Its been said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Turns out, its also a hell of a way to make a living. In today’s star driven culture people thirst for even the slightest modicum of celebrity interaction and that is where the thriving tribute artist business comes in. My guest today has been at the forefront of that industry for almost thirty years and just like the Material Girl she impersonates, she’s showing no signs of slowing down. Ladies and gentleman, it is a great thrill for me to introduce my guest today, the beautiful and fairly chatty………..Miss Chris America!
Chiffon Dior: Hi Chris! I am thrilled you managed to take a few minutes to talk to me in between packing and unpacking for gigs! Who is busier these days, you or the Material Girl herself?
Chris America: LOL Thanks! Obviously Madonna has the much fuller schedule however in my credit She has that endless entourage who packs, dresses, grooms, feeds etc… so when I factor all of those hats in I guess I keep pretty busy myself in a much different way. Her business of course keeps me pretty active so I guess that is a “full Circle” kind of question!
CD: So growing up as a little girl, did you ever imagine that this would be your career, let alone something that you would be doing for almost thirty years? As the original Madonna in the Tribute industry, How did this all come about for you?
CA: I was always a girl who loved to perform and sing so I am not surprised that I ended up being an entertainer – I guess I am surprised that I ended up being an impersonator/ Tribute Artist though… mainly because it IS an odd profession…
I originally started in the singing telegram industry right out of high school. I don’t think they even do those telegrams now a days but back then they were a form of entertainment where you went around and sang Valentine songs to people- say – at the dentist office with their mouths open while they were getting their teeth drilled… I’d show up in a heart shaped lame-looking costume and sing “My Funny Valentine” to them or what have you…
It was Spring of 1984 and at that point my talent agency started getting calls for Look Alikes – because the TV shows “Putting on the Hits” and “MTV” were brand spanking new and they were running endless videos of Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Cher and all of a sudden people were really getting into the visual aspects of the artists they were hearing on the radio who were now on TV 24/7. My agents told me this was a new “trend” in their industry and they thought I resembled a girl named “Madonna”… Would I like to try dressing up like her and doing some birthday greetings for people – I was like “Sure” because she said it would pay more… I had not even heard of Madonna yet.
Next thing I knew – I checked her out – oh yeah – I see the resemblance… So I put an outfit together and went on a few jobs and literally the entire city went nuts whenever they would see me. It just kind of took on a life of it’s own at that point and my rate kept going up… phones rang off the hook… it was crazy …I accidentally found my niche I suppose. Had I any idea it would last this long – not even. And it does surprise me that I am still working so frequently to this day.
CD: So how long does it take you to “become” Madonna? How big of a Madonna wardrobe do you have?
CA: I own over 50 Signature Costumes and over 240 wigs. It takes a lot of inventory and maintenance to stay on top of what goes with what. The costumes take a beating with all the travel and the shows so I do have to replace a large portion of them over the year – it is a LOT of upkeep. Depending on the outfit and era I usually take an average of 15 minutes to transform – but if I am doing the makeup prior to that – usually takes me about 45 minutes if I am not rushing.
Yes. It is crazy. But don’t forget I have been doing this for almost 3 decades – so I have accumulated a lot of stuff. Of course a lot of those I replace – but if you factor in the wigs, extensions, half wigs in various shades, yeah I have a lot of them… I keep them in a very organized costume room with inventory- the main ones have their own wig stands and I keep them lined up like what you see at the Korean wig stores! I could open a Korean Wig store! Cam Sa Ham ni Da (that’s Thank you in Korean) I lived there for 5 years growing up!
CD: The first time I became aware of you was several years back when you were on the cover of Esquire magazine. How did that all come about? Was that one of the highlights of your career?
CA: It’s funny but That was a huge deal for me and I got a ton of mileage out of that Magazine cover. I had to audition for the cover and I remember I had JUST returned from NYC the day before to the DC area and then my agent called and said that Esquire wanted to see me – so I had to turn right around and jump right back on the plane to get to the meeting in less than 24 hours. The photographer was Chris Callas, but we shot three themes that week – Madonna as the Madonna on the Cover with a baby, Madonna for President and Madonna with paparazzi – they ended up choosing the Baby theme – which I liked best. It was a very high end photography shoot and I remember wondering which look they would chose for the cover. I finally got to see it as I was catching a plane at the Airport and it was so weird to see the Esquire cover everywhere – weird to think that was me on the cover… The magazine got a lot of response back and received the third highest editorial comments in their history at the time – so they were very pleased.
