For more comedy, watch CNN Films’ “Love, Gilda,” which explores the dramatic story of legendary comedian Gilda Radner, Tuesday, January 1 at 9 p.m. ET.
Melissa Villaseñor’s career in comedy started with three words that every teenage girl in the late ’90s sang at least once into a hairbrush: “Oh Baby, baby…”
These days, Villaseñor’s love for pop diva impersonations isn’t just something for her bedroom mirror or for the amusement of her high school friends: She’s turned it into a career.
“I realized I could do singing impressions when I was 12 years old, first being Britney Spears,” Villaseñor recalls. “I was always really shy growing up, so to find that one thing that made me feel alive, it felt so good. I realized that I was going to be a comedian.”
Villaseñor began performing impersonations of celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Barbara Walters and Ellen DeGeneres at open mic nights in comedy clubs around Los Angeles right after high school.
But success didn’t come as quickly as her comedy calling.
“I bombed a lot,” Villaseñor remembers. “The first few years, it would crush my soul and crush my confidence. Oh, so many tears.”
She auditioned for “Saturday Night Live” in 2009 but wasn’t hired. So Villaseñor kept honing her act and sharing more of herself, performing a mix of impressions, singing and personal stories. Her sets led to comedy show appearances and a successful run on “America’s Got Talent.”
Villaseñor eventually landed a spot on “SNL,” a first for a Latina performer. Over the last two seasons, she’s performed in sketches and brought her impersonations of Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga and Owen Wilson, among others, to the series.
“Every impression I do learn, it’s because I love them so much,” Villaseñor says of the people she embodies. “They really help me feel confident and make me feel happy.”
Villaseñor has made the subjects of her impressions, whose mannerisms she studies in some cases and in others stumbles upon instinctually, happy, too.
“All of them love it,” Villaseñor says of the feedback she’s received on occasion. “Sarah Silverman, I’ve been doing her impression for a while. If I run into her at a comedy club, she’s going to tell me, ‘Are you going to do me? Do me.’ And so I have to go on stage and open with Sarah. So she could just be in the crowd like, ‘Yay!’ (perfect Silverman voice). They all know it’s from my heart.”
Villaseñor’s heartfelt storytelling, along with her chameleon-like ability to morph into others, is really about connecting with them.
“I think comedy is a place where we can work on connecting more as people,” Villaseñor says. “That’s what I really like about doing stand-up, especially vulnerable emotional bits, where I talk about my insecurities or what makes me sad. I feel like that helps. I feel like on that level, it’s nice to connect with people.”