The emperor's borrowed clothes
Enrique Iglesias is in trouble. The disc he is lip-synching to skips. "Hero/hero/hero/hero," he mouths, jerking at the mike until a midget shakes him back on track. A midget? Okay, the singer in the backward baseball cap is not really the atonal Iglesias; it's star impersonator Julio Sabala. The midget, called Rasputin, is Sabala's little straight man. "Enrique Iglesias is the hardest [impersonation] for me to do," Sabala confesses to his audience at the Tropigala. "He doesn't sing; so where do I start? What would become of Enrique Iglesias without marketing?"
This is comedic justice, Sabala-style. Latin America's best-known comic, the 40-year-old Dominican holds the Guinness world record for performing the most continuous impersonations in the shortest span of time. Unlike impressionists who dazzle by doing voices, Sabala effects wholesale physical transformations: Now he's Ricky Martin; now he's Bob Marley; now he's Celia Cruz. But imitation is a means, not an end. Describing his craft after his show at the Fontainebleau Hilton, Sabala points out: "Impersonators take refuge in the personality, but I do satire, a critique of the stars."
No one is safe from Sabala, who has headlined everywhere from Madison Square Garden to the major theaters of Buenos Aires and Madrid. Just as the young Julio -- who grew up globetrotting with an international youth circus -- learned his lines phonetically in Japanese and German, the grown-up impersonator gleans local material for each of his shows from television, the Internet, local newspapers, and the friendships he's forged with local comics during fifteen years of nonstop solo touring. His current production, the multimedia "Imitomania Online," comes in three versions designed for Latin America, Spain, and English-language audiences in the United States. For Los Angeles and Houston, he has a special show featuring Mexican personalities Juan Gabriel, Vincente Fernandez, Alejandro Fernandez, and Los Bukis called "Mexico Gringo y Querido." For Miami's Tropigala the show has racier nightclub content. Wherever he performs, musicians are his main targets. "Humor tends to be local," he concedes, "but music belongs to everyone."
Sabala's most devastating sallies come from his only entirely original character, Casimiro -- a kind of comic Superfly who wears an enormous Afro and a leisure suit covered with the English text: "This is how you tell the (true) story." Noticing Joe Carollo accompanied by an attractive young woman at a recent Tropigala performance, Casimiro expressed mock sympathy for the former Miami mayor, who has been lampooned for his womanizing. "Poor Joe," said the comic. "He came here by himself, but they just stick to him."
Sabala is discriminating in his attacks. "I have my parameters," he reveals. "It would never occur to me to be irreverent toward Andrea Bocelli," he says of the rather straightforward imitation he does of the Italian singer. "With Juan Luis Guerra the only joke I do is about his height," he points out (he comes onstage in stilts). "With Julio Iglesias I make fun of him chasing women, but that's part of his persona as the Latin lover."
Sabala shies away from controversies that do not affect the public. "For me what's important about Ricky Martin is how he was able to conquer the world so quickly," he says. "If he's gay or not doesn't matter." But then Sabala is relentless in making fun of the queeny excesses of Juan Gabriel. "He is a picturesque figure," he says of the actual video footage he plays of the Mexican superstar cavorting with beefcake dancers. "If I didn't play the video, no one would believe I was doing an imitation," he argues. "There are some things that even a humorist can't come up with."
The foibles of the talented merit gentle ribbing, but Sabala pulls no punches with talentless stars foisted on the public by aggressive marketing. "I can make fun of Cristian Castro," he says (he does a hilarious bit about the Mexican crooner's unruly coifs), "but I would never say he can't sing." Enrique Iglesias is another story. "He's an overinflated balloon," Sabala complains of the marketing phenomena. "I don't like him. I have the right to say so."
That right is not always recognized by media too afraid of losing advertisers or access to risk exposing overhyped stars. "I've built a very independent career. There's a lot of conflict," admits Sabala. "Sometimes it's harder to deal with that than it is to do the impersonations. It costs a lot, but I say what I want to say. That's the essence of carnival: There's license for one day."
For Sabala laughter is his license. "In the world of live performance, there's nothing to inflate," he observes. "I administer my own justice, but ultimately the sentence is passed by the public." He smiles, "My act has gotten to be cool; you're not important if Julio Sabala doesn't mention you."
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