* Welcome to the 90th installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m listening.
From this seat, Tatiana Thumbtzen is exactly what The Quaz series is all about.
She’s a woman 98 of 100 Americans would recognize, yet one in 1,000 could probably name. She’s strutted across all of our TV screens multiple times in that slinky black dress, yet remains—in a sense—out of focus. This is not uncommon for models, who oftentimes go seen, but unnamed. Yet Tatiana, the female star of Jackson’s iconic video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” is different. She played a key role in Spike Lee’s excellent documentary on Jackson’s “Bad” album, and came across as smart, insightful and knowledgeable. Tatiana clearly has strong feelings toward Jackson, a man she admired and loved and remains attached to.
Here, she speaks of Michael Jackson’s influence on her life; on why she decided to write two books on the man, and how she came to (gasp!) kiss him on stage. One can visit Tatiana’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Hey pretty baby with the high heels on, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: You were 27 in 1987 when you were cast as Michael Jackson’s love interest in the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” How did this happen? Like, how did you get the job? And what do you recall of the process?
TATIANA THUMBTZEN: I was sent out on an audition for it, through my agency. I did a run-through with the casting agent, Leland. While he held the camera in hand, Michael made his selection from viewing the tapes. It was said that more than 200 girls auditioned for the part. And from what one of the writers of the video would tell me, Michael’s comment after seeing me was, “She’s the one! The rest are extras!”
J.P.: You’ve written two books about your relationship with Michael Jackson—“The Way He Made Me Feel” in 2005 and “Michael &Tatiana: The King of My Heart” in 2011. I ask this with all due respect—why? What I mean is, aren’t relationships between two people best kept between the two people? What was your thinking when it came to sitting down and putting your time with Michael on paper? And, ultimately, was it worth it?
T.T.: I guess one could assume, that I would be sharing private and intimate details Of my life with Michael Jackson. Because, of its title. But it doesn’t! Neither book does. I named my first book: “The Way He Made Feel,” Because I thought it was not only a great and catchy title, But it would remind the reader of who I am.
And I consider both books more of an autobiography. It takes the reader on a journey of my life—From my very beginnings as a little girl To living in Hollywood. As for it being worth it? Yes! It helped me a great deal mentally. I endured much heartache and emotional pain. So it was extremely cathartic. I believe that if I hadn’t chosen to write a book, I might have committed suicide. It was certainly always in my thoughts at that time. I think everyone should write a book. The only downfall was having it stolen from me. But that’s another story, and book! (lol)
One of my main reasons for writing it Was to get beyond all that I had endured. But also to share with fans what my experiences where like in Hollywood. For years I had been bombarded with questions. And for me, here was the answer! Write a book for the fans! In the hopes that I could “move on.” Because, in my reality, sometimes it’s people who don’t allow you to move on.
J.P.: I must admit, I haven’t read “The Way He Made Me Feel.” One of the reviewers I found wrote this—“Though she professes otherwise, it’s clear that she hasn’t moved on from Michael Jackson and her life continues to be defined by him.” I’m wondering if, in a sense, it’s true; that the singular video appearance made such an impact on your life that it was hard to move beyond? Or is that ludicrous?
T.T.: Ludicrous. Because I define myself as one of God’s children. Period! No matter what! To the public and fans, I’ll always be “The Girl From the Michael Jackson Video.” Until the day I leave this planet earth. Even though I’ve done other things in my life and worked with other great artists. People will always connect me to him and that video.
J.P.: How did you get here? What I mean is, I know you were born in 1960, that you attended Julliard. But what led you to modeling and acting? When/how did you know it was what you wanted with your life?
T.T.: I was discovered by the famed fashion photographer, Barry Lategan. He was the photographer responsible for discovering Twiggy in the early 60s. He discovered me while I was in ballet class one day. That’s when my interest for modeling grew. I then met the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. Antonio taught me a lot about the fashion world. He was my Svengali. I signed on with Ford agency. And after one week they dropped me because, from what my agent said, they stated, “We don’t know how to sell you! You’re not black, but you’re not white.” The day they dropped me the Zoli Agency signed me and their comment was, “Ford’s loss is our gain.” After they signed me I started to work. I even signed a contract to model in Japan. I lived and worked as a model in Japan for the next five years. I love Japan and Japanese people. It’s one of the most beautiful cultures and places to visit. Sometimes I really miss it. I dream of visiting again some day in the future.
J.P.: I know you’ve been asked this 100,000 times, so I apologize. But what made you kiss Jackson on stage, during a concert performance in 1988, when you’d been told a bunch of times not to? And is it fair to say that’s why you got fired from the Bad Tour and replaced by, oddly, a big-haired Sheryl Crow?
T.T.: Michael and I had spoken before the show. And we actually agreed on the kiss! No one else was privy to this but us. I think that made some not only jealous but angry … that we shared something private. However, I’ve never allowed myself to seriously think about how our lives could have been different or even better if his professional camp hadn’t intervened. Many fans have uttered this sentiment to me. A lot!
J.P.: Where were you when you found out that Michael Jackson had died? How did you feel? What was your reaction? And how often, these days, does he enter your head?
