The video: “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson.
The girl-now-woman: Kelley Parker.
How old were you when you appeared in the “Smooth Criminal” video?
We filmed the “Smooth Criminal” video for over one month and then the rest of the film for about eight months. I was 10-11 years old when we shot the film, and 12 when it finally came out. We had such an extended time filming because we kept adding to the script. It was just going to be an extended video, and then it grew to be a full-length feature, and finally ended up somewhere in between at about 40 minutes.
Where were you living at the time?
I was living in Huntington Beach with my family.
What music videos, shows, or movies had you appeared in prior to that?
I was a working actress at the time. I had been on Highway to Heaven, Superior Court, multiple national commercials.
How were you cast?
I had auditioned and then heard nothing back for over six months, so I assumed that someone else had been cast. I found out later that they had done a nationwide casting and that was why it took so long before getting the call for the callback. After that, I had to come in for a screen test with some of the boy actors that were up for the Zeke role.
The look that I have in the video, tomboy with the messy braids, was exactly how I went in for the audition. I was never a girly-girl, and it was sort of my niche that set me apart from at the other girls. I was a toughie, always wanting to be one of the boys. I think that is maybe what caught Michael’s eye. I was fairly raw, not very polished. I remember being in hair and makeup and they were putting two other girls into braids and putting freckles on them. I remember being upset that they were all being made up to look like me! Now I see what a compliment that was.
Do you remember what your reaction was when you were cast?
I was not really all that excited about it. When Thriller came out I was only five years old. So [while I knew Michael’s music,] I was not a fan and really had no concept of who he was! Honestly that probably is part of the reason why I got [the part]—I was so instantly at ease around him because I did not seem him as the megastar that he was. I saw him just as a fellow actor. Gotta love kids!
Where was the video filmed?
We shot the video, which was originally called “Chicago Nights,” on the Culver soundstages. Then for the film we moved over to Universal backlot and soundstages. We shot all the outside field shots at a ranch north of Los Angeles called Disney Ranch.
How did you feel making the video?
It was the most incredible experience of my life! Without a doubt, it changed the course of my life. Michael and I became great friends. He was always pushing me to be better and teaching me about the artistic process. To have someone of his creative genius take the time to teach you at the age of 10 is like getting the winning lotto ticket, and I have always known how fortunate I was to have had that experience. Michael never once treated me as a kid, always as an equal, and as a professional. I imagine it was because he was in the business as a kid so he knew what it felt like to be on set with huge expectations for you to deliver a performance. The pressure is the same whether you are an adult or a kid, and Michael always respected that.
What was the hardest part of the shoot?
I don’t remember any hard parts of the shoot, but I was once sent to the emergency room for an accident that occurred. It was the scene in the caves when Mr. Big (Joe Pesci) pushes me to the ground. One time he pushed a bit harder and I tripped as I fell backwards and was not able to catch myself. I landed on the big mic pack on my spine. I went down hard! Michael was so concerned about me. It was really sweet.
How was it to work with Michael Jackson? What was he like?
Michael was the kindest man I have ever met. I was so lucky to have not just worked with him, but worked with him for months and [go on to be] friends with him for years. He took the time to really get to know me. He was lighting in a bottle; the air was different when he was around. It’s hard to explain, but you could feel him before you saw him.
He was also so much fun on set, pulling pranks and laughing with us. The best example was when we had been filming out at the ranch, and they had been long, hard days in the sun, and I was doing the last shot of the day. I had thought that we were done for the day, and the director said he needed another take. I could see something moving in the reflection of the camera lens; I looked back to see Michael, Sean, and Brandon running at me with water guns and water balloons. They soaked me!
Then there was the first time I walked on the set and saw Michael dancing. My jaw literally dropped. The power he had as a performer was truly one-of-a-kind, and the electricity in the room was overwhelming.
What did you think of the video?
I loved it, and still do. It really is one of the all-time best videos. It has absolutely stood the test of time.
What did your parents think of it?
My parents were proud of me.
What did your friends think of it?
I’m not sure how impressed my friends were at the time, but since then it has definitely given me cool factor points! When it first came out I was working a lot so many of my closest friends were also in the business, and thus they were probably less impressed than the average kids. It was actually many years later when I realized the affect that the film and video had on people.
“Smooth Criminal” and the longer film were part of Moonwalker. It was supposed to be released in theaters in the US, but for legal reasons, it never was. Many kids my age and younger had the Moonwalker DVD and would play it over and over. Since it was family-friendly, there is a whole generation that was raised on the DVD, kids who probably never saw the actual video on MTV until years later.
When you were of dating age, did the video ever affect your love life in any way?
It had no effect on my love life when I was younger, and as I got older I would not tell people until after they knew me fairly well. I always tried to keep my friendship with Michael private; I was never one to exploit that for my own personal gain. Once a guy would find out, it usually would gain me a few points; many of them had crushes on me growing up.
Did you receive fan mail? If so, do you still have any of it?
I did get a few letters. They are in some box at my parents’ house.
Did the video generate any controversy that you know of?
I was not aware of any controversy surrounding the video.
What were you paid?
I believe I was paid a SAG daily rate. Originally I was supposed to work for only about a month, but it ended up being so much more than that. They ended up making a lot of merchandise that I was also in: picture books, coloring books, video and arcade games, posters.
Did you watch the MTV World Premiere of the video, and if so, where and how did that feel?
We had a big screening for the film that I went to. It was really fun to see all the videos on the big screen. I did also watch the premiere on MTV. I remember being with my family at home and getting to stay up past my bedtime to watch it. It was surreal to see it, and it was great because then I had an excuse to watch MTV!
