Published: 05:00, 17 January 2022
| Updated: 15:58, 17 January 2022
One of Britain's top Michael Jackson tribute acts, Ben Bowman, is about to embark on a new tour of the UK with his live band and dancers.
As he prepares to hit the road, he reveals exclusively to reporter John Nurden how, like his idol, he had to drug himself every night to mask agonising pain so he could dance for his fans. And he tells of the terrifying night he almost died after a show at Margate's Winter Gardens.
Ben Bowman has come a long way since he began dancing to Michael Jackson songs at his youth club in Sheerness as a teenager.
At the age of 35 he has turned himself into one of Britain's top tribute acts to the King of Pop, singing live and touring with a full band and a troupe of professional dancers. But for years he hid a terrible secret from his fans.
Unknown to audiences, the Sheppey-born performer now living in Deal was pumping his body full of powerful drugs every night to mask the excruciating pain of a crumbling hip.
If that was not enough, the singer's world was rocked when a stomach ulcer burst while he was on stage at Margate's Winter Gardens, sending him to hospital and forcing him to postpone a tour. "I thought I was going to die," he admitted.
Now, as he prepares for a 13-date tour which will include a return to Thanet on Friday, January 28, and Maidstone's Hazlitt Theatre on April 21, he reveals the truth about the pain of being Michael and how he had to learn to dance again with a new hip. He confessed: "I've never told this story to anyone before."
At 16 Ben, who has always refused to comment on allegations about his idol's relationships, was diagnosed with reactive arthritis after his knee swelled up.
He said: "Doctors told me it would go down and never come back. But years later, in my early 20s and after I'd started performing as Michael professionally, both my knees and my right hip blew up. It was so painful that I needed two walking sticks. It got really bad."
He was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis but drugs kept it at bay for five years.
Ben said: "Then, at 25, I noticed a twinge in my right hip. A year later I had to see a specialist who diagnosed severe osteoarthritis. The hip had ground itself right down. There was no cartilage left. It was bone on bone."
An osteopath recommended a hip replacement but surgeons insisted he was too young. So he continued performing up to 100 shows a year in chronic pain and taking pain-relief every day. At one stage he became hooked on the morphine-based opioid Tramadol.
"I was acting like an addict," he said. "When I didn't take it I was having withdrawal symptoms. I was having nightmares, hot sweats and suffering from paranoia. I knew I had to wean myself off it and went back to paracetamol and ibuprofen."
It came to a head at a show at Margate's Winter Gardens to mark the start of his 2014 tour.
Ben recalled: "I had a duodenal ulcer which burst moments after I stepped off stage. What began as a few cramps ended with me not being able to walk at the end of the evening. As we were packing our gear into the van my bass-player asked if I was OK and I said I didn't think I was.
"Initially, I thought I was having a heart attack as the pain in my stomach had moved up into my shoulder. I thought I'd overdone it with five days of rehearsal preparing for the tour."
An ambulance crew was called but the pain was put down to an abdominal strain.
Ben said: "I'd been in chronic pain for years so I decided to go home to Westgate to sleep it off and hoped it would be fine for the following night's gig. I'd been through worse. But I didn't get a minute's sleep and the next morning I collapsed."
This time, paramedics learned he had been taking anti-inflammatories and pain killers for six years and rushed him to Margate's Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital.
Ben said: "It turned out my stomach had burst and everything had spilled into my abdomen and up my arm. If they hadn't got me into theatre that morning I could have died of sepsis.
"That night I also suffered a respiratory attack in hospital because the morphine reacted with the anaesthetic. I woke up unable to breathe and saw my life flash before my eyes. I honestly thought I was going to die. I thought I was done. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by doctors. That's as much as I remember. It was really scary."
Three months later he was back on stage but by then he was determined to get his hip replaced after his chiropractor warned him it could collapse at any moment.
He recalled: "My muscles would spasm and I'd get a shooting pain down the side of my leg which felt like lightning. It killed me. There was one time I came off stage and had to lie down on the floor of my dressing room. I still have no idea how I went back on stage that night.
"The dancers were amazing and doing a great job masking me during the shows. I also needed a black-out after every song because I couldn't walk off stage without limping," he explained.
"I had a dancer who taught me warm-up exercises to help. And I also stunk of Deep Heat!"
