Maturation. Self-actualization. Identity. Psychologists offer ample terms to describe leaving childhood and becoming a free-thinking adult. Leon Franklin Bean III, 28, of Baltimore, had more than his share of obstacles doing so.
Small and sensitive, he was bullied a lot. Other kids called him Four-Eyes for the glasses he wore. He grew apart from friends and, later, lost one of his closest in a senseless murder. Bean withdrew into himself and felt alone. Who could have guessed he would transcend his troubles by studying, emulating - and ultimately inhabiting - the King of Pop?
Bean's life as a Michael Jackson impersonator lasted five years - from 1988 to 1993 - and he did his moonwalking routines at private parties or benefit affairs. Never earned a dime, he says. But his act forms one of the strongest themes in his life, not to mention his first book, Earning My Wings, a memoir he self-published in September.
"The book is not for only me, it's for the readers," he says. "I hope they find some comfort in my story."
It was Christmas season 1983, and little Leon was 9. He remembers being in the back of the classroom listening to his favorite Christmas carols when he spotted an album called Christmas With the Jackson 5. He cued it up. The harmony of the band's vocals struck him; lead singer Michael in particular caught his ear. The music made him want to sing. He did - to himself, as quietly as he could. It still triggered the mockery he was used to.
"Is that you singing?" hollered a classmate. "Hey, everybody, Four-Eyes is trying to sing!"
"It's the record, not me," mumbled Leon, who hurried to his desk. But by the time he got home that day, he couldn't wait to tell his mother about the fabulous record he'd heard in the classroom.
When Christmas Day arrived, a square, thin package lay beneath the tree. He tore the wrapping off. It was the very record he'd heard at school. "It was the happiest day of my life," Leon says. "I played it over and over, all day, every day. I sang Christmas carols all the way through August. I must have driven everybody crazy."
An ardent Christian, Bean believes few events happen by coincidence, and seven years later, he won two tickets to an opening-night Michael Jackson concert in Washington. Leon had a girlfriend at the time, but in her stead he took the woman who had given him that first LP - "the woman I love the most," he says - his mother.
The "energy personified" he saw in Jackson that night nearly floored him. "He [sees] himself as a pure instrument of nature, vocally and physically. His grace [was] uncanny, his poise as still as the summer night. He emotionally overwhelms you just at the sight of him."
Bean now had not just a hero, but, in a way that surprised him, a role model. The performance helped him realize something his very traditional family had not taught over the dinner table - that masculine and feminine qualities can coexist.
"Society," says Bean, "teaches that when a man does the slightest thing that isn't `masculine,' he is stamped with a negative label, and that's not fair. What you feel inside your heart should strongly overcome the rhetoric."
Maybe that's why, for Leon Franklin Bean, Jackson "became a driving force in my life for the next 14 years."
Bean, who cops to a lifelong addiction to attention, was always different. He kept to himself and daydreamed. What friends he had were usually girls. And he had unusual taste in clothes.
Once, at age 15, Bean spotted a pair of cowboy boots in a Baltimore store. They were black suede with steel tips and silver spurs. Although his grandfather, a former Buffalo Soldier, was in many ways a distant, statesmanlike man, Leon guessed somehow that granddad might be the softest touch in the family. He asked "Pop" for those boots - then a staple in Jackson's wardrobe - for his 16th birthday.
"Without hesitation, he got them for me," says Bean, who was so happy with the footwear he did cartwheels and skipped around the house. He wore them not just in his neighborhood of Windsor Hills near Leakin Park - but also in the halls of his all-black high school, Forest Park High. "[The other students] were truly not ready for them," says Bean, a round-faced man who exudes a beatific sense of calm.
Sure enough, the first time he wore them to school, other students picked on him right away. "Little Leon in his little boots!" they cried. He fought back tears. But he kept on wearing them. "I've always been attracted to things that aren't considered `normal,' " says Bean. The boots made him distinct, different - and, he found, a little more himself.
"There was a time in my life when I didn't know who I was or what I wanted to be," Bean writes in Earning My Wings. "I was ethnically lost, insecure, unaware of society's impression of me [or] what my impression of myself should be. ... I had no idea who I was."
For Bean, Michael Jackson helped settle the matter. When he won those tickets and saw the superstar perform, he felt it personally.