One of Rob Jackimiec's most treasured possessions is an ordinary-looking cassette tape. It holds a surprise phone message he got one day in September. "God, I'm telling you. I come in and start playing the machine. And you know, you hear this woman singing," Jackimiec says. "I thought it was my friend Dana, because Dana will sing. So I'm like, when I heard, 'Hey Rob, this is Patti LaBelle,' I'm like 'AHHHHH!' I called Dana right away. We were screaming at each other for like ten minutes. I can't tell you how many times I played that damn message."
Jackimiec gets up to retrieve the tape. His Lincoln Park studio apartment is dominated by a life-size Janet Jackson poster and a life-size cardboard cutout of Diana Ross. Patti LaBelle, the object of most of his devotion, is represented only by a five-by-seven snapshot hanging on a wall. He returns with the cassette. It's labeled in large blue letters "PATTI LABELLE PHONE CALL 9/7/97."
"I'll confess. I recorded it a couple of times so you don't have to keep rewinding it," Jackimiec says. "I've got it memorized." He affects a falsetto and mimics the soul superstar, crooning, "O-o-o-h, please come back and kiss away the pain." He continues, "Hi Rob. This is Patti LaBelle. It's September 7. I just opened your card. Thank you for your labor of love, love and happy birthday. August 31 is your birthday. I blew it. Just opened your card, and thank you for having me on your machine. And I swear to God, this is Patti LaBelle. Bye-bye." Listen to the tape, and you find that, except for a word or two, Jackimiec has it down cold.
Jackimiec got the Patti LaBelle religion about two years ago, after his first LaBelle concert. Since then he's been to a dozen shows. At one in August he was able to hand LaBelle a note asking her to call him on his birthday. This personal response on his answering machine, while something he's dreamed of, is still a shock. The day after he got the message he flew to Des Moines for work. "I wrote down the text of the message before I left for Iowa," he says, "and I just looked at it every night and I was like, I can get through! Patti LaBelle called!"
In her more than 35 years in show business, LaBelle has evolved from singing in a girl group, which became the harder-edged R & B group Labelle, to performing solo in the late 70s. Her shows are a mixture of glitz, glamour, comedy, vocal artistry, and church. A supporter of numerous causes, including the battle against AIDS, LaBelle preaches to her diverse audiences lessons of love, respect, and acceptance. The concerts are also marked by her unabashed love for her fans: she calls some up onstage with her to sing along, and some are lucky enough to gain a personal audience.
Jackimiec always makes a point of trying to get onstage. People call him the "Patti Man." He dresses up in elaborate outfits he buys especially for her concerts. For her Ravinia show in July, he wore a gold ensemble he bought in San Francisco and his signature platform boots. Not only did he, like a few lucky others, get to come up onstage and sing a little before thousands, he also threw himself down and rolled across the stage. In their reviews both the Tribune and Sun-Times mentioned the "gold lame" fan. If you weren't there to see it, Jackimiec will quickly pull out a dog-eared envelope full of pictures of himself with LaBelle. He takes the pictures just about everywhere he goes. Jackimiec got the idea for the roll from a LaBelle concert video, which he slides into the VCR. "Here she goes, she goes nuts!" he yells. She's crooning and stomping the stage with her heels, then suddenly she flings off her shoes, stomps a bit more, and falls to the floor writhing. "I call this her rigor mortis move," says Jackimiec. LaBelle begins slowly rolling across the stage. "Classic Patti," he says.
Jackimiec, who's 34, is a cameraman for Orbis Broadcast Group, a television production company. At work, everyone's aware of his concert exploits because he puts blown-up pictures of himself with LaBelle on an office refrigerator. The company even reschedules his shoots if they happen to fall on the date of a concert he wants to make. "We have a policy that anyone who wants to get dressed up and wear platform high heels that are silver and sparkly and go off across the country and get onstage and roll across it--blanket policy of the company that we'll definitely let them do that," deadpans David Manilow, Orbis's president.
At concerts, Jackimiec hands out disposable cameras to audience members and asks them to take pictures of him when he's onstage with the singer. He says he's had fans approach him after shows and ask to take their picture with him. "I get a sense of what it could be like to be a celebrity, because you come out there and you see how your power affects people, and even having just touched Patti on the stage and going out in the lobby, I mean, that's the next best thing. So I've been more giving, especially at the concerts. Allowing these people to get a picture, give them a piece of it."
When Jackimiec loves, he loves completely, but he hasn't always loved LaBelle. He pulls a video from the stack under his TV and puts it into the VCR. It's a Diana Ross HBO special filmed at Caesars Palace in 1979. He says he's watched it 2,000 times.
The stage brightens with the image of Ross on film, her face flawlessly made up. She's speaking the opening lines to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." "She knew how to work it. She knew how beautiful she was," says Jackimiec, leaning back on his brown leather couch, his eyes glued to the tube. "She doesn't even blink on this goddamn thing. It's like amazing."
Then the live Ross emerges in a glorious long sequined coat. "She's got an elegance about her that Patti couldn't even emulate," Jackimiec says. "I would watch this video and I would wonder what the hell she was doing when she got off that stage. Where was she going after looking so damn beautiful and putting on such a show? Did she go home and cook? Did she go out and gamble? God, her makeup and everything.
"Everything I could get my hands on I read about Diana Ross. Every TV special. I was just fascinated. The more I got to know about her, the more I was wanting to meet her. Until this day I have not met Diana Ross, and I swear to God it is like a goal. It's still a goal. I've got to meet her and I'm going to meet her, and I fear I'm not going to meet her until she's 70 or something. I've heard from so many people about Diana Ross, how inaccessible she is. And I knew that because of the fact that when I was in New Orleans, about a summer or two summers ago, I went down there and made an effort to meet her. She was down there for a three-day stint. I had bought the biggest flowers and security knew me, and I ended up-- Well, there's a tape and channel eight had me on there."
