Navi

[Impersonator]

“I don’t see myself as any more important than somebody else that’s in the audience with a t-shirt on, or somebody that’s got a poster in their bedroom.”
Things people expect from a Michael Jackson impersonator:
The rhinestone glove
The lean from “Smooth Criminal”
Perfection

I am on YouTube and I’m watching a powder-faced man in a red, multi-zippered leather jacket with shoulder accents and a fedora hat swivel his hips and dip his shoulders to the glassy bass staccato of “Beat It.” There’s more baritone in his voice than I’m used to—a slightly heavier timbre that occasionally caps out in the backbeats. But the footwork is spot-on. It is controlled, clear. This isn’t just any Jacko wannabe. Next I’m watching his “Thriller” cover. He’s doing the moonwalk. He slides. He dime-stops. His shirt comes untucked. There’s white tape on three of his fingers. A top comment on the video calls him “damn near perfect.” I suppose, considering that Michael Jackson was arguably the most perfect pop artist of all time, “damn near perfect” is a fitting label for this guy, Navi, who has performed as Jackson for twenty-five years and employs the self-styled title of “The World’s Number One Michael Jackson Impersonator.”

Navi’s obsession with the King of Pop began at the age of seven, when his family moved from Trinidad to London—right around the time that “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” broke into the charts. He started playing high-school shows and counting coins on street corners, but quickly moved into clubs and joined with variety acts where he was commended not only for his physical likeness to Michael but for his mimetic dancing ability. At age fifteen, he was made the opening act for the eternal doo-wop and R&B group the Drifters. Soon after that began his steady rise: MTV commercials, Virgin Megastore advertisements, dance bits on daytime TV, an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show, sold-out arenas. Twice he even performed for Michael Jackson himself. He received a standing ovation from the King of Pop.

Navi happily rearranged his schedule during a fully booked tour so that he could do this interview. I called him on a Thursday afternoon, and as I waited for him to answer, I realized I had no clue whether I would be speaking to him in character—as Michael—or as himself. He immediately asked if I could hang up and call him back in ten minutes because he was looking for some shoes so that he could go on a walk as we chatted. Ten minutes later, I called back. “Hello, this is Navi,” he answered.

—Noah Pisner

*

THE BELIEVER: What’s it like to imitate a dead man? How’s it different from when he was alive?

NAVI: Before June 25, 2009, I was a Michael Jackson impersonator. I still am, but post–June 25, it exploded. I became this substitute for people, a comfort for Jackson fans because the world wasn’t ready to let go of him. They were trying to grab onto any kind of Michael-esque thing. So rather than me doing regular kinds of shows, all of a sudden I was in big, big concerts before thousands of people. I think in ten days I had over two hundred inquiries from fifty different countries. It was like a massive explosion, and since then it hasn’t stopped. We did the Formula 1 for about thirty thousand people. We just did a show last week with a band, about eight thousand people. I was in Dubai, and the week before I was in Turkey, and the week before that Las Vegas, and tomorrow I leave for the Caribbean. So, you know, Michael is gold.

BLVR: Wow, so you’re still really profiting off that gap—the gap in the market of Michael.

N: The best way I could sum it up is that when Jackson died Google broke, Twitter crashed. People felt this sense of loss. Whether you liked him or not, you grew up with him. You felt a sense of loss somehow. Maybe you couldn’t explain it. Last week I did a six-year-old’s birthday party in central London. This kid was maybe one or two years old when Michael passed away, but when his parents asked who he wanted at his birthday party, he said Michael Jackson.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Noah Pisner is a senior at Harvard University, where he was awarded the Ledecky Fellowship and holds editorial positions at the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Crimson. He was born in Virginia and was previously a very important intern at McSweeney’s.

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