Naomi Watanabe spreads wings in Big Apple

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Naomi Watanabe strikes a pose.

Comedian Naomi Watanabe looks as if she could emanate colorful lights with her flamboyant presence. Her remarks and deeds are downright positive. Having broken through in 2008 with her impersonation of Beyonce, Watanabe is now the most-followed Instagrammer in Japan and has made a far bigger achievement than just being a successful standup comic.

Currently, she is starring in the musical “Hairspray” in Osaka, following performances in Tokyo. But her activity base is New York, where she moved to in spring last year. Since then, she has been fighting a lone battle in a country that is an entertainment powerhouse, although she heartily laughs away all the struggles just like Tracy, the protagonist in “Hairspray,” who vigorously brushes aside all the lookism and stands up against racial discrimination.

“Honestly, I’m only feeling the good responses. Ha, ha, ha!” Watanabe said laughing.

Born in 1987, Watanabe grew up feeling other countries were familiar to her.

She spent her childhood in Ibaraki Prefecture, but her birthplace is in Taiwan, where her mother comes from. As a child, Watanabe would often visit Taiwan during elementary school summer holidays. It was also during her childhood that she harbored a dream to go to New York. Influenced by her movie-loving mother, Watanabe watched “Coming to America,” starring Eddie Murphy, and other Hollywood films that piqued her interest in the United States.

Her plan to venture into New York this time owes much to senior comedian Daigo of the manzai comic duo Chidori.

Watanabe’s Instagram post shows her posing in front of a billboard advertising her podcast show “Naomi Takes America” in New York.

In 2014, she went to the United States for three months to study English, which was her first long-term stay in the country. Before making the trip, she met Daigo at a sushi bar and had a chat. When she told him about her language study, Daigo responded to her in a serious mode, quoting and paraphrasing a poem on baseball by lyricist Yu Aku.

“The first miracle can be called a miracle, but no one really knows what to call the second miracle. You came from Ibaraki to Tokyo and became successful. That’s your first miracle. If you make it in the States, that will be your second. If you’ve done it, let me know what you call the second miracle,” he told her ardently, clutching a glass of barley shochu spirit and soda.

Behind him was a turtle, poking out its head out of its tank as if it was trying to listen to Daigo.

“He looked so cool, but I laughed at the sight and was told off,” Watanabe recalled.

However, she was not thinking of living outside of Japan for a long time. Studying abroad was just one of the things that would help develop her entertainment skills, and nothing more than that.

In 2016, she went on a world tour to New York, Los Angeles and Taipei. She also got more offers from overseas, such as modeling and appearing in a TV drama in Taiwan.

Still, her career in Japan rode further upward waves, and she appeared regularly in about 10 TV shows.

“I just wanted to give my best to the job in front of me,” she said. She was filled with a sense of fulfillment at the time.

Around that time, she met with Daigo for a drink again. When she told him that she was not thinking of going abroad for the time being, he said: “[Other comedians] can do what you’re doing right now. But you can go to the States, too, and that I cannot do. I’d choose that if I were you.”

She was thunderstruck by his words.

In the back of her mind, she had a slight concern, “There are probably people out there who think: ‘So she’s working with her base overseas. Is she over the top?’”

“When a senior colleague you trust like him gave me an encouraging push, I was relieved, thinking, “So I’m allowed to go,” and at the same time I was outrageously confused. Then I made up my mind there, ‘I’m going!’”

From 2019, she started traveling to New York every other week, running around for networking in the showbiz industry. She also strictly and objectively researched where niche needs were, which she may have a chance to fill. That summer, she reached a conclusion: “Plus-size models are so cool, and becoming one myself is a tough act to follow. But there aren’t many plus-size people who are also funny. There are many things only I can do.”

She even purchased a house in the United States within the year.

“Actually, I’m quite a chicken, so the only way I can do it is to go for a break recklessly,” she said.

