Talking to Debbie Gibson, China Anne McClain about ABC's 'Sing Your Face Off'

Darrell Hammond, host John Barryman, Debbie Gibson and David Alan Grier on "Sing Your Face Off." CREDIT: ABC

Combined ShapeCaption
Darrell Hammond, host John Barryman, Debbie Gibson and David Alan Grier on "Sing Your Face Off." CREDIT: ABC

When I was offered a phone interview with Debbie Gibson to promote her upcoming judging gig on ABC's "Sing Your Face Off," I said yes immediately.

My criteria for holding such interviews is typically Atlanta-centric. The four primary factors are: 1) if the celebrity is from here, 2) is coming here for a concert or show, 3) taped a program here and/or 4) is promoting a show on an Atlanta-based network.

Gibson fit none of these.

Why did I make an exception?

Demographics and geography. I grew up in the 1980s and am about the same age as Gibson. Plus, I'm from Long Island - just like her.

Plus, she's still a recognizable name among us Gen Xers, who bopped along to "Electric Youth," "Shake Your Love" and "Only In My Dreams" back in the day. With nine top 40 hits under her belt, she has been able to sustain a career over the years on Broadway and concerts all over the world.

This six-episode reality show features five celebrities: "SNL" star Jon Lovitz, Disney star and former Atlantan China Anne McClain, former soap star Lisa Rinna, Skid Row lead singer Sebastian Bach and Toronto Raptors NBA player Landry Jones. Each dresses up as different pop stars and attempts to imitate them in terms of vocals, visuals and style.

Gibson, along with David Alan Grier and Darrell Hammond, judge the performances.

Clearly, ABC is not anticipating a "Dancing With the Stars" hit here. The network is placing "Sing Your Face Off" on Saturday night at 9 p.m., a time slot not exactly coveted by most shows. And the show was taped a year ago.

But Gibson, who finished 11th in 2012 during the season Arsenio Hall won, said she had a blast and during the first episode I screened, she showed unalloyed joy watching Lovitz attempt to channel Elton John (not so great), China imitate Rihanna (amazing!), Rinna pretend to be Dolly Parton (over the top and goofy), Bach go all Adam Levine (entertaining and absurd) and Jones work the 1980s Jheri curl singing Lionel Richie (surprisingly good).

"It was super cool, super fun," said Gibson, during a 15-minute phone interview earlier this month. "Nobody is trying to win to build their career. Everybody is already established in their own right. But they are taking this very seriously. You want to give them real constructive feedback."

She loved the production values and the concept. And she enjoyed working next to Hammond, who has a knack for imitation going back to his long stint on "Saturday Night Live."  She also found guest judge one week Richard Simmons as rambunctious in person as he is on TV. "He is the loudest gayest man I've ever met in my life," said Gibson, who has a strong following in the LBGT community and frequently performs at Pride festivals. "He was so wild. He brings you Richard Simmons. I meditated five times the day he was on set so I could bring my own energy down."

Here are her quick takes on the contestants:

Sebastian Bach: "He's done Broadway like me. We've worked with some of the same theater companies. We worked on the film 'Rock of Ages' together. We jammed in the middle of the night while Tom Cruise was eating dinner. I was playing keyboard for Kevin Cronin [lead singer of REO Speedwagon.] Then Sebastian disappeared. We thought maybe he was partaking in some sort of debauchery. In fact, he was warming up his voice. He's a pro. He had a tough time hiding Sebastian Bach [masquerading as others.]

Landry Fields: "He's fearless. During one performance, he got slightly off with the band. Within a bar, he found his way back. That's the sign of a pro. He is six foot 10. He was able to shrink his body into Lionel Richie's body. He really found whoever he was portraying. And he had never sung a note in his life."

Jon Lovitz: "I grew up idolizing him on 'SNL.' He was so fun. He really dared to go places that I wasn't expecting."

China Anne McClain: "She was like the second coming of Rihanna. She is really unbelievable. She's an old soul. I had to judge her on a curve. She's already a singer. I wanted to help her find that line between doing a great performance and really channeling the singer. I'd love to write songs with her."

Lisa Rinna: "She had such a flair for fun. She was so thrilled to be there. Her spirit was in it."

Gibson was a judge on 'American Juniors" more than a decade ago, a reality show spin off of "American Idol" that failed.  (A winner Lucy Hale did end up as an actress on "Pretty Little Liars"). "I think the show was before it's time. Young children are seen singing on 'America's Got Talent.' 'Idol' reduced its age to 15. I call myself a pioneer."

Why wasn't she considered for "American Idol" itself? "I think I was associated with a show that failed for them. I understand the politics of that."

I had time for one more question so I asked about her struggles with the tick-borne Lyme disease.

For months, "I didn't know what was going on. I started showing symptoms during the taping of 'Sing Your Face Off.' It was really challenging. Everyone was chalking it up to stress and anxiety. So it was tricky. My back went out during the taping. Just making the entrance in heels was excruciatingly painful. I was happy to be there. So I focused on that. I didn't want to stop my life and career to find answers. I kept thinking I'd get better. I kept feeling worse. It started affecting my brain. I couldn't think logically. I was tired."

She cycled in and out of a flu-like state and lost a lot of weight, so much so that people on social media began commenting about her skeletal state  based on photos. Gibson on her blog wrote a lengthy story about her ordeal in April. (Read it here.)

Now that she has been treating herself for the disease, she's on the mend. "I'm on the upswing," she said. "I have gained back 15 pounds the past six weeks. I'm able to start exercising again. It's been humbling. You have to rebuild. I have a bunch of tour dates next month. I feel like the worst is behind me. I feel like the universe dropped this on me to help spread awareness of Lyme disease."

She was happy to keep talking but my time ran out. I had several more questions left on the table, including "Celebrity Apprentice," her favorite song to perform in concert and whether anyone has ever said she looks like Lisa Kudrow.  I'm sure there will be another time, another day.

I also spoke with 15-year-old McClain, who moved to Los Angeles five years ago from Atlanta. She starred on Disney's "A.N.T. Farm" for three years and is now focused on her musical career with her sisters. (They have their first headlining gig in Anaheim June 29.)

ExploreI interviewed her first in 2011 when "A.N.T. Farm" was about to debut.
Combined ShapeCaption
Former Atlantan China Anne McClain (Disney's "A.N.T. Farm") as Rihanna on "Sing Your Face Off," debuting May 31 on ABC. CREDIT: ABC

Credit: Rodney Ho

Former Atlantan China Anne McClain (Disney's "A.N.T. Farm") as Rihanna on "Sing Your Face Off," debuting May 31 on ABC. CREDIT: ABC

Credit: Rodney Ho

Combined ShapeCaption
Former Atlantan China Anne McClain (Disney's "A.N.T. Farm") as Rihanna on "Sing Your Face Off," debuting May 31 on ABC. CREDIT: ABC

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

She said she had a great time channeling different singers on "Sing Your Face Off." She also needed help from her parents (and YouTube) to channel celebrities from before her time such as Michael Jackson and Tina Turner.

"It was way harder than acting," McClain said.

When she performed as Rihanna, she said she had to dial down her own natural energy. "I had to be more sophisticated," she said.

Although McClain is aware ABC has placed the show on Saturday, she hopes folks will watch it on their own time - via DVR, on demand or even clips online.

TV preview

"Sing Your Face Off"

9 p.m., Saturday, May 31, ABC