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Lady Go Diva
Impressionist Bethany Owen's Vocal Schizophrenia Leaves You in Stitches
"Marilyn Monroe" is in the building.
Ascending on a riser and wreathed in lavender and red lights, glammed up in her iconic white dress, the blonde bombshell seductively takes the stage at Santa Ana's OC Pavilion and breaks into "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." When she's done, Marilyn starts talking saucily about being elected president ("Wouldn't be the first time we had a couple of real boobs in the White House") and alluding to doing naughty things with Joe DiMaggio's Louisville Slugger. Wait—was Marilyn this funny?
Probably not. But Bethany Owen imbues Marilyn and hundreds of other notorious singers, comedians and celebrities—from Minnie Pearl to Macy Gray, from Hillary Clinton to Katie Couric, from Andy Rooney's mom to Arnold Schwarzenegger's maternal unit—with a wit that's both slightly cutting and affectionate.
The Huntington Beach-based impressionist has become the world's most prolific female in this male-dominated field by combining spot-on recreations of celebs' vocal tics and facial expressions with lyrics and humorous bits that cleverly spoof the originals' personas. Check the segment with Martha Stewart singing "Jailhouse Rock" for hilarious proof.
Owen's been plying her "One Voice" show—with crucial support by husband/director/producer Jim Whirlow—from Santa Ana to India (their last tour added 20,000 miles to their vehicle's odometer) while landing cameo slots on MADtv, The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, Celebrity Deathmatch,Jimmy Kimmel Live!and on myriad radio shows that require vocal facsimiles of Cher and Fran Drescher. (Owen had to turn down a sporadic role on Late Night with Conan O'Brien because it necessitated moving to New York.) She's also cut a CD titled Legendary Women of Jazz on which she convincingly channels the classy vocal styles of immortals like Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne and eight others.
But it's "One Voice" that most impressively demonstrates Owen's staggering range. She typically inhabits 50 characters during a 90-minute performance, while doing all of her own costume and wig changes onstage. A whirlwind of musical theater, comedy and dance, "One Voice" is an impressive spectacle that appeals to many demographics (especially gays, seniors and college students). It's the culmination of this Orange County woman's indefatigable ambition to capture a unique niche in show business—a destiny she claims to have desired since she was 3.
A lithe, long-limbed redhead, Owen started taking ballet lessons at age 6 while living in Seattle. At 14, she studied under famed flamenco dancer José Greco and then entered the Orange County Ballet Theater in Fullerton at 15. But a serious illness at age 17 forced Owen to forgo the rigors of serious dancing, and she redirected her energies to music, joining a popular show band that often played in Las Vegas called Full Moon, who needed a choreographer and singer. This was the mid-'70s.
"But I wasn't very proficient with singing at the time," Owen recalls—irony or ironies—in a monotone. "All the guys in the band were 10 years older than me, and I think they were trying to mess with my head. They would say, 'If you could sing like Diana Ross, then you'd be something' or 'If you could sing like Barbra Streisand, then we would have a higher opinion of you.'
"On the road, I'd carry my record player with me and my albums, and I'd practice trying to sing like Diana Ross. I didn't have any formal vocal training, so I would be like [sings in a close approximation of Ross], 'Baby love,' and say, 'Do I sound like Diana Ross?' [Adopts Cher's voice] 'Do I sound like Cher yet, babe?' They'd say, 'Go away; just practice.' So that's how I learned to become a singer."
The guys in Full Moon had no idea they'd provoked a voracious vocal chameleon (just don't ask her to do Pee-wee Herman). One day the group's manager suggested they do a set heavy with television theme songs, including that ofAll in the Family.
"They said, 'We think you should do the voice of Edith Bunker,'" Owen remembers. "They were trying to make me look real bad. I practiced. We went onstage that night and when I sang, 'These are the days!' the audience went bonkers. They loved that more than all the training that I had as a ballerina, studying flamenco. That was suddenly meaningless. The voice of Edith Bunker meant more to the audience than all that money I threw down the drain in dance lessons," she concludes with a laugh.
For a while, Owen hesitated to fully exploit her talent for mimicry. "I would try to make my living in other ways, but audiences liked it and ultimately I would get booked into places because I had this piece in my act where I would do these imitations," she says. "After awhile, I began to realize that this is what I'm here for. This is something that not everybody can do, and people like it. So I'm going to give them what they like."
Another huge motivator for Owen was the dearth of females in the field. "I don't know why boys are more inclined to do impressions and mimicry than females, but that was a challenge for me. I did comedy rooms for a while, which was very male-dominated. I want to challenge myself to be able to do as many voices as the guys can do and to be as good at them as the guys are. Nobody's telling me how to do it. You're just figuring it out on your own. It's like your own school."
Owen's methods for learning how to emulate voices involve rigorous viewing and listening sessions, bolstered by tricks she learned while studying the Strasberg way of acting with Salome Jens. (Owen is currently working on Ellen DeGeneres and several other TV personalities.)
When asked if she ever longs to simply focus on developing her own singing voice, Owen replies, "I have way too much fun doing all these voices; [they're] much more fun than my voice."
Whirlow, who's worked with Owen for five years, proudly asserts, "What [Bethany] does makes her unique to the world. If she uses her own voice, she's just another singer, one of a million across the country. People don't quite know how to categorize what ["One Voice"] is because it's such a mix of things. It's such a unique and original . . . presentation. When you walk away from the show, you're going to believe that you saw those people she did impressions of."
Especially (shudder) Edith Bunker . . .
For more information, visit www.bethanyowen.net.