In a storage room in the back of a bar in Hermosa Beach, Dustin Mikulski is stretching his hamstrings. He’s not a professional dancer—or, that is, he’s not anymore. And technically, Breakers hasn’t hired him to dance; the terms of his personal appearance agreement call for him to host: hype the crowd, throw out t-shirts, sign autographs for fans. But this isn’t his first gig. Dustin knows that, eventually, he’s going to have to perform the routine that made him famous.
Loosened up, Dustin takes advantage of the lull by checking his email. He was scheduled to lead a seminar the next morning in his Econ class at UC Irvine, but this gig came up. Knowing that, after his official duties have wound up, fans are going to want to buy him drinks, he’s trying to trade slots with another student, who hasn’t responded to his email yet. Before he can send a quick text instead, the chant begins: “Ba-BY! Ba-BY! Ba-BY!” Sandra, the Breakers manager, pokes her head in. Dustin nods that he’s ready, and Sandra signals the DJ to play Dustin’s song.
“Searchin’ My Soul” by Vonda Shepard is not the first song one might expect a 20-year-old kid to choose as his signature intro track. But the crowd gets the reference, and they’re already cheering as Dustin trots out to the little stage. “Go Baby! Go Baby! Go, go, go Baby!” Dustin’s grin wavers almost imperceptibly, but he obliges quickly enough, waving his arms over his head and gyrating his pelvis. The crowd goes nuts. They may not have seen him do it when he was actually in his heyday, but they saw the flyers for the Breakers event, recognized the kitsch factor, and looked him up on YouTube, where they saw a much younger version of Dustin busting out this dance, just like he’d done for a flummoxed Calista Flockhart on “Ally McBeal.”
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It’s been more than fourteen years since Dustin achieved his curious version of microfame, in the 12th episode of “Ally McBeal’”s first season. Dustin’s parents were in the business, sort of—his father, Steven, landed a few bit parts in shows like “Matt Houston” and “Riptide”; Loretta, Dustin’s mother, worked in clearances. Dustin was born about six weeks premature, and remained small for his age. But in Dustin’s cherubic face and diminutive stature, Steven saw potential. Dustin had booked half a dozen jobs modelling in print ads for companies like Wonder Bread (plus an editorial spread in Disney Adventures magazine) when his agent got a call for a very young child who could (a) dance, and (b) convincingly portray a newborn. Dustin was five at the time, but a bald cap was all it took for him to pass as a baby—perfect for embodying Ally’s doubts and insecurities about motherhood.
Learning the dance was trickier. Wade Robson was one of the leading choreographers of the ’90s, but he didn’t have much experience teaching routines to children Dustin’s age. Dustin was a quick study and eager to please, but Michael Jackson he was not. Steven—who, by then, was managing Dustin’s career full-time—took an approach that’s now become familiar to viewers of “Toddlers & Tiaras”: he learned the routine himself, and mimed it, just off-camera, for Dustin to mimic. “I don’t think I ever got all the way through it,” Dustin laughs now. “They got a few decent shots and cut it together to look seamless. Anyway, I’ve done it straight through enough times since then that I don’t feel too guilty about it.”
What Dustin didn’t know at the time was how much was riding on this job. Steven took extreme measures to keep Dustin from being replaced because Loretta had been laid off. Dustin’s youthful looks and precocious talent (plus Steven’s hustle) were keeping the family afloat. Dustin says he didn’t understand the pressure underlying what seemed to him, at the time, like a fun afternoon of dancing with his dad and a new friend. “I never wanted to put Dustin in that position,” Steven says now. “I had been around stage moms and I hated thinking I’d become one. Dustin still seemed like he was having fun, which made it easier. Loretta and I told each other that as soon as Dustin didn’t want to act anymore, we’d let him stop. But it wasn’t that simple, unfortunately.”
After “McBeal,” Dustin was famous. Steven knew that his moment would pass, and that, with Loretta still out of work, the family should seize on as many opportunities as they could, from tie-in music videos to a national ad campaign. By the time “Baby Cha-Cha,” as Dustin’s character came to be known, was cast in a Broadway show, the “Baby” part of his name no longer applied (and the heavy stage makeup didn’t help). Dustin was eight, and lonely for his schoolfriends back in Reseda. He asked to stop. Steven said no. “It wasn’t my greatest parenting moment,” Steven admits. “Fortunately, the decision was taken out of my hands.” Look Who’s Talking: The Musical closed after nine performances, and the Mikulskis moved back to L.A. Dustin went back to school, and so did Steven, eventually earning a Master of Social Work.
Loretta never returned to the workforce; she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and died in 2003. Dustin’s earnings didn’t amount to much, but when he turned 18 and gained access to his trust, he handed it off to Steven to help defray the debt from Loretta’s medical bills. When he decided to pursue a degree in Finance, he chose to attend a state school, took out student loans…and signed with an agency that books personal appearances for people in his situation.
“No one knew what a meme was in 1998, so it’s weird to think that I was one,” Dustin says, on a cheap chair in the back at Breakers. “And, I mean, I have no illusions: I know this dorky, at best. I won’t even say I’m making people happy or any of that shit. But there’s a demand for what I supply, I guess, and it would be dumb not to supply it.”
Speaking of which: Dustin’s classmate comes through. Which is good, because someone’s already ordered a vodka tonic for Baby Cha-Cha.
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Tara Ariano is a freelance writer and co-creator of the Extra Hot Great podcast. She lives in New York.