At 20, living on the streets with a drinking problem, Robert L'Hirondelle was spinning out of control. Until he moonwalked his way to becoming Edmonton's only Métis Michael Jackson tribute artist.


00:00:00this is a CBC podcast discover what Millions around the world already have Audible has Canada's largest library of audio books including exclusive content curated by and for Canadians experience books in a whole new way for stories are brought to life by powerful performances from renowned actors and narrators with a free audible app you can listen anytime anywhere whether you're at home in the car or out on a jog the first 30 days of the audible membership for free including a free book go to www.audible.com CBC to learn more I am a journalist and producer at CBC Edmonton the very first time I saw a Robert was in the summer actually if it's here I was doing our afternoon Show broadcast here downtown Edmonton and just to kind of give you context are Studios right on street level in the middle of downtown all last I guess all windows
00:00:59we see everything and I looked outside and there is a ban on the street it looked exactly like Michael Jackson so tomorrow is working and she sees this guy this Michael Jackson guy and she's transfixed because as well for one she's been working at CBC Edmonton for 2 years and has never seen him before but more than that she's never seen anything like him before because this guy he's nailing it
00:01:41when I say he looks exactly like him I mean he looks exactly like Michael Jackson he's wearing black trousers but they're little shorter just like Michael Jackson what we're so you could see the White Sox get the black penny loafers on that iconic Michael Jackson shoe and he had a white baggy shirt on those kind of tucked in the side as she know kind of that effortless she kind of Michael Jackson look and the black hat so he's dancing and you know there's the iconic Michael Jackson kick and the crotch grab or the belt grab and he was just spinning and moon walking and standing on his toes and doing pretty much everything you would automatically identify as Michael Jackson so Tamara does what any good journalist would do I ran upstairs got my microphone ran outside and I didn't even think about what I was going to ask him I just wanted to talk to him what did you ask him I think the first question was why
00:02:41why are you doing this and he was so excited to talk to me he even talks like Michael Jackson and I don't think he was even trying to put that on I think that's just how we naturally talks and then we just kind of got into more of a conversation of his life and that's when I realized wow wow because of the story he told her the story of how he became Michael I'm a zero and this is the doc project so tomorrow finds out that Michael Jackson guys actual name is Robert llorando and the story Robert tells her starts like this it was 4 years or earlier Robert was 20 years old and his life back then well looks pretty different for one he was homeless he also had a problem with alcohol but possibly the most shocking difference about Robert then was that
00:03:41Michael Jackson was not on his radar so it's a summers day for years earlier and it's hot and Robert goes into a second cup to get a coffee and a few minutes of air conditioning weirdly the second cup he went into was the one right across the road from CBC Edmonton where he's telling to naira all this anyway so he goes in and that's when Michael Jackson moonwalk sin to his life
00:04:08I'm having my Double-Double right now and it was very very noisy so I couldn't concentrate on my thoughts at that time
00:04:17around the time the noise started to settle down around me I heard Man in the Mirror come on over head on the on the radio
00:04:29it was right at the part where Michael Jackson was seeing the line to take a look at yourself and make a change
00:04:46and as I took my next sip of coffee that I was thinking about that line to take a look at yourself and make a change and I kept repeating that line over and over my head and then I got up and I went to the bathroom and I was looking at myself in the mirror and I broke down because I did not like what I saw what I was looking at was a rundown young man who was at the start of his life where where I could I should have beat I should be Explorer life's many great opportunities men and Many Wonders but here I was struggling with my own personal demons and looking really beat down in rugged and just
00:05:32while I'm looking at myself in the mirror I don't like what I see and I said to myself in the mirror
00:05:39I think it's time to make that change
00:05:46changing wasn't going to be easy and that's for a good recent Robert only 24 and most of his young life has been riddled with struggle I grew up a little bit differently than most children I was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 2 and I paddled it to the age of 4 and I don't really recall ever really having that much of a childhood cuz I was read diagnosed with leukemia for a second time in 2000 at the age of 7 and it was I was bored aggressive form of leukemia and I battled that for I think about a year and then six years after being in remission I relapsed for a third time at the age of 13 right when I was starting Junior High and that was a life-or-death situation
