Michael Portnoy's 15 minutes of fame lasted maybe 30 seconds.
In a night marked by Girl Power, sore throats and Aretha's aria, the 40th annual Grammy Awards will also be remembered for Portnoy's unscheduled performance as the "Soy Bomb" Boy. Hired as a show extra, he crashed the stage in New York City as Grammy-winner Bob Dylan was singing "Love Sick."
What the TV world saw was this string-bean of a guy dancing next to an unflappable Dylan. Monica Lewinsky could have dived onto the stage and the folk legend wouldn't have flinched. Dylan only glanced at his stage partner, and after about 30 seconds, viewers saw a grinning man in black (not Will Smith) rush the stage and whisk Portnoy away.
Was the bare-chested dancer part of the act? Was he performing sign language? Where did he come from? And as one Dylan fan asked on the Internet, "What does Soy Bomb mean?"
Turns out, Michael Henry Portnoy is much more than the camera-shy, conservative guy we saw on TV. He's from Bethesda. Yes, a native son.
"I've always considered myself somewhere between a serious artist and a moron," said a sleepless Portnoy yesterday. "The Grammys is one of the biggest media events in our time. It was crying out to be messed up. How could I pass up such an opportunity?"
The media had a field night with the Grammy intruder: Portnoy was described as "a shirtless man with 'Soy Bomb' on his chest dancing wildly as a confused Dylan backed away" and "a seemingly possessed shirtless dancer" and "a bare-chested man [who] gyrated wildly during Dylan's performance."
"I didn't mean him any harm," Portnoy said. "Actually, I'm indifferent to Dylan. I only know about three of his songs. I would have preferred to do it during Celine Dion's performance."
After his improvised dance, Portnoy was "escorted" from Radio City Music Hall, where officials declined to press charges, said Officer Theresa Farello of the New York City Police Department.
Farello was at the Grammys. "That song Dylan was singing was so depressing, I thought this could be part of the show," she said. "The whole thing was bizarre."
Initially, evidence suggested that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) might have been involved. Portnoy was half-naked and he was advertising a popular vegetarian food (soy: rice, wheat or beans fermented and steeped in brine). And he did crash a highly public event. But although Portnoy is a soy-lover, he was not on a mission from PETA.
"We're just jealous," said Ingrid Newkirk, president of the Norfolk, Va.-based PETA. "I think he's 'Soy Bob' and can't spell very well."
No, he meant Soy Bomb. Michael Portnoy, 26, actually meant much more by his Grammy performance.
Reached by phone in his New York City apartment, Portnoy walked us through his thinking. After all, one doesn't just barge into a Grammys ceremony without a plan or high concept.
Here's this guy originally from Bethesda, who comes from a musical and artistic family. He moves to New York City five years ago and scrapes out a living as a bit actor, dancer and performance artist. He sings and plays drums in a band called "The Liquid Tapedeck." He has no memorable memories of Baltimore and does not follow the Orioles. He follows folk singers, apparently.
Through a friend, Portnoy is hired for $200 to be an extra at the Grammys. This could be a big break for the struggling artist, he's thinking. Portnoy's job will be to join 60 other extras to sit around the stage "to provide Dylan with a good vibe. It was very odd," Portnoy said. "We were just supposed to sit back there and groove."
Now before the big show, Portnoy gets this fuzzy, funky idea. He huddles with his artist buddies to create "an expression that is passionate and subversive." He first plans to write "I'M FAMOUS" on his chest. Too simplistic. He starts playing with the word "soy." Portnoy loves soy. "Maybe I can now be a soy spokesman."
l Soy is such a rich source of nutrition. And a bomb is destructive. "And art for me is a combination of this dense, nutritional life and this explosive destructive force."
Around 8 p.m. Wednesday, a friend of Portnoy's -- "The Woman Vitros" -- writes "Soy Bomb" in marker on his chest. Portnoy covers up with a charcoal gray shirt. He makes Radio City Hall in time to provide a good vibe for Dylan. Moments after Dylan begins, Portnoy starts unbuttoning his shirt and makes his entrance.
"I was very scared some sniper would pick me off."
(Note: His other idea was to have an "expandable, metal, porcupine vest" that would ward off the inevitable security rush. But a vest was too complicated to build.)
Portnoy left the Grammys without dramatic incident, police and Grammy officials said. He wasn't arrested -- but was heckled. The other extras, he said, berated him for "ruining their evening."
But why the Grammy thing, Michael? Why bust in on another man's moment? Why you? "I wonder that myself," he said. "I guess it's this primal urge we have to disrupt things."
Assuming late-night TV hosts David Letterman or Jay Leno don't call soon, it's back to work for Portnoy. He has a new idea for his 15-minute act on a performance-art stage in New York: Using a video of his Grammy performance, he will perform a duet with himself.
He never, ever wants to forget those 30 seconds at Radio City Music Hall.
"Maybe this will open some doors for me," Portnoy said.
Pub Date: 2/27/98