The first time the Quintanilla family saw Jennifer Lopez dressed like Selena for the 1997 film, they were moved. “She gave me chills,” Suzette Quintanilla told Entertainment Tonight on the 20th anniversary of the film’s release. “She pushed her dress down the way my sister would, and it was amazing.” And it wasn’t just her family that broke down in tears. The only time Selena’s dad, Abraham, has seen the movie is during a screening with the film’s crew members and Warner Bros. executives. “It was very emotional because everybody was crying.” This anecdote is testament to the power of impersonations.
The hold is so strong, in fact, that even two decades later, J. Lo’s still associated with La Reina de Tejano. When the Billboard Latin Music Awards honored Selena for the 20th anniversary of her death in 2015, the late singer’s family naturally called on J. Lo to perform a medley of “I Could Fall in Love,” “Como La Flor,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” and “No Me Queda Más.” And after plans for a Selena hologram fell through because of the high cost and the Quintanilla’s lack of footage required to create the three-dimensional image, some floated the idea of using photos of J Lo to complete the projection. Ultimately, they decided against it because J. Lo isn’t Selena.
“She pushed her dress down the way my sister would.”
But for many, J. Lo managed to accurately capture the magic of Selena – and even inspired some of them to whip up their own purple jumpsuits to pay homage to her. Across the country, many young women and men have made side careers out of impersonating Selena. As tribute artists, they analyze every dance move, rhinestone placement, and gesture, so that when they’re on stage they can bring their all. It’s a passion that invites much scrutiny because of the high standard Selena set.
These Selena tribute artists are infusing youth and diversity into a field typically associated with Elvis, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles. As LA Weekly notes, tribute artists – originally seen as novelty acts – can be traced back to the 1950s. Though many tribute artists perfectly emulate iconic singers and bands, they’re still occasionally perceived as cheesy rip offs of the real thing. But they are in fact a part of a growing industry that holds a steadfast place in the concert industry.
After speaking to three Selena tribute artists and impersonators in Los Angeles, Texas, and New York, I found die-hard fans who have meticulously crafted their performances and attire to give La Reina’s followers the show they deserve. And while they aim to connect younger generations to Selena with an approximation of one of her concerts, they all acknowledge that none of them could ever replicate her. They just want to keep her legacy alive. Along the way, it’s also become a rich experience for them. Whether it’s forging ties with other Selena fans who have generously accepted them or exploring their Latinidad as they never had before, this is what it’s like to be a Selena tribute artist.
“All this is not just a tribute to Selena. It’s a tribute to my mother.” 27-year-old Texas City native Amanda Solis bears a strong resemblance to Selena. So much so that even when she isn’t in costume, people stop her and point out the similarities. But the life of a tribute artist isn’t one she ever imagined for herself. Her parents died when she was just 5 years old and that set her life in a decidedly different direction. Instead of allowing herself the opportunity to explore some of her passions, she became focused on finishing school and finding a way to support herself as soon as possible. That’s how she found herself working in real estate after graduating college, but four years ago, a friend encouraged her to participate in a karaoke contest.
In a bar full of country music lovers, she sang Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and won. “Ah, they were just being really nice to me,” she told herself after winning, but she enjoyed herself so much that she continued. For her second-ever live performance, she decided to look through old boxes of her mom’s 90s clothing. Her mom – who also could have placed first in a Selena lookalike contest – had an outfit that was almost exactly like Selena’s, so she wore it. She won that time, too, and felt overcome with emotion.
“[I told myself] ‘Oh my God, Mom were you here with me?’” she told me in a phone interview. “I just felt like I had a piece of her with me. And I had never felt this way, because I had been without my mother for so long.”
One performance led to another and another, and eventually she caught the attention of Street Science Entertainment, a label she had worked with before but that had no idea she could carry a tune. The label asked her to perform at the 30th anniversary celebration of Taqueria del Sol, where she sang her favorite Selena song, “¿Qué Creías?” She now belongs to the record label, where she remains devoted to her career as a tribute artist, as she works on her own music.
“Especially for Selena, people are very protective.”
Amanda – who went back to school to become a certified nursing assistant, a flexible job that fits in with her busy schedule – has the fashion and makeup down. Her mother’s costume jewelry and similar pieces hold a special place in her dressing room. She has nearly 200 items – including a wealth of bustiers – to achieve her on-stage Selena look. “People want to come to my house and they don’t even tell me ‘hi.’ They’re not like ‘Hey Amanda. How are you doing?’ They’re like ‘Hey can I go see your dressing room,’” she said.
But the singing and dancing are two things she works hard to develop. Another challenge is speaking Spanish. Though she grew up in a Mexican-American household and vividly remembers BBQs where Tejano music loudly played, the death of her parents meant she lost some of their native language. She struggles to express herself in Spanish, but people have been understanding.
As she switches between three jobs and reminisces about all the amazing opportunities that have come her way, she makes it clear that she in no way, shape, or form feels like she’s Selena. “Mexicanos are very protective, and especially for Selena, people are very protective,” she said. “And I can totally understand that. I don’t do this to claim that I’m her. That’s not what this is about. I will always be Amanda Solis. At the end of the day, once I wipe my red lipstick off – even though I’ve worn red lipstick my whole life – I will always be Amanda Solis.”
