Margarita Pracatan, who has died aged 89, was a Cuban entertainer who was unleashed on the world by Clive James when she became a fixture on his television show, clad in sequins and feather boas, belting out her unique, heavily accented, often tuneless but always enthusiastic versions of well-loved songs. “She never lets the words or melody get in her way,” observed James. “She is us, without the fear of failure.”
She was born Margarita Figueroa in Santiago de Cuba, her country’s second-largest city, on June 11 1931, one of eight children. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a union leader, and in the 1950s the family fled to New York.
There, Margarita had various jobs, including selling men’s underwear at Saks Fifth Avenue and a stint as a policewoman – “I only have to take a knife from someone once, and he didn’t mind,” she recalled.
She might have lived a life of happy obscurity, but things changed when she bought an electric piano, adopted the stage name “Pracatan” – Cuban-Spanish for “Wow!” – and launched a public-access cable TV programme, singing and playing hits such as Lionel Richie’s Hello and standards like New York, New York.
James, who had based his own television career on unearthing small-screen oddities from around the world, was alerted to her show by a researcher, and he began playing clips of Margarita.
She progressed to appearing in person on ITV’s Clive James Show from the mid-1990s, closing proceedings with her latest language-mangling cover version. As James put it: “When she sings she stirs your brains around with a spoon.”
As well as her solo spots, she did the occasional duet, with Boy George on Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? for example – she subsequently joined him on stage at the Albert Hall – and with Gary Barlow on the Take That hit Back for Good.
Whether she fully appreciated James’s keen sense of irony is not known. “And now, as her tour of Britain continues to leave audiences shaking with disbelief, here to bring an already transcendental experience to an over-arching, incandescent apex ... Margarita Pracatan!” went one introduction, but his affection for her seemed genuine.
Though television critics were either sniffy or downright contemptuous, her fame spread: she released a CD, Live at the Palladium, and there were Margarita Pracatan tribute acts on the gay club circuit. She toured Britain and Australia, played the Edinburgh Festival and performed regularly at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney.
She was asked why she thought she had become a gay icon. “I don’t know why,” she replied, “maybe they need their mother. I think I am their mother. Somebody who is inspiration. Somebody with happiness.”
During one performance, at the Pink Coconut Club in Derby, she was halfway through a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called To Say I Love You when an over-excited fan threw a gold G-string at her. Within minutes the stage was festooned with men’s briefs – “it was wonderful,” she said.
James’s show remained the perfect vehicle for her camp eccentricity. The host had “bedroom eyes”, she said, while she told fellow guest Ned Sherrin: “I am into you already.” When he praised her talent, she responded: “I don’t have talent at all, honey.”
As James’s television career slowed down, so did hers, though she continued singing live, and in 2019 she appeared in an episode of Real Housewives of New York City, performing a cover of the Luann de Lesseps song Money Can’t Buy You Class.
When James died last November, she paid tribute to the man who had changed her life: “Years and years of that intelligence and the talent and beautiful way of living, always to do excellence. Thank you Clive James from the bottom of my heart.”
Margarita Pracatan was married and divorced, and is survived by her daughter.
Margarita Pracatan, born June 11 1931, died June 23 2020