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.
I. HOW BAD
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 kind of shows, all of the 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 crashed, Facebook 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.
BLVR: Do people ever mistake you for MJ reincarnate?
N: We did a show the other day and some people were crying in the front. Then I had another person come up to me and say, “Oh my god, I got goosebumps on my arm.” Everybody knows I’m not Michael, but many say I capture that little bit of magic that they thought might have gone. It brings back that memory of being a fan, of when the song came out. Because, let’s be honest, when Michael Jackson released a song everybody knew about it.
BLVR: You know, it’s hard not seeing you while doing this interview. I can’t speak to the resemblance. I can’t say it’s uncanny or something like that. And your speaking voice is different than Michael’s.
N: Oh yeah.
BLVR: Could you do me a favor? Years ago MJ did an acapella verse of “Who Is It” on Oprah. I know I’m not Oprah, but could you sing the verse for me? You know [singing, badly]: “I gave my money, I gave my time…”
N: [Laughing] Ha, I’ll tell you something, man. I can’t. The thing with me is that I need the makeup. I need the outfit. In makeup, I become a completely different person. I can’t really explain it myself. People are always asking me to dance, to sing, to do this. I just can’t do it. But when I spend a good hour and a half in makeup, I find that I can get into that character so much easier—in my voice and in my mannerisms in my dances. It’s really hard to explain, but it’s so true. I’ve been asked that many times on radio interviews: “Can you do something?” I can’t.
BLVR: Does drawing that line—of needing to be in costume—perhaps enable you to keep these two identities, Michael and Navi, from intersecting?
N: People ask that—if I’ve lost my identity. When you’re a child and you’re a football fan, you grow up and that becomes your identity. Maybe you want to be like a specific footballer. I think my identity was formed through the journey I’ve had portraying Michael Jackson. I enjoy having both sides. You know, I’m very much my own person. I find on stage and off things two different things. Given the amount of time I’m touring, I probably swap between both equally. And I enjoy both. I enjoy being in a bandana and a hood. And I enjoy myself in costume, performing. You know, I’ve been doing this 25 years, and I’ve met a lot of impersonators. It’s true—there’s some who’ve been completely taken over by their character. But I think that when you’re into something enough, no matter what you’re into—you like fitness, you like God—it’s not saying you’ve lost your identity. It’s saying this is who you are.
BLVR: A lot of people consider you the best Michael Jackson impersonator in the world—MJ numba two. Would you agree?
N: I don’t brand myself the best Michael Jackson impersonator in the world, but I do say I was the only one chosen by Michael, because I was invited to his birthday parties, to perform for him over a period of seventeen years. I think each impersonator brings something to the table. Michael was such a master in dance, in image, in performing, in vocals, in production. I don’t think it’s right to say that any one of us is the ultimate best. I’m a Michael Jackson fan first and foremost—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. We’re equally Michael Jackson fans. But yeah, in the impersonator world you get the politics of who’s the best, who’s this, who’s that. Sure, I’m the only one recognized by Michael, who’s performed for Michael, but that doesn’t mean I moonwalk the best, or sing the best, or have the best costumes. I try, and I’m glad that we all try. I like the ones that really try, that work hard at it, even if they might not be recognized as the best.
BLVR: Something that’s funny with Elvis impersonators is that they tend to do it way later than Elvis ever did—older than he was ever alive for, I mean. How old are you right now?
N: I’m forty years old.
BLVR: So what happens when you pass the age of 50—the age Michael that was when he died?
N: You’re good. You’re very good. I haven’t really planned on that. I don’t want to end up like that Elvis cliché who just kind of busts out of his costumes and hasn’t got the figure or persona anymore; they’re just sweating like god knows what on stage because they’re not physically up to the mark. I’ve started looking at other avenues. I have an understudy that I’ve been training for almost two years now. He’s falling into a couple of my shows if I’m called upon by the Jackson family or estate or Sony music. He’s the avenue I’m going to be pushing forward later on. In five years, I’m hoping to take a little step back. Michael went to fifty so I want to see if I can get to the big 5-0. But I’ve got management in other artists.
BLVR: It’s interesting that you have a protégé. Do you feel any sort of obligation to maintain Michael Jackson as a figure—like, there always needs to be someone to perform his music close as possible to his level?
N: I’m booking two hundred and fifty plus shows a year, and I’ve been to over three hundred plus international shows. There’s a demand, like there’s a demand for Elvis and The Beatles. Only Michael is bigger than both of them in sales and in tours and in every record that’s going. You look at Elvis—his music has turned over a billion dollars in the thirty-three years since he passed away. But Michael—his music turned over a billion in a year. There’s always going to be a market for it, so I’m looking at giving out another Jackson product—and it’s someone who can hold his own.
II. HOW BLACK
BLVR: What’s your ethnicity?
N: I was born in Trinidad and Tobago. The people there descend primarily from the Indians who were there and working for the British. So Indo-Caribbean.
BLVR: Michael ended up with a more pallid complexion than most Indo-Caribbean people, right? So how do you—
N: What’s most interesting is when I turn up at venues, some people see me as very dark. They’ve seen my poster and promotional material and they think, “It’s going to be a disaster, you look nothing like him.” They see the skin color rather than the construced face, and they get frightened. Then when I get made up and I come out—you can see the sense of relief.
