The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for the entire planet, to say the least, but it has also produced some unexpected gifts. If not for the pandemic, a British woman named Debbie Wileman, who hadn’t sung professionally in years, would never have started her “A Song a Day” project on Facebook where she simply wanted to entertain her friends in lockdown. To Debbie’s shock and surprise, her videos began to go viral, turning countless people around the world into avid fans who looked forward to her incredible videos. Debbie has a gorgeous voice that she uses to sing a range of songs — as herself and in the style of various singers including Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, Cass Elliott, Janis Joplin, Barbra Streisand, and Marilyn Monroe. But it is Debbie’s ability to take on the persona of her lifelong idol, Judy Garland, that really got the Internet buzzing. It’s an astounding recreation that borders on channeling. I was thrilled to talk to the delightful Debbie Wileman by phone from her home north of London.
Danny Miller: Debbie, I can’t begin to tell you how much pleasure you’ve given me and my family over the past year. To get my kvelling out of the way, I’ve seen many amazing singers, I’ve seen lots of people do tributes to Judy Garland, but there’s just nobody that can compare to what you do, it’s pretty insane. I love when you sing as yourself, I love your tributes to other singers, but your Judy Garland videos are just astounding. Before you started doing these videos during the pandemic, you were singing all the time, right?
Debbie Wileman: I mean, not really. To be honest, just in the shower for myself, and I hadn’t been doing the Judy Garland singing for ages.
That’s incredible. In addition to your amazing voice, what kills me is that you seem to get every speech pattern, every nuance down perfectly. Have you been studying Judy for years?
It started when I was at university getting a performing arts degree. At the end of my three-year course, you could write a thesis or put on a performance. I just thought, “Ooh, what would I like to do?” Well, I loved Judy Garland and decided to write a play where I’d get to be Judy Garland so I could sing her songs. That’s when I really started watching her very closely. I was already a huge fan, obviously. I had watched all of her films and her TV shows, and had loved her since I was six. It was my Nana who introduced me to her originally, we both shared a love of Old Hollywood, and I used to try to sing like Judy when I was a little girl to make my Nana laugh. But that was just the singing, it was only when I decided to do this play that I started studying her mannerisms.
Did anything happen with that play?
Yes, I did it at this small theater that was part of my university — this was the University of Salford in Manchester. Someone from a gay bar theatre in Manchester saw it and asked me if I’d like to make it a bit longer and perform it there. So I wrote a bit more and did it for a week. I was 21 at the time. And then I got a chance to do it at a few other places including London at the King’s Head Theatre in London. It was a lot of fun.
Did this lead to other acting and singing engagements?
Some, but unfortunately I just didn’t get enough work to make a living. I tried for a few years but I’m not from a rich family or anything and I just couldn’t afford to keep doing it. I had to go and get a job and that was it, really. I haven’t done much singing for years because I was an honest working stiff as they say!
And then when the pandemic happened, you just had the idea to start putting some videos out?
Yeah, it was when everyone was in lockdown last year. It was a really scary time and so many people were by themselves. I just thought, well, it might be nice to sing a song on Facebook every day, just for my few friends. It would give me something to do and it might be nice for people who were isolating by themselves. I had no idea that anything would come of it — I really doubt that I would have done it if I had known. I would have thought it was a bit cringe-o, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t have put myself out there like, “Look at me, world, I’m singing a song!” If not for the pandemic, I never would have done any of this.
Wow. And how long did it take before you realized your videos were really catching on and spreading like wildfire?
It was so crazy. The first one I did was just me singing a Johnny Mathis song. Then I think I did the Etta James song, “At Last.” And then on Day 3, I thought, oh, go on, I’ll go find my old Judy wig that’s somewhere in the attic, and I’ll sing “The Man That Got Away.” Why not, that will be fun!
And that’s the first one that went viral?
Well, I had the idea to share it with the Judy Garland group on Facebook and that’s what did it. I suddenly started getting all of these friend requests, and not knowing any better, I just accepted them all. “You want to be my friend? Sure, okay, accept, accept, accept!” I didn’t know who any of them were. It was mostly excellent but I did get a few unsolicited ‘images’ coming my way!
Oh my, is nothing sacred?
I know! All these people friended me but I had no clue who they were. For example, I had no idea that the person I had accepted called John Meyer was THE John Meyer, the man who had dated Judy Garland in the 60s! Much later, when I did Judy’s “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning,” he commented on that post and I couldn’t believe he was already my friend! I sent him a photo of me reading his book, Heartbreaker!
I remember the first time I saw someone post a link to one of your Judy videos. To be honest, my first thought was, “Oh, no, not another one! Who is this woman and how dare she think she could perform as Judy Garland!”
(Laughs.) I’m exactly the same! Very protective of Judy!
And then when I watched it I thought, “Oh, she must by lip-syncing.” When I realized that was actually your voice, I thought, “Oh, this is something different!” I’ve watched every video since. I love watching you get into character. It reminds me, forgive me, of someone like Sybil when she’s transforming into one of her other personalities and you just see that change come over her face, like she’s accepting another entity into her body. Does it feel like that for you? Or can you just pop into it without any notice at all?
