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Meet ‘The Michael Jacksons’

It was a mind blower.

On the day of Michael Jackson’s 2009 memorial service, a Jackson lookalike met with fans on LA’s Hollywood Boulevard.

Stunned by the icon’s unexpected death, Jackson’s followers were drawn to Sean Vezina, who was dressed as Jackson. Photographer Lorena Turner was watching. “The fans told Sean, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about Michael,’ ” Turner recalled. Vezina told them he also was saddened by the news.

“This is what blew my mind,” Turner said last week. “It seemed so strange. Sean looked like Michael Jackson, but he chose to go out of character to speak with fans, as himself. That seemed to complicate the exchange between the audience and the performer.”

As the world marks what would have been Jackson’s 56th birthday on Friday, that encounter shows the global cultural phenomenon that has surrounded Jackson for generations.

Fans were willing to approach a stranger because they were seeking comfort after the loss of their idol. They wanted a Michael Jackson experience to remember him by, even if it was with an impersonator.

All this is part of the backstory behind “The Michael Jacksons,” Turner’s book of portraits featuring people who dress and act like the late singer.

Turner calls them “rabidly passionate representers.” They often mix their interpretations of Jackson with their own personalities. Finding your inner Michael is a deeply personal experience, she said.

“I wanted to photograph them being themselves — through Michael Jackson.”

The imitators have so many styles to choose from: there’s the tuxedoed Jackson pictured on the cover of “Off the Wall,” the Jackson in red-leather from the “Thriller” video, the “Bad”-era Jackson adorned in buckles, and let’s not forget the version of Jackson in a white T-shirt and aviator shades.

Accuracy doesn’t really count here. Some representers might mix later-era Jackson clothes with early styles of Jackson hair and makeup. No worries, Turner said, that’s all part of the phenomenon.

Jackson representers come from multiple racial backgrounds, and they even cross gender lines.

A white, single mom named JenNjuice Amerson polished her routine so well she left a factory job in South Carolina to take her act full-time.

Devra Gregory, a San Diego-based representer, used her background in ballet to create her Jackson dance act. Her experience in “reverse drag” helps Gregory appear more authentic as a man.

It’s rare for a representer to both sing and dance, Turner said. J Lucas, who has performed in Las Vegas, was probably the most authentic. “He was very, very good at doing both.”

What about the famous Jackson mystique? Can anyone replicate that? Haitian immigrant Jovan Rameau “has such a warmth in the way that he interacts with fans,” Turner said. “It’s something people are attracted to.”

But at the drop of a hat, Jovan can turn the mystique off. “Sometimes we’d have these very interesting exchanges where he would be performing his character on Hollywood Boulevard,” Turner said. “Then he would turn to me and say something that was outside the mystique — almost the antithesis of his persona, like, ‘see I told you people say that about Michael Jackson.’”

For Turner personally, Jackson loomed large during her preteen years. “Thriller” was one of her first albums. “It was completely captivating.” But as she grew up, Turner’s musical tastes shifted.

The 1980s “Gloved One” transformed into what she called a “question mark” and Turner’s interest faded, until she met the representers.

They’ve taken the idea of being Michael Jackson to a unique level, she said. It’s much more than a hobby or a job — it’s a way of life.

“This is really who they are. It’s where their friends and — in some cases — their partnerships come from,” Turner said. “They identify themselves through Michael Jackson, and for me, that’s incredibly moving.”

- Thom Patterson, CNN