had so much out there.

So that’s why it’s such a constant for me to stay on top of what I do because there’s a lot of work involved. So it’s not like I missed out. I’d say about 20 percent of the show, what I do dancing, 20 percent is my own style. I do have my own style throughout it, but I don’t want to put too much into it. I just like to put little instances here and there for people to go ‘Wow! I never saw Michael Jackson do that before.’ I just want to let them know that I do have my own style of talent besides just copying someone else.

I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. I’ve very comfortable, I can still do my own music, I’ve written so many songs and recorded so many songs, but not for release. Just for the sake of the creativity.

BH: It sounds liberating in a way.

KW: Yeah, it’s…I don’t know what other way to put it other than it’s just so much fun to be able to be a superstar without having to be a superstar. You’ve got the flashy costumes, and you have to do the makeup and the different looks, and you’ve got the fan base already. What more could one person ask, to be in this industry, but not directly tied to it?

Kenny Wizz will be performing HIStory II in Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Friday 17 and Saturday 18 August. Tickets available from Ticketek.

Follow Brett Hamm on twitter: @hamblore

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