Deena Marie: An inside look at Utah’s ‘out there’ celebrity
By Ellen Fagg Weist
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Oct 25 2013 09:09AM
Four strips of duct tape mark this Salt Lake County trailside parking lot, and now Deena Marie Manzanares is ready to start filming another of her iconic YouTube videos. Today’s mission? She’s making an advertisement in the form of a musical about unicorns in front of her distinctive graphically enhanced Ford Fiesta, the Uni-mobile.
"Is there where the first Deena is going to be?" she asks sound engineer Dave Evanoff, today’s videographer, who earlier recorded Manzanares singing four tracks in the studio.
Over the course of the 90-minute shoot, four Deena characters will show up after the actor has used her car as a changing room, like Clark Kent in the phone booth transforming into Superman. As the camera watches her, Manzanares makes an entrance, hits her mark, then turns and greets imaginary versions of herself. "Hey girls," she says. And: "I love your shirt."
The four lip-synching Deenas — playing first a ukulele, then a cowbell, then a tambourine and finally a shaker — will be spliced together during the editing. "All the magic will happen in the studio afterwards," jokes Evanoff, as the soundtrack for the lead vocal tract spills out of his iPhone. A day later, Manzanares will continue her ongoing narration of her life by posting a funny tweet to her social media followers about the size of the bruises on her thigh from playing the tambourine.
But before the bruise appears, on this perfect Sunday afternoon, a handful of families, hikers and bikers thread through the guerrilla shoot. Most stare curiously at the actor, her costumes and the pink stuffed unicorn plopped on top of her colorful car. "I always wonder what they think, if they don’t come over and ask," she says between takes.
Adorned in a bright red pageboy, vibrant hoop earrings, heavy stage makeup and ruby red lipstick, Manzanares keeps a straight face. She’s efficient and professional, and she’s used to attracting attention in character as Deena Marie, a model, "community celebrity" and professional actor. Her childlike persona seems influenced by the "rainbows and unicorns" cuteness of Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s, a sugar-coated pop world.
In her night life, Manzanares is rehearsing the lead in "The Twelve Dates of Christmas," which serves as a "tour de force" for a female actor, says Fran Pruyn, Pygmalion Productions’ artistic director. The "nearly one-woman play" opens Nov. 1 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Black Box theater. Manzanares describes Ginna Hoben’s play as a smart, modern romantic comedy, not a Katherine Heigl or Reese Witherspoon vehicle, but more likely a role for Zooey Deschanel, Mindy Kaling or maybe Anne Hathaway.
This afternoon in character as Deena Marie, throughout the photo shoot, Manzanares is efficient and professional. She knows when to smile and when to pop open her eyes as she lip-syncs to her own vocal tracks. The way she hits her marks, she makes this performance in her ongoing role as a local social media persona appear effortless. She makes being a two-name personality, Deena Marie, seem easy.
The Lady Gaga of Salt Lake City • As far as local personalities go, here’s why you may have heard of Deena Marie Manzanares: For the past six years, she’s been posting regular comedic videos on her three YouTube channels. She also narrates her life on her two Facebook pages, on Twitter and Instagram, and posts her poems and other writings on a blog.
In 2009, she reached the peak of her web celebrity with an elaborate "Twilight High School Musical" parody she wrote (with Evanoff’s original music), which has been viewed more than 2 million times. For nearly four years, she created weekly videos for City Weekly, and she performed her Sarah Palin impression on KUTV’s morning show in 2009 before the politician’s Utah Costco appearance. Manzanares is also a model who has appeared in national magazine advertisements and modeled in runway shows in Los Angeles (and in a recent fashion story for The Salt Lake Tribune).
On the web, Manzanares has more followers and subscribers than you or I, but she’s nowhere near the stratosphere of Utah’s biggest social media brand names, who range from Dooce blogger Heather Armstrong to the classical-pop music mashups of The Piano Guys, the extreme sports videos of DevinSuperTramp, or the practical advice offered on CuteGirlsHairstyles, all with their own YouTube channels.
What sets apart Manzanares is how strategically the classically trained actor has used social media to market herself.
"She’s the Lady Gaga of Salt Lake City," says filmmaker Steve Williams, who acted with Manzanares last year in The Sting and Honey Company’s production of "The Lion in Winter." "She’s totally out there. She doesn’t rein anything in. She is captivating, and you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s unusual. She does the unexpected, and she says the unexpected."