T.T.: I was at work. It was my girlfriend, Iris Parker, who called to tell me the news. I felt sick and just couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was awful. I went into a shock, basically. I felt numb—as if I were floating. I never felt my motions. It was if … my spirit left my body. Because I didn’t want to feel my pain.
And once I got home, I kept turning the channel to the TV, as if I didn’t believe the news reports. After it soaked in—that this is real and not just a bad dream—all I wanted to do was sleep. I slept and cried for days after.
J.P.: You are, according to Wikipedia, of “black, Cherokee Indian, Cuban and Irish heritage.” The world is a pretty open place now, but I’m wondering, when you were trying to break in, whether your multiple ethnicity’s helped or hurt you land gigs?
T.T.: I’m a mixture of, Black-Cherokee Indian and Anglo Cuban. The Irish blood was my adopted father, Mr. Thumbtzen.
J.P.: I read a quote the other day from an 82-year-old man. He said, “Mother Nature made me pretty, but father time beat the crap out of me.” You’re 52, and still gorgeous. A. What’s your secret? B. What is it like, as a person who’s used her looks to forge a career, to see Father Time creep in? What I mean is, even the most beautiful among us get wrinkles, gray hairs, etc. Do you think, for models, that’s especially troubling?
T.T.: I’ll admit—I’m blessed. God’s been kind to me. Fans are always telling me that I look, more like I’m in my 30s. It’s honestly not something that I put a lot of thought or concern into. But I’m grateful for the compliments. I, however, was one of those kids who thought that wrinkles were something of great and natural beauty. Guess I’m weird that way. I’ll never be one of those women searching for the fountain of youth. Because surgery is not my thing! I’ll take growing old and wrinkled any day. I will say this—menopause sucks. As for the modeling industry, they should embrace models of all types. Because that’s what the real world is made up of. And they are catering to the public. And beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
J.P.: You appeared in the opening credits of the hit TV show “A Different World” Uh … please explain, Tatiana. How did that happen?
T.T.: Debbie Allen contacted me through the comedian, Sinbad. And when I spoke with Debbie she expressed an interest in working with me. I was so excited about working with Debbie Allen.
J.P.: I would love for you, if possible, to explain Michael Jackson. For many of us, he was part genius, part, well, really weird and odd dude. He seemed really lonely, really shy—but so insanely gifted. What don’t we know, Tatiana? What are we missing?
T.T.: There was nothing weird about him. Not to me. He was a genius and people always seem to trash what they don’t comprehend. Or relate to. In my opinion, when one is that genius and talented, there’s always a lot of envy and jealousy that will follow. He was gifted in so many ways. And I think that, sometimes, people found that threatening. What I think people are missing, even now, is his message. There was a message of love that he left behind. A message of how we can change as people. To be better! To be more compassionate! To be more forgiving! To be more considerate! Just to be better as people. I think that’s what people are missing. His message of true love.
• Five favorite Michael Jackson songs: Wow. I really couldn’t name that many. I don’t listen to his music anymore. It’s hard for me to listen to music from that era—the 80s. But from the Bad LP, I liked:
Some of my real favorites, were when he was with his brothers. The Jackson 5. And my all-time favorite is “I’ll Be There.” The truth is, The day Mike died, so did music for me. I don’t even listen to music any longer at home. The only time I hear it is when I’m out or at work.
• What ever became of the black dress?: I gave it to a charity. I’m not one to hold onto a material item. Especially if it can be useful in helping someone in need.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes! I was living in Japan at that time. I believe the year was 1983. And I was traveling back from Manila to Tokyo. We hit an extremely deep air pocket, without any notice. I actually hit my head as I flew up and out of my seat. Trays were falling and flying everywhere as people screamed. It’s the very reason why I hate flying to this day.
• Ten years ago you appeared in a movie, “Sweet Perfection,” with Catero Colbert and Liza Cruzat. I can find no reviews, and it’s not on IMDB. Uh, what happened?: No clue about that one, son! (lol)
• You played “Sexy Girl” on an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Memories of the experience? And did they provide you with one of those TV Star on-set chairs that said SEXY GIRL on the back?: Nope.
• Five reasons to make Clearwater, Florida his/her next vacation destination?: 1 Because it’s beautiful. I love Clearwater Beach; 2. The sand is the most beautiful soft and white sand ever; 3. The water is clear and clean; 4. Floridians are kind and friendly people; 5. Because I’m here (tee-heee-hee-hee).
• We were both born on April 22. What does that tell the world about us?: That we are determined, diligent, romantic, artistic, creative, sensitive, loving.
• Please list every thinkable way Thumbtzen has been misspelled in your life: Thumpsen, Thumbalin, Thompson, Thumzen, Tompsen. Too many to think of, really.
• I’m thinking the Braves overpaid for B.J. Upton. Agree?: Who’s that?
• Three pieces of advice you’d give a young aspiring model: Know that it’s a serious business—educate yourself about it first. Have a good support system. Above all, don’t just trust someone at face value. In fact, don’t trust anyone. Always watch your back.
Oh, I’d like to also add to always keep The Lord Jesus Christ first. And God will see you through anything. Believe in yourself and know that at any age dreams can still come true. Because at 52, I had one of my dreams come true, by working with Spike Lee.