Man in the Mirror: Meet Hawai‘i’s Michael Jackson Tribute Artist
Photos: rae huo
Damian Brantley makes a surprisingly good living as a Michael Jackson tribute artist, performing in Legends in Concert’s Rock-a-Hula show at the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikīkī. He appears alongside tribute artists doing Elvis Presley and Lady Gaga. And yes, they’re tribute artists—not impersonators—thank you.
➸There’s a difference between impersonators and tribute artists. Impersonators are mainly look-alikes, whereas tribute artists are utilizing all aspects—voice, looks, dancing, mannerisms—the whole package. But it’s not an exact replication of a performance. We have a little bit of space for our own interpretation in what we do. Impersonators try to mimic an artist so completely it can almost seem plastic sometimes.
➸Elvis will be an icon forever. But right now, at this moment in time, Michael Jackson is definitely more popular.
➸My makeup is intense. There’s eye-brow putty, surgical tape, spirit glue. We have all these little tricks to change the shape and structure of the nose, cheekbones and eyes.
➸Drag queens doing impersonations definitely have the best makeup skills. I learned the majority of my makeup skills from them. Their shading, their techniques are unparalleled. I am blown away seeing their transformations. They look more like the characters than anybody. Some of them even use modeled teeth that they snap in before the show. It changes their smiles. It’s amazing.
➸When people ask me what I do, I normally don’t tell them. I just say I’m in the music business, or I sing and whatnot. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen the show.
➸I’m engaged to Lady Gaga—Jackie Wiatrowski, the Lady Gaga in the show. We met when she came out here to do the show. One thing led to another, and we’ve been together ever since. It’s a real “showmance.”
➸People want to know if Elvis is going to marry us. He’s not. That’s not our thing.
➸There’s no lip-syncing in our show. We have a live, five-piece band. I like to believe I have Michael’s voice down 85 percent, tone-wise. A lot of the illusion comes from your inflections, the way you pronounce things. That can be even more important than the tone.
➸I appreciate Michael Jackson, but in no form or fashion was I ever considered a fanatic.
➸People will come up when I’m out of character and say, “Hey man, do some Michael Jackson moves.” I always say, “What do you do for work?” And they’re like, “Oh, man, I work at this marketing firm.” And I’ll go, “Well, can you give me some marketing ideas real quick?” That’s the best way I can put it. I like to keep work work, and life life.
➸A lot of people wonder what I’m going to do for Halloween. I put on makeup for an hour and a half every day, six days a week. On Halloween, I’ll just put on a hat and wander around and enjoy the day as myself, Damian Brantley.
Show times for Rock-a-Hula are 8–9:45 p.m., every night but Monday. Tickets cost $65, or $52.65 for kama‘āina, with dinner and cocktail packages available. Call 629-7469, or visit rockahulahawaii.com.