Beat It, Michael : Professional Jackson Impersonator, 17, Is Eager to Find an Image All His Own

Times Staff Writer

While most teen-agers would probably give their right glove to trade places with Michael Jackson, Damon Trice has found that impersonating the pop superstar isn't quite the thriller people might imagine.

As students at a rehearsal in the gymnasium at John Glenn High School in Norwalk danced to the thumping rhythm of Jackson's "Body," Trice sat on a stack of tumbling mats and talked about the problems of being a professional Jackson impersonator.

"A lot of people misjudge me, especially at school," he said. "They think I'm conceited or stuck-up."

The soft-spoken 17-year-old senior has been publicly impersonating Jackson at talent shows since he was in the sixth grade. Since June, he has worked for the Ron Smith Celebrity Look-Alike Agency in Hollywood, appearing as Jackson at private parties and department store openings. Two months ago, the chameleon-like teen-ager added rock star Prince to his repertoire.

Trice's last performance as Jackson will be Jan. 12 at Glenn High's "Astro Extravaganza," a talent show and fund-raiser for the school's extracurricular activities.

"I get trapped by the image. That's one reason why I'm quitting," he said. He has been "growing out of" impersonating Jackson and is trying to establish a look that is entirely his own.

"I don't want people to think I'm hiding behind an image that's not mine," Trice said.

As he began to rehearse with the other dancers in the gym, Trice did not look at all like Jackson. Then, as he moved to music, he assumed an entirely different personality. Just as Jackson leaves the quiet, falsetto-voiced child behind and becomes a dancing dynamo on stage, so does Trice bury the shy adolescent and become energetic and seductive when performing.

With his lean, muscular build and slight mustache, Trice physically more closely resembles Prince. He has him down pat--the expressive hands, the gyrating pelvis. But in an instant he can be Jackson, with quick, pixie-like moves and overly dramatic gestures.

Trice said he has no difficulty imitating Jackson or Prince because he feels that he is so much like them. "I feel we have similar personalities," he said. "Both are quiet. But Michael is conservative. Prince is liberal. I'm somewhere in the middle.

"I get the personality just by looking at them. I look at a photograph of them, and I can tell right away what they're thinking."

Trice particularly relates to the "loner" image that he believes both singers project. "I usually keep to myself," he said, adding that he rarely goes out, except to school and when he is performing.

It takes Trice an hour to transform himself into Jackson or Prince, applying makeup, blusher and eyeliner, then styling his hair with oil sheen. He sews most of his costumes.

Trice said he became fascinated with Prince because he thinks the singer is "hooked on freedom of mind and freedom of speech."

But, he said, "I wouldn't go as far as Prince (does in his music, which is often sexually explicit). I do have some discretion. The world is not ready for that kind of freedom yet."

Trice said he probably will keep doing Prince for a while, "but I won't be as into doing Prince as I was in doing Michael."

He has found that imitating a celebrity has social drawbacks. "I'm very cautious about who I am around and who I call my friends, because they turn on you," he said. "I have only a few friends, but they like me for myself, not just because of the things I do."

Trice said he began imitating Jackson when he was 4 years old after seeing the Jackson 5 (Michael and four of his brothers) on television.

"I was always entertaining my family," he said. "My mom would have me sing and dance for company."

His first taste of show business came at 12, when he lived in Detroit and performed a Jackson song at a junior high school talent show. He instantly became popular at school. "Before that, people didn't really know me," he said.

His family moved to California when he was in the 10th grade and he entered John Glenn High. (His mother now lives in Pomona, but he has stayed at Glenn High to finish school, he said.)

His Jackson image helped him adjust quickly after the cross-country move two years ago, he said. "People started noticing me doing Michael Jackson at the school dances," he said. "I didn't have any trouble making friends here."

Trice lip-syncs some of the Jackson and Prince songs and performs a few numbers on his own. He prefers slow, romantic ballads, and at the Astro Extravaganza he will sing Jackson's "Human Nature" and bid the characterization goodby.

"After seven years of doing Michael, I think I've done all I can do," he said.

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