Jackimiec changes the tape. The video image is Ross performing. A voice-over says, "She's been dazzling audiences ever since she first strutted onto the music scene back in the days of Motown with the sweet sounds of the Supremes. Well, it's about a quarter of a century later and she still captures the hearts of her fans." The camera cuts to concertgoers. "I love you Diana! I love you baby! I'm here tonight for you!" a woman screams. A more subdued woman says, "This is my first time seeing her onstage and I think it's going to be very exciting." And another: "She has always been my favorite. It's my dream come true to see her tonight. I just love her. I love Diana Ross." And then there's Jackimiec: "I flew all the way from Chicago to come to this concert because I've been trying to meet her for 20 years now and she's been an incredible influence on my life. I'm a big, big fan."
"What, no luck yet?" the reporter asks.
"Not yet, but I hope something's going to happen soon. I definitely am trying. I've got three chances to get to her because I've got three days here. But I hope to meet her, definitely." Watching the tape Jackimiec laughs, "Three chances? What was I thinking?"
Opening night was the only show he made it to, but he hung out by Ross's stage door each night of her engagement, each time with a new hundred-dollar bouquet, he says. The florist told him he spent more money on flowers for Ross than the Neville Brothers did. On the last night, Jackimiec met one of Ross's backup singers, who told him the star would be at a postconcert party at a local restaurant; the singer said he'd let Jackimiec in. Jackpot! When Jackimiec got to the place, he peered in the window and saw Ross at the head of the table, "looking simple. No makeup, just eating with the rest of the crew. And I saw that background singer and I was like, 'I'm here,' and he was like," Jackimiec snorts, "'I can't help you.' At that moment I knew that I better leave because I was looking like a fool. I thought, I wouldn't want her to see me like this.
"I think that the way I'm going to meet Diana is I'm going to meet her through my profession. You know, like I'm going to have to do something where I'm shooting something behind the scenes. I'd rather meet her that way."
Almost a year after the concert, Jackimiec was back in New Orleans on a job. He was filming a convention held on a charter boat; Buckwheat Zydeco was performing and security was all over the place. One of the guards recognized him. "This man comes lumbering up to me and he goes, 'Oh my God! We were trying to figure out who you were. You're the guy who was stalking Diana Ross!'" Jackimiec recalls, laughing hysterically. "And he says, 'We didn't know you were a photographer.' He said, 'I'm going to tell you something. There was no way in hell you were ever going to get near Diana Ross, especially the night you made the news.' He said security were down in the basement in their office and I pop up on the news, and he said all the security people, if you can imagine them sitting around a monitor, and I'm on the news going, 'I've got three days to get to her!' and he said all of them were looking around the room and they said, 'Ain't gonna happen!' I asked him, 'Do you think that Diana saw that?' He says, 'Of course she did. If there was any media that you got on, it was alerted to her. But you were a marked man.' They had doubled the security when I was hanging out backstage with those flowers. When I made that newscast I killed my chances triplefold."
Several months after the Ross concert, Jackimiec went to his first LaBelle show. He says he'd known and liked her music for years, and people had told him how friendly she is with her fans. From the floor, he reached up to the stage with a large bouquet, which a red-sequined Patti LaBelle graciously accepted. Jackimiec was smitten.
"If I got my love and my flowers and all of my stuff to give, I'm going to give it to somebody who is accessible, you know. It's worked out so incredible because this journey has taken me all the way from being onstage with Patti to getting a phone call from her. So Patti, you know, she's a good fix. Maybe through Patti, maybe I can meet Diana, or something like that. But Diana's in Switzerland, I think. She's got a house in Switzerland with her husband and she's got a place in Connecticut. But she doesn't tour a lot anymore."
Jackimiec has been keeping a journal, which he hopes to turn into a book, to be titled "In Search of the Diva." Now at 2,000 single-spaced typewritten pages, it chronicles his disappointment in failing to meet Ross, how he found LaBelle, and explains why blacks, teens, and gay men like himself embrace R & B divas. He says it's because the singers overcame hardship to earn their success. His reason for loving them is related: "I'm looking for direction and a positive role model, so that I can learn from the person and watch the person and maybe incorporate some of what their essence is into my life and I can better myself." To him, LaBelle's recent autobiography, Don't Block the Blessings, is a kind of bible.
"What I've done recently--and I know Patti would really like me for it--MCA records sent me a huge cardboard box of 200 Patti LaBelle promotional cassettes. You always have these StreetWise people out here selling, and I find somebody who looks good and they are not trying to hassle the public, and I occasionally will take a pack of these and I go out to the StreetWise people and I say, 'Do you know Patti LaBelle?' and they'll say 'Yeah.' I say, 'Would giving these away with a StreetWise help you out?' And most of the time they're like, 'Oh my God. Yes!' Isn't that a good way to help out the homeless with these cassettes that are doing me no good? One guy was just moved to tears one night. I went out there and I gave him this box of cassettes and a picture of me with Patti LaBelle. You would think like you had just touched hands on him.
"I read in Patti's book that she was doing a video, 'New Attitude,' in LA, and they had a food service for all the film crew and so the homeless people were coming to pick through the food and the security people were saying, 'Get out of there!' and Patti said, 'Don't anybody tell them that. Bring them in. Let them eat. This is all for them.'"
