Comedian Anjelah Johnson was pretty successful in the Lone Star State before the folks at San Antonio Mexican food chain Taco Cabana hired her to be their perky, pico-loving pitchwoman.
Now the former Oakland Raiders cheerleader from San Jose, who performs at 8 p.m. Friday at UTEP's Magoffin Auditorium, is recognizable to just about anyone with a TV in Texas.
"When I have a layover in Dallas, which I do often, what I get the most (from people) is 'Hey, Taco Cabana!,'" she said by phone recently. "You think only in Texas, but it's so funny. If I am in Chicago and someone says something about Taco Cabana, I know they're from Texas."
The commercials, in which she pitches everything from tacos to frozen margaritas, have been airing for a couple of years. They've certainly added to her visibility in the state.
That includes what UTEP Specials Events official expect will be a sellout crowd by the time Johnson takes the stage Friday.
"Everybody who calls about her says, 'Oh, you know, the Taco Cabana girl," said Jorge Vazquez, director of the special events office. "That's what everybody says. Or they start acting out one of her routines."
Vazquez said Johnson appears to have strong appeal among the school's students, many of whom are surprised she'll perform on campus.
"We have a lot of students going," he said, adding that he's had a number of people ask, "'Is it true that she's coming?"
Those Taco Cabana ads amount to another stepping stone for a woman who, at 31, is still getting her very Anglo-sounding name out there.
The middle of five kids from San Jose, Johnson didn't start out to be a comedian. "I moved to L.A. to be an actress," she said. "I thought I'd be playing really dramatic roles. I wanted to play a
rape victim on 'Law & Order SVU.' That was my dream. Now I'm telling jokes."
Her comedy career started with an acting class at her church. A comedian suggested Johnson sign up for a joke-writing and stand-up comedy class. The students had to perform original material at a local comedy club.
"That was my first show. The first joke I wrote was this nail salon bit. That blew up like crazy," she said.
Boy, did it.
The bit, in which Johnson nails an impersonation of an impersonal Vietnamese nail "technician" named Tammy, grew into a full-blown routine, a video of which blew up on YouTube, various versions of which have racked up more than 31 million views.
It's probably her best known routine, aside from the Taco Cabana commercials. But Johnson really wanted to be an actress. "I was that girl who'd go to the movies and just be mad because I wasn't in it," she said. "I couldn't enjoy. I'd say, 'How come I'm not in it? I could do this.'"
She was considering the move to Los Angeles when a friend encouraged Johnson, a cheerleader in high school, to try out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleading squad, known as the Raiderettes.
It proved pivotal in her fledgling career as an entertainer. "My thing, you know, was what if I make the squad? I could use it as my sign to push forward," she said. "If I don't, I'll go another way."
She did make the squad, for the 2002 season, the same year the Raiders went on to compete in the Super Bowl.
"It was an awesome year. I came home and packed my bags," she said. "It's been over 10 years now. I just worked my way up. I can definitely say that was the moment -- when I made this squad for the Raiders, that was it."
Johnson focuses mostly on her observational humor, but is known for a growing range of accents and characterizations. She had a one-season stint on Fox's "Mad TV" from 2007 to 2008, where she introduced Tammy, the nail lady, and Bon Qui Qui, a rude, street-savvy fast food employee -- and YouTube sensation -- that is based on her brother and a Burger King employee she encountered in Memphis, Tenn.
Johnson starred in her own Comedy Central special in 2009 and scored a couple of small movie roles, including 2010's "Our Family Wedding." She recently starred in a new special, "The Homecoming Show," for NUVOtv.
She resurrected Bon Qui Qui for the new "I'm a Cut You" video, a send up of rap videos in which she scores some fake nails on the black market.
Johnson's humor now incorporates jokes about her two-year marriage to Manwell Reyes, one-half of the Christian hip-hop/pop duo Group 1 Crew. "I do a lot of marriage stuff and family stuff, which is a lot of fun," she said. "I love talking about him and I, and our little quirks and the things I'm learning."
He doesn't seem to mind.
"I'll say, 'Hey, babe, I'm writing a joke about this.' He'll laugh," she said. "I'm the one who's more private. He's the one who likes to put our business out on the street."
Johnson is religious, but doesn't use the stage as a bully pulpit for her Christian faith.
"I'm able to laugh at myself in many areas of life; my Latinoisms, Christianisms, wife-isms," she said.
"I'm able to laugh at all aspects of my life and to talk about it, but I'm never preachy," she said.
She's also not typically grouped with other Latino comics, in part because of her Anglo-sounding last name.
"I don't really get labeled a Latino comedian. It's a blessing I don't get lumped into that group and have to become a crossover artist. I've always been mainstream," she said.
Johnson's ability to connect with people of all colors may be one of the charismatic qualities the folks at Taco Cabana wanted.
"I've always been pretty big in Texas. I don't know why. From the beginning of my career I've had a strong fan base in Texas," she said.
"I feel like Taco Cabana maybe saw that what I was doing was a good fit for their company, to represent who they are in today's modern-day Latino culture."
Doug Pullen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Pullen My Blog at elpasotimes.com/blogs.
Who: Anjelah Johnson
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Magoffin Auditorium, UTEP
How much: $35, plus service charges, at the UTEP Ticket Center, Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com and 800-745-3000
Information: 747-5234, utepspecialevents.com ___