During the 2007 season of America's Got Talent, the most controversial contestant was easily Boy Shakira, a heavyset man in a blond wig and halter top, enthusiastically belly dancing to both cheers and jeers.
"I don't do drag, I do impersonation," says Louis Padilla of his Shakira lookalike act. "Drag is about looks, about being as much like a lady as possible, but an impersonation is a whole show; it involves duplicating someone's entire performance, [including] their attitude and moves."
Padilla admits that not having hips makes it a challenge to mimic Shakira.
"I practice barefoot in the sand near water, which actually goes along with Arabic mythology, and that's something Shakira herself is into."
Padilla, a 29-year-old who cashiers at the EastLake Walmart, earns between $400 and $1000 for a ten-song, hour-long performance. He lip-syncs to recorded Shakira tracks, while he interprets her signature belly-dancing performance style. Barefoot.
He began impersonating the Colombian-born singer around eight years ago and makes his own costumes. "It's when I put on my Middle-Eastern belts that I really take on her persona. I pay a lot of attention to copying the exact outfits she wears, and a lot of it has to be special ordered from different countries to be authentic."
When the real Shakira kicked off her first world tour at the Sports Arena in November 2002, Padilla was right up front, standing on a riser. "She made eye contact and was smiling at me. There was a connection. I could tell she was really surprised to see someone dancing just like her, especially a boy!"
The Reader not only discovered Boy Shakira, but he took his name from a Blurt column that was his first-ever press writeup. A Reader writer found Boy -- then calling himself (somewhat clumsily) "Luigi, the Live Impersonator of Shakira" -- while browsing a list of local celebrity lookalikes seeking gigs. The one-time Luigi liked the subsequent column's headline, "Boy Shakira," so much that he changed his stage name accordingly and soon became accepted as a contestant on the second season of America’s Got Talent.
From his first appearance, he polarized the show’s three judges. Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan approved him as a contestant, while David Hasselhoff angrily argued on-air with Morgan. “Are you sitting on the same stage as me? Oh, my God! The world has gone mad!”
Later, Hasselhoff actually seemed to storm off stage. He was seen backstage making more disparaging comments about Padilla's act. "This is for a million dollars, and that [act] ain't worth ten cents."
Contacted by phone the day after his first AGT performance, Padilla said, “He [Hasselhoff] didn’t like my original style and walked off the set.... A lot of people on the Internet are saying bad comments I’m not even reading, but two of the judges liked me! After ten years of struggle, I finally made it.”
Over the next week, clips of the heavyset man belly dancing in a halter top and blond wig aired on Good Morning America, MTV2’s Week in Rock, Fox News, Entertainment Tonight, and VH1’s Best Week Ever.
Padilla's performance was repeatedly aired on the TV Guide Channel, where bemused host John Fugelsang was seen quipping, “I’m so glad Horatio Sans can still get some work.”
A YouTube video of Boy Shakira's AGT appearance has been played over 500,000 times.
Padilla’s mother -- a Palomar Walmart employee -- also appeared with him on the TV show. “She’s really proud of me," he says. "I might have to get a manager soon, so many people are calling.”
At the time, he was tight lipped about future AGT episodes, for which auditions were taped far in advance of broadcast. “We’re not even supposed to talk to reporters without permission from the producers,” he says. “They don’t want us giving anything away.”
Boy Shakira appeared on several more episodes and nearly made the final five but was then voted off the program.
On the show's website, commentator Avis Lee posted, "I think Boy Shakira was pushed forward in a cynical attempt to generate another 'Sanjaya can't sing'-type controversy. You know how you pay to get into a carnival, where the flying teacups are right at the gate, but the long lines are always way in the back, where the two headed chicken and the bearded lady are. Boy Shakira is the show's bearded lady. Literally."