If only it was possible to live as your favorite pop idol, where you could look, act, and appear as them on TV from time to time. For celebrity female impersonators, that’s just the case. These performers have become a part of queer culture, delivering the divas to their fans when they can’t be there themselves. In some cases, it may be as close as fans may get to experiencing their idols.
But how does one become a Cher, a Tina Turner, a Janet Jackson or a Britney Spears?
RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars champion and Cher impersonator Chad Michaels wasn’t following Cher’s career when he started playing her in 1992. When auditioning for a drag revue in San Diego, he needed a celebrity to impersonate in order to land the gig. His drag mother, Hunter (who had also played Cher—their drag family apparently “give good Cher”), decided on Cher for Michaels, as well. Hunter, who was known as “a rubber face” for his ability to transform himself into most celebrities, also had a talent for determining which celebrity a queen had in them. With Michaels, he wasn’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean the transformation came easily.
“It was something I had to work for,” Michaels tells NewNowNext. “Hunter couldn’t do my makeup every night.”
“[Hunter] did my makeup for Cher for the first time and then it was kind of like he helped me during the first couple of years with the makeup. He would do one eye, I would do the other eye. You know, just a very apprentice, friend-relationship-type thing.”
When it came to crafting Cher, Michaels strived for a realistic rendition, emulating her look, energy, and mannerisms. He had to do a character study to help re-familiarize himself with the star, which included reviewing music videos, concerts and interviews, creating a notebook of her various makeup styles, and learning the history of her career.
Drag Race star Coco Montrese has been playing Janet Jackson since 1993. She also does Rihanna and more recently, Tina Turner, claiming that it’s a way to embrace her 40s. For Coco, it, too, was about conducting a character study, by “analyzing [the celebrity] on- and off-stage.”
With Jackson, specifically, she would also pay attention to the meaning of her songs in order to authentically tell their story, rather than just performing without insight.
“I studied it very, very intricately,” Montrese says. “If you’re not an entertainer like that it almost sounds kind of weird, because you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that sounds strange.’ But my thing was I never wanted to make her a joke or anything like that, so I always wanted to make sure I stayed authentic to how I presented her, so people could understand that, okay, this is serious business.”
Before going on stage, Montrese will go into a room and listen to any one of Jackson’s songs. “The music allows to me get in the mood of actually going, ‘Okay, now I’m going to be Janet Jackson when I step out on stage. I need to step out and I need to be Janet Jackson. What would Janet do?’ And then I would not do anything different than what she would do.”
After Montrese was crowned Miss Gay America in 2010, she attended a preliminary in Las Vegas where she did a Janet Jackson routine. It was seen by Frank Marino who had his Divas show in town:
“He immediately said, ‘I want you in my show,’” Montrese reminisces.
“After my reign, [I packed] up from Florida moved to Las Vegas and I’ve been here for eight years now.” She performed as Janet Jackson in Marino’s Divas until 2015, but is now doing shows for Voss Events.
Drag Race star Derrick Barry had also performed as part of Marino’s show between 2009 and 2015, playing Britney Spears, a star he’s embodied for the last 15 years. He has appeared as Spears on America’s Got Talent, The Next Best Thing, and the Today Show. He was even brought up on stage by the Madonna during The Rebel Heart Tour, wearing a similar replica of the wedding dress that Spears had performed in at the VMAs when she infamously made out with the Material Girl.
Barry’s journey began in high school when his best friend pointed out his resemblance to Spears in a Sketcher’s ad. After covering her hair in the ad, they both agreed that he looked like the Pop Princess. This was well before he ever thought about doing drag.
His rite of passage came during Halloween of 2003: “[My girlfriend’s cousin] just literary put makeup on me, and all our friends freaked out. Like, ‘Oh my god, you look just like Britney.’ So I knew that there was a way to make a career out of it somehow.”
Two weeks later, Barry had attended The Tonight Show With Jay Leno dressed as Spears, and got attention (and camera time) with Spears herself. Later that night, Barry had gone to Micky’s in West Hollywood, hoping to audition as a Britney Spears impersonator. Since he was underage, he had to return the following evening for their college night on Tuesdays. He did, landed the gig, and worked there every other week for approximately six months before getting an audition in Vegas. In 2004. he began performing as part of An Evening at Le Cage.
Barry’s Britney has come a long way since he first performed in 2003. He’s now more confident, his choreography is polished, and he has better wigs and costumes. “Everything has grown from the natural progression of building this as a career,” he says.
From the outset, it might seem that all that one needs in order to become an idol impersonator is fabulous hair, some makeup, padding, and a dress—but obviously, it’s not so easy. Each queen has their own way of becoming an icon. Like all drag, celebrity female impersonation is theatre, but the impersonation element adds another challenge. “There is that stepping into being a female impersonator and all that goes along with that,” says Michaels. “And then taking it, you know, to the next level where you’re an actual character.”
To create an illusion of a celebrity is a gift afforded to select queens who study hard and, in some cases, hold a deep respect for the star they’re trying to become.
“I’ll be honest, it is not easy,” Montrese says. “You’re very worried about always making sure that it’s authentic and it’s right.”
“It’s really easy to look bad,” Michaels admits. “You have to work to look good. Very few people can just slide into this profession.”