One Night as a Michael Jackson Impersonator
The call was made last minute: it wouldn't be appropriate for me to sing the song on national television. I wasn't sure why, but to be fair, I didn't know what any of the words meant. The song was The Jackson Five's "Blame it on the Boogie," and it was entirely in English. I had already spent hours standing in front of the mirror, my eleven-year-old mouth copying every syllable and every sound. And I had done it! I had learned the whole thing, even though Michael sang quickly on the choruses and sped through the verses. I was proud of myself. I was the Polish son of a Vietnamese immigrant, and English was French to me.
Also, I liked the song. It was exciting and energetic and a good song to dance to. That would be important. I would have to be able to dance to the song. So, yes, I was disappointed. But I didn't make the decisions. My only worry was that New Year's Eve was only days out. I would have almost no time at all to learn whatever new song they chose, and the stakes couldn't have been higher.
I was one of those kids who was always humming. Even in kindergarten, I didn't stop, whether I was in the back of the class or sitting with the other kids. I'd like to think that I sounded pretty good. Most teachers would have found that distracting or irritating, so when my teacher pulled my mom to the side at the end of the school day, I was sure that I was in trouble. "I think you should have Albert audition for some shows," she said. "He clearly likes music."
My mother looked at her, confused. Poland didn't have a thriving community theatre scene. It wasn't like she could just throw me in an after-school production of Almost Maine. "People are already going to be looking at him. It should be because he's talented. Because they want to celebrate him."
She talked circles around the fact that as the son of a Vietnamese father and a Polish mother, I was the only person of color in the school. And she was right. I already knew that I was different, and it was only a matter of time before everyone else caught on. While the idea of making me a child star to avoid the racism of the Polish school system was an unusual suggestion (and one that didn't address the systemic issues), it was one that in excited me and made sense to my mother.
I started auditioning for shows, and soon enough, I was cast in The Academy of Mr. Kleks, a new musical about a magical school—think, a Polish version of The Magic School Bus. What was exciting about the show was that it was at the Roma Theatre, which, besides the opera house, was the largest venue in Warsaw. The Roma's mission at the time was something along the lines of "bringing the best American productions to Poland." To be in a show adapted from Polish children's books by Polish writers was to be in one of the first authentically Polish productions done at the Roma. It was exciting.
In the show, I played one of the many children who attend the Academy, and I had a great time. When the run finished, the theatre stayed in contact. Whenever someone needed children for a production or a performance, I'd get a call. That was how I got some of my first jobs. Most of those gigs were smaller, usually theatre stuff. But I'd like to think that I got my big break all on my own.
I was watching Zinaro, my favorite TV show at the time. It was a kid's program that, like all good kid's programs, was all about teaching the traditions of the Catholic church. At the end of the episode, the director, Lydia, popped up and announced that they would be holding auditions for new cast members. If you were a kid who wanted to be on TV (on Zinaro!), then this was your chance. Onscreen was a phone number, an address, and a date. Anyone who wanted to audition needed to go to the Polish broadcasting headquarters to be seen by the show's executives.
My mother took me to the audition. At six years old, I was in awe of the building's size, which was large enough to accommodate just about everything filmed and produced by Polish Public Broadcasting. Right across the street was a row of houses, which were seemingly unaware of how mismatched they looked in the shadow of such a gigantic concrete structure. The line of children wrapped around the block, each one accompanied by a parent or guardian. From the looks they gave me as my mother and I joined the queue, these kids wanted the gig just as badly as I did.
The boy in front of me, Mateusz, was bouncing off the walls. He and I quickly became friends. A buzz made its way down the line: a casting director was coming and picking out the most interesting kids. Because of Mateusz's energy and the fact that I naturally stood out, we were both chosen. We followed the casting director and cut the line. The rest of the kids starred absolute daggers at us as we made our way into the building. I don't think the rest of them were even called.
Inside, we would have to audition for the director and the casting directors, who asked us if we had prepared our poems. Oh, we were supposed to bring a poem. Mateusz and I looked at each other—we hadn't prepared for this—we were there to have a good time! The executives talked amongst themselves and decided this was fine. To our advantage, the girl in front of us was performing a terrible poem (about choo-choo trains), and I'm pretty sure they wanted a break. They dismissed her with a "Thank you."
