She can deliver dozens of celebrity impressions at the drop of a hat and has done so for millions of television viewers on America's Got Talent. Now, the voice that Melissa Villasenor says she is having the most fun perfecting is her own.
"It's pretty cool how I've transformed into a really exaggerated version of myself on stage," said the comedian/impressionist, who comes to Comedy Off Broadway in Lexington this week.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Villasenor, 24, found out early on that she had the gift of imitation. It was first coupled with her talent for singing, which she used to get laughs from classmates at age 12 doing a dead-on impression of Britney Spears. She quickly moved on to hone impressions of Christina Aguilera, Shakira and Scott Stapp of the band Creed.
Her impressionist arsenal grew as she became more confident and slowly immersed herself in comedy. She participated in her first high school talent show about the time she began doing stand-up at The Laugh Factory Comedy Camp in L.A. when she was 15. Still, she went to a junior college to appease her parents before fully committing to comedy at age 21.
Being an L.A. native worked to Villasenor's advantage as she hustled the city's famed comedy club scene to perform at open-mike nights. As she hit the circuit, she began to realize that she tends to be one of the only impressionist comics taking the stage. It made her timid at first, but she now sees it as an asset.
"I was thinking, wow, my stuff isn't like anyone else's," she said. "I started realizing this is the thing that makes me stand out more."
In the process, she caught a small break thanks to an impeccable Sarah Silverman impression, which she was able to show off in a small role on fellow impressionist comedian Frank Caliendo's short-lived sketch comedy show Frank TV on TBS. She also was tapped to do an impression of Nora Ephron for an episode of Family Guy. Those were nice gigs, but it certainly wasn't enough for her to quit her job working retail at Forever 21.
It was her slam-dunk audition on the sixth season of America's Got Talent last year — when she channeled Barbara Walters, Natalie Portman, Miley Cyrus, Kathy Griffin and Aguilera in about 90 seconds — that led to her big break and eventually being able to do stand-up as a full-time career. Villasenor said she was reluctant to audition at first — until she received that first standing ovation.
"I didn't find (America's Got Talent) that big of a deal until then," Villasenor said. "It's been a really cool journey."
The exposure from AGT, on which she made it to the semifinals, has kept Villasenor busy touring colleges and comedy clubs. She also will find the time to perform her own monthly variety show featuring her stand-up comedy, characters and songs in October at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles.
When she comes to Lexington, audiences may get "appearances" from the likes of Drew Barrymore, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Wanda Sykes and Owen Wilson (one of Villasenor's favorites). But you'll also get to hear more of Villasenor just being herself, talking about her jobs in retail, her desire to have more black friends or other silly observations — "silly" being the operative word.
"In all my stuff, there's always the truth underlying it. But I always like to exaggerate and make things fun," she said. "It's very silly, but it's all very me, too."
Villasenor has used her impressionist talent to get her where she is today, but she likes the comedian she's becoming and wants to use more and more of her own comic voice to carry her the rest of the way.
"I don't want to be identified as solely an impressionist," she said. "I know I'm capable of sharing a lot of different things in my art. I'm really proud to make that leap."
Blake Hannon is a Central Kentucky writer.