The COVID-19 crisis delayed her plans, so we should see more of her achievement in the future. Yet she has already earned something — courage. Unlike in Japan, where proceedings of TV shows are explained to the cast in detail in advance, in New York, the cast are simply told something like, “Do it in a happy way. The rest is up to you!”

Oftentimes she does not even know what she is supposed to do until the camera starts rolling. She just follows the action frantically, making full use of English, which she is not yet fully used to speaking.

“It makes me happier than ever when people laugh even without the ‘filter’ in a place where no one knows me. I can’t resist this sensation of me making big challenges,” she said.

Beyonce impersonation

Watanabe’s impersonation of Beyonce, which catapulted her career, is simply about her dancing and doing lip synchronization to Beyonce songs. But it brings a smile to everyone’s face watching a plus-size comedian bounce energetically as if she has been taken over by the sexy and powerful diva.

Watanabe’s Instagram post shows her impersonating Beyonce. She has impersonated the pop icon at the Tokyo Girls Collection runway show and other occasions beyond comedians’ usual world.

When Watanabe was a child, she already liked impersonating pop singers on the bed in her room, playing their music. She also admired comedian Ken Shimura and dreamed of becoming a comedian herself.

Her Beyonce impersonation has its roots in an audition she joined immediately after finishing a training academy run by an entertainment agency. Each auditionee had to demonstrate their special skill, and one of the judges was the famous TV script writer whose name starts with Y. He was known for his never looking at auditionees and working on a PC instead. As expected, young auditionees failed one after another that day.

Watanabe was not sure what she should do by herself. Being desperate, she did her Beyonce impersonation. When the music started and she began dancing, Mr. Y momentarily glanced at her dance. As the music reached its climax, he looked down and covered his mouth with a towel he was wearing around his neck.

Someone made Mr. Y laugh — the legend spread fast among young comedians. Watanabe was called to shows, and everyone laughed when she did her Beyonce act. Soon she started receiving offers to appear on TV, and she became a star overnight.

Like Tracy in ‘Hairspray’

Watanabe used to describe herself as someone who worked her way through doing only lip synchronization. Therefore, she felt tremendous pressure playing the lead in “Hairspray.” It is quite unusual for a comedian to be cast to play the lead in a musical that scored a big success on Broadway.

“I really love this musical and I have a personal attachment to it,” Watanabe said. Since childhood, she watched the original film version of “Hairspray” time and again. At the graduation show of the training academy, she lip-synched “You Can’t Stop the Heat,” the most famous song from the musical, with her classmate, Shinji Saito of the manzai comedy trio Jungle Pocket.

Courtesy of Theatrical Department, Toho Co.
Watanabe, center, plays Tracy in “Hairspray” in Tokyo in September.

The musical is set in Baltimore in the 1960s. Vibrant, plus-size high schooler Tracy works very hard to appear in a dance show on TV. She straightforwardly and cheerfully confronts lookism and fights racism, both discrimination against people based on their appearance.

Watanabe, too, was often subjected to insensitive verbal abuse for her looks, as she widened her activity arena beyond the realm of comedians.

“Honestly, it’s all about how long I’ve been doing a fat lady, isn’t it. No way I’m going to cry if someone calls me a ‘pig’ Ha, ha, ha!” Watanabe said, laughing it off.

“In the past, there used to be a fixed idea about big people becoming comedians, but now they can make it as singers and models. The range of their expressions has become wider,” she said, reflecting on changes in society.

On stage, Watanabe proudly sings as Tracy in the face of the fact that this is her first musical appearance. She is also duly playing the role of the leader of the cast. Her dance makes the most of her signature ability to sharply and effectively use stillness and motion, making her look really cute with her plump figure and positive personality.

In comical scenes aimed at provoking laughter, she makes the best use of the experiences she has accumulated in comedy acts, adding subtle changes to her expressions, tension when saying lines and the timing of dialogues with other cast members.

The rounds of applause from audiences show not only what she has built up in her career so far, but also a glimpse of her future self as an artist.