Comedian Melissa Villaseñor is perfecting her impressions on Vine

On Valentine’s Day, comedian Melissa Villaseñor welcomed a very special guest to her Vine account: Kristen Wiig, who let us know exactly what she’d be doing that day. Those who laughed could definitely relate.

Vine is just one of the platforms where Villaseñor been perfecting her cast of characters, which includes Wiig, Haley Joel Osment, Jennifer Lopez, Björk, Drew Barrymore, and Owen Wilson. She also does a great Maria Bamford and Sarah Silverman.

In a social media-mediated world where many only share their “best selves,” Villaseñor goes not for what feels good, but what she’s feeling, and works that out through standup, music, or a spot-on celebrity impersonation. In recent years, her impressions have graced the stages of L.A. comedy venues like Largo.

On an unusually rainy evening in Los Angeles, I sped to West Hollywood for a performance of the Come to Papa Live Radio Show hosted by Tom Papa, on which Villaseñor frequently appears as a guest. That particular evening, she told me she would be doing impressions of Hillary Clinton alongside Silverman, Bill Burr, Zach Galifianakis, and Al Madrigal. 

Her more recent vines are pieces she usually ends up doing spur-of-the-moment, though she admits there are certain impressions she puts more time into. During an interview on my porch that night in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood, she spontaneously busted out her J.Lo.

“Some[times] I like to do a few jumps, a stopping and going, a few takes,” she said. “And I think that is always fun, to do something real quick like, ‘Hey, I’m J.Lo,’ and then a different angle, and then she’s like, ‘Don’t forget about my booty,’ and then there’s a shot of her booty, and then she’s like, ‘I’m still I’m still Jenny from the block.’”

Unlike many Internet-savvy millennials who become known through YouTube videos, vines, or Twitter, Villaseñor’s career officially began on American’s Got Talent back in 2011, when she was 23 years old. At the time, she was working temp jobs and random side gigs, all while trying to figure out how to get her comedy career started. Then a woman she knew set up an America’s Got Talent audition for her in Los Angeles.

“I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I didn’t like the show. It’s also scary, like, if you look bad you’re going to look bad. I didn’t go in with the best sort of attitude. I was cordial, but then I got the email that [was] like, ‘Congrats, you’re auditioning for the judges in Seattle!’ And I was like, ‘NO, I don’t wanna go!’ So that was my attitude when I walked out. I didn’t psych myself out or anything. It turned out to be a really great thing—a life-changing moment.”

Perhaps because she was so uninterested in doing the audition, she didn’t end up getting overly anxious and totally bomb. In the AGT clip, one of the judges asks what she does for work. After she wows them with her impersonations, then-judge Sharon Osbourne tells her that she won’t be working in retail for much longer.

She was right. After AGT, Villaseñor went straight into touring as a standup comedian, headlining shows across the country. She did that for a few years, building up her comedic chops and opening for legends such as Bill Burr.

Villaseñor’s fascination with comedy began before she even hit adolescence. She was 12 years old when she realized she could impersonate the singers she listened to, like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Shakira. She credits the supportive environment of her all-girls high school, Ramona Convent in Alhambra, California, which is located near her hometown of Whittier. Her high school talent show was the real turning point.

“I did my high school talent show with a few impressions, and that was when I felt it,” she said. “It went so great that I realized, this is what I am supposed to be doing, at 15 years old. It was a powerful feeling—I felt like there were flames in my chest.”

This same feeling drives her impressions and comedy, which come from a very personal place.

“I have to have a connection with them,” she explained. “I’ll do the Miley Cyrus. But it annoys me. Like, I wanna hit her.”

Every one of her impersonations has a personal meaning, something that one wouldn’t necessarily think of when they’re watching her masterfully put on someone else’s voice.

“Owen Wilson is in there because he makes me happy,” she said. “Wanda Sykes is in there if I need to shape up, if I’m having low self-esteem. Gwen Stefani is in there to help me when I’m going through the breakups, when I am singing in my car. So they’re all emotionally connected. I feel something. The only way it works with my standup is if it comes from a personal place.”

Screengrab via Melissa Villaseñor/Vine | Remix by Jason Reed

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is the author of 'The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture.' She is the visual art critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, CNN, LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times.