BLVR: If you have the darker skin, why not impersonate ’80s Michael Jackson instead of, you know, white Michael Jackson?
N: That’s right. That’s right. I know what you’re getting out. Basically I could’ve been a black Michael Jackson, let’s be honest. But I chose to do one that’s a very recognized image. Michael’s biggest songs came when he was dark-skinned, up to the Thriller album. But I like to do the Bad album and later stuff, so I went with an image that was iconic. Anybody can be dark-skinned and have curly hair, but it doesn’t mean they look like Michael Jackson. I went for the image that I wanted to portray and I worked at it for many years. I went for 1995 kind of Michael, when he did the HisStory tour. It’s a bit of a more mature look with the long curly hair coming down. That’s the image I’ve gone for; it suited my face well. I’m sure you’re going to ask the question at some point—I’ve got no qualms about it—but I’ve had surgery to restructure my face in certain ways. It’s not an issue for me.
III. HOW FAITHFUL
BLVR: When you perform, are you trying to be Michael Jackson the brand, or Michael Jackson the person? In other words, are you catering to the audience and their expectations from an impersonator? Or are you trying to deliver it the way Michael would as an artist?
N: What I’m trying to portray, most of the time, is that for a moment I might be Michael Jackson. I do it in a way that that’s the best way for them to believe the magic. I am an actor that’s playing the part of Jackson. What I’m trying to get across is what he did with his music and production. There’s times, obviously, when I do a Michael Jackson fan event, and it’s hard for Michael Jackson fans. There I’m a bit more sensitive to the issue, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m going to replace him. At that point, I am Navi and I am portraying Michael Jackson, because you’ve got to find the fine line and you’ve got to know your place. I’m saying, ‘Look, I just want to portray him.’ When I’m doing the shows, I’m portraying him even stronger. Most people that come to see shows want to believe they are watching Michael Jackson. So you slam the hat on, the lights go into a spot, it’s “Billy Jean.” For a moment they believe they are seeing Michael Jackson. I’ve had it many times where people say, “I never saw a Michael Jackson concert, but my god this was amazing,” because they think they’ve got an idea of what it would have been like.
BLVR: It’s never parody, right?
N: No. No no no no no no.
BLVR: Are there any MJ songs you refuse to perform?
N: There’s a lot that I’m not able to perform. There are a lot of them that I love. But see, I’m not like some artists. They emphasize performing the ones they like, and I don’t do that. There are a lot that I like, that are my favorites—“I Can’t Breathe With No Air” and “Speechless”—that I never perform. I perform what the audience wants. When I do my set list, I choose the songs that were big hits. Sometimes I go to a different country and do my research and find out maybe that “The Way You Love Me” was a massive hit there, so I might replace “Man in the Mirror” with “The Way you Love Me.”
BLVR: Where were you when the “Black or White” music video came out?
N: I was in college. I remember taking a boom box into college and playing it constantly in the canteen. I’m sure I got on everyone’s nerves. But it was so funky and so big in the world. And the video as well was very groundbreaking, with the morphing faces at the end. Everybody remembers it. Michael was known to be a bit before his time on certain issues, musically. I think that’s what made him successful, because he’d pick very important messages and, you know, “Black or White” was such a major message, and it’s more relevant today than it was twenty years ago. It’s just a fact that the world is one big mix and it shouldn’t really matter the skin color or the background. He didn’t take different skin colors and make them all do the same things. He made them all have their own cultures yet all be together. And I think that was an interesting message. You get ethnic people that go to a different country and feel that they can’t come forth to the way that country is, that they shouldn’t really be there. I understand that to a certain degree, but I think the world is more beautiful when we can bring a bit of our culture and a bit of our background to wherever we are.
BLVR: I wanted to ask you about some of Michael Jackson’s outfits, specifically, what was the deal with the tape on the three fingers?
N: Basically, in the ’80s Michael Jackson had a glove.
BLVR: The rhinestone glove?
N: The rhinestone glove. It was iconic. When he moved on stage with it everybody saw that movement so much more. It caught all the light. But in the ’90s he didn’t want to come out with a glove, because he had already done the glove. So he came up with something a bit more slicker than the glove, which is finger tape. So when he points and moves and dances, you see this little white thing flickering around. It keeps the move looking sharper.
BLVR: Michael Jackson was quite the perfectionist, wasn’t he?
N: He would correct people whenever they’d put their own spin on his choreography. Once they were doing “The Way You Make Me Feel” and this guy was trying to play his own bit and Michael said, “No, do it as I wrote it.” He’s very much—it took me ages to come up with this—he’s very much, “This is what made my name, so why change it around?” I see it the same way. I don’t like to see people doing a Michael Jackson performance and all of the sudden they want to start experimenting with it. If you’re an artist, and you want to use Michael Jackson as an influence then yes, I agree with that totally. But if you’re an impersonator of Michael Jackson, your job is to impersonate what he created.
BLVR: Do you consider yourself an artist?
N: I consider myself an impersonator, that’s all I am.
