The broadcaster and critic Clive James loved words – written and spoken – and enjoyed nothing more than twisting around on his tongue the name of Margarita Pracatan, who has died of heart failure aged 89. She was resident singer on his ITV show in the 1990s.
Somewhere between novelty act and parody, the Cuban-American vocalist sat alongside sadistic Japanese game shows in James’s witty mix of highbrow and lowbrow culture to sing massive hits such as Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You in her heavily accented Hispanic vocal style – described by one critic as “somewhere between Speedy Gonzales and Carmen Miranda” – while wearing a brightly coloured feather boa and often animatedly providing the keyboard accompaniment. Aware of her comedy pull, she performed two versions of Lionel Richie’s Hello – one “romantic”, one “disco”.
In his own sardonic style, James once told viewers that Pracatan’s skill was in “taking some of the world’s most recognisable songs and making them seem unfamiliar, new and strange”. He added: “She never lets the words or melody get in her way. She is us, without the fear of failure.”
Pracatan herself said: “I don’t get nervy. The audience, they get nervy. The people get nervy because they say, ‘And what the heck she gonna be doing now?’”
It was a measure of Pracatan’s popularity that big names – some at the height of their fame – would duet with her. Paul O’Grady was in his Lily Savage persona, shakers in hand, for Barry Manilow’s Copacabana, while Boy George joined in as she performed his band Culture Club’s song Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.
The comedy element could be subtle, demonstrating a genuine affection for the original hits and just about managing not to enter into the realm of pantomime, as when Gary Barlow began a standard rendition of the Take That song Back for Good before Pracatan provided the counterpoint vocal “want you back, want you back, want you back for good”, bringing a wry smile to the pop singer’s face.
“When people ask me if it’s all an act,” said James, “I give them the true answer: no it isn’t. She’s really like that. Somebody had to be, and fate chose her.”
She was born Juana Margarita Figueroa in Oriente, Santiago de Cuba, where her father, Buenaventura, was a union leader and her mother, Juana, was a school and piano teacher. She started singing at the age of three to entertain her family and worked as a kindergarten teacher on leaving school.
Following the start of the Cuban revolution in 1953, her father was exiled to Venezuela and the family gradually moved to the US. In the late 1950s she travelled to New York, which remained her home city for the rest of her life.
She sold cosmetics at the department store B Altman & Co, then menswear at Saks Fifth Avenue, where her outgoing personality made her a favourite with stars such as the singer Ozzy Osbourne and the chatshow host Johnny Carson.
Adopting the stage name Pracatan – she said she had always used the word as an exclamation – she spent her evenings establishing a cabaret act in clubs and restaurants.
James was in New York when her performances were broadcast on the Manhattan public-access TV station Channel 69 under the show title Pracatan! He booked her to appear via satellite on his 1994 BBC show Sunday Night Clive, then brought her to Britain when he switched to ITV for The Clive James Show (1995-98).
On being quizzed by him about her professional name, she said: “When you do something and it comes out beautiful, you say, ‘Prrracataaaan!’ Or, when you have sex and it’s fantastic, ‘Prrracataaaan!’”
Television success led to live performances and tours of Britain and Australia, including a show at the 1996 Edinburgh festival that was recorded for the album Live at the Palladium (Edinburgh). Audiences immediately warmed to Pracatan’s “I luuurv you!” welcome as she burst on to the stage, as well as her dramatic key and tempo changes, and a tendency to forget lyrics.
She branched out on TV with guest appearances for Gloria Hunniford and Graham Norton, and was also a favourite of the radio presenter Martin Kelner, who featured her in the 90s on his BBC Night Network and Radio 2 shows.
She attracted a gay following and appeared at LGBTQ+ festivals around the world, including the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival in 1998, where she performed her show Stranger in the Night – “an evening of song, stories and unconventional wisdom” – Big Gay Out at Finsbury Park in north London, in 2005, and Manchester Pride in 2012.
For her final TV appearance, last year, in The Real Housewives of New York City, Pracatan performed a song previously released by one of the show’s stars, Luann de Lesseps, Money Can’t Buy You Class.
A 1963 marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by Maria, the daughter of that marriage.
• Margarita Pracatan (Juana Margarita Figueroa), singer, born 11 June 1931; died 23 June 2020