Once upon a time, there was a seven-year-old boy called Ben who dreamed of following in the footsteps of his hero Michael Jackson.
Years later, Ben Bowman is living that dream, touring the UK as Britain’s best Jackson tribute act.
I know Ben of old. I used to watch him when he was a teenager practising at Priory Hill Holiday Park, Leysdown, on the Isle of Sheppey where his mum worked behind the bar and I was the resident DJ. Indeed, I think I gave him his first big break (!) when I invited him to perform as part of JR King’s Juggernaut Roadshow (https://www.facebook.com/JuggernautRoadshow) at Sheerness East Working Men’s Club for a Rotary Club disco. He borrowed my microphone and I played a CD of backing tracks. It lasted 15 minutes. I wish I’d taken some photos.
His show these days is nothing short of spectacular. For a start, he stays on stage for virtually the whole of the two-plus hours – except to make lightning-fast costume changes. He is backed by four top dancers (two boys, two girls) and a strikingly tight five-piece backing band.
It is eerie how the spirit of Michael Jackson seems to come alive. It is as if Jackson is actually performing – although Ben adds his own touches. He has a certain raunchy sexiness (especially when grasping the thighs of one of the girl dancers), which his idol never had.
Ben has also adopted a strange high-pitched Trans-Atlantic accent which I don’t recall him using on Sheppey.
But it’s not just about Ben. Although he commands the stage with a sweat-dripping passion, this is a true ensemble production, tightly choreographed and boasting a brilliantly designed light show with a superbly clear sound system.
There are some stunning production numbers for songs like disco favourite Blame It On The Boogie, the ethereal Earth Song, the thumping Beat It, spooky Thriller and the show-stopping Billie Jean finale.
Quite truthfully, this knocks spots off some productions I’ve seen in London’s West End. By rights, it should be packing in fans in arenas.
Saturday’s show at Maidstone’s Hazlitt Theatre was sold out – I only managed to get a ticket thanks to guitarist’s mum’s friend dropping out!
Afterwards, most of the audience – aged from eight to 80 – stayed behind so Ben, sporting the dark, straggly hair and strange pasty-white face of his musical hero, could autograph their posters, programmes and tour passes. The length of the queue and level of adoration were amazing.
I suppose now the real Jackson is no longer with us, this is the best his fans can hope for.
Ben recalled: “From as far as I can remember, I have always been obsessed with Michael Jackson. Everything about the King of Pop mesmerized and enchanted me.
“I would spend hours poring over album covers, photographs, interviews, videos and anything I could find about Michael. Even my seventh birthday party had a Michael Jackson theme!
“I always loved to dance and began copying Michael’s moves as I dreamed of being a performer just like him.”
Ben’s passion for performing took hold when he discovered open mic nights.
He explained: “Once I began to sing it was clear to me that all I wanted to do was perform on stage and entertain people.
“As I reached my teenage years I began experimenting with hair, make-up and clothes on stage to emulate Michael’s unique style. I began cultivating the whole persona and image of Michael and began to perform at talent shows and school assemblies, dancing and miming to his songs.”
When Ben plucked up the courage to sing live along to backing tracks he discovered he could sound just like Michael. But he admitted: “I still never dreamed I could forge a career doing that.”
However, at 17 he took the plunge and booked a hall for his first Michael Jackson Tribute Show.
He said: “To my amazement, the show sold out and the audience loved it. I was so encouraged I quit my job at the Co-op and worked full-time on improving the show to take it on the road.”
It was a gamble which almost didn’t pay off. The audiences loved Ben’s performances but the huge investment needed to buy his own professional sound system, lights and costumes plunged him into debt.
To make matters worse, at that time Jackson was involved in controversial court cases in the USA where he was accused of child sexual abuse. He was eventually acquitted on all charges but suddenly he was no longer the world’s most popular entertainer. The self-styled King of Pop’s crown was slipping.
Ben admitted: “At that time, Michael was not an especially popular or visible artist, so it was tough going in the early days. But my aim was always to bring the music, dance and charisma of Michael Jackson to the stage rather than make money.
“Thankfully, the audiences were amazing and gave me the confidence to carry on.”
He also met manager and musician James Baker who revamped Ben’s act and using his show business connections turned it into a top event specially tailored for theatres.
Ben has now been slipping his hand into that diamond-encrusted glove for eight successful years and is on his second year of theatre tours. Ironically, since Michael’s death on June 25, 2009, demand for Ben’s shows has boomed.
Ben said: “I still love every minute of it. I have travelled the world, met hundreds of people, worked with some famous acts and picked up some dear friends along the way.”
That includes his live band, team of dancers and dedicated backstage crew who all help the Michael magic come alive.
Ben added: “The buzz and excitement I get every time I go on stage still takes me back to my childhood when I first fell in love with Michael and his music. It has been an amazing honour to work with so many talented individuals in so many areas. I have been extremely lucky to follow my dream.
“I have one person to thank for everything, the person who shaped my life, my career and outlook, the person who made me what I am today – the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.”
With that, he grabbed his crotch, let out a yelp and Moonwalked back home as Michael Jackson’s Ben was playing in the background…
* Ben is back in Kent in January to start his 2015 theatre tour in Margate. For more information visit http://www.michaeljacksonuk.com/