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Terry Fator: Who's the dummy now?

8 February 10 08:16 GMT

by Genevieve Hassan
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

He's virtually unknown in the UK, but Terry Fator is the most successful TV talent show star in the world - and he's a ventriloquist.

In 2007, he won the second series of America's Got Talent, scooping the series' $1 million (£613,000) cash prize.

A year later, he signed a five-year deal worth a reported $100 million (£61.3m) to headline at The Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas - with the option to extend for a further five years for a similar fee, making it the biggest deal in Vegas history.

Not bad for someone who, just months before winning America's Got Talent, was performing to an audience of one at a small fair in Texas.

"What has happened to my career since I was on America's Got Talent is so far beyond what I could even fantasise it's ridiculous," Fator says.

His success is down to the fact that he is no ordinary ventriloquist. In his act, the puppets sing.

And it's no ordinary singing - they're dead ringers for Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbison and Cher to name just a few.

The 44-year-old began doing impressions at the age of six after listening to his father's old comedy records before turning his hand to ventriloquism, then mixing the two disciplines around the time he turned 10.

Later, in his teens, he started to incorporate singing impressions into his repertoire.

"I decided a good way to practise my ventriloquism was to listen to songs on the radio while I was driving and then I'd do it without moving my lips so people wouldn't know I was singing because I didn't want to look crazy," he says.

Wowing America

Fator then started a band and toured as the lead singer, but still managed to incorporate ventriloquism and comedy into his act.

A few years and part-time jobs to pay the bills later, Fator still hadn't gained the success he'd hoped for - but he refused to give up his passion.

"I loved doing it so much that I really didn't want to totally give it up. I felt even if I didn't hit the big time, at least I got to do what I enjoyed and that's what kept me going," he says.

Ironically, his lowest point - playing to a solitary paying customer - came while he was waiting to hear whether he had made it through to the live shows on America's Got Talent.

"I was playing in a theatre that had about 1,000 chairs in it and one 12-year-old kid showed up and sat right in the front in the middle," he recalls.

"I did about 10 to 15 minutes for him before the custodial crew came in and started folding the chairs up so I thought the show was over.

"I was discouraged because I hadn't heard from America's Got Talent and I thought 'I don't know how much more I want to do this' - it was so frustrating."

Validity

To date, the ventriloquist is the only variety act to win America's Got Talent in four series - the previous and subsequent winners have all been singers - and it is a feat he is very proud of.

He says the victory has given ventriloquism some much needed validity after a long period in which it had gained a reputation for being cheesy and low-brow.

"I think it deserved the stigma that it had," Fator says. "So many bad ventriloquists had come along and they didn't have that commitment to quality.

"What I hope I've done is raise the standard for other ventriloquists and take it to a level that it hasn't been before.

Fator's five-year residency in Las Vegas also shouts the message that ventriloquism has shaken its stigma. And, with top-tier tickets costing $129 (£83), the venue clearly thinks the show is worthy of some hard-earned cash.

But you could argue that part of Fator's appeal is that you actually forget you're watching a ventriloquist.

His puppets become the focus of the show, and the audience becomes so caught up with how much they sound like music icons they forget it's Fator providing the voice - without moving his lips.

'Same old guy'

There's no questioning his impressionist talents. Even Simon Cowell called him one of the "two most talented people on the planet".

Fator says it takes him anywhere from a week to several years to perfect an imitation.

"The easiest voice is Etta James which, for some reason, is right directly in my vocal range and took me literally a week to get it down," Fator says.

"The hardest is Louis Armstrong and that took me several months to do. I've been working on Barbra Streisand for a couple of years now and I'm almost there, but it's still a while before its ready."

And Fator's longevity will rely on him creating new characters and impressions. After all, he can't perform the same show for potentially 10 years - but he's confident it won't be difficult.

"It's not going to be a challenge at all because it's the way I've done things my whole career," he says.

"I spent 20 years on the road and I didn't do the same show for the whole 20 - I was constantly creating new characters and voices and putting in new songs.

"I've not even been at the Mirage for a year and the show is almost 50% different than it was when I first started, so it'll be 25-50% different every year. We're also creating a new character for my one year anniversary that we'll be unveiling in March."

Fator says he doesn't feel like a celebrity yet - even though he spends at least an hour a night meeting his fans and signing autographs.

"I have such an amazing appreciation for the people that come out and buy tickets and stand in line to wait for an autograph," he says.

"I still feel like the same old guy I've always been and I hope I never lose that. It all stems back to that show where I only had one person in the audience.

"When you spend 42 years with no fans it's really great to have fans."

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