I hobbled to the bathroom as fast as I could, slammed the door shut, and gasped out in pain. I quickly dropped the $1200 in cash I had been holding on the floor and sat on the closed toilet seat. Blood began to drip down onto the pile of crumpled hundred-dollar bills that lay strewn haphazardly on the cold tile floor, so I unrolled some toilet paper and applied pressure to the part of my leg that was gushing. Blinding pain shot from my shin through my hip. I reluctantly began to pull back the many layers of white tulle from my costume that had been in the way of me getting a close look at the damage. It was worse than I expected. My fall had embedded a portion of my Capezio fishnets into my leg and raw bloodied skin was peeled up in thick slices between each diamond shape. A dark black and red bruise had already formed and was starting to travel up my calve. I started to get a bit light-headed from the initial shock and gore but was brought back to being alert when by a knock on the bathroom door. My voice trembled a bit as I responded with a week “hello?” Outside was the guy I had hired for the night. “Hey Gaga, just letting you know I have to head out in a few.” I scrambled to pick up my blood-stained cash from the floor and stood up, putting all of my weight on one leg and 8” platform shoe. I looked into the mirror, adjusted my wig, and opened the door.
Four months earlier, I had received an email with “Fierce high school graduation party” in the subject line. from “Queen Genovia”, who said “Hi, I saw your website and you look so much like Lady Gaga it is crazy. I’m wondering if you would be able to come perform at my sister Sarah’s high school graduation party in our backyard in June and what your rate would be? We want to make it seem really authentic like the real Lady Gaga showed up to perform. There’s no stage or lights or anything. Just some grass and the cement patio. There’s also a back porch light. Hope to hear from you soon.”
These kinds of emails were frequent, but always the most annoying because the clients generally didn’t even have the budget to hire a DJ, let alone rent the lighting and stage that would be needed to produce the idealistic concert production they were imagining in their heads. I rolled my eyes when reading the request and sent back my standard response to Genovia which laid out my rates and rider requirements. These were usually enough to put off people with low budgets and low-end gigs who I didn’t want to work with. A few days later, I was surprised to receive a reply back that Genovia was down to meet all of the requirements and my rate. After several more conversations, I was finally able to convince her that if she wanted the most authentic fake Lady Gaga performance, she would need to rent a professional sound system (not a karaoke machine), and ideally hire backup dancers and fake bodyguards. Since her budget was limited she decided to nix dancers and go with just one bodyguard.
As the gig approached, I took out a Backstage job listing to try and find an authentic bodyguard type to get paid $150 in cash to stand around and “protect me” during my hour-long gig. The next day I had fifty-seven responses in my inbox. Some of them were just selfies with no text. Some were from models with professional headshots. Some had business and acting resumes but no photos. A few dick shots were strewn in there too. After sifting through the mess, I set up a quick phone interview with Alex who was the right type, height, and build for the gig. Alex was a FIT model and was looking for extra cash gigs to make ends meet. He seemed slightly skeptical that all he had to do was show up and stand around and was going to get paid that much. Generally, most of the people I hired had no clue that the event and party industry was as lucrative as it was. I gave Alex the address of my gig and we agreed to meet on-site twenty minutes prior to my performance start time. I crossed my fingers and hoped like hell he would actually show up.
Two weeks later I packed up my giant duffle bag with my eight-inch crystal-covered platforms, hand-crafted disco stick, wig, and accessories. I threw my costume in its garment bag over my other arm and headed out on the subway. By the time I made it to the train platform, my shoulder and arms were killing me and I was already regretting my decision to take the train vs a taxi. Since I hadn’t had a gig in many weeks, I put the decision to save the $100 round trip taxi far ahead of comfort. About forty-five minutes later, my train neared the ass-end of Bay Ridge Brooklyn. As I headed up the stairs in the fairly empty station, I watched a couple of subway rats happily scurry by. My oversized canvas duffle bag began digging deep into my shoulder again as I neared the end of my several block walk, which was guided by my iPhone. It was way too far to lug everything and I really should have taken a taxi. Finally, Siri told me I was at my destination. I looked up at the looming four-story brownstone in front of me and dragged myself up the stairs to ring the doorbell. A minute went by with no response. I tried again and nothing. Did I have the wrong address? I dug through my email to find Genovia’s phone number and called to tell her I was waiting at the front door. When she picked up I heard Justin Bieber music blasting in the background. “Hello, Gaga! I will be right there! We’re in the backyard at the party!” she yelled into the phone. Moments later Genovia flung open the front door. She was far tinier than I expected, at no more than 5’3”. Her long, dyed jet-black hair was perfectly ironed and she wore black patent leather pants and Jimmy Choo stilettos, and a corset that accentuated her voluptuous cleavage. Her black crystal nose ring caught the light as I extended my hand to greet her. “Hi! Nice to finally meet you! I said. “How is the party going so far?” Genovia exclaimed “They are having fun but getting really bored, so we can’t wait to get you out there. I’ll show you the dressing area. It is actually our basement apartment bedroom. You should have everything you need in there to get ready.”
