Going back to university really will leave Alecia in the Pink
Pink tribute performer Alecia Karr, from Newtownabbey, on why she's going back to university to work on dementia research
Pink tribute artist Alecia Karr's world is rocked every time news hits the headlines of a further development in dementia research. It's because seven years ago the Newtownabbey mum-of-three played a part in a scientific discovery which has continued to be the basis for ongoing research into treatment for the disease.
And the performer, who is known for her risque fishnet tights and leather bodice stage costumes, has revealed that she now plans to once again don a white lab coat and go back to pursuing her first love of science and medicine.
But fans can look forward to Alecia continuing to wow them with her high energy performances as American pop star Pink, as she plans to combine her stage career with studying for a PhD in neurology.
Alecia's decision to go back to university was prompted by news that the protein TDP-43, which she helped discover as part of a research study for her master's degree, has played a part in a new breakthrough in developing a potential treatment for dementia.
Alecia was part of a team of students and professors in Lancaster University in 2008 who discovered a protein in the blood which has been proven to be directly linked to dementia.
The team made the correlation between the brain protein TDP-43 and brain pathology in front temporal lobar degeneration.
At the time, she was studying for her masters degree in bioscience, having completed a degree in bio-chemistry.
She says: "I've always been a science geek and research is something that comes naturally to me.
"In the last couple of years I've had the itch to get back to it. A lady at one of my concerts was recently telling me about her son who had a rare genetic disease and I spent the next two days researching the condition, which gave me such a thrill.
"I love performing and I don't want to give that up, but I am a science geek and I just have the yearning to go back to it.
"The paper we published in 2008 while I was studying for my masters has formed the basis for ongoing research into dementia and I can't help following the news and feeling proud that I played some part in it.
"The latest tests on mice have shown very exciting results and although it is early days, it is still great news for the future treatment of dementia, and every time I hear something like that I just feel that I would love to be part of it again.
"I know now that I have to get back to doing that again.
"A PhD will take three years and I hope to continue to perform while studying and after that, who knows.
"I don't mind what I do. I like the science side and research but I also would like to be in practice, helping treat people.
"I've had a wonderful career as a tribute artist but I've always felt unfulfilled and I now know that being part of the science world is where my heart really lies."
Alecia is married to Chris, who manages her tribute act, and they have three boys – twins aged 13 and an 11-year-old.
On November 3 she celebrated going into her ninth year as a tribute to Pink, which could see her eligible for entry into the Guinness Book of Records as the longest running solo tribute performer to any living star in the UK and Europe.
During that time Alecia has so perfected her tribute to Pink that her shows are now in demand not just throughout Ireland and the UK but also in Europe.
She has also enjoyed regular guest appearances on TV, including in Northern Ireland and on Sky.
In fact, her show so perfectly emulates the star that one music industry pundit commented: "Leave Alecia's show and you are not sure if you have seen Pink or not." Her career as a performer came about by accident when Alecia was studying for a career in medicine.
She says: "I was enjoying a night out with friends in a karaoke bar and I got up and sang the Pink hit, Dear Mr President. When I sat down a man came over to me and introduced himself as a member of Pink's promotions team.
"He told me I had a powerful voice and that if I lost some weight and changed the colour of my hair I would make a good Pink tribute artist.
"I was flabbergasted and because I was such a big fan of Pink's anyway, I really took on board what he said."
As she worked hard to finish her masters degree in bio-medicine, Alecia also started to reinvent herself in preparation for a career as a performer.
She dropped three dress sizes, from 14 to eight, dyed her hair blonde, spent hours studying Pink's dance routines and learning her songs, made her own replica Pink costumes and endured the pain of 24 tattoos to replicate those of her idol.
Within just six months, she performed her first gig and her career was launched.
Alecia says: "I love doing Pink. I love the vibe, the attitude and the audiences' enthusiasm. I have just launched a new show with new costumes and new musical arrangements.
"Pink is my alter ego and even when I do start my PhD, there will always be a little bit of Pink there.
"I love the music and so it is not difficult to do it.
"The dance routines and keeping up with the costumes is a bit harder.
"Some of the costumes are a bit skimpy and sexy but it is nice to put them on for the stage, as it's not something you would do in real life unless you are an exhibitionist."
Alecia has met her idol Pink when introduced back stage at some of her concerts, and one of her most treasured moments was when she got the chance to sing a chorus during a Pink show at the Odyssey in Belfast in 2009.
She recalls: "I'm not sure how it was set up but I was ushered to the left front of the stage.
"Pink stopped singing and held the microphone towards me and I sang a chorus back to her.
"The cameras had me on the big screen and I was just blown away by it.
"When I finished she just said, thank you, and carried on. I'm not sure how she knew I was there – however, my management team is very good and they must have managed to wangle something."
Alecia is fiercely protective of her three boys, who she says all love the fact that mum is a cool stage performer.
Having just launched her new show, she is looking forward to another busy year performing, but her heart is with enrolling for her PhD, which she hopes to start next October in Belfast.
She says: "It will be an exciting year for the show but also special for me, because I have made the decision to go back to study.
"If I am fortunate enough to become a qualified doctor, my goal would be to examine and progress as far as possible with the TDP-43 and if I manage to help one person, then it will all have been well worth it."
And Alecia adds: "I really cannot thank my friends and fans enough for their support in keeping me at the top of my singing career for so long.
"After all, I know I am going to need and depend on their support if I am to be successful in the years to come."
Research that gave her a reason
The research which has prompted Alecia to return to her studies was published earlier this month in the journal Science Translational Medicine and carried out at the University of Leicester.
Scientists hailed it as an historic "turning point" in the search for a treatment that could beat Alzheimer's disease, after a drug-like compound was used to halt brain cell death in mice.
Although the prospect of a pill for Alzheimer's remains a long way off, the landmark British study provides a major new pathway for future drug treatments.
The compound works by blocking a faulty signal in brains affected by neurodegenerative diseases, which shuts down the production of essential proteins, leading to brain cells and dying off.
It was tested in mice with prion disease – the best animal model of human neurodegenerative disorders – but scientists said they were confident the same principles would apply in a human brain with debilitating brain diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
In debilitating brain diseases, the production of new proteins in the brain is shut down by a build-up of amyloids. This leads to an "over-activation" of a natural defence mechanism that stops essential proteins being produced.
The compound used in the study works by inhibiting an enzyme which plays a key role in activating this defence mechanism.
In mice it "stopped the disease in its tracks", restoring some normal behaviours.