An Autistic Teen's Guide To Impersonating Michael Jackson

Aug 27, 2014

It was homecoming dance at Roosevelt High School, and the Roosevelt football team had just been crushed. As it started getting late, the energy sunk even lower. People were mostly slow dancing; it was all Taylor Swift at that point.

Just then, a familiar tune started to play. The thinning crowd began to roar. A spotlight came on. As the first lyrics of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" shook the room, a skinny kid with short brown hair and a sparkly glove began to dance.

"When I impersonated, I just kind of would think... like, what would Michael do?"

That skinny kid was Lorenzo Manuel, now a senior at Roosevelt. But he just goes by his first name, Lorenzo. His story started when he was 13 years old. It was the night Michael Jackson died, and for Lorenzo it was a near-cosmic shift.

"The night he died," Lorenzo said, "I had this dream where I was in a field and he was at an ice cream cone stand, and he gave me an ice cream cone."

This mystifying dream had an unexpected effect. Lorenzo felt called to impersonate Michael Jackson.

He had just been diagnosed with autism, though he had known his whole life that he didn't quite fit in with the other kids. He couldn't handle the social pressures of middle school.

"People were bullying me because I was a little bit more feminine, because I was more artistic, and people would call me gay," Lorenzo said. "And even though I am gay, back then it was just hard, and I didn't know it then."

His mom, Christine, remembers him coming home from school every day depressed and confused about the teasing. She even considered transferring him to a different school.

But impersonating Michael Jackson changed all that. With Lorenzo's newfound passion, he started having easier interactions with his peers. He would even pretend to be Michael Jackson when he felt uncomfortable in social situations. He felt a connection to Michael. They were both shy people with an almost obsessive interest in music. When he couldn't rely on his own skills, he called on Michael's.

The response Lorenzo got for impersonating Michael Jackson surprised him. People at school became more accepting of him, not less. Most surprising, even Lorenzo's dad seemed to accept him more. "He's usually very critical," said Lorenzo. "And the fact that he was pretty accepting of it ... that was one of the reasons I wanted to keep pursuing it."

Lorenzo's idol is ever present in his life. He pointed out a prized possession in what he called the Michael Jackson area of his bedroom: "He actually signed this paper. See? That's his writing."

Lorenzo's bedroom also includes a Michael Jackson cut-out from the "Bad" era, an old turntable with records, and some collectible dolls. One is still in its box from 1995, the year Lorenzo was born.

But being Michael wasn't enough. Now, through years of studying how to be someone else, Lorenzo has found a way to be himself. Through Michael, he has found acceptance for his own creativity and ingenuity.

"I definitely knew I was an artist," mused Lorenzo, "because of all the different phases I've gone through with drawing, and painting, and acting, and singing, and dancing, and music, and photography. I just knew I was meant to do something in the arts."

Now, his days of impersonation are behind him. He's started writing, recording, and performing his own music. "I really enjoy that," said Lorenzo. "And performing as myself now ... I feel a lot more free."

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Summer Introductory Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.