It’s a rare treat to have Cher in town — Saturday night at the Sprint Center, along with Cyndi Lauper — but we can take heart in knowing that the next best thing is a permanent resident of the Sunflower State.
We’re talking about Tammy Bell, the winner not just of FYI’s Cher look-alike contest but of our sound-alike contest, too. Her photos and video had us doing a double take: Did the real Cher sneak into our little competition? Bell, who lives in Wichita, scores two $50 gift cards for sweeping the contest.
Here’s the story of how Cher helped her live a better life, one wig and tongue-curl at a time.
Ten-second bio: Bell, 47, is a cosmetologist who decided to go to the dogs: She opened her own small-breed grooming shop, Doggie Styles. Divorced, she has a fiance and two grown sons. Originally from McAlester, Okla., she moved to Wichita in 2007.
The Cher factor: Starting in junior high, people would tell her she looked like the singer/actress. At first she didn’t like it, because Cher is about her mother’s age. (Cher just turned 68.)
Then one night years later, goaded by friends and fortified with some liquid courage, she performed karaoke to Cher’s hit “Half-Breed.” It went over big. “People were in shock and I was in shock,” she remembers.
Bell got a home karaoke machine and started listening to Cher songs and studying her videos. A friend planning a 30th birthday bash for her husband asked her to perform “If I Could Turn Back Time.” So Bell “suited up” in a black miniskirt, jacket and heels and did her act there in the basement of a Baptist church. “You should do this more often,” she heard again and again, “and this was from church people.”
That was 10 or so years ago. From then on she started doing birthday parties, fundraisers and other events as Cher.
Transformative: When she first started her act, Bell was going through a divorce. Quiet and reserved by nature, she says turning into Cher “really brought me out of my shell and was very liberating. I found an outlet to grow as a person. People loved it, and it was fun for me.” It also gave her some extra money, like at a New Year’s Eve party when revelers shoved cash down her boots. She’s won several karaoke contests and a couple of costume contests, too.
You can’t be Cher without: The tongue roll. Bell hears that all the time when fans ask for pictures. “I just do it now without waiting for people to ask.”
If your guess was the hair flip, well, that’s a ’70s long-hair Cher thing, and Bell most often imitates the curly-headed “rocker chick” Cher of the ’80s.
The secret to being Cher: “I would say attitude. She has just a very bold, frank honesty about her … but it’s not in a way that’s being abrasive. She’s just being herself. It’s like a friend of yours.”
How she and Cher are the same: Looks mostly, including high cheekbones and dark hair (which she has worn long at times). And like Cher, Bell has American Indian roots. “The Indian pride thing is pretty big in my family on the Choctaw side.”
Favorite Cher husband/lover: No, not first husband Sonny Bono. Bell prefers “the bagel boy,” Rob Camilletti, the 18-years-younger boyfriend Cher met in 1986. “I thought they were a cute couple,” Bell says. “I think it was the media and everybody that drove them apart. I was like, ‘You go, girl!’”
And on that subject, Bell dated a couple of 20-something guys after her divorce when she was in her mid- to late 30s. Men would ask her out thinking she was their age. But the gap in years was too big a hurdle: “All you want to do is play Nintendo,” she’d tell them, “and my kids are home doing that.”
Speaking of kids: Her 27-year-old son is a musician and gets the Cher thing. But her 18-year-old son “just rolls his eyes and says, ‘Somebody needs to stop it.’”
Favorite Cher song: “I’ve always liked ‘Dark Lady.’” Bell appreciates its dark undertones and Louisiana vibe.
Least favorite: “Take Me Home,” “back when she was trying to do more of a disco sound.”
Favorite Cher movie: “Moonstruck.” “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that in my life.”
Number of times she’s seen Cher in concert: Once, several years ago in Dallas. Bell’s sister, Kristina Fouquet, demanded that she go to the show in costume. So Bell wore an Indian outfit with headdress, which ended up embarrassing her sister, who tried to take a different elevator at the hotel.
And as for tonight: Bell isn’t planning to be at Cher’s show in Kansas City. She’s saving for her wedding, and anyway, she’s not doing the Cher thing as much as she once did. But she’ll always be grateful to her.
To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @tim_engle