Christina Bianco: 'I try to be careful and put quality over quantity into my shows'
- Brian Donaldson
- 29 July 2019
This article is from 2019
The New York impressionist discusses her favourite voices and most important influences
A 2013 video of her singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' where she impersonated 19 different vocalists helped raise the profile of Christina Bianco to stratospheric levels. As the New Yorker heads for Edinburgh, she tells us how Sammy Davis Jr blew her mind.
What do you prefer to be called: impersonator? Impressionist? Mimic? Something else entirely?
I always say that I'm an impressionist. I'm not striving to look like a particular celebrity, like an impersonator typically does, and for some reason the word mimic often has negative connotations. So, impressionist it is!
What is your first memory of hearing someone impersonate another person?
My father worked in radio and would often choose records to play at random during dinner. I remember hearing Sammy Davis Jr's All-Star Spectacular album. The songs 'Ballerina' and 'Sonny Boy' would come on, in which Sammy impersonates tons of his contemporaries like Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.
I was very young and I didn't quite understand what was going on but when my parents explained to me that Sammy was doing all the voices, I flipped out! I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever heard! All those men had incredible voices but this one man could sing like them all, and he still such had a distinct voice of his own. I had no idea how much of an impact that moment had on me until years later. Sammy is part of the reason I do what I do today and I always try to include a little homage to him in my shows.
What was the first impression you ever attempted and what was the reaction to it?
Although I'm told I did impressions constantly as a kid, the first one I remember doing with the intention of entertaining someone other than myself, was Celine Dion. I'd been singing along to her songs for my whole life and would often mess around singing in her accent and including her particular pronunciations.
I remember I was at a party in high school and, as surprising as it is, I was quite a wallflower in those social situations. 'Because You Loved Me' came on the radio and I couldn't help myself. I just started singing it as her, softly … 'Because You Luuuurved Me … '
The person next to me noticed and the person next to her noticed, and before I knew it I was encircled by about 15 kids who were all cheering me on. When I was done I got a huge round of applause; they all asked me to do it again and if I could do anyone else. I was shocked! Sure, I'd sung as myself in front of them in school plays but this reaction felt very different. It still took a while for me to take my impressions seriously but I sure knew I had a good party trick!
What is your own favourite impersonation? And what is the finest impersonation you've ever heard by someone else?
It's hard to choose but if I'm honest with myself, it has always been Celine Dion. I think she's the most fun because she gives me so much to work with! Obviously, her vocals are incredible but there are so many other 'isms' to explore and implement within a single vocal line.
All of her quirks, mannerisms and physicality are so distinct that I'm able to apply them to material she's never performed and it always works. I think Celine could sing any song and recite any text – from the 'Hokey Cokey' to Hamlet – and the audience would love it. That's a testament to how unique and fabulous she truly is.
It's impossible for me to choose a 'best' or 'finest' impression by someone else as there are so many brilliant ones. But Marilyn Michaels doing Lena Horne on the Kopykats TV show absolutely knocked my socks off. I only saw it about ten years ago but I can't count the amount of times I watched it since, trying to analyse just how she does it. She's extra broad with the physicality of the impression, as is the way of most sketch comedy shows, but her vocals are completely dead-on and so incredibly nuanced. I've tried to crack the code by attempting it myself but I just end up impersonating Marilyn's impression, and it's not at all up to par! I totally bow down to Marilyn, for that Lena impression and the countless others she's brilliantly done.
What is the one impersonation that you have tried and tried, but just cannot quite get right?
There are a few I'm thinking of but the one that hurts most is Joan Rivers. What an icon! I know I'm close to getting it but Joan would be the first one to say that close is no cigar. The problem is, I simply don't have a raspy voice. For me to put that vocal effect on, I would essentially have to wreck my voice completely. It's very frustrating, especially when you want to honour a star you adore. But if I could do Joan, I wouldn't be able to do Celine; so I try to look on the bright side. You should give me a ring when I've got laryngitis though!
What do you find harder: nailing an impression or getting the ideal joke to go with that impression?
If you have a flawless impression but no interesting vehicle for it, it can fall flat. Likewise, if you have a great concept but weak impressions, nothing will land. So I try to be careful and put quality over quantity into my shows. Learning a new impression is tough but so is creating a well-rounded set. And I may do over 100 impressions already, but I don't have to include all of them in every show. I'd rather have a strong theme, and then figure out where the serious moments are and where Edina Monsoon will recite lines from Pride and Prejudice. It all eventually falls into place.
Who is your favourite impersonator working today?
Tracey Ullman. Her ability to completely transform herself into men, women, mythical creatures, inanimate objects and everything in between is astounding to me. Yes, she often has brilliant wigs, make-up and prosthetics on her shows but she doesn't need them. You know who she's impersonating immediately, by the way she simply raises an eyebrow. She's also a first-class actress, and I think it really shows in how she approaches her impressions. It's parody without being mockery. She's my gold standard.
What would be the one piece of advice you'd give an aspiring impressionist?
Always begin from a place of respect. Imitations can make a lot people laugh, but you want to make sure they're laughing for the right reasons. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I believe that's true and my making that fact clear to the audience is why I think I've been able to sustain a career doing this. I know it won't make sense in every situation but you should strive to create an impression that the audience can connect with on a personal level first. And to do this, it has to come from love.
Christina Bianco: First Impressions, Assembly Checkpoint, 3–25 Aug (not 12), 6.20pm, £13–£14 (£12–£13). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £7.