Terry Fator became a household name in 2007 as the winner of America’s Got Talent for his unique blend of ventriloquism, singing, comedy and celebrity impressions. This year, Fator celebrates his sixth anniversary at the Mirage, where he brings characters such as Winston the Impersonating Turtle, Vikki The Cougar, country legend Walter T. Airdale and many others to life. Earlier this year, he received a Concierge Choice Award for Best Las Vegas Comedy Show from the Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association.
I read in your bio that you discovered a ventriloquism book in fifth grade. What was it about ventriloquism that grabbed you?
It was mostly that it was different. I wanted to do something I could do in the talent show at my school—there were magicians, kids who sang and played the piano (I did all those things), but there wasn’t another ventriloquist. I thought it would help me to stand out.
Have you been interested in performing since childhood?
Oh yeah, from as far back as I can remember. One of my very first memories is singing a song in front of a bunch of people and having them cheer—I really liked that feeling!
Once you started doing ventriloquism, what was the first impression you did?
Michael Jackson. I used to love watching Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5 on different variety shows; one of the first songs I ever did with a puppet was ABC. I had a lion puppet and I named it Jackal Mikeson. I wasn’t a jackal, but to a 10-year-old, that was pretty clever. (Laughs)
Was that the first puppet you used?
No, the first puppet I ever used was a character I got from Sears called Willie Talk. Only his mouth moved, so my mom helped me—she took him apart and built a body for him and put a stick on it so I could move his head. I think she got one of my dad’s old costume jewelry rings and tied it onto the string so I could put my finger in it and pull the trigger. I put him in a display box, he’s hanging up in my dressing room.
In your past, you played a lot of fairs and clubs and kids parties. What was the philosophy you had as you were doing this, as you were looking for your big break? What was it that kept you going?
All of the way up until I hit the 40 plateau, I had hopes and dreams that I would get discovered and I would be able to do a TV show, that I’d be able to perform in Las Vegas as a headliner. After I hit 40, I started realizing, and it was one of those lightning-bolt moments where I thought, “holy crap, I’m 40 years old and I’m a ventriloquist, it’s probably not going to happen.” I kind of just assumed that it would. At first, I was super depressed, because I was thinking, “wow, I guess my dreams are done,” then I thought that even if my dreams are done, I can still try to be the best ventriloquist I can be. I actually said the words to myself. I said, “OK, maybe I’m performing for elementary schools”—which I was—I said, “fine, in 50 years, I want those elementary school kids to tell their grandkids that they saw the best ventriloquist when they were in elementary school.” So I started focusing on every single performance instead of a dream that would hopefully happen one day, and just said “I can still be the best for myself.”
It’s funny, once that I felt the dream was over, America’s Got Talent came along and changed everything for me.
How did that come about? Did they approach you?
They always send out mass emails to entertainers who are professionals, because they want to get some professionals. During the first season I was performing at fairs all over the country, and people came up to me afterwards and kept saying they were going to email NBC and tell them about me. Evidently they did, because I got an email from NBC and the producers of America’s Got Talent that so many people had emailed them and told them they had seen me at a fair, they decided to contact me and ask me if I wanted to audition. (Laughs) So apparently, the fans who were watching at the fair really sort of made it happen for me. I had to do everything else though—I had to go get my number, stand in line, but they just gave me a list of the places and said “we’d really like you to audition.”
What was that process like once you got into it?
It was grueling, very very long hours. They’d work us until 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and then we’d have a lobby call at 6 in the morning. It was very, very tiring. Everybody who knows the entertainment industry knows that usually it’s “hurry up and wait.” So they would bus us all over to the studio, and then you’d sit. I would spend my time practicing and rehearsing and getting ready for the next performance, except when the last Harry Potter book, Deathly Hallows, came out—throughout the entire place, we were all lining the hallways reading our Harry Potter books. (Laughs) That’s a fun memory.
Did you have any of the puppets in your show now on America’s Got Talent?
The characters, yes, but the puppets, no. I’ve been able to upgrade all of the puppets, because when you have your own show in Vegas, you can’t be using a puppet that you bought at a store. All of the puppets I used on America’s Got Talent were puppets I bought or sewed.
Which character in your show has been with you the longest?
Walter T. Airdale, he’s the country singer—he yodels and sings country music. By the time I turned 18, my mom could see that I wanted to be a professional entertainer, so she bought me my first professional puppet—that’s Walter, he’s still in my act.
How long does it take you to learn a new impression?
It can take anywhere from five minutes—I can pick up a puppet and immediately start doing an impression that just happens to be in the sweet spot of my vocal range. But sometimes it can take me several years—my Barbra Streisand took me many years to get it the point I felt comfortable doing it on stage. My Frank Sinatra also took a long time to get ready. It just depends on the impression.
Which impression in your current repertoire is the hardest?
Well, I do Taylor Swift now, and that’s pretty hard (Laughs). Bruno Mars is pretty hard too. That took me several weeks to nail down.
When was the first time you came to visit Las Vegas?
I must have been 21 or 22. I had wanted to headline in Vegas since I was 14 or 15 years old, because to me, it meant you were a top entertainer. Growing up watching TV in the ‘70s, I always saw marquees that said Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, in Las Vegas.
What are your favorite things to see and do in Las Vegas?
I love to eat, and T-bones at Red Rock Casino that is just one of the best places I’ve ever eaten at. Of course, Sinatra at Encore is great too. And my favorite place to eat at the Mirage (I probably eat there about 3-4 times a month) is Stack. It’s just one of the best steakhouses you’re ever going to find.
What’s your favorite guilty indulgence?
In 2014, I’d rewritten the show so many times, and I was just exhausted, so I took six months and sat in my room all day playing video games.