Manzanares is a "community celebrity" who can mingle across Utah’s different creative networks, says Veronica Lynn Harper, art director for a new social media studio, MyRooms Inc., and founder of Sketch Cabaret, an artists and performers collaborative. "She creates herself to be a celebrity. Everybody knows her that way. It’s The Deena Marie Show when she walks through the door."
She’s unique among local actors in creating a persona outside the theater community, says actor Robert Scott Smith. When Smith worked with Manzanares last year to produce "Love" at The Leonardo, he estimates 20 percent of ticket sales came from Deena Marie’s fans.
"What Deena Marie is doing is creating work for herself," Smith says. "As opposed to most actors who will sit back, hesitate and wait for someone to offer a job to them, Deena Marie says ‘Yes!,’ and jumps in. And she’s built a crew of creative artists who find joy in working with her. She’s always supporting people around her."
Setting aside her carefully crafted persona, directors who have worked with Manzanares praise her work ethic. "She comes early to rehearsals, ready to work, completely there and in process," says Pruyn, who underscores her gifted comedic timing.
Harper, the art director, praises her chameleonic ability to quickly transform into character as a performer and a model. "What’s evident in her social media persona — an endless sense of play — is also evident in her work as an actor," says Andra Harbold, who has directed Manzanares in recent performances. "She’s so smart and strategic. She makes it look effortless, but it’s really clear she’s put a lot of thought into what she’s brought into the rehearsal room."
Advertising Deena Marie • About that distinctive car: Maybe you’ve seen it around town. Maybe you’ve even tweeted a picture of it to Manzanares.
In April, she got a new Fiesta after being selected as one of 100 national "agents" assigned to promote the car to a younger generation through social media. On assignments for Ford, she has gone backstage at "American Idol," interviewed a band at Lollapalooza and taken flying lessons. In July, for another of her monthly missions, Manzanares filmed a video of a local company, Queen of Wraps, transforming her car with custom artwork.
What resulted is a vibrantly colored wrap featuring a golden-maned unicorn ridden by a red-bobbed, bespectacled Deena Marie through a Space Invaders galaxy. On the hood, there’s a massive cartoon of Deena Marie’s face. On the side panels, there’s DeenaMarie’s Twitter handle.
Everywhere she goes, the car serves as an advertisement, for Ford, yes, and Queen of Wraps, but also for the persona of Deena Marie.
Crafting a persona • Ask Manzanares about being a celebrity, and she’ll demur. Celebrities are Brad and Angelina. Celebrities appear on the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
She admits to being occasionally recognized for her acting or modeling jobs, although it always takes her by surprise. At the Salt Lake airport once, a Delta Air Lines clerk recognized her from her YouTube videos. At a 2009 YouTube meetup in New York, young girls asked for her autograph as if she were truly famous. She’s flirted with Hollywood, been considered for roles on four reality TV shows, but none of those opportunities panned out.
The persona of Deena Marie is self-made, she says, a heightened version of her adult self and the little girl she once was. "My mom tells me I would change my clothes a million times a day," she says. "I loved playing dress-up. I always had a tutu, either around my waist or on my head."
She claims she’s more careful about not crossing the line of oversharing personal information than it might appear. "You put out a little percentage, or a little sliver, of a life, and of course, that’s all someone knows or sees," she says.
In her social media posts, she’s mostly positive and upbeat, and works to build anticipation through her writing style — lots of exclamation points — but also in how she doles out information. She knows that some people in the acting community might be dismissive of her social media persona, and she doesn’t care much. As an actor, she tries to draw upon the humility that was stressed in her training at New York University’s Atlantic Theatre Company Acting School, from which she graduated in 2002.
She was burned out for a time, and so stopped making and posting new videos until this year’s Ford gig. In discussing the subject of "The Twelve Dates of Christmas," she’ll volunteer information about her new boyfriend, a law student, but won’t talk about specific past relationships. Like many local actors, the Cottonwood High School graduate doesn’t volunteer her age, but says she can play characters from mid-20s to mid-30s.
Ask her how much she earns, and she’s direct in not answering. "By no means am I rolling in the dough, but I’ve never been at a loss for anything that I’ve needed to do or bills or anything," she says. She likes the variety of juggling acting roles, a part-time day job in ticketing or retail, and social media gigs.
Her ultimate goal is to keep marketing herself as long as she is having fun. And she’s optimistic that new opportunities will come. "I just keep planning to transition to whatever comes my way," she says. "I have nothing to prove. I’ve always felt like that. I’m doing what I do because it makes me happy."