Four years ago, Robert L’Hirondelle was at a pivotal point in his life when an iconic song struck a chord with him, turning his world around.
“I moved out when I was 16, but everything started to spiral out of control at the age of 20,” L’Hirondelle said.
He was sitting in a coffee shop downtown after breaking his probation for a third time. He was homeless and had been caught drinking in the Stanley Milner Library.
“I heard ‘Man in the Mirror’ playing overhead on the radio and it was just right at that line when Michael’s like, ‘Take a look at yourself and make a change.’ That one line just clicked within me,” he said.
The change was nearly instantaneous.
“After I finished my coffee I went to the bathroom and physically took a look at the man in the mirror and I just did not like what I saw,” L’Hirondelle said. “It was a beaten down, rugged young man who should be exploring life’s many wonders and opportunities, but here I am choosing this high risk lifestyle of drinking and living on the street and putting my own personal health at risk.”
He went to the Hope Mission and asked for help turning his life around. There, he found out his caseworker also liked Michael Jackson, and they bonded over his music.
Not long after, he saw a poster advertising a Christmas talent show for a program he was involved in. It was in two weeks, but that didn’t deter L’Hirondelle.
“We go to Value Village and I buy a black dress shirt that looks like of like a blazer, and then we go to Dollarama and we buy all their black and white rhinestones.”
He dove in headfirst, bedazzling his own costume and memorizing Jackson’s moves off YouTube videos in the confines of his small room at the Hope Mission. The practice paid off.
Since then, he hasn’t stopped. He’s performed more than 100 shows across the prairies. Being Metis, he takes pride in performing for First Nations groups.
“To get a chance to go visit other communities that may not be able to get the opportunity to see a Michael Jackson impersonator show means the world to them, and it still does. I still get messages saying, ‘Hey are you going to come back to Fox Lake?'”
L’Hirondelle said it’s been humbling and rewarding work.
L’Hirondelle overcame Leukemia three times as a child and had two stem cell transplants. It severely damaged his lungs. And his health took a turn for the worse a few weeks ago.
He was scheduled to perform in front of 1,500 people at the PCL Christmas party at the Shaw Conference Centre, and he wasn’t going to disappoint.
“You could feel the throbbing pain in your right lung from the collapse, and then having pneumonia in your left lung, but you’re trying your hardest,” he said.
To him, it was like performing in Las Vegas.
“Just make it special for them and create memories for them and have them say, ‘Wow, I met a guy here in Edmonton that dances and sounds just like Michael Jackson, and it was the coolest thing ever!'”
As a child, L’Hirondelle was diagnosed with leukemia three times, at ages two, seven and 13.
In the end, he needed two stem cell transplants to beat the cancer, but it severely damaged his lungs.
Ten years after his cancer went into remission, he was forced to make a choice.
“To keep going, and be selfish, and put my body on the line, just for one more show, or do I start taking care of things that are important? Like my health.”
He chose his health, and hung up his costumes. He hopes to be healthy enough to perform again one day.
On Wednesday, he has a pivotal appointment with his lung doctor, to determine what his future will look like.
But at 24, he now likes the man he sees in the mirror, and credits Michael Jackson with giving him a fourth shot at life.
“He helped me learn how to be grateful for opportunities, be humble, to give back, to make the world a better place in any way you possibly can.”