00:06:46it's either we act now will get him a transplant or Roberts going to die of cancer
00:06:54live with his aunt his parents weren't in the picture when he was young
00:06:584 year Robert went through chemotherapy all the while doctors were searching for a bone marrow match but came up empty eventually opted for a stem cell transplant the first one failed but if I can transplant seem to be working for a while
00:07:15but eventually fail to Robert was getting sick again the very transplant meant to heal him was fighting his body his lungs were so weak from chemotherapy developed the lung disease recovery wasn't just long it was rough especially for a 13 year old I was home bound for a year I was not allowed to leave home for a year as per doctor's rules in Calgary in case I caught an infection every aspect of Robert's life was affected by this disease even something simple is eating dinner pizza had to be hand cut if I ordered pizza from out of from from IP 272 Pizza Hut it would have to be cut by hand by me they couldn't cut it they couldn't touch it I was very limited to what I could do
00:08:03I wasn't allowed to be in school it was it was it was rough it was rough and I look back at it now as being in jail for a year you're sitting in a spot for one year not able to do anything but stay in your own common quarters
00:08:20but after that year Robert was allowed to leave home and if cancer is in remission for all intents and purposes he was better but he didn't feel fully better after years of life feeling like it's off track and out-of-control Robert was at a loss for how to just be a normal happy person he decided he needed to be on his own so he left his home and is not I moved out it's at 16 because I was stubborn young teenager and I thought I knew everything in my time that I spend from 16 to the age of 20 you know having stuff and having it all taken away then having stuff to take it all away even though I was
00:09:05technically homeless that knows Couchsurfing I was still attending school
00:09:13I would drink heavily at
00:09:17high school parties and stuff like that and it it kind of just started where I was at the time
00:09:27you feel so alone and you feel
00:09:31unwanted and you try to make men's
00:09:35no you really have is like you know there's a liquor store on every corner you go on you go to pretty much here in the city
00:09:42so I would either find ways to drink their friends on my old stuff to drink and that's how I would deal with our problems is I would numb everything that was going on in my life if you don't finishing beating cancer for the third time dealing with more health problems being homeless that's how I I I cope with everything was was drinking
00:10:05cuz it took everything away
00:10:10rubber needed help he was sinking lower and lower he was no longer Couchsurfing he's living on the streets and his life was at stake again this time because of his drinking
00:10:25at this point it has been a few weeks since that moment in the coffee shop hearing that Michael Jackson song and decided you wanted to change his life but wanting and doing are two very different thanks he wasn't any closer to getting his life under control at that time changed me was first I knew that I wanted to stop drinking because it was totally destroyed my life it was destroying my friendships my relationship with my family I wanted to stop drinking but how would I do that
00:11:01I just want to he needed it most help arrived and found me Robert was brought to the shift program for young men at the Hope Mission Edmonton it's a shelter and Outreach Center for the homeless I was not in the best shape and they asked me if I wanted to have somewhere warm to stay and I said yeah
00:11:26that's what I made that change to start a new life so to speak turn over a new Leaf
00:11:35at the Hope Mission Robert started working with his case worker Kevin Austin Robert wanted to do better but that's a long process with big ups and downs
00:11:48I got slapped by first chart first assault charge because of my drinking and I was given 6 months of Probation and one of the conditions was you weren't allowed to drink and also homeless at the time and I was still drinking and I got caught and I've reached my probation like three times the part where I had to go back to court and I was already working with Kevin and I was working with the Hope Mission and we were able to and I was able to defend myself in front of a judge saying I want to change my life around I want to show you that my life doesn't have to end at the bottom of a bottle and I want to show you that I can turn my life around
00:12:30so I can I was able to convince the judge that
00:12:36worthy of a second chance even though I violated the terms of my conditions three times
00:12:43and I was successful
00:12:46can I did exactly like I promise that judge I turn my life around and I started dancing