The cover was a highlight – but I have had so many. Getting on Oprah was a big deal for me, then I was astounded when I found out that fashion photographer Poineer Francesco Scavullo was shooting me for a magazine article. It was so surreal because only a year before I remember being in a book store flipping though a coffee table book of his – pictures of famous celebrities – to include Madonna and saying to myself - “wow, what I wouldn’t give to do a photo session with this guy and it will never happen.” and one year later I was sitting in his studio and hanging out with him. That was very exciting to me – and then doing a the White House Christmas party was really great too. I have to say the staff was a much more jovial and much rowdier crowd than I would have expected. And that was when Bush was in office of all things!
CD: Do you ever find yourself getting lost in the character? Do you find people have difficulty separating Chris from “Madonna”? Are there stretches that you are just sick of her and her music?
CA: When I first started out I had a honeymoon with impersonating her – I was young and it was all so new… people were so appreciative when they met me – It was weird to go into stores, look on TV etc… and see someone who looked so much like me everywhere – it felt like seeing myself on covers etc… and you know I was just in it for fun initially. So I remember dressing like her as a young kid (just like so fans many did back then) but then It dawned on me that this actually was a viable and legitimate profession. I had clients who took it WAY seriously. If they hired me for their wedding reception for instance – I was a part of this milestone event in their lives. I had to look right, be on time, do a good job because it meant a lot to them. I was going to be part of their wedding albums for years to come and you know – people would get so worked up that I remember some even tearing up with happiness that they had “Madonna” attend their event. It’s weird in that way. Many would set me up / treat me like a star – limo’s upgraded hotel rooms, gifts… because they were so mesmerized by her… So I evolved into this business mind set – where I took what I did much more seriously.
I personally, do not have any problem being Chris. To be successful in this work you really need to know where you end and your character begins or you will get lost in it and you will not be in this profession for the right reasons. I very much have my own personality and thoughts – I believe I am very different from Madonna in my day to day life. But then – I think Madonna is very different in her private life so who knows what she’s like behind the scenes?! Aren’t we all?!! I have found people in the past have projected their idea of Madonna on to me – automatically assuming I think like her – whereas they know I am not, her but they still revel in the “idea” I could be – It is weird. I eventually learned how to figure out those types and keep them at arms length so to speak… LOL
Honestly – okay I would be lying if I didn’t say I go on Madonna Burn out now and then. Seriously. You know I don’t want to be lying on my death bed doing my life review and thinking “Wow. I spent all these years being someone else” – so I make a great effort to more than balance my personal life (more so) than the entertainment. I mean – my husband married Chris not Madonna so I purposefully choose to work my career at a moderate yet effective pace. I could be on the road 24/7 doing this career, putting huge shows together but that is not my thing and not what I want to do. The ones that can, I admire their commitment but I like the flexibility it has offered me to keep my life in balance, because in the end it is my family and friends who ultimately mean the most to me. But yeah – there are times I bitch and groan about how she won’t slow down or there have been times where I have prayed she would gain 10 pounds and retire so I could be like most other celebrity impersonator’s with a finite standard set of costumes and songs. I mean – look at Marilyn Monroe? If you want to do her you have 6 songs and three signature costumes – how easy is that? Madonna? I wish!
Madonna is a lot to keep up with – she is high -maintenence to do her right. I tell people she is a masochistic character (laughs) because she does everything BIG and to perfection. Excellence. And there is no stopping her. Think you will get a break and have the holidays off with no new costumes? Yeah right. She keeps going and going and going. I have had to dump thousands of dollar into maintaining this career – She truly is admirable though and I think she set high standards for all entertainers out there. Any genre can relate to her work ethic and I think it has inspired others to be more than they think they could be… No one outdoes Madonna!!!
I always get a kick out of people saying that my job must be “Fun” – it is WORK as in WERRRRRK!!!! It is very consuming and sometimes my brain is on overdrive because the wig I just ordered came in the wrong color and I have an event 3 days away. And if the color isn’t perfect inevitably someone will come up to me and say “Hey, the outfit is great but the color is a little off” – that is when I want to XYZ and retire (only kidding) but you do get some people who magnify every detail and if they only KNEW the volume of work it takes to do this thing right they would show some mercy.
CD: A moment ago you mentioned Marilyn Monroe. As far as characters go, that’s not a far leap from Madonna. Have you ever done her or any other characters in your career? Did you feel like you were cheating on Madge?
CA: In the past I have done Marilyn – but I was really pathetic at doing her. She is so gentle and giggly and Madonna has much more masculinity – so I was a more masculine Marilyn I guess because naturally I am so much more like Madonna in that way.. My Marilyn always looked forced and people were always like “oh I get it you are Madonna doing Marilyn”… “Uh …. no…” but you know eventually I resigned to being the poor man’s Marilyn – like I filled in for her when people got desperate for a blond Marilyn character. I also did Santa Claus back in the day – as in waaaay back in the singing telegram days and I hated that job! The costumes were always rentals and the beards always had booger s on them. I quit that character fast. Plus kids always knew I was a girl and it would tick them off. Santa is one of the TOUGHEST jobs (seriously) I have ever done – It’s brutal. And yes – I would feel like I am cheating on Madge – because my costume room is FULL Of her. She lives down there and there is NO ROOM for ANY one else. Don’t even get me started on Lady Gaga!