Colombian-American Genessa Escobar is an established tribute artist. Five years ago, the 33-year-old mother of two began performing with Decadia – a tribute band covering everything from Pat Benatar to Led Zeppelin. Almost two years ago, the bass player for Decadia suggested a Selena tribute band. “He said, kind of jokingly but kind of serious, ‘You and I should get together one day and just start a Selena band, and see where it goes?’” she said, explaining that she immediately jumped on board. Having grown up watching La Reina on Sabado Gigante, she’s been a lifelong fan. She knew the iconic washing machine dance. “It’s like little girls who grew up with Beyoncé,” she said. “They watch her and they learn from her. They’re going to be familiar with her moves and her songs.”
“A lot of the time, I find myself consoling [Selena’s fans].”
Once Genessa and her bassist made the band official, they realized that on the East Coast, Selena tribute bands are a rarity. Though she’s used to performing on stage – and has sung professionally since age 18 – it’s a completely different experience. “[In Decadia,] I share the vocal responsibility with two other singers, so there’s not so much pressure on me,” she explained. It’s not as though she’s alone on stage – the band’s called Genessa and the Selena Experience after all – but she knows all eyes are on her. And she plans accordingly.
“If I haven’t performed in a few weeks, if there’s a little bit of lag in between shows, to get me back on my game, I watch her last concert, the one in the purple jumpsuit,” she said. “I watch that a lot. That was when she was at her best, and it’s the most famous concert of her career. I’ll familiarize myself again with her routine just to get myself sharp again.”
Currently, Genessa – who lives in Farmingdale, Long Island – and her band have a residency at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square. The band has taken them to different parts of the country, but nothing compares to performing in a place that attracts so many people from different walks of life.
Her shows have given her a chance to interact with her audience. Sometimes the meet-ups can feel like a form of therapy. “A lot of the time, I find myself consoling them,” she said. “We’re hugging and crying, and it really bonds everybody together at the show.”
But she’s quick to remind me that just like them, she’s just a fan. “When I do her shows and sing her music, I feel like I’m 12 years old again,” she added. “No joke, it’s like, I feel like I’m in my bedroom, with my hairbrush, singing. And it brings back a lot memories of me and my little girlfriends when we were that age.”
Monica Peralta goes to painstaking efforts to recreate Selena’s looks. The 23-year-old Chicana has studied Selena’s stage outfits so closely that she can rattle off the late singer’s favorite designers. Monica can also break down what on-stage looks Selena created, and which she didn’t. “There’s a ’94 [Tejano Music Awards] jacket,” she said. “It’s a studded jacket and that was actually a North Beach leather jacket.” She can also probably tell if someone’s self-designed bustier pattern is slightly off. It’s no wonder that Monica persuaded the organizers of the fourth annual Selena Fan Gathering to host a fashion show, which highlighted the singer’s stage costumes. That day, she wore a custom-made, hi-low cream brocade dress – the one Selena wore to her 1994 fashion show. Julio Cesar Castellanos Jr. created the look for her.
“I wanted to know more about who I am.”
Peralta, who lip syncs to Selena’s vocals, joined the world of Selena impersonation three years ago. But she’s been a lifelong fan. Before she was born, her dad lived in Houston. He heard La Reina on the radio and became a fan – something he passed on to his daughter. Selena’s presence has been felt in her household since she was in a crib, but especially as she started college. “I think that part of the reason why I majored in Chicano Studies is because of her,” she said. “I wanted to know more about who I am.”
Also in college, she decided to hop on a Greyhound Bus for a two-day trip from Los Angeles to Corpus Christi, the city where Selena grew up. After a miserable bus ride, she arrived to perform for the very first time as a Selena impersonator. And she was hooked. From then on, she began calling up places and asking if they’d let her perform. For the next year and a half, she worked without getting paid. “For me, it’s not really about the money,” she said. “Because if it were, I wouldn’t [have done] a year’s worth of performances for [free].”
Though she’s had to fumble her way through this world, she’s created a YouTube channel to help other Selena tribute artists and impersonators. She posts makeup tips, outfit DIYS, and even dance moves. This gives Monica – who works for a nonprofit’s mentorship program for middle school students – another way to share her encyclopedic knowledge on Selena.
Mostly, she’s had mainly positive experiences, but putting herself out there so publicly also comes with a downside – harassment. One man in particular disliked her so much that he threatened her and dug up so much information about her that he even knew the make and model of her car. She had to get a bodyguard to remain safe. But for the most part, she can deflect negative attention.
If someone tells her that she’ll never replace Selena, she wholeheartedly agrees with them. “When people hear me say that, they’re like ‘Oh, I thought you were going to defend yourself,’” she said. “And no, I agree with people. I 100 percent agree with you. I don’t look like her, and that’s how most of the time I get people to stop. It’s very, very interesting how people automatically assume that you’re trying to replace her.”