Local female impersonator Wayne Smith and floral designer Shane Walker have at least one thing in common: A fascination with Cherilyn Sarkasian Bono
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor email@example.com
Shane Walker remembers the first time he ever saw Cher in concert: He was 16, and went with a family member to a show in Houston.
His life hasn’t been the same since.
More than 20 years later, Walker, a floral designer and event stylist, has one of the most extensive collections of Cher memorabilia around. He’s been collecting so long, he can barely remember the first piece he bought.
“Probably one of the Bob Mackie dolls,” he posits, referring to the fashion figurines dressed in recreations of costumes from Cher’s favorite designer.
But if he cannot recall for sure the first item he purchased, he certainly knows the most recent: Two Bob Mackie gowns — and not miniature knock-offs, either. These are originals, worn by Cher herself.
“If you look in the collar of the print dress, you can see a little bit of makeup. That’s makeup Cher wore!” Walker says. He almost swoons just thinking about it.
Despite his eye twinkling and his voice softening when he talks about her, Walker braces at the suggestion he is “obsessed” with Cher. (Billy Fulmer, his partner of nine years, smiles; he loves Cher, too, though he admits Walker’s enthusiasm out-distances his own.) In fact, while Walker says he’s been collecting the Oscar winner for about 18 years, it’s only been in “the last five that it has grown:” He admits to buying a Cher doll about once a week now. “She makes me very happy on the inside, and her music’s wonderful,” he says.
“When he gets down, he just buys something of Cher on eBay,” Fulmer says. “And her music is always playing at his studio.”
His newest acquisitions, though, are already among his most cherished. Not only were they donated to an auction house directly from Cher herself, but being actually Bob Mackie creations sweetens the enjoyment.
“Bob Mackie is my favorite designer,” Walker explains. “It’s just a legend — when you think of Cher, you think of Bob Mackie. They have been together for years, and she helped build his empire.”
That’s one of the things that got Walker to Las Vegas last month for an auction. He had already purchased third-row seats to see Cher perform at Caesar’s Palace (not his first time — and he plans to see it again before she ends the run in October). Then he heard about an auction that included several Mackie designs. He had bid on many in the past, but never successfully. But one of the gowns, a Pucci-style print, is the original of a dress worn by a Cher doll Walker bought ages ago.
“I had no idea it was all happening the same day. But when I saw the dress in the auction, I said ‘My God, I have to get that.’” This time,he was resolved: He would get something. Anything.
He walked away with two gowns and other swag.
Then less than an hour later, he was in his premium seats watching Cher perform.
And a few hours after that, he was back stage, visiting with her privately for the first time.
It is a day he’ll never forget.
“I always buy premium seats. We were sparkling in our bling and she said, ‘Come here, shiny boys.’ The looked incredible: Perfect face, smooth. She for sure does not look her age. And she loves her gays.”
It may sound silly, but for Walker — and countless others, many gay men — it is anything but. Cher represents something special, unique. Tell someone you own a dress once worn by Meryl Streep and an eyebrow might raise in interest; say you have one of Cher’s, and people’s minds race toward the outrageous. Because she means something as an icon, not just as a celebrity.
“Everyone associates with Cher,” offers Wayne Smith, a local legend himself for his decades-long impersonations of Cher. “The gay community goes through a lot of bullshit, just like her. She is the most honest person you’ll ever meet, and sometimes honesty hurts. She has been through everything you can imagine and she does not give a shit. She really doesn’t care if they make fun of her.”
Smith speaks from experience. Although Walker only recently met her, Smith has known Cher for years. In the ‘80s, Smith worked in the beading department for Bob Mackie’s prêt-a-porter line, where he met Cher (along with others, like Diana Ross, about whom he has far less flattering things to report).
“When she’s on tour, she’ll ride [in the bus] with the dancers. She loves board games and bowling and old movies,” he says. And he thinks people respond to that realness.
Smith didn’t begin performing as Cher until many years after he worked for Mackie, although Mackie did get him involved in drag in the first place.
“He gave me the idea to dress up. He asked me what I was going to do for Halloween and said ‘I think you should do Marilyn — if you do, I’ll help you with you costume.’” The next day, Smith was offered a spot in the La Cage aux Folles drag show as a Marilyn/Dolly impersonator. It was six years before he tackled Cher. Now, he does no one else in his act.
“You give the people what they want,” he says.
Shane Walker can surely relate to that.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.