His hip was eventually replaced at KIMS private hospital in Maidstone on February 25, 2016, on the NHS, giving him just three months to recover before getting back on stage in Leicestershire.
Ben said: "The surgeon who performed the operation was the same one who had told me for years that I was too young to have a hip replacement and had warned me I might never dance again. When he saw the state of it he couldn't believe it. He said it was the hip of an 80-year-old."
Ben added: "Until then, I'd only been sleeping three hours a night because of the constant pain. There was no let up. I had to sit, propped on cushions, in the van and had a pregnancy pillow in my bed.
"But when I had the operation it was like magic. I woke up and although I could feel there was something alien in my body there was no pain any more.
"They had me walking with crutches the same day but told me to take it easy when I got home and not to move or dance for eight weeks. So I bought a dog, called Ernie, and spent the time house-training him.
"I got to five-and-a-half weeks of behaving myself before I decided to move the rug and coffee table out of the way and danced. The puppy thought it was the best game ever. I was so unfit it left me knackered. But it was unbelievable.
"Now I feel amazing on stage. I dance better than I did for four years before the operation. I feel like I am 18 again."
Covid and Me
The coronavirus pandemic put paid to many of Ben's shows but he said it took him totally by surprise.
He said: "I don't watch a lot of news so the first I heard about Covid was when one of our venues in March 2020 told us not to hold a 'meet and greet' after the show because of the virus.
"Initially, I didn't think it would affect us because it was in China but how wrong could I have been. The following week we had three shows cancelled and then the rest of the tour was shut down and that was it. It was terrible.
"Normally I'd use the live shows as a work-out to keep my body and voice in shape. Without them I put on 2st and became quite depressed living on my own. Eventually I decided to get my act together and did three live Facebook shows from the backroom of a pub."
They, and a Michael Jackson quiz night, helped raise £3,000 for the NHS and mental health charities. The sessions ended with a live show, in full costume, on June 25 last year, the 12th anniversary of Jackson's death.
Ben, who lives with girlfriend Susan, 30, added: "Luckily I'm getting back to where I want to be. My voice is back to where it was and I've slimmed down and ready for the new tour. We are also booked to tour Holland for a month in May."
Asked about allegations surrounding his hero he said: "I am well aware of the court cases and allegations surrounding Michael in his later years but it has never been anything I feel I should comment on. It's always been the songs and music of Michael I celebrate."
Ben was a star-struck eight-year-old when he first saw Michael Jackson perform at Wembley Stadium as part of the Dangerous Tour in 1993.
He said: "He was electrifying. His ability on stage was inhuman and he remains the greatest performer I have ever seen.”
One of Ben's first public appearances was at Sheerness County Youth Club followed by Priory Hill Holiday Park, Leysdown, where he worked as a bottle collector. He also appeared at Sheerness East Working Men's Club with the Juggernaut Roadshow.
He met his long-time manager, sound engineer James Baker, by chance at the former Ivy Club in Sheerness in 2009.
Ben said: "Michael had just died and I was in a dodgy place and not sure if I could carry on performing. James had just finished touring with singer Kiki Dee. As we talked, we realised we had a lot in common. I took him to one of my gigs and he offered to manage me. We’ve been together ever since.”
The former Sheppey School pupil and Canterbury College student's first professional gig was at the Wyvern Hall, Sittingbourne, in 2005. He has since performed across the UK and Europe and at the O2 and the London Palladium.
* Tickets to see The Magic of Michael Jackson at Margate's Winter Gardens on Friday, January 28, at 7.30pm are £22 to £28. To book, click here.
2022 tour dates:
James Baker Productions present The Magic of Michael Jackson starring Ben Bowman
20 Billingham Forum Theatre
21 Carlisle, The Sands Centre
28 Margate Winter Gardens
30 Bury St Edmunds The Apex
12 King's Lynn Corn Exchange
19 Hastings, The White Rock Theatre
25 Dunstable, Grove Theatre
26 Lowestoft, The Marina Theatre
12 Telford, Oakengates Theatre (The Place)
25 Rhyl, Pavilion Theatre
26 New Brighton, Floral Pavilion Theatre & Blue Lounge
21 Maidstone, Hazlitt Theatre
6 Felixstowe, Spa Pavilion Theatre