If anyone can speak with authority about being his authentic self, the dancing "Madonna Bar Mitzvah Boy" from Buffalo Grove can.
Shaun Sperling, now a 33-year-old Chicago attorney, became a YouTube sensation last fall after a video of his flamboyant dance to Madonna's "Vogue" during his 1992 bar mitzvah at the Hyatt Deerfield went viral. He ended up on major TV talk shows and even got to meet Madonna as a result. Sometimes he re-performs the dance at charity events.
Now, Sperling has begun a motivational speaking program, YOUniversity, that teaches students and corporations the power of being authentic.
His next presentation is at 3:45 p.m. Monday at his alma mater, Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, and he is scheduling an appearance in May at Maine East High School in Park Ridge. Both events are free and open to the public.
"This is a message that can benefit everyone," he said. "When you're completely yourself, that's when you're powerful."
Sperling says he was "mortified" by the video but retrieved it from his parents' crawl space last summer while working on a script for a one-man stage show called "Defending Madonna." He converted it from VHS to digital, and then posted it on YouTube for fun.
"I thought, it's time to share it," he said.
His friend sent the video to celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who posted it and, in turn, splashed the teenage Sperling and his custom-made Madonna shirt all over the media. The video currently has more than 1.1 million views.
The video spawned some nasty anti-Semitic and homophobic responses (Sperling's been openly gay since age 15, even though he says "everyone else knew 30 seconds into the dance"), but most viewers were impressed that he had a be-who-you-are attitude at such an early age.
He said it wouldn't have been possible without his parents, who didn't flinch at the idea of him having a Madonna-themed bar mitzvah and performing a self-choreographed dance.
"My parents are the real heroes of this story. They fostered my individuality. They said, 'This is what Shaun loves, and we're going to celebrate him and what he loves,'" he said.
Sperling said people, especially students, are constantly pressured to be, act or dress a certain way. He hopes that by encouraging high school students to take pride in who they are, harassment and bullying can be minimized. Such a message would have helped him during his early teen years, when he says he was bullied.
"It's not easy. I had the support and resources to say, 'I'm gay, and this is not going to change, and I'm going to have to learn to respect myself.' That's when it became easier. As soon as I did that, the name-calling stopped," he said. "Fortunately, there's more visibility and openness now than there was in 1992."