I followed Genovia through a large bright and cheerful floral-themed living room and down two flights of stairs. What I saw when she turned on the lights was such a stark contrast to the rest of the house that my jaw dropped. In front of me was a dim room with red walls and black accent trim. A round bed with a black satin comforter and black leather headboard was at its center, and the ceiling was covered in mirrors. Nearly every piece of furniture in the room was upholstered in lush black velvet. Candelabras with black and white pillar candlesticks were the primary decor in the room and seemed to be in every corner. The surfaces beneath some of them were adorned with puddles of dried wax.
At the center of the mirrored ceiling hung a massive black iron chandelier. I felt like I had just walked into a scene from Interview with the Vampire. My mind began racing with anxiety and dark thoughts. “This is for sure the gig where I get murdered and used as a blood sacrifice and no one ever hears from me again.” I checked my phone to make sure I had service down there in case I needed to call for help. I was only semi-confident that I could bludgeon anyone to death with my disco stick in self-defense if needed.
Genovia led me to an empty table with a small mirror and chair where I could get ready. She told me that in the back of the room near the bathroom there was a small cement staircase that would lead me directly up to the backyard where I would be performing. I was to make my “grand entrance” from there. “I’m going to head back up to the party.” She said. “I’ll let the bodyguard guy in when he gets here. Text me if you need anything.” As soon as she left the room I pulled back the thick black curtains and peered out the barred windows just to make sure there really was a teen party happening above me. I was relieved to see a bunch of GAP-wearing, acne-covered teenagers milling around eating pizza and chatting. There was no obvious vampire coven waiting to feed on me. At least not in obvious site. I sighed with relief.
Though the room I got ready in was extremely creepy, I was happy to actually have the basic necessities I needed to get ready. These were such simple things like a place to hang my costume, a full-length mirror, and a makeup table, but so many clients would promise to have them and then not when I arrived. I unpacked and began the long process of getting into Lady Gaga drag when I noticed a closet door nearby that looked like the most obvious spot to hang my costume. I cracked it slightly and put the hanger over the top. As I sat back down in front of the make-up mirror, the door behind started to creak loudly as it slowly swung open from the weight of my costume. “Please don’t let a dead body fall out of there” I thought. I walked over to close the door and saw a slew of bondage gear, a sex swing, and kinky role-playing costumes. Given the room’s decor, I wasn’t super surprised. I quickly shut found another spot to hang my dress, while especially avoiding touching the bed area. Sarah had one freaky-ass sister.
Shortly after I had finished getting into costume my fake bodyguard finally arrived. I figured he was going to run the other way once he encountered the situation at hand. There was a knock on the bedroom door and Genovia stepped in with Alex who, thankfully was as hot in real life as he was in his photos, and as tall as his resume listed. I must have been quite a stark contrast to the red and black room around me in as I met them at the door in my bright white costume light-up costume and platinum wig.
“HOLY SHIT!” Genovia shouted as she saw me in my full look for the first time. “Now THAT is a transformation. You look exactly like her! Oh my god! I’m getting my boyfriend right now to come in here and take some pictures.” She ran off to get her boyfriend and Alex remained in the doorway. In the back of my mind, I still wondered if this was the part where they were going to tie us up and try to drink our blood.
I introduced myself to Alex who also seemed somewhat star-struck just by seeing me in costume. This was the one part of being an impersonator that always felt so odd to me. Though people obviously knew I wasn’t really Lady Gaga, they often acted as nervous around me as they would with an actual celebrity. I can’t even count the times I had seen people’s hands trembling with nerves as they asked me for a photo together.
“What is up with this room?” Alex asked as he entered, taking in all of the goth details for the first time in as much shock as I initially had. “I know right?” I said. “Hopefully they don’t try to shackle us before we leave.” We laughed and I gave him a quick rundown of his fake bodyguard duties. Genovia returned a few minutes later with her boyfriend who, not surprisingly, looked like a character from American Horror Story. They were both holding glasses of red wine. Or perhaps it was blood. She handed her phone to Alex who took a ton of photos of the three of us together. When it was just about time for my performance they led me outside to the base of the cement stairs I would need to climb up to get to the yard where I would make my entrance.
