Margarita Pracatan, singer, television and cabaret star

Born: June 11, 1931;

Died: June 23, 2020.

SOMETIMES, entertainment acts become hugely successful despite the fact that they don’t fit prescribed levels of performance. They can reach a level of fame that is in inverse proportion to the skill-set on display. Such examples we have witnessed over the years include Irish twin singers Jedward, and Europop outfit, the Cheeky Girls.

Margarita Pracatan, a Cuban-American singer and keyboard player who rose to fame in Britain thanks to her appearances on the Clive James television show, and who has died at the age of 89 from heart failure, came into that category. At times in her career the feather boa-wearing singer was described as “a camp novelty turn,” or even less unkindly, “a circus act.” Yet, despite such testimonies, or perhaps even because of them, the flamboyant Pracatan was spotted by James after he saw videos of her American public-access cable TV show.

What caught his eye? “Pracatan’s skill was in taking some of the world’s most recognisable songs and making them seem unfamiliar, new and strange,” he once said, smiling. “She never lets the words or melody get in her way. She is us, without the fear of failure.”

Margarita Pracatan would unashamedly take the likes of the Lionel Ritchie torch song, Hello, and turn into a virtual comedy parody, her Hispanic accent reshaping the title word into something very much like “Hel-or”. She would also let loose with a disco version of the song.

She certainly caught the ear. While performing Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You, her unrelenting vocal style rendered the song, according to one critic, “somewhere between Speedy Gonzales and Carmen Miranda.”.

Pracatan loved to defy song performance convention, too. She would change the tempo and key to suit her mood, often speeding up towards the end. She would ignore instrumental breaks in a piece, believing the pauses between words to be a waste of time. And when she forgot the words, she would simply make them up.

But in spite of transforming classic pop into chaos she was immensely successful. During her career she duetted with the likes of Gary Barlow and Boy George, and appeared on television shows across the globe, most recently The Real Housewives of New York City.

Pracatan stormed the Edinburgh Festival in 1996 and branched out on TV with guest appearances for such presenters as Gloria Hunniford, Paul O’Grady and Graham Norton.

Pracatan was born Juana Margarita Figueroa in Santiago, Cuba, where her father, Buenaventura, was a union leader, and her mother, Juana, a school and piano teacher.

Margarita began singing at the age of three, and when she left school she became a kindergarten teacher. At the outbreak of the Cuban revolution her father was exiled to Venezuela and the family emigrated to America, settling in New York.

Margarita worked in the cosmetics of a large department store but in the evenings she developed a cabaret act in clubs and restaurants.

She was nothing if not determined. As she once said: “I think the audience like me because I am different, and I got the guts to go in front of them and do things, you know, because sometimes people they are very professional. I am very natural, like the audience I make part of my family.”

Having changed her name to Pracatan, she worked incessantly to attract attention. She set up her own TV cable channel in Manhattan and her appearances on American public service television resulted in international fame.

What seems to have been Pracatan’s greatest strength, however, was that she was in on the joke. In laughing in the face of criticism she turned her musical weaknesses into strengths.

And not surprisingly, given that the camp levels in her act were always turned up to 11, she attracted a massive gay following. She appeared at LGBTQ+ festivals around the world, including the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival in 1998, where she performed her show, Stranger in the Night – “an evening of song, stories and unconventional wisdom.”

Pracatan was certainly unconventional. She was also considered to be great fun, a woman who took the business, but never herself, very seriously. She even had lots of fun with her surname, turning it into an adjective. “Are you feeling Prrracataaaan!’’ she would yell at audiences. They certainly loved her upbeat resolve. “I don’t get nervy,” she once said. “The people get nervy because they say, ‘And what the heck she gonna be doing now?’”

Audiences it seemed, considered Pracatan to be the crazy aunt they all wished they had. As she explained; “At a party, you’re drinking, laughing and people come to you with their prrroblems. You say, ‘Wait a minute honey, what the heck you think I am? Your psychologic?[sic]. No way, baby – we must to be happy!”

The tortured songs and torch-artist performance were certainly never about Pracatan pretending to be a parody of a poor cabaret performer. She was the real deal, said Clive James. “When people ask me if it’s all an act I give them the true answer: no it isn’t. She’s really like that. Somebody had to be, and fate chose her.”

When James himself died last November Pracatan tweeted: “Saying goodbye is so shocking. Makes you quiet, rewinding the memories. So many. Years and years of that intelligence and the talent and beautiful way of living, always to do excellence".

Pracatan is survived by a daughter, Maria.