I have memories of dancing around my house to his music. There’s video of me somewhere lip-synching “Beat It” when I was probably seven, with a flashlight on my face. The first time I saw the “Thriller” video, I was so excited. I have such a fascination with Halloween and he was tapping into the whole Halloween zombie vibe. For one Halloween I had to be a werewolf. I remember going to Disneyland to see Captain Eo, which was the coolest thing in the world. His imagination was leaps and bounds beyond most of the other artists around. A lot of kids of my generation really connected with him because he was so magical in that way. He was like a big kid in the way he wanted to play dress up and create.
“Rock With You” was my first audition song [for American Idol]. It’s cool, it’s dancey, it has a great vocal, it’s really dynamic in the range. I had actually never performed a Michael Jackson song before. Paula was really grooving out to it. When we had to do our Michael Jackson show this year, I was thinking, “What song should I choose?” They’re all so good. It was either “Black or White” or “Thriller,” but I wanted to make more of a statement the first time out, and “Black or White” comments on culture and racial harmony in a very eloquent way. It also means a lot of other things. To me, personally, it was it doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay, either. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. I loved the sentiment there. What was really cool about Michael is that he straddled a really fine line of race and sexuality. There was something very androgynous about him, and very race neutral. People criticized him for lightening his skin or whatever, but he was like his own race. A lot of people saw it as bad, but it was kind of fascinating. And very original.
For the Idol finale, we were rehearsing at his space in Burbank and so were the Michael Jackson dancers. And I happen to know their choreographer, and he pulled me over into the rehearsal space and I watched a number. They were rehearsing “Jam,” and it looked incredible. The dancers were amazing. I was really excited for Michael: I thought, good, he’s got a chance to do a comeback. I was told he was really interested in meeting me and I’m really disappointed that we never made it happen.
We were in the middle of rehearsing the tour when we heard the sad news. I was singing “Whole Lotta Love” and Lil Rounds ran into the room and whispered something into the producer’s ear. And we were all like, “What’s going on?” I kept singing and looked over at them with a confused look on my face and one of the producers mouthed to me, “Michael Jackson just died.” I went, “What?” and stopped singing. Everybody just stopped. We canceled rehearsals for the rest of the day. No one could really believe it. He affected us through entertainment. What he was capable of as a showman, and what he brought to the world, outshone any controversy.