Alex headed up before me to stand in his bodyguard spot and create some excitement. As the opening bars of Bad Romance blasted from the rental speaker system, I looked up and noticed how dark and narrow the stairs were. The lack of light combined with my dark Gaga sunglasses made it very hard to see. I had to pull them up a bit as I drudged my way to the top in my sky-high shoes.
When I came into full view the whole yard full of kids started screaming and cheering. Eventually, I even got them dancing, which is not an easy task with a party full of jaded teens. The speaker setup was less than ideal since the tight area meant mic interference when near the speakers. Given this and that my heels kept sinking into the grass, I did not have the ability to move around much during my set. Despite this, my years of experience entertaining at parties meant there wasn’t much you could throw at me that I couldn’t handle. The kids loved it, and most importantly, Sarah was happy and had a huge smile on her face.
After my set, I did the part of the gig known as “working the room”, which meant mingling with all of the guests and taking photos and selfies with them. The teens were all super polite and we chatted about their majors and college plans for the Fall. They all had a hopeful excitement about the future that was refreshing and contagious. I couldn’t help but think back to being their age when I was so excited to move to NYC for college. I had such big dreams of being a Broadway star, but here I was over a decade later, a college dropout pretending to be a pop star for teenagers in a backyard with my heels covered in mud. Though there can be moments of artistry in being a tribute artist, I sure wasn’t feeling it at that moment. I couldn’t wait to get paid and go home, hopefully with all of my existing blood.
Alex tipped me off when I was nearing the end of my hour, so I sought out Genovia to thank her and let her know I was heading out. She rushed off to get the rest of my fee and handed me a wad of one-hundred-dollar bills that I discreetly tucked into my glove. I headed for the unlit cement stairs, which would lead me back down into the creepy vampire sex dungeon and toward freedom. I took off my sunglasses, but the stairs were still quite dark. Going down was more challenging than up since it was hard to see my feet below my costume. I took it slow, but just as I was safely halfway down my gigantic platform heel get caught on a loose patch of cement and slip out from under me. I grabbed for the railing but it was too late. My left leg twisted in an unnatural way as my calve smashed onto the rough cement, scraping chunks of skin off the whole way down. My hip slammed onto the stairs and my shoulder twisted unnaturally as I desperately tried to hold onto the railing with no success. The next thing I knew I was in a pile of white tulle at the bottom of the stairs in so much pain that I couldn’t see straight. I was almost certain that my leg my broken. Alex, who had been heading down behind me but not close enough to stop my fall came up behind me to see if I was ok. I honestly didn’t know at that point. “Help me stand up and I guess we’ll find out.” I said. As I got myself upright I looked down and was relieved to see there was no bone sticking out and my leg was still in the right spot. I could feel warm blood beginning to run down my leg, so I limped into the bathroom to assess the damage.
I ordered an Uber to get home. I hadn’t wanted to spend the extra money initially, but walking was no longer an option. It was late and the last thing I wanted to do was spend the night in a Brooklyn emergency room, so I spent that night in severe pain with ice packs all over my body. Aside from the bloody fishnet pattern embedded into my leg, I also had a nasty foot-long bruise down my calve, a bruised hip, and couldn’t move my right arm.
The next morning I got myself to a bone and joint urgent care center where the intake Dr. asked how I acquired all of these injuries in a way that asserted I had been domestically abused. I explained that I was a Lady Gaga impersonator and had fallen down dark cement stairs after a gig in a backyard. He stopped typing and looked confused. “Wow, I’ve never heard that one before.” he said and started laughing. I had at least ten X-rays and was laying there in a bed for a while, waiting for results when the Dr. came back into the room with two assistants. He told them, “You guys -so Renée is a Lady Gaga impersonator and she got injured from a fall at work… Isn’t that a cool job?” I was most certainly not in the mood but knew what was coming. The same reaction I had gotten 1,000 times before when someone found out what my job was. I took an exasperated breath and braced myself. One nurse exclaimed “Whaaat! nooooo way! Ohhh, you DO look like her!” This was inevitably followed by the same textbook questions everyone asked next. “Where do you perform? I love Poker Face! Do you sing? Do you wear wigs? Do you dance? Have you met her? Did you see her last concert? Do you have a meat dress?”
I politely answered all of the usual questions while wincing in pain acting and acting like it was the first time I had heard them. From that moment on when anyone asked me what I did for a living, I told them I was a receptionist. Thankfully I had no broken bones, but I had some pretty severe sprains and muscle injuries that took months to heal. Many years later I still have some issues from this fall.
Though it wasn’t in the way I expected, I hadn’t made it out of the vampire dungeon without shedding blood after all.