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By Ron Cassie
Photo by Courtesy Photo - Chris America, who impersonates Madonna, is seen here in many of her ever changing costumes. This is one in a series of articles that looks at the quirky and unusual moments in life and this week asks the question — what’s it like ... impersonating Madonna?
In the early '80s, Chris America, then an 18-year-old aspiring actress trying to land dinner theater roles in Washington, took a part-time job doing singing telegrams for a local talent agency. Until, that is, her boss called a staff meeting and informed everyone that the agency was moving in a new direction. "He said, look-a-likes and impersonators were the new trend," she recounted. "He asked who was interested. I said, 'I am, but I have no idea who I look like.'
"He told me I looked like this new girl Madonna on MTV. I didn't know who she was -- I had to leave and do some research to find out."
Nearly a decade later, she's in Washington with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria and Sargent Schriver for a Best Buddies charity banquet, and when she's called out to perform, so many people believe she's the real Madonna that they rush the stage, which begins to collapse. It takes 15 police officers to get her through a side door and down an elevator to an underground garage.
"It was extreme and scary... I had no control over my limbs and I saw how dangerous large crowds can get. I realized what real celebrities must go through" she said.
As the Material Girl hit it big, so did Christina America, who grew up in Northern Virginia where she's also lived for the past seven years. She's performed all over the metro area, across the U.S. and internationally. Mostly it's been hard work and fun. However, in the early days when strange men started showing up in her front yard and odd mail began arriving, she realized she needed a stage name (using her middle name America), even if Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie did not.
She's matched the Queen of Pop costume change for costume change, appearing on Oprah, the Tonight Show and the cover of Esquire. Seven years younger than the original, she's had her own surreal 28-year career, recalling an upstate New York gig where she was hired to perform for 1,000 guests, including Frank Sinatra, at a "well-connected" Italian-American wedding.
"I didn't even realize it until after I was done performing," she said. "They had hired 16 backup dancers for my act and one of the girls asked me in the dressing room if I'd noticed the machine guns hidden under the suit coats of these huge men apparently guarding the entrances of all the ballroom doors. It had not occured to me what they were there for and I had to look to see for myself."
Today, she has 50 different pairs of shoes and boots, 200 wigs, and enough accessories and rhinestones to sink the gondola Madonna sung from in the infamous "Like a Virgin" video. She's got it down from the vagabond Lucky Star days, to the platinum Material Girl, the spiritual, Like a Prayer chick, the Blonde Ambition business suit and "vogue' thing, right through the regal Evita, clubbing cowgirl and British equestrian manifestation. "Oh yeah, Dick Tracy's in there, too."
At 5-foot-4 and 116 pounds, she hits the gym five days a week, mixing free weights, cardio and yoga to maintain measurements like the real Madonna - 32C-26-34, who turns 55 this summer. "I have a friend in Florida, Betty Atchison, who impersonates Cher, and she got me hooked on Bikram Yoga. She is incredibly fit and we both have work at staying in shape because our particular characters are impossibly fit. We have no choice but to meet certain image standards for our job" she said.
Bill Shade, CEO of Shade Construction in Maryland, hired America for a Christmas party and said she was, "the splitting image, it's unbelievable actually."
Anu Mitra of Potomac, hired America for her husband's 50th birthday and wrote she'd "enthusiastically recommend her to friends and colleagues."
Nic Groshons, a Washington choreographer, said she's fantastic and had her perform at his 30th birthday bash.
For her part, America calls Madonna a great artist and a great impersonator, crediting her for re-interpreting characters and images from the past, i.e. Marilyn Monroe, Betty Davis, Evita Peron and making them her own.
With a new Madonnna video coming soon, the recent Super Bowl appearance, The MDNA Tour and now Madonna's new "Secret Project", it's already shaping up to be a big booking year for America.
And although she got her Madonna-like looks from her Greek-Ameican family, she didn't initially get their approval. "They didn't want me to be an entertainer, they wanted me to have a conventional profession" she said. "When I started in this profession, Madonna was mainly being portrayed as racy in the media and my father was convinced I was doing bachelor parties. He finally got it when he witnessed my show for the first time at Sargent Shriver's 75th birthday and saw how much fun everyone was having."
Actually, her very first Madonna gig was in 1984. She was hired by the best friend of a 13 year old girl, as a birthday surprise. Chris arrived to a house with only four guests attending, the young girl's suburban parents being two of them.
"I came to the front door in Madonna's signature costume at the time, the Lucky Star look with a big bow in my frosted hair... the parents opened the door looking very skeptical and not too happy. I initially thought they did not approve of Madonna but I was wrong" said America.
"I brought balloons, sang (Lucky Star)and interactively involved them in two other numbers (Dress You Up and Material Girl)dressing them up in accessories and we danced around, just the three of us and they were having the best time! I looked over mid-show at mom and Dad and they were crying. I was perplexed but I carried on. As I left, the Mother handed me a $100 tip. She then told me their 16-year-old daughter had committed suicide three months earlier and that they were worried about their youngest. She said it was the first time her daughter had smiled since their loss and that it gave them hope that things would be okay."
"My first job really truly had the most impact on me and it made me realize that what I do carries a real purpose. Our job as an impersonator is much more than showing up looking like someone. We facilitate interaction with guests and it takes a lot of preparation to meet their expectations of not only the character we portray but what we bring to the table at an event. There are all kinds of reasons guests want us there".
America's rates reflect the investment in her craft and preparation; in addition to her fee, transport and hotel are required for out of state travel. She has done bar and bat mitzahs, local anniversaries and corporate functions in Gaithersburg and Ocean City. Last fall, a wedding in Hungary and a couple of night club performances in Ecuador.
"It's not like it's easy work," she said, explaining she doesn't have anyone impersonating Madonna's hairstylists, make-up artists and wardrobe professionals. It's expensive to be in this profession and overwhelmingly involved to do it right. We have to dedicate a lot of time, money, physicality etc... There are only a handful of us who specialize in what we do and who we portray".
She's taken voice and dance lessons over the years; even had a gap drilled into her smile to closer resemble Madonna. She checks up on the latest gossip and learned alittle about Kabbalah and Guy Ritchie along the way. "So, I can make a funny quip," she said. "Fans expect me to know every latest thing."
Two of her other strange --but rewarding -- gigs have been memorial services. "Two wakes, in San Francisco and New York," she said. "Both gay men. Each of their partners told me the person who passed away had really been passionate about Madonna and loved her while they were alive. It was a little weird, yet it helped people remember this person."
She said that given her relatively minor brushes with celebrity, she appreciates her end of the look-a-like business. "The best part is seeing people have fun and forget about all their problems for a while," America said. She's also admitted she's given thought to her unusual destiny.
"I have wondered what my life would have been like had Madonna not taken off the way she did or had I had not resembled her. This profession kind of chose me and I would never have guessed I would still be doing it over half of my life. But I realize I have had some wonderful opportunities to travel, meet people and leave them with fond memories of their special ocassion. I've learned to be open to the opportunities that come your way.
"Back then, who would have thought Madonna would be around this long?"