Illustration: David Ostroff
Illustration: David Ostroff
On January 31, 1993, for five globally televised seconds, a Michael Jackson impersonator who calls himself Scorpio was the biggest celebrity in the world. During Super Bowl XXVII, he may have convinced millions of viewers, if only for a brief moment, that he was the King of Pop himself. One of two body doubles tasked with playing Jackson that night, the former Soul Train dancer struck a few of the star’s signature poses on a perch high above the Rose Bowl. “I’m scared of heights,” Scorpio—born Renalto Spicer—told me. “But this was Michael Jackson. I didn’t mind.”
Like dozens of other MJ moments, the spectacle lives in its entirety on YouTube. Aside from Leon Lett’s fumble, the actual game, a 52-17 Cowboys blowout, was forgettable. The halftime entertainment, on the other hand, was not. Surreal, grandiose, frankly absurd and ultimately influential, Jackson’s halftime turn was an American icon’s career distilled down to 12 bizarre minutes. There was a 750-member drill team; a Kim Jong-Il’ian stadium-wide card-flipping operation; 3,500 singing kids—this was months before their presence would’ve become catnip for late night hosts—and Jackson himself, who catapulted onto the stage and stood there silently for an entire minute before launching into his four-song set. And then there were the two clones. (Sadly, efforts to track down Scorpio’s counterpart hit a dead-end.) NBC’s cameras didn’t zoom in on their faces. But, in their gold shirts, black pants, and white socks, the impersonators looked just like Michael Jackson.
Scorpio was on TV for only a few moments, but as he stared down at the crowd of 100,000-plus, he couldn’t help but think about what Jackson said to him that afternoon: “This is magic we’re making.”
Somehow, it all worked. At least that’s what I thought at the time. I was also 9.
Hated Michael Jackson’s Super Bowl appearance? Blame the Wayans brothers. In Living Color caused a shitstorm in 1992 by putting on its own halftime special. Fox aired it live, directly opposite the embarrassing official extravaganza, which featured Olympic figure skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill gliding around the Metrodome on sheets of Teflon. Unsurprisingly, the counterprogramming idea was a good one. “The ploy,” Richard Sandomir of The New York Timeswrote in 2009, shortly after Jackson’s death, “did its damage. [NBC’s] halftime rating fell 10 points from game action in the previous half-hour.”
In order to snuff out things like “Men on Football”—and more importantly, win back people under 40—the NFL took the drastic step of reaching out to Jackson. According to Sandomir's story,
A contingent including [the league's executive director of special events] Jim Steeg and Arlen Kantarian, then the chief executive of Radio City Productions, which would produce the halftime show, met in Beverly Hills with Jackson’s manager, Sandy Gallin.
Steeg and Kantarian sensed that they had to brief Gallin extensively because they surmised that Jackson knew little about football. “We knew we were explaining this to somebody who would then have to explain it to Michael,” Steeg said. In subsequent meetings, Jackson displayed a naïve curiosity about a world he knew little of.
“He’d ask: ‘Who plays in it? What is it?’” Kantarian said. Jackson's interest became riveted on the Super Bowl being broadcast in more than 100 countries, including third world nations, and on United States military bases.
Jackson, most likely, was being coy. He may not have been a big football fan, but he liked sports. During the Jackson 5 days, he shot hoops with his brothers, and later, enlisted Michael Jordan for his “Jam” video. “First I said I don’t know if I want to do this,” basketball’s MJ, who for once had to defer to someone else on that nickname, said in a making-of segment that aired during the NBA Finals, “because this guy’s gonna try to get me out there to dance, and it’s gonna be really embarrassing.” In the clip, Jordan looks more unnatural trying to imitate Jackson’s moves than Jackson does trying to play basketball. (At one point, Jackson climbs a ladder so he can dunk. Then he and Jordan awkwardly high five. Somehow, Jordan managed better on-screen chemistry with Bugs Bunny in Space Jam.) Still, the 1991-92 Chicago Bulls adopted the song, which ended up on their championship highlight video, “Untouchabulls.”
In the end though, Jackson’s views on sports had nothing to do with him agreeing to play Pasadena. The NFL and sponsor Frito-Lay each pledged $100,000 to the artist’s Heal the World Foundation.
For Scorpio, Jackson’s decision provided an opportunity he probably never anticipated: the chance to appear alongside MJ in front of millions of people. By 1993, he’d found a niche as a Michael Jackson impersonator. The dancer, who was raised in Detroit and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, had a regular gig at Legends in Concert, a Las Vegas-based company that put on tribute shows. He also performed internationally, and had in fact just returned from a trip to the Philippines when he learned, via his agent, that he’d been offered a job at the Super Bowl. “I was pumped up,” Scorpio said. The door to his dressing room at the Rose Bowl was even decked out with his name—in the middle of a star. That was a first.
“We were doing this for Michael Jackson,” he said. “It was a once in a lifetime thing.”
Super Bowl Sunday started early, at least for the cast and crew of the halftime show. Scorpio remembered a full dress rehearsal and a long stay in the makeup chair. That afternoon, Jackson, flanked by bodyguards, visited the dressing room of at least one of his doppelgangers. The two shook hands. Jackson squeaked out a short pep talk:
“I know you’re gonna do well. This is nothing but magic. This is magic we’re making.”
For Scorpio, Jackson was the magic.
“There was like a covering over him,” said Scorpio, who also made appearance as Jackson in a 2001 Lil’ Romeo video. “Like a spirit. Like when you reach out, you can’t touch him or you’ll get shocked or something.”
Scorpio managed to shake off the stardust. As show time approached, bodyguards arrived to lead him through the bowels of the Rose Bowl. A crane with steel steps—it reminded Scorpio of something on a hook and ladder truck lifted him high into the air. When the time came, he said crew members helped boost him onto a small, artificial-turf covered platform above a video screen. A few dance moves later, it was over. By the time Jackson had finished his set, Scorpio was already at ground level. Waiting for a limo, but still back down to earth.
Aside from Jackson grabbing his crotch a few too many times—“We talked to him about that during rehearsals,” Steeg told Sandomir. “But he did better than we thought.”—the show was a coup for the NFL and NBC. Jackson, who was clearly aided by backing vocals, did four songs: “Jam,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” and “Heal the World,” and led a children’s choir’s performance of “We Are the World.” The Super Bowl telecast drew 133.4 million viewers, then a record. Jackson opened up the Super Bowl stage for acts like U2, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Prince, and now Madonna, who will take a whack at things this Sunday. Nearly two decades ago, Scorpio didn’t know he’d be the first of several mononymous big-game performers. He was just excited to be a part of the show.
Afterward, he and his fellow Jackson impersonator shared a limo ride. The other guy had a beeper and a massive cell phone, and both were blowing up. Scorpio didn't have one, and was perfectly content staying silent, anyway. Before heading home to East Los Angeles, he wanted to soak up the last bits of what he considered to be a strange, magical evening. When the driver eventually reached his Nissan Z, parked in a distant Rose Bowl lot, Scorpio drove away and returned to what was, at least for him, the everyday reality of impersonating a celebrity.