It’s early morning on a Sunday – and when she sits down, I’m a little disoriented. Sonya’s not supposed to exist here. In regular clothes. In daylight. When I’m sober. To me, usually Sonya only exists when, after a long, stressful day at work, the only thing to get me in the mood for the weekend is the promise of downing a few cheap beers, grabbing a microphone, and belting out “Caribbean Queen.” Loudly. Probably too loudly.
Sonya is the karaoke goddess at Gilly’s Bar in University Heights, a friendly neighborhood bar home to cheap drinks, Tuesday steak nights, and of course, karaoke every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. And although you can find karaoke lots of places in San Diego, there’s nothing quite like the scene at Gilly’s.
You can give Sonya the credit for that. When you first see her, perched behind her laptop on the nights she holds court, you know immediately that she’s not your typical karaoke host. On any given night, she might be dressed as anything from Princess Leia (pictured) to Leeloo from The Fifth Element. And that’s just when she’s working through the “L”’s of her alphabetically categorized costume spreadsheet.
Sonya was kind enough to meet with me to discuss her famous costumes, what it’s like to run a karaoke show, and the songs she never, ever wants you to request again when it’s your turn on stage.
How did you get started?
I actually got started at the Lamplighter. I was a regular there and was friends with one of the cocktail waitresses, who eventually wanted to move on to bartending. But the manager wouldn’t let her bartend unless she found someone to replace her – so I became a cocktail waitress. But after a while it wasn’t fun, and one day, I really didn’t want to go to work that night. So I was shopping at the mall, and I bought this bright, aqua wig. And I was like, “I’m wearing this to work tonight. And if they don’t like it, then whatever. They can fire me.”
But they didn’t.
No. Everybody loved it, and I started getting tipped like really, really well. And it just went from there, to other wigs, and then outfits, and then finally a few months later it became total costumes. And everybody started recognizing me, asking for me. Even today, people still recognize me from those days– they’re like, “Hey, didn’t you used to be that chick in the wigs from Lamplighter?”
And how did you start doing karaoke?
At the Lamplighter, the guy who used to run the karaoke really liked to get … drunk. And so sometimes I’d have to finish the show for him because he had passed out. And then eventually I just started doing whole shows, like a couple of days a week. And it just went from there. I left Lamplighter and started doing shows at a couple of other bars, like Dick’s Last Resort downtown … but it was always really sporadic. Then I found Gilly’s, and it was like coming home.
What are your thoughts on the regulars at Gilly’s?
They’re my friends. I mean, it’s kind of weird, because, like, this is my job. It’s my work. And my friends are there, and we’re all drinking, and I’m in a tutu, but I’m at work. And we talk, and share our lives with each other – just like anyone else does at their job. It’s great. But our regulars are amazing. You never know what you’re going to see. I mean, one minute you have Doug, who dances and…thrusts…so enthusiastically I had to lay a hula-hoop around him to keep him fenced in. And then the next minute you have someone like Meredith, who’s so unbelievably talented. Amazing voice. She really needs to go completely professional.
So how many costumes do you have?
I don’t even know. It has to be somewhere over 200, because I once worked an entire year without repeating a single costume. And I mean, some of them I make, or modify from existing costumes, but when I put it together it’s totally original. I’m doing the alphabet now.
Yeah, so I’m doing a costume for each letter of the alphabet. You know. Princess Leia for “P.” I don’t know what for “Q” yet. Q-Bert maybe? Q-Tip?
Yeah. (Thinking.) I probably shouldn’t do that one. But yeah … I find things, outfits in thrift stores mostly, and turn them into these costumes. But the sad thing is, sometimes, I don’t have to modify them too much at all. Like my Cracker Jack outfit, that polka-dot thing – that was pretty much a real outfit somebody bought in the 80’s and probably thought they looked really good in. And now I have it – so I’m saving someone else from having to wear it. It’s like a public service. I mean, think about it – I’m actually doing some guy a favor – like, I’m wearing this ugly thing so that your girlfriend won’t. You know what I mean?
I appreciate it. So if there was a list of songs you wish you could ban forever from karaoke, what –
(Without hesitation.) “Sweet Caroline.” Definitely. Where the hell did that start, you know, the whole “BAH BAH BAH” thing? It’s … annoying. Let’s see … “Santeria.” Oh! “Date Rape.” Like, really? Why would you pick that? I mean, you’re at a bar, probably trying to get laid, and you’re gonna sing Date Rape? Really?
Hm. Broadway. Any Broadway song. It’s not that I hate Broadway, but unless, you know, everybody in the bar has seen Rent, nobody cares about however many minutes there are in a year, you know? And Don McLean, “American Pie.” And it’s not even really about the length … it’s like, you know, that’s his song. You can’t make it any better. Same thing with Bob Marley. Kurt Cobain. There are just some songs you don’t touch because of what the artist brings to song.
So what advice do you have for people when they do pick a song?
Keep it fun! We’re all here to play. I want you to play and have a good time. It’s my party – it’s our party. Don’t make it too heavy or take yourself too seriously. Don’t sing “Oh L’amour” just because you just broke up with your boyfriend. You know? I mean, don’t bring the party down. This is your time to let loose. Enjoy it. Do something fun!
Like “Caribbean Queen?”
Right… or…if you absolutely must do a musical…do Grease. That’s all right. I’ll cue it up. (Pause.) I’ll even sing along with you.
Check out Sonya at Gilly’s every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night starting at 9:00 p.m., and look out for her newest invention – helium karaoke (Or Helioke!) – coming soon. Inquiries for booking special events can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2306 El Cajon Boulevard