Bette Midler impersonator Jennica McCleary wants to give you a Bette-ducation

By : Jeremy Williams
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Growing up in a small, midwestern town in Ohio can be tough for a girl with aspirations of big city fame, but that journey can be a bit more motivated when you share a likeness to one of the greatest stage entertainers in the world.

“As I was growing up and getting into dance and theater everyone would always tell me, ‘Do you know who you look like? You look like a young Bette Midler,’” says Jennica McCleary. “And I would say ‘I hear that all the time.’”

McCleary, who not only can be seen appearing on Big Bang Boom Cabaret stages and occasionally with the folks of VariaTEASE throughout Central Florida, is a well known Midler impersonator (rumor has it the Divine Miss M even knows of McCleary’s impeccable talent of being her).

“Early in my life people would want me to try and do something with that but me, the theater nerd, would be like ‘No, I don’t want to pretend to be somebody else.’” [laughs]

McCleary was finally inspired to embrace her doppelganger when, just after graduating high school, she decided to compete for Miss America in her home state of Ohio.

“So I’m really competitive and I wanted to try my hand at this pageant thing, but I was really lost with it and so I went to see this woman who is a pageant coach,” McCleary says. “Besides being a pageant coach she also represented an Elvis impersonator, and she was very persistent that I start a career as a Bette Midler impersonator.”

McCleary didn’t become the next Miss America, but what she did become was a student in the school of the Divine Miss M.

“My parents were huge Barry Manilow fans and I used to beg them to take me to the concerts with them and listen to his music,” McCleary says. “It just kind of goes hand in hand if you know Manilow then you would know who Bette Midler is.”

Milder and Manilow worked together early in their careers on albums and in New York’s Continental Baths in 1970.

“She intimidated me so much,” McCleary says. “It’s just such a big bombastic personality, and she’s just so ostentatious on stage and there’s so much there. I just kept thinking I don’t know that I can pull that off, but I agreed to start doing the research.”

McCleary began gathering everything she could find on Midler—albums, photos, books, concert recordings—anything that would give her insight into the entertainer.

“This was several years ago so studying her was not as easy as putting ‘Bette Midler’ into Google. There was one time I had to track down someone who had a VHS of her Cleveland Concert, which was like 200 dollars, and then I had to go to the pawn shop and buy a VHS player and pray that it worked,” she says. “It’s kind of a fun scavenger hunt for me. There’s so much she did pre-Hollywood, I feel like I’m constantly finding things out about her.”

One “on-the-job training” moment came during McCleary’s time in Las Vegas.

“I was hosting drag competitions at some of the local bars at the Fruit Loop—that’s what they called the gay bars circle in Vegas—and I had just started coming out as Bette and this young man comes up to me after the show and says to me that he has a pair of tickets to the opening preview of Bette Midler at Caesar’s Palace,” McCleary recalls. “So a friend and I went to see Bette Midler preview her show, and that was the first time I had ever seen her in concert live.”

McCleary watched Midler premiere her Vegas show, The Showgirl Must Go On, at The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace on Feb. 20, 2008.

“She would probably hate that I would say this, but there were flaws and there were mistakes, because it’s a preview, that what happens, but I learned so much from it,” McCleary says. “Right at the end of the show she sings ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ and just before she is suppose to go into the second verse, she doesn’t, she jumps and goes into the bridge, and it takes the band but a measure to catch her and be where she is at, then she realizes what she’s done. I’m sure she could feel the audience pause of a second, and she makes a joke about it. She jumps back into the song. She always says. ‘You are the funniest joke in the room’ and I have rolled with that throughout my career.”

McCleary’s first tribute to Bette Midler was a show she developed called Divine Deception. Backed by a pair of her own Harlettes (the name given to the trio of backup singers who support Midler during her live performances), McCleary walked the audience through Midler’s greatest hits.

“That show goes through about 30 to 40 years of Bette’s career,” McCleary says. “From right after she did The Rose, when she did The Devine Madness Tour, to her final appearance on Johnny Carson where she sang ‘One For My Baby,’ which won her an Emmy.”

McCleary used that show to remind audiences of those great “Bette moments,” points in Midler’s career that most people know about, and to sing her hits songs that they all remember.

McCleary’s new show, Dear Bette — playing at The Abbey July 16, 17 and 24 — is less of a highlight of Midler’s career and more of what McCleary calls a “Bette-ducation” of the one called Bathhouse Betty.

“Dear Bette is my chance to share all those facts and figures and all those interesting things about Bette that people don’t know or didn’t realize,” McCleary says. “I mean, this is a woman who sold out Carnegie Hall before she even released an album. No one else has ever done that.”

McCleary says Dear Bette is a performance that will show the audience not only what lead to the creation of the character the Divine Miss M, but also some of the connections McCleary shares with Midler.

“It’s this huge combination of everything I’ve been doing for the last 10 to 12 years, a show I’ve always wanted to do and now it’s being brought together in a much bigger way than I could have ever imagined,” McCleary says. “It’s my own personal story and, more importantly, how that intertwines with Bette.”

More information

What: Dear Bette, starring JennicaMcCleary

When:  July 16, 17 and 24 at 8:00 p.m.

Where: The Abbey, Orlando

Tickets: $20-$35, TicketFly.com, Keyword Search: Dear Bette

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