Jackimiec's journal entry for July 21, 1996, at the Arie Crown Theatre:
Suddenly BAM the limo literally was blowing right past us. I didn't even see it come thru the top of the loading dock. I swiftly grabbed the flowers. Actually I just walked quickly towards the limo, which finally was parked nearby the back door. I walked closer and one security guard told me to STAND BACK. Fine. I knew at this point it would be Patti's call because I was close enough for her to see me. A few people got out slowly, and then Patti was escorted out the back seat. She looked fabulous in a black outfit. It was dark in the evening light, but I remember she looked much better than Gladys Knight getting out of the limo. But then again the fluorescents were glaring when Gladys got out. Patti got out and was being escorted to walk around the back of the limo towards the door. As she walked around I held up the flowers slowly. She saw me thank GOD. I knew if she saw me I was going to be able to give her the flowers. Patti doesn't rudely ignore her fans. She smiled and gave me a look that said, "Yeah, you can come up here." I walked up, security didn't hold me back. It was Patti's call and if Patti said yes I could walk up. I walked up to her and said, "Hi Patti, remember me?" (She had to have remembered me because of the picture I left her at the Star Plaza, and the five times Carole and I were up at that stage.) She didn't say anything other than "Thank you baby. Can you give those up to me onstage?" I said "Sure Patti." I then quickly said "Patti may I have ONE picture?" Thank God Carole was right behind me to take the picture because she was definitely in a hurry. Patti goes, "OK, but baby I'm LATE." I handed Carole the camera. I stood next to Patti LaBelle and Carole snapped the shot. She was whisked off quickly. I think I said "Thank you so much Patti. Have a great show." But I really don't remember what I said. But I knew one thing: I GOT MY PICTURE. AND she wanted me to hand the flowers to her at the side of the stage. I knew tonite was going to be fantastic.
It's October and Jackimiec says he's heard his idol is coming to town in December for a show. It's scheduled for the New Regal Theater, a new venue for Jackimiec, and he's a bit worried. "I don't know what my acceptance level is going to be because it's going to be mainly a black audience. I've been to a lot of her shows where it's been an all-black audience, but I am on the, basically in the south side. White boy coming in from the north," he says. "And I don't know what the security is at the Regal. I heard a rumor from a friend that they put up a fence there for certain acts. I know that fence won't be there, but with the amount I'm investing into this venture it's scary to know that I could go there and there will be a fence up and I can't go onstage with her."
Jackimiec has decided to go all out on his costume for this show. It will be the "end-all, be-all," maybe a male version of Diana Ross's 1979 HBO outfit. Or one of those crazy outfits the members of LaBelle used to wear.
He borrows a company van for the drive to the south side for a consultation with Elhadi "Haj" Gueye, a fashion designer who might be able to outfit him for the show. He plans to shell out a lot, but he says he'll spend no more than $600. (He's trying to save his money for a hair weave, which will cost him $2,000. "They told me I could choose how much hair I wanted. I'm going to get so much hair that I have to have it like Cousin It. I'll be like Tom Cruise, always having to brush it back from my face.")
Jackimiec met Gueye at a party before a Chaka Khan concert. Jackimiec got into the party using press credentials from a short-lived R & B magazine. When Gueye spotted the sandy-haired man decked out in the black patent-leather jacket, biker hat, and five-inch platforms, he struck up a conversation, and Jackimiec promptly pulled out the photos of himself with LaBelle. Gueye, who says he has made clothes for Mike Tyson, Don King, and comic Bernie Mac, among a host of others, told Jackimiec if he ever wanted something done to give him a call.
Gueye's wife greets Jackimiec at the door. She says Gueye has run out to meet with another client and should be back shortly. After about an hour, during which Jackimiec fidgets in the living room, the door opens, but it's only a friend, Tony Ousley. To help pass the time Ousley shows Jackimiec to the basement, a sewing studio complete with a scrap-littered carpet, sewing machines, and bolts of fabric stacked on shelves. Ousley and Jackimiec soon discover a common interest--Patti LaBelle. Ousley says his mom is a big-time fan; when LaBelle came to town to promote her cosmetics line, his mother, a "jazzy 47-year-old," showed Patti the butterfly tattoo she has etched on her breast.
Jackimiec counters with a Patti story of his own. "My friend, his nephew was dying of cancer in December and he was a big Patti fan. She called him religiously in the hospital almost every other day."
"Makes you wish you were Oprah to be able to hang out with her," Ousley says.
It's another hour before the designer finally arrives. Gueye, an imposing six-footer, enters with men's suits spilling from his arms. Huffing, he dumps them on the floor. In accented English (Gueye is from Senegal) he apologizes for being so late. He says he works morning to midnight every day, dashing from one client to the next. He turns on the radio and takes a seat opposite Jackimiec to discuss his costume.
Jackimiec tells him he wants something reflective. "The stage lights are going to hit it and it's gonna shine. I saw something Diana Ross wore in her HBO concert. I have the tape."
Jackimiec has been paging through a French fashion magazine and he points out a photo of a guy in a silver vinyl trench coat. He likes the way the coat reflects lots of colors. Gueye shows Jackimiec several silver-colored leathers, but none of them seems to bounce light the way the coat in the magazine does. Then Gueye shows Jackimiec a bunch of leather swatches, all different colors and textures, but Jackimiec doesn't see anything he wants.
"You know what?" Gueye says. "I thought I had every swatch of material that a person could possibly want, and I don't have that one. I hate to fail on those things, you know."
Next they study a photo showing the group Labelle decked out in space-suit-like costumes. Jackimiec points to a suit that looks like a gigantic Frisbee. "What if I told you I needed this?" Jackimiec asks, laughing.
"OK, I'll do it. Sure," Gueye says with a smirk.
"I wouldn't be able to sit in a seat," Jackimiec says.
"They'd have to move the seats!" says Gueye.
