Even Better Than the Real Thing?: My Encounter with Big Elvis

9 07 2010

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas, a place dedicated to the strange reproduction of reality for entertainment purposes. Where else can you visit cartoonish and surreal versions of New York City, Venice, Paris, and ancient Rome all within the same (gigantic) city block? It’s not for everyone, but I find the hyperbolic reproduction of other places crammed into one space at once weird, interesting and uniquely American. Would I rather see the real Venice or Paris? Of course. But I don’t go to Vegas expecting authenticity. I go for spectacle and over-the-top ridiculousness. And Vegas always delivers.

Ostensibly, I was in Vegas for my cousin’s wedding (congrats again to Scott and Natalie!). But as soon as I made the decision to go, I started seeking out something I felt had been missing from my experiences as a scholar and a fan of celebrity culture: the Elvis impersonator. Surprisingly, my trip to Memphis last summer yielded no Elvis impersonators, though certainly we saw some guys that looked like Elvis. Though I didn’t really seek them out, being more interested in seeing the actual Elvis artifacts, and I’m sure they are there. But Vegas just seemed like a much more appropriate place to see an Elvis impersonator since the whole Vegas Strip is one big impersonation of sorts. So you can just imagine my delight when I found Pete Valle as Big Elvis, whose free show on the Strip has run for more than 8 years.

The very idea that a celebrity would even have an impersonator is, I think, a mark of a high level of fame. It also speaks to the idea that the star image presented to the public is one that is highly constructed to the degree that it can be imitated. It’s not simply that the impersonator looks like the star, but actually works to embody all aspects of the star’s persona, including the performance-side and the general public image. To me, a successful impersonator is not necessarily trying to make you think you are seeing the real thing, but is hitting on all the markers of the star’s “authentic” persona as it has been presented to audiences.

Though the attempt to fool audiences does happen…there was a Toni Braxton impersonator in South America arrested last summer for trying to pass as the real thing in order to charge more for concert tickets (she was later acquitted). The crowd recognized she was not the real thing when she was unable to hit the high notes, demonstrating that simply looking the part is not enough. In fact, I suspect that if the audience had known she was an impersonator from the start, the lack of a complete illusion would not have resulted in them throwing things at the stage. I suppose that means there is still something about the “real” star that is unique and cannot be reproduced. At the same time, just being able to sing like Toni Braxton (or lip-sync, maybe) would not be enough either. Any drag queen would tell you that attitude and embodiment of persona are more central than absolutely faithful reproduction of looks or talent.

But what I loved most about Big Elvis was that his performance combined the embodiment of Elvis with the performance of fandom. That is, he was certainly dressed the part…down to the studded jumpsuit and the reproductions of the Lowell Hayes designed gold necklaces that Elvis always wore. He also had a wonderful voice that did sound quite a bit like the King’s. And, well, it has to be said that he reproduced a certain stereotype about the later “Vegas” Elvis as Fat Elvis. I mean, his show is called “Big Elvis,” after all.

So while he does embody this performance and public image side of Elvis for the audience, Vallee combines that with an amazing performance of Elvis fandom. He clearly knows a great deal about Elvis. He took requests from the audience (including my request for my favorite Elvis tune, If I Can Dream…watch the real Elvis perform it on his 68 comeback special in an awesome white suit here ). Not only did he know every single song, many of which were more obscure songs, he also introduced each one with some information about how that song fit into Elvis’ career (which album it was on, why he started performing it, etc).

His performance told us a story about Elvis’ stardom through the songs, through his embodiment of Elvis, and through his fan knowledge. Like Vegas itself, it’s not supposed to be exactly the real thing, but a reproduction of it that combines the markers of reality with the spectacle of fun and entertainment. Even more interesting, he had video screens of actual Elvis performances running behind him the entire time, always reminding us of the “real” Elvis, but also providing evidence for the authenticity of his own performance.

All and all, Big Elvis was probably the highlight of my trip. Even without thinking too deeply on the performance, the show was just fun and gave us an excellent excuse to get out of the hot desert sun. Those non-believers who accompanied me even admitted to having a good time. Plus, I got a post-show photo opportunity!

Elvis and Me




2 responses

13 07 2010
An Admirer

“All and all, Big Elvis was probably the highlight of my trip.”

Clearly; but does your cousin know you said that :o)?

Just curious: besides Elvis, what other stars are you aware of who have impersonators in Vegas? Michael Jackson? Maybe some dead Hollywood greats? I’d imagine the Elvis ones would be the biggest draws though; like you discuss here, there are so many more elements to the impersonation than just looking like someone and doing an impression, and I’m hard pressed to think of many other celebrities with the sort of fan-world as Elvis.

14 07 2010

I meant highlight besides the wedding, of course! 😉

I don’t know this for sure, but it seems to me that the Elvis impersonator sort of invented the genre (so to speak). At the very least, Elvis impersonators are the gold standard, as I agree that when I think of celebrity impersonator, I think of Elvis impersonators. But pretty much any celebrity you name has someone who impersonator. Just do a google search of any celeb name plus impersonator and you’d be surprised. Obviously drag queens are doing some celebrity impersonating (combined with a camp aesthetic not just a faithful recreation like Big Elvis), but there’s also “straight” impersonators. And by impersonator, I mean someone who (at least attempts) to impersonate the celebrity for money. Not just a fan dressing up like their idol.

I think there’s some sort of market for their services at corporate events etc. I know Big Elvis does corporate events on weekends (as per his website). There’s an amazing episode of MTV True Life that features a woman who is an Anna Nicole Smith impersonator (before ANS died) and she worked mostly at corporate meet and greets or convention type things. And made bank! She was a dental hygenist by day and ANS by night/weekends and made a six figure income. You can watch that episode or see some photos here: http://www.mtv.com/shows/truelife/episode.jhtml?episodeID=74409#moreinfo

Vegas itself definitely has a market for impersonators as part of their entertainment offerings. There’s Frank Marino, allegedly the long running headliner in Vegas, who is a drag queen who does several different female celebs (Joan Rivers, Dolly, Britney, Bette Midler, Cher). His vaguely annoying website is here: http://www.frankmarino.com/index.php?page=home. There’s also the Legends show at Harrah’s, which features multiple (and I think rotating) impersonators, including Dolly, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Gwen Stefani, Liza, Frank Sinatra, Cher…the list goes on. That site is here: http://www.legendsinconcert.com/locations/las-vegas/

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