How a Female Impersonator Dresses for Success
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because pretty is as pretty does.
By J. Bennett
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods around the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I’m an extremely last-minute person. I wish I wasn’t. On the day of a show, I’ll generally go to my day job and work a little more than a half day, and then I have to really start prepping — getting the costumes and song charts ready, showering and shaving. It takes me about two hours just for hair and makeup. I know people who do it a lot faster and still look better than me. But it’s still a process for me.
“Female impersonator” is the term I heard when I was growing up watching [Phil] Donahue or Sally [Jessy Raphael], where you’d see these amazing men performing as beautiful ladies. Dame Edna, for example, is never referred to as a drag queen. Dame Edna is referred to as Dame Edna. But the term “drag queen” doesn’t offend me. I play a character, and my character just happens to be female. I consider myself an entertainer. Were you entertained? If so, my job is done.
Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the drag world was very much based on celebrity impressions. You’d lip-sync instead of singing live because you could look like Barbra Streisand or Diana Ross, but you couldn’t really sound like them. I got into it as a Halloween thing, as a lot of people did. I did it only a handful of times, but I got to be known as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. I loved it, but I felt that I didn’t really look like her, I just looked like me. So I gave it up and didn’t perform for well over five years.
I usually have a Manhattan prior to, during and after the show. It’s an old-school thing.
I thought if I ever came back into this world, I’d do it very differently. I wanted to sing. I wanted to have a live band. I wanted to do an old-school lounge act that you might see at a supper club. I knew I could look a certain way; I knew I could sound a certain way; and I wanted to create a show that was reminiscent of a bygone era. I slowly built an act, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
The majority of my show is improv. I don’t write down my material. I don’t rehearse. I go in cold because it’s circumstantial. My show can be repetitive on a certain level because I say a lot of the same things — the things that I know are gonna get a laugh or a rise out of people — but where they fall in the show changes.
The songs I do are standards. I get inspiration from all kinds of music, but I won’t do anything past 1965. I have no musical training. I cannot read music. I’m a complete loose cannon out there. But I know which keys I can do numbers in and I can carry a tune, so somehow I’m fooling people and they’re still enjoying it.
It’s harder to make people laugh than you think. I’ve bombed many a time. I do crowd work, which isn’t done a lot. Some people say I’m an insult comic, like Don Rickles. But he was a bit harsher than I am. I was fortunate enough to see Rickles years ago. I was in the third row, and I was petrified. I thought he was going to pick on me. But when I left, I was disappointed that I didn’t get picked on — because that’s part of the experience.
Just as you have good days and bad days, I have good shows and bad shows. There are shows where I walk away with a euphoric feeling like I connected with the audience and had a great time. There are other times when I think, I’m not sure this is credible anymore. Which is why I drink a lot. I usually have a Manhattan prior to, during and after the show. It’s an old-school thing, and I’ve heard that whiskey helps the vocal cords.
Performing still scares the shit out of me on a daily basis. I love being up there; I love the spotlight. But the prep always scares me. There have been multiple times when I’m getting ready and think, Why do I still do this? But if you connect with just one person who really enjoys the show, it’s all worth it again.
The makeup is always the hardest. I do my eyes first, and they take a while. I try to keep everything with Bobbi very much era-appropriate, so I still use liquid liner. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with liquid liner, but it can smell your fear. It knows when you’re scared of it, and it will jack up your entire face if you’re not careful.
My outfits have to be stretchy. I work hard on my figure, so I want it to be seen. I have most of my outfits custom-made, and I pull inspiration from old Hollywood. I’ll find pictures of things and say, “I like the top of this and the look of that.” I kind of Frankenstein them together. But they have to be formfitting.
I try to arrive at the club at least 30 minutes prior to the show. I’ll usually wear an ascot and a suit with a rhinestone “B” on the lapel. If someone’s there to see the show, they don’t deserve to see Bobbi showing up in jeans and a T-shirt. Bobbi won’t walk out of the house until Bobbi is show-ready.
I also wear an old-school garter belt and thigh-high stockings. You’re never going to see them, but I know I’m wearing them. It’s a detail thing. If I don’t feel right, then I’m doing an injustice to my audience. My audience deserves Bobbi at her best — always.
- J. Bennett, OZY Author Contact J. Bennett