Imitating the Inimitable: A Conversation With A Lady Gaga Impersonator

Athena Reich moonlights as Mother Monster. We find out what it takes to emulate one of pop music's most prominent personalities. 

It ain’t easy being Gaga. Just ask Athena Reich, a single mother of two who has made a career out of impersonating pop music’s Mother Monster. The Toronto-based actor and singer-songwriter was trying to land gigs in New York in 2009 when her publicist suggested she start covering chart-toppers on YouTube. It was her acoustic rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” that changed everything.  

Reich’s Gaga began getting booked internationally—everything from bat mitzvahs to corporate events. But Reich doesn’t consider herself a Gaga superfan; she hasn’t even seen her perform live. Instead, she fuses Lady Gaga’s bombastic persona with her own experiences for one helluva entertaining (and relatable) show.

As Lady Gaga’s sixth album, Chromatica, makes its debut this week, we dialled up Reich to see what new material she has in store. 

What are the key elements of impersonating Gaga? 

Athena Reich: First it was costumes, then I was learning her music and choreography. But I just got one thing from her, which is her essence. And I just took that one thing and I did it my way. You don’t have to over copy or overthink it, just take the essence and have fun with it.

That’s a very Gaga approach. She’s had a lot of iconic moments. How do you choose what to incorporate?

AR: It depends on the show. I have corporate [shows], event shows and private parties, so I know they just want the most commercial versions. They do not want the meat dress. They just want “Bad Romance,” “Paparazzi,” and they’ll probably want “Rain On Me.” 

But then I have another show that’s not as commercial—it’s a downtown comedy where I do a pregnant Lady Gaga who wants to give birth live in front of her fans. It’s about giving birth and being a mom, so taking all of her songs and repurposing them through that lens. So for example, “Just Dance” became “Just Dilate” and “Applause” was “I Learned to do Lamaze.” It’s called Lady Gaga: #ARTBIRTH, which basically parodies a lot of ARTPOP songs. Like, OK, she’s going to make art out of her birth. 

Now she’s talking about her latest album as though it’s a birth. From what you’ve seen so far, what’s your impression of Chromatica?

AR: It’s really exciting to see her coming home, back to her roots, just like 90s retro dance-pop. She’s always redefining herself, but with this album it’s also amazing because we’re all social distancing at home and she’s coming home to who she is. I think she’s super strong with this kind of dance music. 

Which albums of hers get the biggest reaction from your audiences?  

AR: I think her earlier stuff is iconic. The Fame, Born This Way, and ARTPOP. Her latest stuff is great, but it’s more like there’s certain singles that stand out from those. I think she was experimenting more like stretching herself genre-wise, which is brave of her and she’s succeeded. But I pull from everything, right? I always do “Cheek to Cheek.” I always perform that, because I do think it’s brilliant that she did this collaboration with Tony Bennett. How random for a dance artist to do that. 

New material from Gaga must mean new work for you. How do you decide which new songs you’ll incorporate into your shows?  

AR: Usually what I do when one of her albums drops is I kind of wait. I listen to it, but I wait to see what comes out as a hit. And I can tell, because it’s what I get requests for. She made such a splash on the scene, she was so different, yet so digestible and still commercial. But pushing the boundaries within commercial music. Her songwriting has developed—structurally, it’s more sophisticated, it’s better written, it’s mature. Already “Rain on Me,” I’m thinking, OK, we could use that in Lady Gaga: #ARTBIRTH for when my water breaks. Is that too gross? 

What’s the market like for impersonation work during a pandemic? 

AR: We got a big grant to take my show to the UK and San Francisco and then COVID-19 shut everything down. So we’re trying to think of how to bring it back or wait it out. Otherwise, I’m just basically getting hired to make personalized Gaga videos or appear on people’s Zoom meetings, you know, things like that.

For more information on Athena Reich or to hire her for your next event, visit her website or follow her on Instagram.