When it was Mateusz's turn, they had him pretend to be a frog. Without hesitation, he got down, started jumping around and making frog noises. The casting directors laughed, and it was clear that he had won them over. Then it was my turn. And I have absolutely no recollection of what happened. None whatsoever. Maybe they had me pretend to be an animal. Maybe I had to sing the Polish National Anthem. I'm not sure, but it wasn't long after that my mom got the call—I was one of Zinaro's newest cast members.
We would film on Saturdays when all of the kids were off school. I liked my castmates and was thrilled to learn that Mateusz was also cast. I was the series' troublemaker, always coming in to pull pranks or make people angry. I loved every second of it. And while the show was contained to weekends, they would sometimes come to film me at school. At first, this made me a bonafide celebrity. Later? Not so much.
I started attending music school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and soon enough, they had me doing voice-over dubbing after school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. My biggest role was Boots in the Polish dubbing of Dora The Explorer, but I filled in lots of background voices, kids' parts, and miscellaneous roles in film and TV shows.
At school, the excitement of being "Albert the star" wore off very quickly. Kids are mean, not necessarily because they intend to be, but because they say whatever they're thinking. Seriously. Any thought just comes out automatically! At first, my classmates had been excited. Their friend was on TV. But then the complaints started coming, people upset that I had gotten to miss school for one reason or another, or parents calling about so-called preferential treatment.
And soon enough, my kindergarten teacher was right. People realized that I did not look like the rest of my Polish classmates. Like all kids who carry some weight of the immigrant experience, there were comments about what foods I brought for lunch or what kinds of things my family did at home. It was impossible to determine what was a reaction to my success and what was just racism and discrimination. Could I separate the two? Did it even matter?
At the same time, I was spending less and less time with kids my age. Sure, I was at school, but I was becoming more and more of an outsider. Filming Zinaro was nice, but that was only one day a week, and it was work. I didn't have time to hang out after school. I had music lessons or dubbing sessions. I was a kid, but I had places to be and a job to do. The adults I worked with were mostly nice, but they were adults. It was their job to get a specific performance out of me. They made the creative decisions. They told me where I had to be and when.
I remember one voice-over project I was working on, the director decided that to make my performance as authentic as possible, she would change some things up. In a usual voice-over session, you watch the animated visuals (or some mock-up images) and hear the lines before and after yours. If you're recording a conversation, you hear the other person's part so that you can act and react appropriately. Well, this particular director decided that to get the most out of my performance, it would be best for me not to see or hear anything other than her. She would hold her arm in the air when I should talk and take her arm down when my line was up. I was confused—how would I watch her for my ques and read the script in front of me?
At this point, some people on the street knew who I was. and would say hello or make it clear that they knew me. It was like some parts of my life were strange, pulled from the pages of a US tabloid article about child stars. And yet, I was still going to the same school, still living with my family, still going about my life. In Poland, there just wasn't the same amount of money in entertainment as there was in the States. People knew who I was. I gained popularity, but I didn't have the lifestyle changes that came with getting rich because I wasn't! I was still Albert. I was a regular kid who also had a job.
Then, in 2009, Michael Jackson died. Maybe that's a big deal to you. Maybe it's not. But you have to understand, the people of Poland loved Michael Jackson. They loved Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, the two MJs who epitomized American capitalism and success. This is because contemporary Poland was largely shaped by the moment in which the wall fell.
Poland looked around and decided what kind of capitalist country it would be—what art, what culture it would celebrate. '89 was one of the best years of Jordan's career, and it was the same year that Jackson won his Lifetime Achievement award at the AMAs. As of 2009, there was probably no country as devoted to Michael Jackson as Poland. He knew it, too, and even floated around the idea of building a theme park. The deal didn't go through, but his love for the country was more than reciprocated, and his death sent shockwaves through Poland.
In December, six months after the pop super star's death, there was an announcement that that year's televised annual New Year's Celebration would be a memorialization of Michael's life and career. Like all of the major protests and demonstrations in Poland's history, the performance would be taking place in Warsaw's Constitution Square. Michael had begun his career as a child star, so it was only appropriate that the celebration would also begin with a child star. It wasn't long before the house phone rang. They wanted me to audition.
My mother and I made our way back to the now-familiar broadcasting headquarters but were not met with the same line of eager auditioners. Only two kids were brought in for the part, and I was one of them. I knew the other kid, but I was confident that I had this one in the bag. I sang, I danced, and I acted my heart out. And I got the job! I would be playing the first iteration of the Michael Jackson during the nationally televised New Year's Eve broadcast. The whole country would watch me perform.
