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How Wayne Smith Becomes Cher

June 14, 2022

Story: Alex Gonzalez

photo: Chris Rusanowsky

Places

How Wayne Smith Becomes Cher

June 14, 2022

Story: Alex Gonzalez

photo: Chris Rusanowsky

For more than 40 years, the Dallas native has impersonated the Goddess of Pop at gay bars across the country, garnering legions of fans all his own.

For over 40 years, Wayne Smith has emulated the power of Cher. Known for his stints in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, where queer nightlife thrives, Smith, 61, is a staple of the city’s bustling drag scene. While his resemblance to Cher is uncanny, for queer and trans Dallasites, Wayne Smith is their own local star.

I catch up with Smith on a recent Wednesday evening, hours before he is set to take the stage at Liquid Zoo, a divey, queer sports bar where, three times a week, he emcees an event called Cher-e-oke. He gives me a tour of his apartment, showing off his collection of Cher costumes—extravagant wigs and sequined dresses—which fill up a space the size of a standard bedroom. This is only a fraction of his collection; down the street, he keeps a storage unit filled with more than 300 outfits and accessories.

Queer Bars Wayne Smith Cher

Smith doesn’t have a grand coming out story. “I was never in,” he says, recalling how, when he was in elementary school, he would make wigs out of black yarn and draw dresses he imagined his icons would wear. When he was around 16, Smith decided to showcase his talent for impersonation on The Gong Show, a televised game show that aired through the 1970s and ’80s. With the help of his brother, who was working as a flight attendant, Smith made his way to Los Angeles, where, dressed as Cher, he performed both vocal parts for “All I Ever Need Is You” by Sonny & Cher.

“I had the long black wig; we glued white sequins on a red dress. It was tacky, but back then, I guess it was pretty,” Smith says. “I went on the air, and my brother was like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna win!’—until I went to flip the hair. I had never worn fake fingernails in my life, and the back of the nail got caught in the wig and pulled it off on national television. I had to go back to school the next week.”

Queer Bars Wayne Smith Cher

Smith was a natural in the world of drag performing. As an adult, he had brief stints as Marilyn Monroe and Dolly Parton at the now-closed La Cage aux Folles, a staple in Los Angeles’ gay scene. But something about Cher—her magnetism and music—always stuck with him. Smith, who studied to be a clothing designer at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and ultimately went on to design dresses for both Diana Ross and Cher to wear at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, first met his icon in 1982.

 “Cher got her dress, and upped me and my brother to the front near the stage, thanked me and signed the sketch of the dress, saying ‘All my love, Cher,’” Smith recalls. “That was my first time ever meeting her. Then the next time, I ended up going shopping with her. I had to carry stuff, which doesn’t sound glamorous, but it was nice to be with her. She would share drinks with me out of the same straw.”

Queer Bars Wayne Smith Cher

Across the decades, Smith has adjusted his aesthetic to align with Cher’s many style eras. He studies all of her albums and the corresponding wardrobes with great fervor. Although he can’t pick a single favorite song—or outfit—of hers, among his top choices are “The Way of Love,” which he once performed in Atlantic City for over 3,500 people wearing a red-sequined dress and matching feathered headress, before changing into a leather jacket, high-healed boots and fishnets; and “Believe,” for which he helped with the marketing campaign by lip-syncing the song at several gay bars across the country.

“Cher was filming a movie in Europe,” Smith says, “so they needed to hire somebody to do the promos for all the gay bars and clubs in L.A., Dallas, New York, Miami. I went to all of them, and I had security guards and everything.” Since then, Smith has made a name for himself in several cities as one of the world’s best Cher impersonators, but remains a Dallas staple. Cher-e-oke has gone on for over eight years at Liquid Zoo, and also at Alexandre’s, a down-tempo craft cocktail lounge where Smith regularly enjoys the Liz Taylor cocktail, a mixture of gin, violette liqueur and Lillet Blanc. (Smith’s favorite drink at Liquid Zoo is the Chertini, an apple Martini made with Pinnacle Whipped Vodka.)

Beyond the thrill of entertaining—the energy of a rapt crowd, the abundance of vibrant queer energy—Smith does what he does to be a source of comfort. One of his fondest memories performing as Cher was a set at the Westin Hotel at Galleria Dallas the day after Sonny Bono died, when people were hugging Smith as if he were the real Cher. But for many of his fans, comfort comes in the form of his “wine downs,” which he streams live on Facebook and Instagram, as he gets into full Cher mode. “I’ve had people contact me,” Smith recalls, “and say, ‘Thank you for doing that. My mom’s going through chemotherapy, and she watches your wine downs.’”

Queer Bars Wayne Smith Cher

At the time of our interview, it was the week of Cher’s birthday. Smith is getting ready for an epic performance that weekend at Liquid Zoo, which he calls “the island of misfit toys.” People from all over the world are coming to see him perform, and he is more than ready. While he’s taken the stage at venues of all calibers, he calls that little dive bar home.

“It’s just a crazy little place,” says Smith. “I’ve seen people come in there alone, and by the end of the night, they’ve got friends that they’re gonna have, probably forever.”

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Tagged: culture, queer bars

Alex Gonzalez is an art and culture journalist based in Dallas. Some of his favorite cocktails include the Kessler Sour from Tiny Victories and the Blackberry Mule from Taverna. His work has appeared in Variety, Men's Health, and Dallas Observer.