In a large study of 5,000 female impersonators, we found that females in a variety of voices were more likely to have been impersonating male impersonators than females with different voice types. This suggests that many female impersonators may have been trained to act as a male impersonator to earn a living at various work locations (see page 3 of this issue).
In terms of frequency of vocal training, some female voice impersonators may have been training for decades. One example is Jennifer Rine’s “Killer” character in the 1987 film The Big Lebowski. Another is “Dr. Strangelove” writer (and voice actor) Stanley Kubrick. The fact that a woman has been trained to pretend to be a man in her 50s means that she’s been trained to make up a persona that looks and feels like him.
Another question is, why are so many of female voice performers more likely to have been trained as males? The reason is that voice actors learn a repertoire of sounds that appear to be similar to other males. While female impersonators are more likely to have been trained to sing as males—for example, as Chris Farrena in Sleepless and other characters for a comedy show (see pages 4 and 5 of this issue)—female impersonators may have learned vocal training to sound male more quickly than does their male voice impersonators.
It’s not just voice actors who may have had a hard time adjusting to male voices, as we found that voice actors in other occupations, including doctors and teachers, have also struggled to make up a male persona.
How prevalent are female impersonator voices?
Voice impersonating has been around for more than 100 years. The first female impersonator to perform in a performance was “Madame Mancini” by the French actress Marlene Dietrich on October 9, 1896, but no female voice actors began acting as others, until 1926. Until 1956, voice actors such as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Mavis Staples, Betty Brantley, and Vivien Leigh did voice overs in cartoons and other films.
In the 1970s, however, the emergence of female impersonator voices in films, television dramas, and music videos led to the widespread use of male voices in entertainment films in the 1980s.
When we analyzed data collected on women who played male and female impersonators in a series of studies between 1984 and 1991 as part of our “Gender in Voice Actors” project, we
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