By John Sanchez
It's lunchtime at the James R. Thompson Center on the first sunny spring day of the year, and a Michael Jackson impersonator has staked his place out front. Despite the public nature of this performance, the young man pulls out all of Jackson's trademark moves, crotch grabs and all. When he does the moon walk, the scraping of his black loafers against the pavement is audible. His hair seems to have been processed to look like the Gloved One's, and he wears the performer's signature fedora during several numbers. But what sets this act apart from similar impersonations is the music.
Accompanied by a boom box, this performer is lip-synching to an entire Jackson concert. Between numbers, the taped crowd goes berserk, while the Thompson Center lunch-hour contingent just stares at the impostor. His ethnicity is ambiguous, but, like Jackson himself, he does not appear to be black. My guess is that he's some crazy Puerto Rican queen. Takes one to know one.
"Michael! Michael!" some people call out, cracking themselves up.
"You go girl!" echoes from the square several times. "He looks like a real bitch," someone near me says. But several people give their highest praise by dropping dollar bills in the gym bag that he's left open at his feet. The lip-synch and his heavy makeup remind me of a drag show without the audience baiting. This guy is clearly in a world of his own. He acts as if he doesn't know the audience is there, acknowledging us with eye contact only during those brief breaks when he pushes the pause button on the boom box and takes a swig from a three-liter bottle of Pepsi. The overall effect is ridiculous, in the happiest sense of the word. Everyone imitates their favorite performers at some time or another, but usually alone and with the curtains drawn. This performer has taken everyone's most absurd living-room floor show and generously exposed it to the light of day--in which it looks pretty damn good.
After the tape runs out, there's a rush of people wanting to speak to the impersonator. "They were surprised about me that a white man can dance so good," he tells me later, "and when they ask me from where I came, I told them I'm from Germany. They were higher surprised." The Thompson Center performance has been the first U.S. show for Christian Schulze, and for the most part it's gone pretty well. He's made $17 in tips, which he's happy about. Still, he says, it isn't even close to what he'd make in Germany.
A 20-year-old autoworker from Goslar, Schulze has been impersonating Jackson for six years. Both he and a friend, Alexandra Voigt, who now lives in Chicago, became fans after seeing the feature-length video Moonwalker together. Schulze taught himself some of Jackson's moves in hopes of winning Voight's love. "It didn't work," she laughs now, though they remain friends.
Instead of getting the girl, Schulze found a career. His act has led to performances at weddings and children's parties and has garnered some press attention, which he is very proud of. For more private performances, he spends up to two hours on makeup, making his nose look smaller and paying careful attention to his eyes. For street performances, his stripped-down makeup job takes only ten minutes. And what about his dark black hair, which hangs in tight curls past his shoulders? It looks like it must take some work, but Schulze insists it just grows that way. "It's really German," he says.
Though he had to return to his job in Goslar just days after his U.S. debut, Schulze hopes to come back to Chicago this summer for performances along the lakefront. "I would like to become a star--a big star," he says, speculating that that might necessitate a permanent move. But watching Jackson's career, he has learned that too much fame can be dangerous and has scaled down his ambitions accordingly. "[Jackson] has no time for himself," Schulze says, "everywhere he's going, there are reporters and people. I'd like to be so famous that everybody knows me and that I have enough money to live. That's my dream. And to have a dance contest with Michael Jackson."