[switching to perfect Judy Garland voice] Well, no, Danny, it just kind of happens, I can’t really explain it. I have to think about it a little bit but not that much!
Oh my God, I’m talking to Judy Garland! Goosebumps! I love all your Judy videos but the one I saw the other day when you’re singing “Happy Harvest” from Summer Stock sitting in the tractor may have been my favorite, including your young daughter’s cameo. How the hell did you find that tractor that was so much like the one Judy is sitting in for that song?
I live in North Essex, just above London, and were driving to the next village one day when I saw this tractor in the park and I thought, “Ooh, I have to use that!” Now I’m constantly looking for things that I can use as props for these songs. I was visiting my parents on the South Coast last summer and discovered this miniature steam railway down there. I spoke to the woman who ran it and asked her if I could record a video on it. She said it would be fine but then we had another lockdown and a bunch of new restrictions in the UK so I haven’t been able to do it yet, but I still plan to. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert, I think you can guess what song that will be!
Then you pull that throttle, whistle blows
Huffing and puffing and away she goes
All aboard for California
On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe!
I can’t wait! I notice that when you’re speaking as Judy, it’s usually Judy in the 1960s, but I love how you can change your voice depending on what era you’re trying to emulate. Have you done any of the songs she sang as a young girl in the 1930s?
Not too many of the songs when she was properly young which is good because I still have a lot more to do. I have done “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and “But Not for Me” and I even did those in black and white for the effect!
As the pandemic begins to recede, you have to start doing live performances. Could you imagine doing a whole evening as Judy?
Yeah, of course, I would love it! I did it in my early twenties and I think I’ve gotten better at it since I’m older now and my voice has matured.
I assume you’ve seen the play End of the Rainbow, and the film Judy?
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the doom and gloom aspects that always seem so popular when people do things about Judy. It’s always very tragic and miserable and I’m like, “No!” Every person I’ve spoken to that knew her has said how fun she was and she wasn’t in any way a tragic figure.
That’s exactly the message that her good friend Dottie Ponedel wanted to get across and why her niece Meredith Ponedel and I published the book About Face, about Dottie’s friendship with Judy.
Yes, I always heard that she was such a fantastic friend and so warm and fun. That’s why I hate the doom and gloom portrayals. Yes, it’s sad that she died so young but she was so funny and talented and great and witty that you want to celebrate that. I think that would make a much more entertaining film.
Does the thought of hearing from any of her children make you nervous?
Not nervous, I would be overjoyed! I think Liza is absolutely brilliant, I love her and have seen her in concert twice. Apart from the Judy connection, Cabaret is one of my favorite films ever. Even if she wasn’t Judy Garland’s daughter I would still absolutely adore Liza Minnelli, so if I ever did hear from her that would be brilliant. I know that all of the children are understandably a bit wary about people doing their mum, which is completely fair, but I would hope that if they ever did hear me, they’d know that it was done with so much love and respect.
I love your Liza songs as well on your videos!
If I put you on the spot and said, what are your three favorite Judy Garland movies off the top of your head, what would you say?
Easter Parade, definitely, that is my favorite. Next, I Could Go On Singing, possibly because I’m a Londoner and I love it, and third, probably Summer Stock!
All excellent choices, although her final film, I Could Go On Singing, is a bit of an outlier. Are there other classic movie stars that you’re obsessed with?
Oh, lots, but the biggest for me are definitely Judy and Marilyn. I really love Marilyn Monroe.
Oh, let’s see one of your Marilyn songs!
You did a song a day for a while but now you’re doing three a week, which is still a lot!
Yes, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I usually do them at night after my daughter goes to sleep. Which is why I often end up doing them from my car because my neighbor complains.
He complains? If you were my neighbor I’d set my clock to your performances and invite people over to listen!
Oh, they don’t like it if it gets too late! So I have to get into my car and drive to an empty car park. I got stopped by the police once. I was dressed as Judy with the wig and full makeup and I had a skipping rope I was using as my long corded microphone! The police officer knocked on my window — he was very suspicious because, as I later found out, there are a lot of naughty goings-on in small Essex car parks! Who knew? [switches to Judy voice] “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”
I hope that when the officer knocked on your window that you spoke to him as Judy Garland,
Oh, I wish I had! He was like, “What are you doing in there?” And I said “Well, I’m singing a song and recording myself.” And he said, “What?”
I love it!
You have to be very resourceful dong this work with no budget!
I just saw the great video you did for “The Boy Next Door” from Meet Me in St. Louis. It looked like you had a full costume for that one.
Look closer, Danny, that bow I’m wearing is made out of toilet paper!
Oh, the glamour!
Check out Debbie Wileman’s fantastic YouTube Channel. My fantasy is that she’ll be invited to next year’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood to help celebrate Judy Garland’s 100th birthday!
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.