It takes almost two hours for Devra Gregory to become Michael Jackson. The makeup’s first. She starts with a brown cover-up base and then blends in lots of white. She’s the ’90s Jackson—pale with a long Jheri curl. After she gets the perfect skin tone, she spends a good chunk of time on her nose, using makeup tricks and techniques to give it the unnaturally pointy, slender look of Jackson’s surgically altered olfactory orifice. Her eyes have to be enlarged with the help of heavy eyeliner. To complete the look, she carefully draws in new eyebrows and adds a cleft to her chin. She slips on her wig and next comes the challenge of making her female body male.
“I learned some tricks with foam rubber,” Gregory says.
“Sometimes, you have to add to take away.”
Her hips are easily hidden by thickening up her middle with the rubber padding. She has a whole body contraption, in fact, which she’s devised over the last 12 years she’s been playing the part of Jackson. It fits nicely under the costumes she often makes herself. But even with the man suit and makeup mask on, she still has to work hard to take on male mannerisms—men walk differently and stand a certain way, she says. Even more difficult is capturing the epic aura, quiet ego and massive charisma of a man whose fans hail him as a king.
In terms of looks, Gregory is in the upper echelon of the hordes of Michael Jackson impersonators who, especially after his death in 2009, have been able to make surprisingly decent livings performing for private and corporate parties. She’s a little on the short side, but when she’s on stage executing Jackson’s signature dance moves close to flawlessly, that’s when she sets herself apart. Gregory’s a lifelong, trained professional dancer and admitted perfectionist. She rehearses while facing a mirror with the reflection of a television showing Jackson concerts behind her (she wants to be sure to inverse the flipped image on the screen so she can mimic the moves exactly right).When people show up to Gregory’s upcoming, self-produced show, WoMan in the Mirror, A Dancer’s Journey, they’ll get the Jackson they want. She’ll kick things off by doing the high-energy performance that’s earned her national attention. But stick around for the second act and you might be surprised. Gregory, a native San Diegan who’s left the city on wild adventures many times only to find herself back again, leads an odd and interesting life. She wants to tell an audience all about it in a 90-minute show that combines dance performances with acting, audience participation and jarringly honest storytelling that’ll illustrate her life as a dancer, a woman, a practicing Wiccan and, of course, MJ.
She’ll appear as a ballerina, a burlesque dancer, a stripper, a kids performer in a corny SeaWorld show, a backup dancer in a drag show, a solo drag-queen star at Lips San Diego restaurant. And, yes, everything in WoMan in the Mirror is something Gregory culled from her spontaneous real life.
“Sometimes, as a professional dancer, you take whatever job you can get,” she explains from her rehearsal space in National City. “Sometimes, life gives you the unexpected so you can’t really plan for anything.”
When Gregory first decided to produce her own one woman show, she began the script-writing process by inviting a group of friends over for wine and telling them her life story. She recorded that night’s conversation, had it transcribed, weeded out all the ums and uhs, tweaked it and eventually came out with a working script. She hired Jessica Bird, casting director at San Diego Repertory Theatre, as her director and, together, the two have created a polished piece of work.
At a recent rehearsal, Gregory managed to immediately suck me into the show. She was going over the part of her life when she went from being a performer in a vaudeville act to swinging around a pole as “Lacy,” the sweet-but-sexy girl next door, at a strip joint. She talked about her Jewish mother and father, demonstrated a Wiccan ceremony she learned after being invited into her first Wiccan covenant and remembered how liberating it was to attend an acting class.
Her acting, by the way, is good, Bird says. Bird’s been impressed with the ease with which Gregory’s been able to quickly memorize the lines and unflinchingly tell the narrative of her alternative life.
“Her story is very intriguing,” Bird says. “I think the story of her life and the religious aspect was actually more intriguing to me than the Michael Jackson thing. I know that’s what’s going to bring other people to the show, but hopefully they stay engaged through everything else.”
Woman in the Mirror, A Dancer’s Journey, May 18 through 20 , 10th Avenue Theatre 930 10th Ave., Downtown