00:13:01Robert finally figured out something he wanted to fight for to keep something he had to stay sober to do I was walking through the main entrance of you can use services that moment in the coffee shop here in Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror started to crystallize into the beginning of something new for Robert and I see to the left of me assign winter winter talent show
00:13:31I got the information from one of the workers and they signed me up for the talent show is a wallet in 2 weeks so I got to do this you got till 2 weeks to do it okay
00:13:52so the talent show is going to be put on by the youth service center Robert was frequent thing he had never done anything like this before never even performed in front of an audience but Robert knew exactly what he wanted to be for the talent show
00:14:08Michael Jackson
00:14:13you got to work right away watching old Michael Jackson YouTube video studying his moves his energy he wanted to meet her exactly what Michael was doing and soon he was hooked I would be standing in front of my mirror I would have my hand on my on my belt on my belt loop and I'd be thrusting like Michael Jackson I'd be kicked my leg like Michael Jackson making sound effects like Robert learn to dance in his tiny 7 by 10 room at the shelter kicking spinning do I Power stances walking as much as a small space between his bed and the door with a lap
00:14:51becoming Michael Jackson wasn't just something to do it was transformative for Robert
00:14:57I was awestruck because as as he as Michael Jackson would say I'm a very shy guy and butt on stage he was he had this energy this ball of energy whenever he started dancing it made everyone notice it made everyone stare at him and forget everything else that was going on around them he made the audience focused on him and that's what was happening to me
00:15:31what he started when he put his hat on his head and he started the the opening routine for Billie Jean I was stuck in that moment because he's staring at 2 in the camera and it's kind of like he's staring at you personally and you just getting old into his into that energy and I watch that entire performance just clinging to my chair I'm calling my God beautiful thing I've ever seen
00:16:01as I'm sitting there
00:16:04watching the end of this video I know I have to fight I have to do exactly that
00:16:14there he is trying to become the closest version of Michael Jackson he can be but he still needs to cost you so he asked his case worker Kevin to give him a ride together a few supplies I had 13 days left and we we were able to without a quick outfit and a quick trip to Dollarama and I'm sitting in the passenger seat with Kevin and he's were going through Blazers and stuff like that Blazer we go to the front tail pay for all the stuff pay for the shoes that than the jeans and then I I Look to Kevin like can we go to Dollarama so I can see if they have any rhinestones and I think I bought
00:16:57all of their black and white rhinestones in their collection and they were like they're looking at me like what are the the cashiers like I think this is all are black and white rhinestone like yeah I'm creating a Michael Jackson outfit now it was time to get to work turning these Value Village Vines and Dollar Store rhinestones into the Michael Jackson costume of Roberts dream I'm sitting at the table sit there and I would look at my items like you have that shirt I thought the pants I got the jacket and I've got my glove that I found at Dollarama
00:17:35I'll get the check first because I was going to take the longest and that took me 4 to 6 hours to piece together a strip of black rhinestones and then I go to White rhinestones for shine and flat black white black white and it was just kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing and I just wanted to add more shine to it as I look back at it now as it the most silliest thing I've ever made but at that time it was the most beautiful thing I've ever made
00:18:04after was done on my great sister looks so cool I like having to have any hangers it's like yeah I think we have some in the back I'll grab you one but he comes back with a hanger and hang out and it's sparkly in my room it's really shady because it's on a hanger The Hanger is moving its sparkling back at me like all that looks so cool
00:18:28days and nights been dancing designing and preparing all the while the talent show is creepy closer
00:18:40the night of the show is finally here and Roberts feeling the pressure big cloud of Doubt because you're getting up I was getting up in front of 50 people 50-plus people that night
00:18:54and Michael Kay this could make or break rate like in an instant so you're waiting in line and in order it was a carpet actually kind of like the one we had were standing on right now
00:19:05and when they call your name your your nerves are shot
00:19:10and you don't hear you're buzzing and you're anxious you you're worried that you were going to laugh at you and find it weird and all these thoughts creep into your head
00:19:23and then when that. For that moment when I first place that had on my head
