Today marks the 20th anniversary of the day Selena Quintanilla's face flashed across TV screens around the world with news of her death. Andrew Taylor Lucero was only three years old in 1995, but he connected so strongly with the singer's story that 20 years later, he performs as the queen of tejano music in Los Angeles.
Lucero, a Selena fanatic, admits on the eve of this anniversary, "We will never have her back, as much as Jennifer Lopez did her thing, and as much as I do tributes." But dressing up as Selena and pretending to be her for a night gives him a fleeting gratification: "In this moment, I'm Selena and that's ultimately what I want to give the people. I'm not coming out here promoting myself. I'm doing this tribute to her and that's what I want. I want people to see and feel Selena."
Nevertheless, Lucero doesn't consider himself a drag queen. He considers himself a performer -- an impersonator -- and he sees this as another acting job. Lucero says he didn't expect to one day impersonate a pop star, male or female, gay or straight. He started out by performing karaoke in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles, where he grew up, and one of the artists he would cover regularly was Selena. Someone in the audience suggested performing as Selena at Camino de Guanajuato, a Mexican restaurant in the nearby neighborhood of Wilmington that hosted drag queen nights.
At Camino de Guanajuato, he had his first experience as Selena. He performed in a borrowed outfit that resembled her iconic purple jumpsuit, and the restaurant owner taught him about drag -- makeup, padding, costuming, and performing.
Lucero differentiates the process of studying Selena as both a fan and an impersonator. The fan loves to watch the movie Selena and has seen it over 100 times, but that is for fun because he doesn't want to mimic Jennifer Lopez's version of Selena. He identifies, however, with the struggles depicted in the film -- for instance, being Mexican-American and having to know both Spanish and American pop cultural figures, such as Cristina, the Oprah of Spanish television, and Frank Sinatra, or being judged harshly if you don't know both.
Lucero, the impersonator, is a student of Selena with YouTube as his professor. He sets up Selena playing while he's transforming into Selena: "I'm hearing her laugh, I'm hearing her voice, and as I'm getting ready, I might not be watching it but I'm absorbing it -- she's sinking into me." He sees himself as an as actor just like Jennifer Lopez because "it's the same type of studying as if I was doing the part for a show or a movie."
Lucero has custom-made copies of two of Selena's most iconic outfits -- the purple jumpsuit that she wore at her 1995 performance at the Houston Astrodome and the white bustier outfit complete with tight white pants and white high-heeled boots. The first outfit he put together was the white bustier with pearls, white pants, and white boots. To get all the adjustments right, Lucero looked up all of Selena's stats that were available online: her height, her weight, and even her bra size for his bustier. He and his mother bought pearls at Michaels, and a bra at Walmart, and four hours later, hand-sewed each pearl onto the bra. For the boots, he was resourceful, as Lucero says, "I found the boots that were close enough to the design that she had and they were gray, but they were on sale for $40, so I went out to Home Depot and bought some white spray paint and sprayed them."
For the purple jumpsuit, he called in reinforcements -- his ninth-grade costume designer, who created outfits for his high school musicals. To get the glittering purple material just right, he spent three hours rifling through shop after shop in Los Callejones, the downtown L.A. shops especially popular among Latinos. After four months and four fittings, his designer brought the purple outfit to life. He is proud of putting together the white outfit himself, though, and says, "It really helps with character building because that's what Selena did." Lucero says he was worried initially about how the outfits would come together, but it worked out: "I want the outfit to be as identical as I can get -- as exact as the movie, or even closer."
There's a process to becoming Selena, he says -- a ritual of transformation. "It doesn't come to life until I see the red lips on and I'm like, there it is," Lucero says to Taylor Rivera, his makeup artist, as he applies the lipstick that completes his makeup before he prepares for his performance. Becoming Selena is a two-hour process for Lucero, who gets into character by playing videos of Selena in concert as well as interviews and candid videos uploaded by fans to YouTube. He's watched so many videos of Selena on YouTube that it's got to add up to thousands of hours at this point, he says. Although getting into Selena is a two-hour process, or longer sometimes, it only takes 10 minutes to wipe off his makeup and convert back to Andrew.
As soon as Lucero is fully dressed in his hand-tailored purple jumpsuit, high heels, makeup, and long black wig, he says it's "definitely an out-of-body experience. It's like no character I've gotten into. I've played Sebastian in the Little Mermaid and different characters in musicals, but to do Selena, it's almost as if I become her."
It wasn't easy for him to become Selena. He had been performing in local bars in San Pedro and Wilmington as Selena in her jumpsuit for a year and a half before he told his parents. Lucero had already come out as a gay man to his parents, but he felt that "this would have been another thing to deal with and I decided to just wait." The first time his father went to see him perform, he did not tell him. Lucero was about two songs in and, he says, fighting back tears, "I noticed him and I felt that I was about to choke, but I had to keep going and it was a very nice surprise."
The tension between being fully out as a gay man and the freedom of performing as a pop star he idolized since he was a little boy -- a fascination that connected him to his mother, who is also a huge Selena fan -- is the same thing that made him afraid to tell his parents, he says, because the context is what makes the difference: "If my mom walked in and saw me putting makeup on, a wig and heels, it's like 'What are you doing?'" but for her to see him "being Selena," is different, he says.
Selena's greatest challenge as a performer was trying to enter the male-dominated genre of Tejano music as a woman, says Lucero, and his greatest challenge is "being gay." He has never had an issue but he says that "every day that I go to perform at a very Latin place as Selena -- I've never had a hard time yet -- but it's like there's still the possibility and there's still that thought every time I go perform: What's going to happen? What if someone comes up and says something or just gets offended?"
There have been moments when Lucero has been getting ready to go out to perform, and within an hour of his set time, seen half of the pearls on his white bustier come off. While he finishes his makeup, his mother comes in and sews the pearls back on for him. For him, he says, "It's experiences like that, where it's great to not only have my family there to support but I also feel like that helps with the character and the whole illusion of becoming Selena -- I'm experiencing similar things that she did."
The hours of rehearsals and study come to life on the stage at Akbar, a gay bar in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, where he performed Sunday, and those hundreds of hours he spent perfecting how to move his body and mimic Selena's movements, even clapping his left hand to the microphone -- minute details that only a Selena-obsessed fan would even notice -- make it amazing to watch. The room came alive as people rushed to get a good angle from where they could photograph or film him using their phones and upload it to Instagram. The crowd was clapping and singing along with Lucero as he glowed on stage in his shimmering purple jumpsuit and spun around in the exact way Selena does in the same bell-bottoms on the YouTube footage of her performance at the Astrodome.