Gueye begins reminiscing about a costume he made some years back for a Las Vegas show. "It was a one-piece bodysuit. When he do like this," Gueye raises his arms above his head, "all the material gets raised up. You know, a Batman thing. But when he got his arms down all you see is the sleeves. The extra material is a little bit on the back here. But when it do like this, it like Batman. All the material come up. You see what I'm saying?"
"That's what I want!" Jackimiec says. "I hold my hands up a lot on the stage with her."
"And look," says Gueye, pointing from his ankle to his wrist. "The material is going to be from here, go all the way right there. You see what I'm saying." Jackimiec is screaming with delight.
"There you go! And with the shiny material, it'll just be like shooting at them, you know?" Gueye says. "They'll be like wo-o-o-o, you know!"
"That is what I want!" Jackimiec says.
"It could be detachable. I could even do it with Velcro." Nix, Jackimiec doesn't like Velcro. Gueye says he could put a Batman collar on the outfit: "I could do the whole outfit to be detachable if you want it." Not the whole outfit, Jackimiec says.
Just to make sure they're on the same page, Gueye wants to see the Diana Ross tape. Everyone heads upstairs, where the VCR is.
"That's it! That's it!" Gueye says when Ross emerges.
"I want that outfit," Jackimiec responds. "I want that form fit and that kind of material. I want sequins, I really do. Stretch sequins." Gueye says he'll do it.
"I'm in good hands," Jackimiec says. "I'm in good hands."
Suddenly our world was a little rocked when less than two minutes after the Patti entourage was brought inside, Carole and I were collecting the flowers and proceeding to walk up the ramp to the inside of the Arie Crown Theatre when all of a sudden that same BASTARD rude security guard who didn't like us came running up to the ramp towards us yelling, "Hold up you two, I TOLD YOU TO STAY AT THE TOP OF THE RAMP AND YOU STILL DISOBEYED ME. YOU GOT ME IN TROUBLE! You GOT ME IN TROUBLE." That was all he kept saying. He must have had his hand slapped, but he really was pissed. I said, "We are leaving. We didn't mean to get you in trouble." I said, "Patti said I could come up to her. I didn't rush her." He didn't listen and was just continuing this loud rage at Carole and I. The more I said something back just fueled his anger so I knew we should just go up the ramp and go.
Well we walked up the ramp and he took off down the ramp. Great, we were done with him. But then all of a sudden he goes, "Wait a second, hold up you two." He ran all the way up the ramp to get to us. There was this one guy who was manning the entrance to the ramp. The bastard security guy goes "And if you think you are going to be able to give her those flowers onstage, I can tell you right now I will have you arrested. This man is my witness!" The man looked kind of bored. But this guy assured me I would be arrested if I tried to give her the flowers. I mistakenly shot back "Patti said I could give her the flowers onstage." The security guard was livid. "I don't care. You are NOT GOING TO GIVE HER THOSE FLOWERS. YOU GOT ME CHEWED OUT. AND IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN." And then he goes "And get the hell off these backstage premises or I'll have you arrested in five minutes."
Carole gave me a look that said "Let's just get the hell out of here" and we walked up the ramp off the backstage loading dock. The security guard went inside. We looked at the guy he was asking to "be his witness." The guy said "Yeah, I know he is a bit out of hand, but you have to understand, there are a lot of freaks out there that we have to watch out for. It's the nature of security." I could understand this, but this guy was rude to us from the start.
The last of six kids, Rob Jackimiec was introduced to music when he discovered his brothers' and sisters' 45s. They were mostly Petula Clark and the Beatles. "Then I remember one day I looked through there and you know, you look at the labels on the 45s, and I saw this label that had like a road map and it said Detroit and Motown and I was so fascinated. So I put it on and it was Michael Jackson singing 'ABC.' The beat was just incredible, to die for." Jackimiec starts singing, "A-B-C, easy as one-two-three," and snapping his fingers. "I was like dancing. I loved it!
"My older sister used to play the Supremes once in a while and I loved the sound. I just loved that booming bass sound. It beat the hell out of Petula Clark. And it definitely beat the hell out of the Beatles. I mean, the Beatles are great. They're incredible songwriters, but I was into the music that provoked action. You know, sound and rhythm."
When Jackimiec was nine, his family moved from Lake Forest to Philomath, Oregon. His father was a structural engineer and his mother was a secretary at Oregon State University. When he was 11 his parents bought him an organ and arranged for lessons. He asked his teacher to show him how to play R & B hits. At night he'd go to bed with his transistor radio tuned to stations as far away as Seattle and Sacramento. "Stuff that would catch my ear that I would love cranking was like Natalie Cole. Gladys Knight and the Pips would come on. Then I'd hear the general pop music and that was like OK," he says. "But then I'd hear Barry White and I was like, 'God, this is so good.' This guy with this low voice and these songs with the major chords that are incredible. Gladys Knight, Barry White, Earth, Wind and Fire, and you heard them few and far between because they weren't major hits out there. That's when I started hearing Diana. I heard 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' one night and just couldn't believe it."
Jackimiec's enthusiasms did not go unnoticed by his Petula Clark-lovin' family. "Oh, I got all the comments," he says. "The common thing is they say, 'Are you sure you have the right father? You must have been born black or something.' And I said, 'That's not it. This is my music.'"
When Jackimiec got so good on his organ that he began winning contests, his choice of music wasn't as much of an issue with his family. "When I started winning these organ competitions and traveling to the regionals they were just ecstatic. That's all they could talk about." He says whenever guests came by, his dad insisted he play.
