In 1984, Cee Cee Russell began donning drag in Denver, Colorado. A few years later, his boss at a now-defunct drag venue known as The Rendezvous suggested that he try becoming a Whitney Houston impersonator, mostly because he loved her music. Now, 24 years later, fans who’ve seen Russell’s show-stopping performances in Palm Springs, California, swear “She does Whitney better than Whitney.” We tend to agree.
Cee Cee Russell started to perfect Whitney as a serious character after meeting Las Vegas drag legend Kenny Kerr, who reportedly did such a dead-on Barbra Streisand impression that Streisand herself approved of it, and also after seeing beloved cabaret and drag performer James “Gypsy” Haake perform as the master of ceremonies during the show An Evening at La Cage in Los Angeles.
“It’s something I really never stop learning about,” Russell says of perfecting his Whitney Houston impersonation by nailing the mannerisms. “I still am learning about her nuances everyday.”
Russell continues, “I learned that impersonations are not easy! It’s a study in character, movement and expression that isn’t yours. It’s like learning a new handwriting. It helps to have idiosyncrasies like the person. I know Whitney, and I have some of the same behaviors onstage, like keeping our eyes closed and very expressive hands.”
While fans always seemed to appreciate Russell’s Whitney Houston impersonation, he says the biggest responses to his performances began the day after the pop legend’s death.
“That night I had a show,” Russell says, “and it was like the whole city came out to pay tribute to her, but I was the figurehead or conduit. It was very unsettling because I was smack dab in the middle of mourning her myself, but it turned out to be something different.”
As you may recall, Houston died inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel at age 48 on Feb. 11, 2012, from drowning due to drug overdose. Her death immediately conjured memories of a long-ongoing battle with drug addiction and sorrow over her many memorable hits that have played throughout people’s lives.
Check out this video of Whitney Houston impersonator Cee Cee Russell:
Russell says of the star’s passing, “Sometimes celebrated people get put aside or forgotten about until their demise. Or people come out of the woodwork to glom onto the moment with ‘such fond memories of her’ after ridicule and scrutiny. But Whitney’s death did something to people. She became so much to so many, again. Not just ‘the voice’ but a cautionary tale of ‘be careful what you wish for.’”
Russell continues to perform every Friday, Saturday evening and Sunday Brunch at Oscar’s Bar and Cafe in Palm Springs. He also travels worldwide with his Whitney Houston impersonation.
He tells Hornet that the stories of Houston’s bisexuality which emerged after her death “fit the mold” of what he knows of Houston, and of queer artists in general.
“Being brought up in a religious atmosphere, no matter how rarely practiced, tends to be hard on LGBTQ youth,” Russell says, “but that’s where all that art and beauty in the world comes from. It’s like when you see a flower growing out of a crack in cement. Art will find that fault in the most oppressive situations and express a new perspective.”