00:19:31I was in the moment and I was a little bit shaky cuz I was sitting at the time too and
00:19:39about admitted in all those lyrics disappeared and I just completely took over and like I described that ball of energy of Michael when I first watched them that came over me and I just became that ball of energy and I was spinning around I was standing on my toes and I was making the audience I was staring at feel like they're watching Michael Jackson perform
00:20:17this all started four years ago and for those for years Robert has been getting constant gigs as a Michael Jackson tribute artist he puts on his show for various Charities Roberts also made you mix time to travel to indigenous communities in the area to perform he also gets paid to perform at parties and he's happy his life's finally moving in a direction he's proud of
00:20:44I want to see in busking in Downtown Edmonton that's where we first met
00:20:50as I'm performing and I'm doing a song as I'm watching people walk by and see me and the reaction on people's faces are the best because they don't expect to come outside on a Monday afternoon and be like holy cow Michael Jackson is literally right in front of me
00:21:23but his health issues haven't gone away
00:21:25after so much chemo was a kid he still lives with chronic lung issues not long ago doctors told him his lungs were getting weaker and it's making it harder for him to dance I feel attacked your song and I hear the wind in in my breath as many people had can here and
00:21:47I shake my head and I kinda just so it's a little bit and I'm liking what I tell myself I kind of song do alright I'm putting on my next jacket go
00:21:57and then I'll just I'll just keep dancing
00:22:00he still makes all of his costumes and won't give up on any of the costume changes for his show Robertson have to keep going when I see the rhinestone Shine off the light and the reflecting this beautiful rainbow light color back Ray. You would it really brightens your soul so so now for me person whenever I look at my glove that I wear and it starts with the stone start reflecting light off of it and it gets really shiny and sparkly and it hits your eyes you just get stuck in a moment of beauty and Grace
00:22:38it reminds you of why you're still here in
00:22:44motivates you to keep going and keep going
00:22:53the dream is to keep doing what I'm doing keep telling people about my story be vulnerable with people let them know that even though
00:23:03I was the former homeless youth I was a former addict I am battling chronic lung conditions ice type still pursuing the dream of coming and speaking to you guys in performing as Michael Jackson who was the one that inspired me to change this all around
00:23:38the story is supposed to be over here man has health issues hits rock bottom but he find something that makes him want to keep going he gets better he's supposed to just keep getting better
00:23:53but that's not what happens
00:23:55I haven't seen Robert in awhile a couple of weeks ago I got a text from him asking for me to call
00:24:02he had something he wanted to tell me I just started to realize my my mortality than that my body has a limit and my body has been through the ringer you know my lungs to my face and my body are telling me that it's time and that you're more tired we can't keep up we can keep up with you. Keep up with your dream
00:24:36take it easy and start to heal
00:24:45just four years after starting his journey Robert has to retire his act recently doctors told him he had to just stop or my kill him
00:24:58his last show was in Edmonton on November 25th it's a staff Christmas party for 1500 people
00:25:10as Robert puts in his last hurrah
00:25:16what up with him after the show and even though he was obviously sad he was glowing
00:25:23he was wearing a Swanky black Michael Jackson military style jacket a band for Manitoba made for him
00:25:30there was a very well the crowd really enjoyed the performance
00:25:36and I myself really enjoyed getting up there one last time and just living the dream that I set up for myself for me it was when I ate when I stepped off that dated felt like I did it was my Vegas you know it was felt like I just finished a big show in Vegas in front of 1,500 people and
00:26:00you know I'm always going to remember that you know
00:26:37Robert lorendale that story was produced by tenero McLean it was edited by Julia pagal
00:26:47Robert's not sure yet what his next move is going to be but we're keeping in touch any updates we get about him will put those on our Facebook page that's facebook.com doc project CBC so you can follow Robert story there to see photos of Robert's costumes and videos of him dancing it is really uncanny head to our website at cbc.ca / doc project we also have a video of his final performance the one you just heard him talking about
00:27:34that's all for us this week the doc project is produced by Julia pagal Alison cook and myself Jennifer Warren is our senior producer
00:27:44I'm a zero thanks for listening
00:28:07for more CBC podcasts go to cbc.ca / podcasts

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