Freshman year at Oregon State, Jackimiec roomed with two engineering students. "I came in with my 52 Diana Ross albums and they thought I was a nut," he says. Once he reluctantly joined some college buddies on a drive to Phoenix for a Police concert. "I said, 'Who the hell is the Police?'" he recalls. "I said, 'I've never heard of them. I don't want to go, it's some rock group.' They said, 'Rob, you've got to go. We're paying for your ticket.' I said, 'No, no, you guys go. I'll just hang out at the pool.' So they dragged me tooth and nail to this Police concert and I'm telling you, this was during the Synchronicity tour, and when Sting got up there I was hooked. That group Police is great! So that's the only white thing in my collection, is the Police."
Jackimiec graduated in 1985 with a degree in communications, a field he says he chose so he could meet famous people. He had a couple of jobs at Oregon TV stations, variously as a production manager and commercial shooter. In 1993 he interviewed with Orbis, and they told him they'd fly him all over the country and internationally on shoots. Jackimiec was sold. He has a travel bag that's always packed. For the last few years, he's been thinking he'd like to get into the music business, maybe play keyboards on the professional concert circuit. "A lot of people say I should work for Patti," he says. "If I could do that, hell, I'd be out of here tomorrow."
Carole and I walked in and had about two more rounds of drinks before we went into the concert. We actually had about three rounds of drinks. Patti had already begun the show. In fact, one security guard came over to us and said, "You better get in there now if you want to give her those flowers. Several people have already brought her flowers onstage." I said "You know, we were confronted by one of your people downstairs," and told him the story. He goes, "Let me tell you this. There are two security people here: Patti LaBelle's and Arie Crown's. They have different guidelines and rules, so I cannot say exactly what happened."
Well, Carole and I finally came in and got seated. Our seats weren't that bad. I knew I was going to give her those flowers onstage whether I was arrested or not. But I knew this guy was throwing some idle bullshit threats at us. Patti put on a great show singing her hits from "Burnin'" and "Gems" and a couple others. At one point she did her torch song "Lady Marmalade" and at that point I didn't realize she was calling a few people onstage to dance with her to the song. What I do know is that one of the nearby security guards told me that I could head down to the stage to give her the flowers at this song. Carole and I quickly got over to the left-hand side and proceeded to walk toward the stage. Suddenly like a bad dream the BASTARD security guard who had chewed us out royally was right up in my face pointing his finger and giving us motions to stop. We did. Then he went over to another security guy and frantically told him something and suddenly we were given the NO GO sign and told to take our seats, but I just went right for the security guard on our side and asked if I could get down to the stage on the right-hand side. He said, "Yeah, you can do that." Carole and I walked down the right-hand side quickly. There was one security guy who looked like he might check us, but he just let me go right past. I walked down to the floor area and was about 15 feet away from the stage walking kind of tentatively toward the stage to give Patti my flowers. Patti already had three people onstage with her kind of dancing. I walked up slowly. Patti saw me and in one quick breath goes, "YOU! YEAH, YOU WITH THE FLOWERS. COME UP HERE!" Like a trained star I carefully deposited the flowers on the side of the stage near one of the monitors and literally leaped and scaled the stage floor. I probably could have found the side steps, but I had a mission: to get on that stage with Patti.
Halloween night, close to midnight, Pebbles Flintstone, Mark Antony, and a skinny Evander Holyfield are milling around outside Navy Pier. Every couple of minutes, Shaka Zulu, holding his spear, runs across people's paths. Everyone is waiting to board a boat for WGCI's Halloween party. Jackimiec, decked out in tight gold pants, a flared jacket, a biker cap, and his platform boots, walks toward a group and grandly raises his hands into the air to applause.
"Take a guess who this is," he's saying. He puts his hands back up in the air, and in a high-pitched voice intones, "It's all right, we're going to get a little wet." A woman in a cape guesses Diana Ross. That's right, Jackimiec tells her, at a rainy Central Park performance in 1983. "He looks like Elton John," someone else says. People are dying with laughter.
After boarding, Jackimiec is hardly on the boat 15 minutes before he's talking about LaBelle. He strikes up a conversation with a guy named Tilo-Gee. First name Tilo, hyphen, last name Gee. Jackimiec asks Tilo who he thinks is a true diva. He says he's mining information for his book. Tilo tells him Kim Fields. Jackimiec tells Tilo he thinks a diva is someone who has withstood the test of time despite struggles in her career. Tilo says then Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight are divas. Jackimiec throws out the names Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle.
Jackimiec pulls out his envelope of photos and shows them to Tilo: "Here's me and Patti at the Star Plaza."
"Ma-a-a-an, you and them boots!" Tilo exclaims.
"And I rolled onstage with her at Ravinia in this outfit," Jackimiec says, pointing to his current attire. "I told her, 'Patti, I'm going to do what you used to do. I'm gonna roll on the stage,' and I grabbed the mike from that diva and rolled on that stage."
"You and them boots," Tilo says again, apparently more impressed by Jackimiec's getup than by his performance with LaBelle. "That's your portrayal, the boots?"
"Those are my boots. They're the same ones I have on now."
"Right. I said, that's your portrayal?"
"Oh yeah, oh yeah," Jackimiec says, suddenly understanding.
"You ever go out without those?"
"At Patti shows, that's my trademark. And then I always get another outfit."
"Trademark, portrayal. Same thing," Tilo tells him. "Yeah, exactly," Jackimiec says.
When Jackimiec shimmies on the dance floor people make room for him. Several partygoers, some starry-eyed, tell him they saw him at the last Patti LaBelle concert in town. Two women pose for a photo with Jackimiec. One says, "Make sure to get the boots!" When she wants one last picture of Jackimiec, her friend says, "He's not a star." "He must be," replies the other. "He knows Patti LaBelle."
