Gary James' Interview With Madonna Tribute Artist
Johni Ray is Madonna!!
That's right, every night at the Palace Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, you can find Johni Ray performing her Madonna Tribute Act. Johni has actually taken her Madonna act all over the world. We talked with Johni (She even talks and sounds like Madonna!) Ray about her Madonna act.
Q - How long have you been making a living impersonating Madonna? Is impersonating the right word?
A - Most of us prefer not to be called impersonators, because we're not pretending to be that person. We're doing a tribute to that person. It's like when you're acting. It's like an acting job to me. It's hard to say how long I've been making a living at it because I've been doing it for about 8 years, about 9 years now actually. In the beginning I just did it for fun. I did it as a sidekick. I did a lot of kidís parties. I love children and I would do singing telegrams for children's parties. That wasn't my main job. Then I started doing a lot of overseas work. I guess for the last 5 years it's been my sole job.
Q - Is there a bigger demand for your services overseas?
A - Actually, there was at one time. It's still very, very popular overseas. There's a couple of good shows with good reputations. We're (American Superstars) one of them that made the demand a little more out of the US. It used to be almost a joke to people. They didn't take it seriously. They didn't realize how much of an art form it is. The show I'm in is all live so I have to be able to sing and dance and look like her. I have a section where I go out into the audience and talk. So you have to be able to have that one on one rapport. That's a lot. You just don't have to stand up there and lip-synch or stand there and look pretty. You have to be able to do it all. In our company, everybody can do that.
Q - When did you first realize you looked like Madonna?
A - When I was in college and Madonna first came out, people used to say "She looks just like Madonna." But, I had never seen Madonna then, so I didn't know. The mole I have is real, the mole on my lip. In fact, mine's a little lower and a little more in towards the center than Madonna's is, but it's basically in the same place. When I finally saw a picture of Madonna I thought, I don't look like that, it's just that we have the same mole. That's why people are saying that. I decided to enter this dance competition and everybody wanted me to do a Madonna song. I said "OK, let's make this fun and dress up like her." I had been to cosmetology school. I'm also a hairdresser. Some of my friends from the beauty school did me up like her. When I was done and I looked in the mirror I said, "Oh my, I guess I do look like her." That's when I started playing with makeup and doing different things. See, she re-invents herself so often. She changes her hair. She changes her makeup. So I can change so many different things. It's a lot of fun for me.
Q - Do you look so much like Madonna that if I saw you offstage, I would do a double-take?
A - Well, even when I'm just in jeans in the grocery store people still go, "Look, it's Madonna," under their breath. Rarely do people chase me down. When Madonna came out with Truth or Dare there's a couple of scenes where she has no makeup on, and one in particular. The guy I was dating at the time, he and I went to the theatre together to see Truth or Dare. In this scene, she's sitting on the couch talking to her father on the phone and she has a plastic cap on her head, which is what I put on my head when I bleach my hair. All through the movie he kept going, "That's not her. That's you." Just like teasing me, whispering through the movie. When that scene came he jumped and said, "That is you." Everybody in the theatre turned around and I went "Shut up and sit down." (Laughs.) He didn't realize how much I looked like her until he saw her without her makeup.
Q - Do you follow Madonna's career? Do you like her?
A - I do. She's actually not my favorite artist. I'm more into R&B and Rap music to be honest with you. So I do like Madonna and I like a lot of her stuff. I admire her strength and where she's gotten in the business and how she got there. People say she slept her way to the top, but that's not true. She's an intelligent businesswoman. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. She's done a lot of things that have made me cringe. She's worn a lot of things that I won't wear on stage. But, I'm not her. So, that's OK, you know?
Q - Do you remember the first time you ever saw a picture of Madonna?
A - The first time I ever saw an image of her was a picture, an album cover and that was when my friends dressed me up like her. She had a couple of big songs and people pretty much knew who she was. She played kind of a small venue that was very near my home in Costa Mesa, California. It was called the Pacific Amphitheatre. It wasn't one of the bigger ones. She did her first tour and came there and I went and saw the concert. I remember watching her and thinking, wow, she's more than I thought. At that time I realized she wasn't a one hit wonder like everybody was saying. She has too much determination. She's too in your face, not to a bad extent. She's right there going, oh yes, here I am. No holds barred. (Laughs.)
Q - Does she know about you and your act?
A - Yes. I've never seen her in my audience, but I have been told that she has seen the act. I don't know if she personally has seen the act, but I know that she has sent people to see the act. She's known for that. If she doesn't like people who are out there doing her... There's a lot of people who will do her real campy, over dress, over emphasize, grab their crotch and cuss a lot and do things over the top. I've heard she doesn't like that. She will tell you to stop. I know of one girl who was sent a letter by Madonna's management company saying to stop. The girl took it as a compliment! The girl thought she must be threatened by me. I thought no, she's embarrassed by you. (Laughs), but I didn't say that. Madonna is known for going out and watching them, and if she doesn't like them, telling them to stop.
Q - And do they stop?
A - This girl stopped. There isn't ways they can make you stop, if you're doing everything right. Legally, you can't sign their name or an autograph, unless you put it in quotations, and sign your own name underneath it. Legally, you have to have rights to the music, which our company obtains. There's several things you have to do legally, and if they can catch you in one of those loopholes they can make you stop.
Q - Before this Madonna Tribute act, were you a singer in a Rock 'n' Roll band?
A - Yes. How did you know that?
Q - I might have read it someplace.
A - I didn't know I was a singer to be perfectly honest with you. I never studied singing and I'm not a trained singer. I've always sang since I was a child. I always sang in the school plays. I sang in church. I just loved it. I come from a fairly religious household and I was taught to use my voice for joyous reasons. There's a lot of kids in my family and my parents couldn't afford to send all of us to college. So I was putting myself through college by singing. I was teaching nursery school and one of the children's fathers was a piano player. I had a piano in the classroom and he would come in and play the piano every once in awhile and I would sing. I didn't think much of it, but the girl that sang with him in this club was pregnant and needed a pregnancy leave. He asked me if I would stand in for her. I thought great, I could use the cash. From there I got an audition with this band that I ended up singing with. The singing kind of took off. I didn't pursue singing. It pursued me.
Q - Do you have anything original going on?
A - I do write songs for myself. I've even gone into the studio and done rough cuts, just for my own personal satisfaction. I don't have any goals to break out and make my own album. If it happens, great. I enjoy recording. I enjoy singing. I enjoy doing my own stuff.
Q - What does the future hold for you?
A - I'm not sure. I know I can't ride this train forever, but I sure love it. I've always said I'll just keep doing it until they tell me I can't, (Laughs), or until I don't enjoy it. I've always said if I don't like my job, I'm not gonna do it anymore. I love my job and love the people I'm performing with. I love performing for people. I love that we have a family show and kids get to see me. I'm a real kid person. I love kids. I love to be performing and look out and see that smile and sparkle in their eyes and the glow in their face. They know I'm not Madonna, but they also know I'm probably as close as they're gonna get, some of them.