I spent weeks preparing and memorizing—you guessed it—"Blame It On The Boogie”—and when word came down that the song would have to change, I had only a week to memorize The Jackson Five's “I Want You Back.” As disappointed as I was, I asked the executives if I could record my favorite parts of the background vocals. They agreed, and the next thing I knew, I was in a small studio booth.
As the performance approached, I was less and less sure that I would be able to commit the song to memory. My father, an immigrant himself, was insistent: I would have to pull this off perfectly or risk giving everyone else ammunition to use against me. The dress rehearsal came and went, and finally, it was showtime. I put on my bedazzled vest, silk shirt, and an afro wig. I took to the stage with my team of backup dancers.
For drama's sake, I wish I could say that I was terrified. The physical audience was made up of thousands of people, and the televised audience had hundreds of thousands more. The stage was massive and full of giant light-up screens and a runway-like platform where I would be performing alone. But I wasn't scared. I had grown up performing on stage, on camera, and in front of people. This was no different than rehearsal. And the performance went exactly as planned.
Afterward, it felt like most of Poland knew who I was. That was cool on some levels; I got booked for a new family sitcom and seemed to be getting stopped everywhere I went. On another level, it was very unpleasant. My classmates had finally had it with me and mocked just about everything I did, ate, said, or wore inside and outside of school. Even my teachers were now upset with me for no reason; my piano teacher called me a sell-out. I was eleven! I had been performing for five years. What constitutes an eleven-year-old sell-out?
And then my family moved to Vietnam. Seriously. At the end of the school year, we packed up and moved to the other side of the world for reasons that I didn't understand. I was furious. For starters, the only languages I knew were Polish and English (and my English consisted entirely of words used in two Michael Jackson songs). I didn't speak Vietnamese. I'd have to leave my entire life behind, including my new sitcom role.
Eventually, I got adjusted to life in my new home. I was glad to go through puberty out of the public eye and gladder to leave behind everyone at school. In Vietnam, I stood out for speaking Polish and for being mixed race, but I didn't have to worry about being the only person of color. I got to be myself, get to know other kids, and rediscover the parts of childhood that I had missed while I was on sound stages and in recording booths.
In high school, I moved back to Poland. I did some voice-over work for some Pixar movies, a Nickelodeon show, and a bunch of commercials. I was fluent in English by this point and voiced the mandatory nationwide English exams' listening portions. The biggest job I landed was a kid's science show, starring me (Albert), Albert Einstein, and my pet rat. In many ways, life was less chaotic than it had been, and I now had more of the skills to handle whatever came at me. I was working and making things that I was proud of, but I also had time to think critically about the things that I was doing and the kinds of jobs that were available.
Much of the art in Poland, and almost everything I participated in, was an adaptation or direct copy of something already done in America. The history of Poland has very much been shaped by the way that the rest of the world has used Poland or worked around Poland to get what it wanted. Poland was often the observer or the pawn. The occupied country. And my other home, Vietnam was similar in that way; bordered by China, it became a battleground for other people's fights.
Growing up, I watched as we idolized everything coming out of America. I watched as Poland looked to the US as a role model for existing in a world of westernization and globalization. For me, there was a rush that I got out of being Michael Jackson, but even more of a rush from performing in Constitution Square. I liked being in a show at the Roma, but I was glad that it was a Polish show. I was part of a new generation of people, one who didn't need to look to America for what to do next.
So, what was next for me? I moved to America. Hear me out. I wanted to go to school, to get away from the things I knew in Poland and in Vietnam. But I also wanted to create things that hadn't been created in Poland. To me, the best way to do that was to go to the States, to make my own art, and exist as a successful mixed-race Polish and Vietnamese person in the system that everyone was glorifying. To be somewhere that prioritized and celebrated the creation of the original, while proving to the people at home that I was simply being myself, was my goal.
I would love to go back to Poland at some point, to go there and make art that is original and as unique to Poland as it is to me. I want to find other Polish artists, either living in Warsaw or around the world, who are part of a new generation of creatives working to tell the stories of an often forgotten place.
When people I meet in school stumble across videos of me performing on national television or hear me casually drop something into the conversation, they are always intrigued. Was I the Polish-male version of Britney Spears? Was I swarmed by paparazzi, or do I have a giant stockpile of money? The answer to all of those things is no. Thankfully, I live a very normal life. All the money I made (the little bit of it) went towards my college tuition. However, I do still get royalty checks from Dora. I like to save those up, and once a year, I treat myself to lunch.