Toward the end of the ride, Jackimiec gets into a conversation with Brian Harris, who says he used to work for MCA, LaBelle's label. Jackimiec tells Harris he thinks LaBelle is the "diva of divas."
"She has poise, she's polite. She has an understanding of the public. That's key," Harris says. "I remember I took her out for autographs. There wasn't anything she wouldn't sign. To meet Patti LaBelle is to know Patti LaBelle. She's not so far removed. Her hair may be messed up, but she'll take the picture."
Then Jackimiec, who has told Harris about the phone call from LaBelle, says, "Just apologizing because she didn't make the phone call [on time]. That's a true artist."
He asks Harris what he thinks about Diana Ross.
"I don't consider Diana the diva of divas," Harris says; she doesn't connect with the public.
"Exactly," Jackimiec says. He tells Harris about his frustrating experience trying to reach Ross. "That's why I decided to toss my flowers to Patti. But I still respect Diana."
About two weeks later, Jackimiec's in a funk: the days are dull and gray and work at Orbis is slow. One night he searches the Internet and discovers that LaBelle's got a concert in Montgomery, Alabama, in two days. He agonizes for a few minutes, contemplating whether he needs a "Patti fix." Yep. He pulls out his credit card and calls the airlines and a Montgomery concert ticket office. He says the salesman is incredulous that he's coming all that way just to see LaBelle. He can only give him a bleacher seat but says he'd bump somebody off the front row if he could.
Back in Chicago, Jackimiec recalls the show. He says that he rushed the stage when LaBelle started singing "Lady Marmalade," that 70s hit with the lyrics "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" He wore black patent-leather pants and a blue shirt with his platforms. When LaBelle spotted him, Jackimiec says, her mouth dropped and her eyes bugged. "She goes, right into the microphone, 'Where did you come from?' That's when I yelled, 'Chicago, Patti!' "Then she goes, 'Get up onstage honey.' I did the shimmy with her. I didn't roll. I just wanted to come to the show to get a Patti fix. When I grabbed the microphone to sing to her she goes, 'Honey, sing, come on, sing.' And I looked at her and I sang, 'I flew all the way from Chicago to get my Patti fix.' She got a kick out of it."
He says he had brought her a framed collage of photos from an August show, and she put it on the piano and, at one point during the concert, actually went back to it, picked it up, and looked it over. At the end of the show, he says, she walked off the stage with the gift in her right hand. Attached to it was a long letter that he says took him an hour and a half to write.
"In the letter I said, 'Patti, my dear friend Dana is flying from Oregon to see the Regal show because she hasn't been the same since the Ravinia show. I said I don't want to block my blessings. I feel like when you've been blessed you need to pass it on. I would love to give some of the blessings to Dana because I've already met you. Dana has always told me if she met you it would mean so much to her.' So, I said, 'Patti, is there any way when we come to your show on the fifth of December, is there any way you can call me and let me know if it would be possible if me and Dana could meet you in a setting where you're not bothered by the push and pull of concert promoters backstage at the Regal?' I said, 'Could it be at your hotel room, or even perhaps my house?' I said, 'Patti, if you could call me and let me know, I would appreciate it. I love you Patti, Rob.' And that was inside the envelope. On the picture that I gave her, and this is verbatim, the note said, 'Dear Patti, thank you for giving my friend Dana and I direction, the force, the laughter and the many lessons in life. We love you Patti, Rob and Dana.'
"I haven't heard from her yet," Jackimiec continues. "I have a hunch that if she does call, she'll call right before she comes to do the show, because she has a couple of days off before she does the show."
I came up onstage and Patti was asking people if they could sing. She gave the mic to one guy to the strains of "Lady Marmalade" and he sang some soulful line to the song. It was kind of like an improvisation. I looked at Patti and was very relaxed and dancing. She looked at me and goes "Can you SING?" I nodded confidently and Patti handed me the microphone. I grabbed that mic with all the confidence in the world. I wasn't nervous a bit in front of the 5,000 plus people at the Arie Crown Theatre. I couldn't be, I mean I actually felt SAFE up on that stage because I was away from the threats of that security guard to arrest me. I think this really affected my confidence up there. I really felt safe. I carefully listened to the section of the song they were in and knew the chords and basically let out a group of soulful run improvisations that I knew wouldn't embarrass me. I know my range. I know I can't sing, but goddamit I do have STAGE PRESENCE. I knew this from the years competing in the organ competitions. I let out some runs and held that mic with all the microphone technique of a pro and I had my other hand in the air like I was singing at a church gospel session, closing my eyes and just letting my soul out on that mic. Chances are I might have been a little flat at best, but I was singing with intense confidence and stage presence. I did my stint, and at one point I spotted Patti LaBelle out the corner of my eye smiling and looking at me with a shocked pride that a white boy could actually get up there and PERFORM.
It's just two weeks to show time and Jackimiec goes to Gueye's place for his first fitting. His outfit glitters from the measuring table, and Gueye delicately picks it up, hands it to a thrilled-looking Jackimiec, and sends him to the bathroom to try it on.
Jackimiec comes out of the bathroom with his hands raised in the air and his face beaming, wearing the silver-sequined bodysuit. Doing his best Diana Ross voice, he says graciously, "Thank you very much."
The design has undergone some adjustments and now it will include a flowing black cape, meant to obscure the sequins until Jackimiec's climactic moment.
"Oh my God, this is going to blow the socks off the Regal," he mutters to himself.
By December 1, the day Jackimiec plans to pick up his costume, an Orbis office refrigerator has been decorated by one of Jackimiec's colleagues with a mocked-up flyer showing a photo of LaBelle and the words, "Come see Rob Jackimiec and myself perform Friday, Dec. 5th at the New Regal Theater."