CD: Well Lady Gaga is a whole different creature. You certainly don’t do the bulk of your costume shopping at Home Depot now like you would have to if you did an illusion of her! In all seriousness, what do you think Lady Gaga and the perceived feud between her and Madonna?
CA: Hmmm…..you know initially thought it was contrived and for publicity – but now I am not so sure. Did I think her song sounded like “Express Yourself”? No. Honestly I did not really see it that way. I like Gaga actually. When you blend the two songs together they do kind of sound alike… but to me they are two different, legitimate artists. Although, not even being biased – Madonna has longevity. She is the show woman who set the standards for a good concert and all of these new girls will forever be labeled as copying her because she really has done just about everything but set herself on fire.
CD: Well that was really Michael Jackson’s gimmick, not Madonna. I am officially going to hell.
CA: LOL! Oh that was bad but funny too! You got me chuckling here! But see! EVERYthing has already been done! These new artists need to hang it up!
CD: Well you’re going to hell too then so at least I’ll have company. You mentioned new artists, what do you think of this new crop aside from Lady Gaga, the Katy Perry’s and the Nicki Minaj’s of the world? Of all the new girls out there, who do you think has the best shot at longevity?
CA: Nicki… I don’t “get” her… she seems like a busted Lady Gaga to me? Katy Perry is actually more vocally talented than her pop music leads you to believe – Lady Gaga – She is the one who stood out to me. In fact – I was talking with some dancers 2 nights ago about her. She is really the first girl to come along that brought the uniqueness and excitement that Madonna first did back in the day. Where people got really excited to see what she would be doing next. Gaga is super talented – vocally and as a musician.
Longevity? I am betting on Carrie Underwood. Seriously. Or Jennifer Hudson. Christina will always be around too. – I just don’t see anyone CAPTURING a tenth of Madonna’s crown in that way – Longevity is a tough thing to have in the music business and now everything is so much more amped and sophisticated – no one will be satisfied unless it is over the top with 20 dancers for pop stars. You can thank Madonna for that!
CD: So before we wrap this up, why don’t you let my readers know what is coming up on your schedule Chris, especially if they want to see you?
CA: Well as of this moment I just finished touring several states. I am unfortunately booked mainly at private events through December! I just finished a slew of public ones the past 2 months! I have a few public events coming up for NYC in December But I don’t have the actual dates yet – although I should know them shortly. I will be in Gaithersburg, MD, Charlotte NC, New Orleans, New Jersey, Maryland and San Jose between now and the end of November But they are mainly private events. So sorry about that!
CD: As long as its putting money in your bank account and Madonna wigs on your head, you have nothing to be sorry about girl! If you ever actually met the Material Girl, what would you say to her?
CA: Actually I have met her. I met her informally in May of 1995 at the House of Blues but I did not want to bother her as she was on her time off and honestly I just have a tough time thinking she would want to converse with anyone because so many people are after her – I mainly want a picture with her really to bring my twenty eight plus year career full circle. I sent a little note backstage to her at the concert recently and I do know she got it – so what I wanted to say I have already said and that basically is that I am a lifelong fan and greatly admire her and all of the joy she has brought to so many!
CD: You’ve already accomplished so much in your career thus far but what else is left on your bucket list to accomplish?
CA: Can you believe A photo with Madonna?! Other than that I have pretty much done it all – everything I have wanted to do. I honestly have had a very full career – I have traveled all over the world and have done amazing things through tribute work! It has been hard work but very rewarding in many, many ways! There’s always a part of me that wonders what my life would be like had she not existed? I mean it changed the direction of my conventional life into this unique career. Madonna has touched so many in that way! So many have met through knowing her. It is fascinating!
CD: Thank you for making the time to talk with me Chris! Do you have a final parting shot of wisdom for my readers?
CA: Yes, be kind to one another and to fellow Tributes – we work very hard at our craft in the hopes of sharing the joy of Madonna and experience with others! Oh, and please visit my web site!
Everyone be sure to follow Chris on Twitter:
Visit her Facebook Fan Page:
And don’t forget about her website:
Chiffon Dior spends far too much of her day online, taking breaks only to eat, shower and the occasional trip to Starbucks or the MAC counter. She wants to point out that Evita-era Madonna was the best one and won’t hear any arguments . Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/chiffondior. What are you waiting for? Go do it!