Were you ever recognized in public? How often and when last? Any stories about that?
I was never recognized in public except when I was with Michael. When I was in public with him, people would say “You’re the little girl from the video!” It was always fun to be recognized. When people find out today, it is always fun to watch their faces because I see them scan my face for a moment and then the usual response is “You look the same!”
Did you appear in other music videos after that?
Years later, as an adult, I did several videos as a dancer and actress.
If you went to college, where and what did you study?
I studied business and film in school, graduating from CSUN after many years of stopping and starting the process. It was hard for me to get through it in one four-year stretch because I was still working in the entertainment business and would book tours that would take me out of the country for extended periods of time. As I got older the teachers began to trust me more; as long as I was able to get things done and do well on tests, they were willing to work with my crazy schedule. I never gave up on it because it was something that I wanted to accomplish for myself.
What are you doing these days?
I am still in the entertainment business, though these days mostly behind the scenes. I am lucky—because of my varied background I get to work in both live and filmed entertainment. I am a producer for television, a choreographer, and an associate director for large-scale live shows. I love my life; it never feels like work because I love what I do. I started working on the creative behind-the-scenes side of things early in my twenties because I had already been performing for so long, and I was looking to express myself more fully as a creative mind. I owe a lot of that to Michael; the confidence in my own creative and artistic thought came from the time I spent with him.
I recently finished working with Kenny Ortega, who, of course, directed for Michael for many years, and he and I would have great conversations about Michael. It was nice to reminisce with someone else who knew Michael the person and friend, not just Michael the star.
Where do you live?
What did you think when you first heard from me?
I was excited to talk about this very special moment in my life. As I have mentioned, I have always stayed very quiet about times with Michael, but it is nice to have the opportunity to tell people what it was like to be there when this iconic video was made. So many incredible memories of the late-night shoots, hanging with the dancers on set, and watching the process and evolution of the work. I had been dancing since I was three years old and on the mornings I could I would [join] the dancers’ warm-up with the choreographer, Vincent Paterson. They were the most incredible dancers. That cast had such a strong bond and you can feel it when you watch the video; they were like family.
Has anyone else ever interviewed you about this? If so, who, when, and for what publication?
A few years ago I did do a panel in Las Vegas for a screening of the film and video, and a few other interviews here and there over the years.
Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you?
I never have been asked; might consider it depending on the circumstances. There is so much love surrounding Michael and I know how much the video and film meant to so many people.
Did you stay in touch with Michael? If so, how often?
Michael and I remained friends for years.
When was the last time you were in touch with him, and what was that conversation about?
I saw Michael a couple weeks before he passed. [Before that,] I had not seen him in years. I am so happy that I was able to say hello to him and look in his eyes one last time.
How did that come about? Did he call you, you call him, someone email you? Where did you see him?
I work as a choreographer now and have done many shows and a couple films for Disney. He came to one of the shows a couple weeks before he died and I happened to be there that day. He did not know I would be there. It was brief, but I did get the opportunity to see him, and for that, I will be forever thankful.
How and where did you learn Michael died? How did the news affect you?
I was in a rehearsal when the news came that Michael had been rushed to the hospital. I found out in a text from my brother Eric, who had spent much time with me on the set when I was working with Michael.
When I heard he had passed, my mind went blank and my eyes filled with tears. The first person that put [a] hand on me, I collapsed in shock. It was surreal, to say the least, and I was just so sad because he still had so much to give. But thankfully his legacy will always live on, and there was such beauty, love, and outpouring following his death. I think he is looking down from somewhere else and smiling. We were so lucky to have had him here for the time that we did, and he accomplished what was so close to his heart—for people to love one another, to feel joy in their lives, and to believe in magic. And anywhere you go in the world, when his music comes on, that is exactly what happens…people dance, sing, smile, and their spirits are lifted. What a beautiful gift he gave us.
What is your take on the allegations made against Michael Jackson by families of children he befriended?
I can’t speak about nor judge anybody else’s relationship or experience with Michael because I was not there with them. All I can do is say that in all the time I spent with him, he was nothing but the most caring and gentle human being. He was always like a father looking out for me. I spent time with him at his ranch, Neverland, and always had so much fun with him.
I know that people don’t understand why Michael always had kids around, and as an adult I can see why that may look unusual. But all you have to do is look at any kids you know and the fact that they have no filter; they are just honest. Now put yourself in Michael’s shoes: surrounded all day by people who constantly filter what they say to you. How refreshing the honesty [of children] would be.
Michael was always questioning me so that I would grow in my reasoning. We would dream out loud together, make up stories together, and be creative in so many ways. I think he was maybe trying to be for me what he had hoped someone would have done for him as a kid in the industry.
He was the kindest man with the most generous heart. From my experience with him, I can’t imagine that he would harm anyone.
Lastly, were you Annie?
Nope, I was not Annie. I was just “Katy.” :-) We never knew who “Annie” was.
Tweet about this interview to @michaeljackson and @Kellie_Parker!
Copy and tweet to help me find more 1980s music video girls:
Real research question: if you know the Annie Hubbard who was in 1984 Night Ranger video “Sister Christian,” pls contact @MarcTNobleman
Real research question: if you know the woman—even just her name—in 1986 Cinderella video “Shake Me,” pls contact @MarcTNobleman
Real research question: if you know woman—even just her name—in ‘87 Richard Marx video “Should’ve Known Better,” pls contact @MarcTNobleman
Next: Tom Petty, “Free Fallin’” (1989).