When Jackimiec shows up to pick up the outfit, Gueye is still working on the hat and cape, but Jackimiec slips on the bodysuit. He checks himself out in a full-length mirror, watched by a small audience.
A friend from Orbis, calling herself the "butt appraiser," has him turn his back on her and then gives his tush thumbs-up. But when he turns to face her, his belly looks a bit like a silver balloon. "Get a girdle," she tells him. "You've got four or five pounds to lose." Gueye tells him to do at least 100 sit-ups every night before bed and then he'll "be straight." Then he fits the sequined hat on Jackimiec's head and asks him if it's comfortable. Gueye's wife, a friend, and the friend's three children are heading out, but they poke their heads in to inspect Jackimiec's costume. The friend spots a collage of photos of Jackimiec onstage with LaBelle. Gueye tells her the outfit is for the show.
"When's the concert?" she asks.
"This Friday, the fifth," replies Jackimiec.
"He's gonna be up onstage. You guys wanna go see him?" she asks her children excitedly. "You could say you knew him when he was trying his outfit on."
After they leave, Gueye says Jackimiec shouldn't be afraid to move around in the outfit because it stretches, adding that it's so comfortable Jackimiec could even jog in it. Jackimiec jogs back and forth through the studio a few times. "I'll get on North Avenue and I'll just start running in it," he says.
"Before you do it, just let me know. I'll call Fox News," says Gueye. "I'll call the WGCI van so they can follow you."
"I'm gonna run the lakefront in that outfit or get on a bicycle with the platform shoes. We're going to do it together! I'm serious. On the lake. And you know what, we're gonna be laughing and they're going to say 'Is that comfortable?' And I'm going to say, 'Hell yeah. Haj designed it. You can even run in the damn thing.'"
"I know people who are gonna be like, 'Haj, what is wrong wit'choo?'" Gueye says, laughing.
Jackimiec is still running in and out of the studio. Gueye has been putting the finishing touches on the cape, and now it's done. Gueye shows him how the cape will work. He unzips it for Jackimiec, then unsnaps it.
It's Jackimiec's turn to try. He presents himself to his audience and says grandly, as if he's onstage, "You're in for a rough ride." Then he unzips the cape with a flourish and lets it fall from his shoulders to the floor.
"There you go, and just keep walking," Gueye tells him. "You see what I'm saying? Go all the way to the end, turn around, and come right back."
"It'll be like Janet Jackson rehearsing," Jackimiec says.
Jackimiec wants Gueye to place a sequined band across the bill of his hat, but Gueye doesn't think he has enough of the band. He thinks about it for a minute, then says, "Let me see if I can stretch this sucker up."
He works a little magic and presents the finished product to Jackimiec, who dons the cap proudly. "My God, that was it. Now it's Hollywood," Jackimiec yells. "It's Holly-wood!"
Eventually Jackimiec winds up back in his jeans and T-shirt. He pays Gueye in cash, then hugs him and looks near tears as he thanks him for all his hard work. "I will be back," Jackimiec tells him.
Two days to show time, and Jackimiec's rearranging his apartment. He's flying in his friend Dana from Oregon for the show, and of course there's the possibility that LaBelle herself may come by. Fondly, he recalls the 1996 Arie Crown show, the one where he joined her onstage for the first time. Something clicked for him that night. "I caught the bug that entertainers get by going up there and having that moment," he says.
"I know kind of where I stand in terms of the looks world. I was born an average Joe. I'm not ugly, but I'm not extremely attractive," he says matter-of-factly. "I do things to make me get noticed. So when I walk into that door of the Regal Theater in that outfit, my aura will be so much that everyone is looking at me and I'll get the same kind of attention as if I was attractive. For that one night, I can be popular in my own light and I can enjoy it."
Jackimiec says he's fascinated by stars like LaBelle and Ross in part because they transcended difficulties that came to them as members of a minority. "People can't tell I'm a minority when I walk out there in public. But if you're gay, it's not easy at all," he says. "It is a lifestyle that deals with a lot of loneliness. I've had to alter my Catholic faith and belief and value system, because I thought to myself, I'll get involved with this guy and it's going to be forever, and monogamous and marriage. And I'm finding out now that most times it doesn't work that way."
He says a friend wondered aloud to him if he follows LaBelle around because he's missing something in his life. "Who knows? It could be," he allows. "I probably wouldn't have taken this much time if I had somebody in my life right now, but Patti's gotten the better part of the deal because I'm single and the time is right."
In any case, he says, "I don't want to mentally get old. I want to almost get a little crazier so that I can keep young and not allow my 30s to make me become predictable. I just want to be able to have a good time. I want to be known, want to enjoy the adulation of this, this gift that she's allowed me to have, to take it as far as it can go. If it ends because for some reason she feels like she can't call me up anymore, then I can always have the journal entries and the stories and look back and laugh and say that was a little chapter that I did when I was following Patti LaBelle and it was fun."
LaBelle's music and eight friends fill Jackimiec's tiny apartment the night of December 5. Jackimiec is throwing a preconcert party; three of the guests will accompany him in a rented limo to the show. Jackimiec walks into the living room in full regalia, and with the flair Gueye taught him, he drops his cape to unveil his costume and a smaller midsection. His buddies roar. (He says that with a combination of running and dieting he's managed to lose five pounds this week.) Moments later, Gueye himself arrives to wish Jackimiec luck at the show. He says he knows someone at the Regal who might be able to get him backstage to meet the star.
