Celebrity Impersonator

Terri Navarra has made a career of being Joan Rivers—without a nip or a tuck

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» “There was one guy you could not convince I wasn’t Joan Rivers. Many times people say, ‘OK, wink, wink, you’re not her. So how are things in show business?’?”

» The California native, who won’t reveal her age, grew up in Concord. After enrolling in a literature program at Diablo Valley College in Northern California, she won a scholarship to study performing arts at UC Irvine, where she earned a bachelor’s degree.

» While working as an actress, Navarra moved to Los Angeles and joined a commedia dell’arte troupe. People told her that she was a natural impersonator. As a child she imitated the characters she saw on TV—especially those from I Love Lucy (she says she can recite every episode verbatim).

» The most impersonated celebrity in the country is Elvis Presley. According to the Professional Elvis Impersonators Association, there are currently 500 people re-creating the King.

» Twenty years ago Navarra did a rendition of Zsa Zsa Gabor that ran on Rick Dees’ radio show, which got her a gig at a Beverly Hills event. Then she was hired to do Vanna White for a Wheel of Fortune parody. These days her repertoire includes Hedda Hopper, Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, and Carmen Miranda, but for financial reasons, she focuses on Rivers. “Some celebrities only have one sellable point, but Joan has many, so I can play her in many different venues.”

» She performs for corporate and charitable functions but has stopped doing private parties. Her fee starts at $850 an hour, with a one-hour minimum, but it varies by location and event. “I spend time figuring out what the event is about, so when I walk out, I know what’s going on.”

» At a recent event a group of women followed Navarra into the restroom. “They asked me, ‘Joan, can we have our picture taken?’ While I was in the stall! I said, ‘Right now?’ I gave them a great shot by the bathroom sink.”

» Getting ready is “no picnic.” The day before, Navarra starts warming up her body and voice. Three hours before show time she’ll paint on Rivers’s high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. While Rivers has had considerable plastic surgery during the two decades Navarra has played her, Navarra compensates by using makeup and capturing Rivers’s “energy.” “I’m not fond of being cut,” Navarra says. “It’s more that what I say is believable.”

» “A good impersonator knows how to incorporate acting, writing, and people skills so the audience feels they had an encounter with the celebrity. It’s not about putting the exact shade of lipstick on.”

» Navarra estimates she spends $5,000 to $7,000 a year on makeup, wigs, jewelry, clothes, and dry cleaning.

» There are two types of impersonators: character actors like Navarra and “mannequins” (also called “cardboards”)—people who are born with the features of a famous person. “That’s not what I do. I can’t just stand there, because it’s disrespectful to the person I represent.” 

» Men and women respond differently to Rivers’s signature insult-laced humor, says Navarra. “Women do not want to hear one thing bad about themselves, even if it’s farce. Men are comfortable with it because they’re more confident.”

» Navarra has read most of Rivers’s books and plans to see Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work, the documentary that follows the 77-year-old comedian for a year and hits theaters this month.

» In 2009, Navarra worked the VIP after-party for the Joan Rivers roast on Comedy Central. “That was a thrill. Joan was there, and I got to wave and say hi, but I did not want to go up and do material for her. You never know how people feel about being impersonated.”

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

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