The Doc Project

How Michael Jackson helped this homeless man get his life back

At 20, living on the streets with a drinking problem, Robert L'Hirondelle was spinning out of control. Until he moonwalked his way into a new life.
Robert L'Hirondelle, in full Michael Jackson form. (Tanara McLean, CBC)

This story originally aired on December 5, 2017. 

By Tanara McLean

In the middle of Edmonton, in the square across from city hall, it's not unusual to see Michael Jackson busking for money.

The black-rimmed hat, sparkly silver glove, white socks and black penny loafers — and, above all else, the dance moves. He exudes M.J. from head to toe.

[Keep scrolling down for video.]

(Ben Shannon | CBC)
It's not the real Michael Jackson, of course, but a lookalike that could have anyone convinced. The performer's name is Robert L'Hirondelle. A spindly, shy, but quietly confident 24-year-old.

"People walk by and I see the reaction on people's faces, [it's] quite honestly 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,'" says Robert.

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!'- Robert L'Hirondelle

Robert performs with a clear determination, a conviction shaped by all of the hardships he's endured during his young life. "I was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two and I battled it to the age of four, [and] I was re-diagnosed with leukemia for a second time in 2000 at the age of seven," he says.

Robert L'Hirondelle in two Michael Jackson looks. (Courtesy of Robert L'Hirondelle)
Leukemia came back for Robert a third time when he was 13, and hit him hard. After two stem cell transplants, his body started to reject the treatment, making him very ill and homebound for a year.

This difficult childhood left its mark. As a teenager, Robert started drinking heavily, couch-surfing at friends' houses. Eventually, he ended up on the street.

Robert L'Hirondelle, who is Métis, makes a point of performing for Indigenous communities. (Courtesy of Robert L'Hirondelle)
But change was coming, when Robert found something he loved. Something he would fight to stay sober to keep. 

Robert was sitting in a coffee shop in Edmonton in 2013 when Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" came on the radio. "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 in my head, and then I got up and I went to the bathroom. I was looking at myself in the mirror and I broke down because I did not like what I saw," said L'Hirondelle.

I was thinking about that line, to take a look at yourself and make a change.- Robert L'Hirondelle

It wasn't immediate, but that desire to change eventually took hold. Robert got help, support and a roof over his head at the Hope Mission in Edmonton. Then one day he saw a flyer for a talent show at the youth service centre he frequented.

The idea quickly came to him: he had to enter the show as Michael Jackson. But he didn't know how to dance, and he didn't have a costume. He set to work carefully studying Michael Jackson YouTube videos and hand-making a sequined costume... all from his seven-by-ten-foot room at the shelter.   

Robert L'Hirondelle as Michael Jackson. (Tanara McLean)
Three weeks later, it was time to test out his new act. Robert was an immediate hit.  

That debut at the talent show kicked off a four-year run as Edmonton's only Métis Michael Jackson tribute artist. Robert has toured all over Western Canada performing for charities and schools, as well as doing paid gigs.

But, just as his performing career is taking off, his health is forcing him to hang up his dancing shoes. In early November, doctors said his lungs are becoming weaker due to a chronic lung disease he picked up while fighting his leukemia. "I just started to realize my mortality and that my body has a limit, because it's been through the wringer," he says. "My lungs, my body are telling me that it's time, and we're tired we can't keep up with you. We can't keep up with your dream… and it's time for you to slow down. It's time for you to take it easy and start to heal, so to speak."

The outfit Robert L'Hirondelle made for his first-ever performance as Michael Jackson, with materials from Value Village and Dollarama. (Courtesy of Robert L'Hirondelle.)

Robert's last performance was for 1,500 people at a staff Christmas party in Edmonton at the end of November. Despite being sad that it's over, he considers it a perfect cap on his short career. "When I stepped off of that stage it felt like it was my Vegas," Robert says."It felt like I just finished a big show in Vegas in front of 1,500 people. And, you know, I'm always going to remember that."

UPDATE: Since this story was originally published and broadcast on December 5, 2017, Robert has decided to continue performing, despite his health issues. His first performance is on April 29, 2018 as part of the annual Edmonton Kidney Walk.  

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About the producer

Tanara McLean
Tanara McLean has been a journalist in Alberta since 2007, working as a TV reporter, print journalist, and TV morning show host. She enjoys telling stories through her journalism, and believes fully that people's personal stories are the heart of great journalism. Tanara is currently an associate radio producer at CBC Edmonton. Her first story with The Doc Project was 'I've been dealing with Megans my whole life' — real talk on being a young black woman in Canada.

This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.