Around seven Jackimiec, his friend Dana, his next-door neighbor Kesha, and Luis, an Orbis coworker, pile into the stretch limo. Kesha holds the cape to keep it from getting mussed. Jackimiec carries a giant bouquet of roses, daisies, and baby's breath. Kesha asks Jackimiec if he's nervous about tonight. He says he isn't, he's comfortable when he's onstage with Patti, though he does have reservations about appearing at a new theater. He tells everyone about a bad dream he had: he's trying to get onstage with Patti, and as he's climbing over a prison fence to get to the stage, his cape gets caught in the razor wire and he dangles before the audience.
Everyone's chatting away when suddenly they realize the limo is headed for the Skyway toward Indiana. "Are we on the way to the Regal?" Jackimiec asks the driver, barely masking his anxiety. It doesn't look like there's any way to turn around. At the tollbooth the befuddled driver gets instructions: pay up $2, go through the booth, and then make a turn on the other side. Back on the road, everyone is visibly relieved. Just ten minutes behind schedule, they pull up at the Regal, and everyone filters out of the limo.
Outside, Jackimiec asks a theater employee if he knows the guy who's supposed to help him and his friends get backstage and meet the star, but the employee tells him that guy isn't here. The friends make their way to the lobby, where a woman spots the glittery Jackimiec and can't wipe off her smile. She just keeps staring. Jackimiec notices her. "Have you seen me before?" he asks. She points at him and smiles. Then he spots a memorabilia vendor he's seen at other shows. They say hi to each other. "Do you think Patti is going to like the outfit?" he asks the vendor. "She's going to love it," the vendor replies. Next Jackimiec spots one of LaBelle's roadies. They exchange greetings and Jackimiec asks if there's any way he can get backstage to see LaBelle. "It's not like she doesn't know you when she sees you," the guy says. He suggests Jackimiec just ask her when he gets to the stage. "You have a good chance." Jackimiec makes one last-ditch attempt: "Come on, brother, you got to help us get backstage." It doesn't work.
A few minutes after eight, Jackimiec dons his cape and heads for the auditorium. "He took Elton John's hat and the Spice Girls' boots," the usher quips. After he finds his seat, toward the middle of the floor, Jackimiec heads to the front to scope out the people closer to the stage. He picks out a friendly-looking couple in the third row and gives them disposable cameras, explaining that he'll be back to pick them up after the show.
Back at his seat, a group of women across from him are loving his outfit. One of them takes a picture. "Just the buildup, just the buildup," Jackimiec tells them, flashing a sequined pant leg. "Go ahead, baby!" a woman screams.
Jackimiec spots a heavyset guy, another regular onstage, and grabs his attention. Everybody calls this guy the Preacher. "You know you're going to get up there and sing," Jackimiec tells him. The Preacher smiles.
Though the ticket says it's an eight o'clock show, at five minutes to nine there's still no Patti. The sellout crowd chants her name. Not much after the stroke of nine, a familiar voice fills the auditorium and suddenly the woman who goes with it emerges. LaBelle banters with her fans, saying she appreciates everyone coming out; it's so cold even she wouldn't have come to see Patti tonight. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun is in the audience. "Hi Carol, wherever you are, darling," LaBelle says. Some fans scream, "I love you Patti!" "I love you too!" she says. Someone takes a picture of her. "Take that picture," she tells the fan. She says something about it being so cold her makeup isn't going to move. That gives her a chance to plug her beauty care line. The crowd roars, and she begins to sing.
During the show, LaBelle calls a teenager up to the edge of the stage and invites him to take off her shoes. Then she calls him up onstage and leads him to a seat on a couch. He waves to everybody. When "Somebody Loves You Baby" begins, several men, including the Preacher, recognize the cue and approach the stage. Before you know it, they're up there with LaBelle. As she offers the microphone, each of the men, including the teen, sings a bit, and the audience hoots over it all. Jackimiec waits patiently in his seat for his song. By now he's been to the restroom three times to check on his zipper.
When the band strikes the opening chords of "Lady Marmalade," Jackimiec rises from his seat wrapped in his cape, bouquet in hand, and heads for the stage. There's a bunch of men waiting to perform with the star, but not all of them make it to the pinnacle. LaBelle makes her selection: "You. You. You. You." Jackimiec follows her command and hikes himself onto the stage. He puts his flowers on the piano, then joins the other three, who stand in a line across the stage. One by one LaBelle gives them a chance to belt out a little tune. She finally reaches Jackimiec at the end of the line.
"Patti, I have a surprise for you!" Jackimiec sings into her microphone. LaBelle looks at him with an expression that says, "Uh-oh." Then, just as he had practiced, he whips off the cape, dropping it dramatically to the floor. He stands there in a blaze of silver, beaming like a 1,000-watt bulb. The crowd goes wild. Jackimiec takes center stage, his hands raised up, and takes in their adulation. That's his moment. Before he leaves the stage, LaBelle takes his hand and raises it up in the air, and together they bow.
"I don't know what's going to happen up here. I never know," LaBelle tells the crowd as Jackimiec jumps off the stage and makes his way back up the aisle. "Thank you sweetie."
"You bet!" says Jackimiec, already back in his seat.
At show's end (and after LaBelle actually performs her famous "roll") Jackimiec joins the throng crowding the stage. LaBelle gives her fans her love, and gathers from the piano top all the gifts she's collected tonight. There are so many she can't carry them all and she hands some off to people in the wings.
For the two nights LaBelle remains in town, Jackimiec will receive no special invitations to her hotel, no personal visit to his Lincoln Park apartment. But tonight, before she disappears, she raises into the air a huge bouquet of roses, daisies, and baby's breath: it's Jackimiec's. Her eyes find him among all the people standing near the stage, and she appears to mouth the words "Rob, thank you." Then she winks.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Marty Perez.