It’s one thing to play Michael Jackson, it’s another to become Michael Jackson.
That’s the personal takeaway for Navi, the Trinidad-born Michael Jackson impersonator who has spent well over two decades in that role, and stars as the late King Of Pop in the new Lifetime TV movie, Michael Jackson: Searching For Neverland.
It’s based on the non-fiction book Remember The Time: Protecting Michael Jackson In His Final Days, written by bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. As such, this is a look at at the singer’s efforts to be a good father in the aftermath of several rounds of child abuse charges from others (of which he was acquitted), financial struggles, media assaults (many triggered by Jackson’s own behavior), and a hoped-for comeback in the form of what would have been the This Is It concert tour. All of which came to an unexpected end with his shocking death in 2009.
In this exclusive interview, Navi, who actually performed at Jackson birthday parties and served as a decoy for the singer, reflects on his own career, the connection he has made with audiences, and what it was like to actually step into the world of acting with this film. Anyone who thinks that Navi — who has admittedly gone through plastic surgeries to look more like Jackson — has lost a part of himself in the process, will likely be surprised by his candid (and grounded) views on all of it.
Life & Style: So with everything going on, how exhausted are you?
Navi: If you only knew. I’ve been nonstop every day on tour in the U.K. performing with Michael’s guitarist, Jennifer Batten, and we finished a show last night. I got back to my place at 3:30 in the morning, and then we had a 6 o’clock collect for the airport. I fly on Wednesday to New York, and then I leave New York on Friday, land back on Saturday in London, connect and go to Liverpool. I perform at the Echo Arena on Saturday through Thursday.
Life & Style: In other words, you’re looking for work.
Navi: Exactly. Are you guys hiring?
Life & Style: We’ll get back to you. But that insane schedule leads nicely into this question: after doing this for so long, do you ever have to motivate yourself to keep it going day after day, year after year?
Navi: When you’re going out there, and you’ve got a reputation to be a certain standard, you’re always nervous if you don’t live up to it. So it’s a bit like a date for me, and a date with the person I really want to be with. I’ve traveled around the world to over 62 different countries — and imagine that I’m going as an impersonator of Michael Jackson. It goes to show just how big he is, how big his brand is. I’ve been to six continents now with it, which is bigger than some artists themselves have done.
Life & Style: So what’s the difference between performing Michael Jackson on stage and being Michael Jackson in this film?
Navi: This actually helped me become more like Michael Jackson. When I’m doing the performances, you’re nervous but the costumes are there, the dance teams are there, the music has been done, it’s a hit. You can’t lose. But when it comes to a movie, you’ve never acted, you’re representing all the MJ fans around the world, and you’ve got the pressure of people saying, “He’s never been an actor; it’s going to flop.” All of that is weighing on you. And the only way you can do it, is throw yourself in and believe that nobody can portray Michael Jackson better than you. Even though you’ve never been an actor before, you’re talking about acting Michael Jackson, and it’s something where you’ve walked alongside him and met him and gone to his house. So you know Michael Jackson and you’ve studied his character. It was really just connecting the character that I portray with the emotions of my personal life so I could really connect in a way that was authentic.
Life & Style: Obviously you studied him closely to be able to perform the way that you do in concert, but did you have to dig deeper in terms of your research, in terms of what you studied, to really capture the man rather than the legend?
Navi: The Michael I knew was the one that everybody else has seen; the one on stage, the one coming out of hotels, the one in theme parks. The public one. This was the private one. The thing about this film is you realize he was a father that loved his children, that was trying to build a home with them. He was somebody that cried and had emotions and wanted to just do normal things. He was a guy next door, and that was what was surreal. When he was home, Michael Jackson was just like how we are when we go home.
Life & Style: But why is it, then, that the public had such a different perception of him? Beyond whatever he was being charged with legally, just the way he presented himself to the world was odd.
Navi: I agree with you, it was odd. But last year I went to do a show in Chicago, and I had the option to go down to Gary, Indiana. I saw the house he came from, and I’m telling you that I’ve been around the world, and I’ve never seen a place as derelict as that area … broken down, just abandoned buildings. You see this small wooden home and you think, “How did 11 people fit in there?” And in the back of it was the school that he went to, and he used to look out and see children playing, but he couldn’t play. So, from five years old he had to be this performer, he had to be something different.
