“Those who look like the artists they are portraying will probably go far,” says producer Randy Wood. “A Michael Jackson impersonator — with all the dancers and everything — went to Mexico last year and performed at all the high-end clubs.”
Wood is reprising his popular television show from the ’80s, Puttin’ on the Hits, with a new series, America’s Lip-Sync Star. Auditions for the show, to be filmed in the Bahamas next year with celebrity judges Samantha Fox and J.T. Taylor (of Kool and the Gang) — will commence in San Diego on Thursday, October 16.
“If you have a good look but the wrong sound, it kills the whole impersonation,” says Madonna impersonator, author, and casting agent Denise Bella Vlasis. “I was a dancer but not a singer, so I said I’d rather do what I’m best at doing, which is the visual, so I focused on getting the dancing and the lip-sync down.” Of several Madonna impersonators to compete in the four years Puttin’ on the Hits aired, Vlasis was the only one to win first place.
Though anyone with a desire to perform can learn to be a good lip-syncer, Vlasis says even professional singers — including A-list celebrities lip-syncing to their own recordings — make obvious blunders. A frequent offender? Britney Spears.
“When Britney sings words that begin with L, her tongue is touching the tips of her lips rather than the roof of her mouth at the back of the teeth, where the tongue would go naturally,” says Vlasis. “Her tongue always goes out of her mouth when she does Ls. It drives me nuts. She’s not the only one, but she’s the most obvious.”
Vlasis’s lip-syncing skills scored her a role as a luncheon singer on the Clint Eastwood film Flags of Our Fathers. The actual singer was replaced on screen when Vlasis proved to be better at lip-syncing the singer’s recording.
In her latest book, You’ve Got the Look: The How to “Celebrity Look-a-like” Guide, Vlasis shares some of the techniques she’s picked up over the past 20 years.
“Breath is very important,” she explains. “I recommend that you lightly sing on top of the music you hear. When you watch a singer singing, you see the veins on the neck, the expression on the face, the breath going in and out of the nose…if your face is flat, you’re not going to be believable.” Not exhibiting enough exertion is a giveaway. “I think maybe [singers] are too used to performing in music videos.”
One of the few celebrities skilled at lip-syncing is Janet Jackson. “Janet is the queen of lip-sync. She’ll leave her live mike on,” Vlasis says, explaining that after lip-syncing a verse, Jackson will throw out an improvised word or comment to the audience.
The astute listener can tell the difference. “Her voice will sound really perfect, and then all of a sudden the pitch is different, and she sounds winded, and the levels are really different, too.” To avoid drastic variations, Vlasis says, “Janet records herself singing live so that everything doesn’t sound too perfect, and she’ll change it up just a little so it sounds like a different version than it does on the album.”
Vlasis says that some celebrities are harder to impersonate than others. “When you [impersonate] a musician, that doesn’t usually work. People expect to see musicianship. I think it’s cheesy to see somebody faking the instrument.” She adds that it’s not wise to impersonate “anyone who’s famous for their voice alone. I don’t know about a lip-syncing Pavarotti.”
Vlasis met her husband, currently an Elvis impersonator, at a wedding.
“I said, ‘I’m not trying to be crazy or hit on you, but you’re up there singing Ricky Martin for…how much?’ He said about two or three hundred dollars [per gig], and I said, ‘I make about a thousand.’ I turned him into an impersonator. All of my talented performer friends that are actors or models or musicians, I turn them on to impersonation because the money’s great.”
Recently, while filming a show in Hollywood, Vlasis waited at a bar with her friend Pavel, who impersonates Bono. “People came up to us, freaking out, and bought us a round of drinks,” she recalls. “They all thought he was him.”
As Madonna, Vlasis has experienced a fair amount of “recognition” herself. The attention is not always welcome. “Being followed on the freeway is scary,” says Vlasis.
In Los Angeles, a woman who was convinced that Vlasis was the Material Girl fell to Vlasis’s feet and sobbed about her daughter, who’d been shot in a gang incident.
“In those moments,” say Vlasis, “I just keep my mouth shut. I gave her hugs and let her hug me, let her weep.”
Lip-Sync Talent Search
Thursday, October 16 (every Thursday through November 20)
172 E. Main Street
Cost: $7.50 for spectators, free for contestants
Info: 619-204-9468 or www.americaslipsyncstar.com