BLVR: Have you ever thought about doing your own music?
N: No. I’ve become bigger than some entertainers. You can take people that have five number one hits in England and go to ten countries and say their name—people wouldn’t know it. But you take the image of Michael Jackson—don’t even say a word, don’t even say a beat—and people will know him in any part of the world. Tell me an artist, unless you’re Madonna, that can jump from here to there and get treated well and be appreciated for what you do. Why would I want to risk that brilliant opportunity?
IV. HOW’D HE GET THERE
BLVR: So how did the professional impersonation career start?
N: My first big break was when I was performing at the age of fifteen in a nightclub and somebody who represented the old rock ’n roll hall of fame group, The Drifters, saw me and took me under her wing. I opened a show for The Drifters and one thing led to another. I worked for Richard Branson for a while in Europe. Then I ended up working for Michael himself. Once you work for Jackson, trust me, a lot of doors open. You’re considered that good. And that was it. That was all I needed.
BLVR: With all of these opportunities, you were always thought of as an impersonator? People never thought, let’s make this guy big in his own way?
N: The record industry is very much like, ‘If we already have one icon we don’t need someone who wants to be like him.’ When you’ve got someone who’s so influenced by Michael Jackson, it’s very difficult because people will always compare you to him and you look like a cheap knockoff.
BLVR: What’s the studying process like? How often are you referring back to the videos, the recordings?
N: I could do with a lot more work. But I do the best I can. It’s quite tiring and it’s quite demanding physically, with all the travelling around. You know, I’ve been to Lebanon three times and not once stayed the night. When I was last in Dubai, my flight out was literally right after the show. It can be very, very demanding on me physically and it doesn’t give me much time to do research as much as I’d like to. I think right now, I’ve got it so that whatever has happened has stuck. I just have to take it as what I can bring to the table. Someone can bring it better in dance and someone can bring it better in vocals and someone can bring it better in production. I just do my show, and I’m just glad my show was recognized by Michael and I was chosen to work for him. I’m quite happy to go with the flow right now. The thing with me is that I’ve tried my hardest, but I don’t think there’s anything more I can do to top Michael giving me a standing ovation. I don’t know what will top it.
BLVR: Is there any Michael Jackson skill you’re more talented than him at doing?
N: [Laughs] No, I know my place. I mean, I’m sure there are a few impersonators that think they’re better at certain things, and they probably are, but when you look at the whole package—I don’t think you’re going to find someone that’s going to beat him. The man broke records and he continues to break records. You’ll never see another Michael Jackson in a lifetime.
BLVR: What, in your opinion, was the most fantastic MJ innovation?
N: The lean in “Smooth Criminal.” When you do that—Jackson fan or not—people go mental.
BLVR: You spent a good amount of time with him when he was alive. What was he like?
N: He was so welcoming, so humble, and so encouraging. I thought he was winding me up. He says to me, “You’re an amazing dancer, do you practice every day?” And I’m like, “Mike, you’re an amazing dancer.” And he goes, “No really? Really do you think so?” And I’m like, God is he winding me up here? He seemed a bit insecure about himself. And I saw him later and I realized, No that’s just his character. He really does get on stage and become what he becomes, but offstage he is almost different.
BLVR: Almost like you, right?
N: In a different way, but yeah. I think he once said, “You know, nobody wants to pay to see the boy next door.” By that I think he meant, if you’re somebody just like everybody else, no one will care, but if you’re different, they’ll pay to see it.
BLVR: Why the name Navi?
N: Navi is my name.
BLVR: Do you have a last name?
N: I only go by Navi. I obviously have a full name, but I’ve branded Navi.
BLVR: What do you do when you’re Navi?
N: I watch football. I watch cricket. I play scrabble on my iPad. I watch TV soaps. I listen to a lot of different artists. I don’t get to see friends a lot because I’m so busy, mostly travelling. I’m sure there will be a time when I have more time on my hands, but right now I’m working on other products, other ventures. I like to listen to talk radio.
BLVR: Talk radio?
N: Yeah, when I’m travelling a lot I like to listen to talk radio rather than music. Because I always hear so much music, I often prefer to listen to conversation on the radio—current affairs and news and stuff. I listen to hours and hours and hours of news—CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC. I like to get the different perspectives. It was very interesting with the Edward Snowden issue, listening to all the stations around the world, finding out what their take on it is. Sometimes I choose not to listen to Michael Jackson’s music because I like to celebrate it when I’m doing it. I celebrate it as I’m in it.
BLVR: I suppose a person can get pretty tired of listening to the same artists, though if I had to listen to anybody on repeat, I could do okay with MJ.
N: Yeah, well, when you’ve got an hour or forty minutes and they’re songs like “Smooth Criminal,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Black or White,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dirty Diana,” “You Are Not Alone,” “I Want You Back,” “Can You Feel It,” “Shake Your Body,” “ABC,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” “Man in the Mirror.” I mean, they’re all incredible songs. So you can enjoy a good couple of hours of Michael Jackson in a day.
BLVR: If you weren’t a Michael Jackson impersonator, what would you be doing today?
N: I do not know, my friend. I do not know.