When I went to Neverland and the gates opened, and there was music playing, it was like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory or The Wizard Of Oz meets Disneyland. There were bronze statues of children playing, and there were real flamingos and eagles, and you see an elephant walking by up ahead, and a giraffe, and you go to this zoo, and you go to this cinema, and you go on his train — a full-sized train — and you go in his theme park. You realize he created a world that got disconnected from reality, because he never had reality. And then doing the movie, I realized that he always just wanted to have a childhood. We say this, but we think, “Come on, grow up!” And then he finally gets children of his own, that he could play games with and go to the cinema with and hold a hand with and joke around with. He was not just being a parent, he’s being their friend. And it completely made me realize that this film was not about Michael Jackson being Michael Jackson as a father. This film was also about Michael Jackson finding his own childhood, finding his own life.
Life & Style: Through his children?
Navi: Exactly. And I understood that. Even though he was a dad and he was very much kind of a “dad’s dad” and wanted to play games and stuff, he was unable to stop these allegations being claimed against him. But when you see him having water fights and watching TV and eating popcorn and snacking with his children, and kind of wanting them to have normal things, it was sad.
Life & Style: Did he fall into the Elvis syndrome where you are so exulted by the masses that normalcy is impossible?
Navi: When I traveled with him, I worked as a decoy. I’d turn up in Thailand and there’s a helicopter taking me from the airport to the hotel, and there were 30,000 security guards lining the street for Michael to drive through to get to his hotel. Batten, Michael’s lead guitarist, said he turned up in Japan and they shut down Tokyo Disneyland for them to run around in for a couple of hours. He was larger than life. When you see what he experienced, you almost believe you’re… not god-like, but you are this supernatural being kind of thing. It’s sad, because Elvis experienced it, too. Michael could be crazy at times, but that was normal for him, because that’s all he knew.
Life & Style: When you talk about that kind of success, do you ever explore the impact what you’re doing has on you? How hard is not to lose your sense of self and get swept up in it all when you are Michael Jackson so much of the time? And you’ve had surgeries to enhance your resemblance to him.
Navi: And I’ve got a wardrobe of over 250 Michael Jackson jackets for the show. It’s a huge operation. The thing I’ve come to is this: When you’re a child and you want to be a footballer, and whether you become a footballer or not, or a musician or whoever you want to be like, it shapes you. That is your identity. Your identity’s really a reflection of your journey and the things you’ve been through in life, whether good or bad. And with Michael Jackson, I’ve had that for so many years that it is a majority part of my life. But I’m not obsessed or brainwashed. I’m a dedicated Christian, so I have a certain balance and anchor and foundation in my life. A belief. So I am able to kind of step out and step back in. But it is demanding. Physically demanding as well.
Life & Style: It’s got to be demanding to do this for so many years.
Navi: And the film was not easy for me emotionally, because I worked so much that I kept ahead of the reality that he had passed away. It sounds obsessive, but I spend every day with this guy whether in my mind, or when it was in person at times. It was difficult to let go of someone like that. It was closer to me than my parents, because I don’t speak to them every day or I don’t see them every day. It was a big part of me that I was running away from that I was having to face up to in this movie.
Life & Style: For the audience, what do you think the takeaway of this movie is?
Navi: Lifetime has done other movies about other artists, and no matter how they’re received — and I wouldn’t comment on that — one thing I would say is this: Seeing what they did with this film is unlike anything else I’ve seen any of the other movies do. They have applied a sincerity in having the bodyguards’ memoirs and their book, and they brought in a team of quality people, like Suzanne de Passe. She brought the Jacksons to Motown and through Motown. She’s the executive producer. The director, Dianne Huston, is Oscar nominated. I realized that they really went to town on putting a team together that was going to make this as authentic as possible. And when you combine that with the fact of what happened, because it was the bodyguards’ book, and we spoke to the bodyguards, and we got direction from them, it gives you a kind of indication that this movie will open a lot of people’s eyes — Jackson fans and non-Jackson fans. They might still not like him as a person, or they might still think he’s crazy, or they might still think he’s a great artist, but they will all kind of realize that he was really a human being, too.
Michael Jackson: Searching For Neverland airs on Lifetime May 29.