Los Angeles team
Nov. 1, 2022
Two days, three Elvises, and one pink Cadillac crash: Inside the chaotic world of Elvis impersonators
LAS VEGAS — Elvis drives a temperamental pink Cadillac with no seat belts and unreliable brakes. He’s sweating — a lot — and foundation has spread from his face to the lapels of his white jumpsuit. He is running late for an appearance in a Mexican Independence Day parade. This may be my fault.
That afternoon, Elvis, né Jesse Grice, had obligingly received us at home, wearing only mesh shorts, so that we — Globe photographer Erin Clark and I — could witness his transformation into the King. I apologized for being late. “It’s OK,” he said. “I keep Elvis hours.”
Inside his apartment, gilt mirrors shone from almost every surface, so the many pieces of Elvis paraphernalia refracted and seemed to multiply. Above the sofa was a huge shirtless portrait of either Grice or Elvis — at points, the distinction blurs.
That evening, Grice — who took the stage name Jesse Garon, after Elvis’s stillborn twin brother — was scheduled to chauffeur Las Vegas Councilwoman Olivia Diaz through the parade. So he did a speedy version of his normal routine: heavy foundation (Dermablend, the stuff they use to cover tattoos), hair spray, and waterproof mascara on his sideburns. “I learned from the best,” he explained, “drag queens.”
By the time the Elvis transformation was complete, Grice was beginning to sweat. He rushed me into the Cadillac (license plate: VGSELVS) which, it transpired, was missing not only seat belts but also mirrors. And turn signals.
The ride was tense. A woman from the parade kept calling — “Elvis, where are you?” — and the Cadillac was starting to overheat. Steering with one hand and holding his phone in the other, Elvis pulled abruptly into a 7-Eleven, ran in for a Big Gulp cup of ice, and dumped it under the hood, murmuring to the car as if it were a spooked horse.
By the time we got there, the floats were already in motion — we stalled briefly behind a mariachi band — and the councilwoman was nowhere to be seen. On the back of the Cadillac, there was a special parade seat, a raised white platform, for her. But now, catastrophically, the seat was empty.
“I’ll just get up there,” Elvis shouted to Richard, his protégé-slash-assistant-slash-body man, who I kept forgetting about because he had spent the ride curled over and silent in the back seat. “You drive.” Richard looked uneasy but got into the driver’s seat.
You’ve heard the saying, “Only fools rush in”?
The accident happened almost before I realized it. Suddenly the car was turning, and Richard was hitting the brakes but nothing was happening, and we hit a trash can and then a floodlight and then people were running and a child was running the wrong way, into the path of the car. Before I could scream, Richard pulled something and the Cadillac rolled to a stop.
I should note that “impersonator” is no longer the preferred nomenclature for someone who makes their living pretending to be Elvis Presley, who last played Vegas in 1976. The politically correct term is now “Elvis tribute artist,” or ETA.
Grice was actually our second ETA of the day. The reason we were late — setting the whole spangled domino chain in motion — is that we had come from seeing Pete Vallee, stage name Big Elvis, at his regular gig at Harrah’s Las Vegas.
The two Elvises — Elvii? — could not have been more different. Where Grice was scattered and nervy, Vallee was deliberate and philosophical. He wasn’t wearing makeup, and he arrived in a normal car, the kind with seat belts. His mobility is limited, so pelvic exertions were out of the question. But what Vallee did have was the voice — something startling and soulful.
Vallee has been playing Elvis since 1980, when he arrived in Vegas at the age of 15. As he gets older, he is increasingly preoccupied with the shimmering boundary between himself and Elvis. He’s seen other ETAs “get lost,” as he put it. People who come to believe they are Elvis, who dress and talk like Elvis, who never step out of character. “Nobody can be Elvis,” Vallee said, “or anybody else for that matter.” Instead, he hopes to achieve a subtler alchemy — not pretending to be Elvis, but channeling him.
In his car before the show, Vallee told me that certain types of women love — love — an Elvis. In the industry, he said, they are known as “sideburn chasers.”
I laughed, but didn’t really believe him.
Then at his 2 p.m. show, one after another, women in their 50s and 60s pressed up to me boozily to say how much they loved Vallee. Some of them cried. “I close my eyes, and he’s there,” said one woman. “He’s sensitive,” said another who had seen Big Elvis three times this year. A third was there to celebrate her honeymoon, and her new husband watched unfazed as she draped herself over Big Elvis like a tipsy rug. It was, her husband explained to me later, just part of the deal.
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Privately, Vallee said, the attention can wear on him. “I’ve been married a couple times,” he said. “It takes a certain woman, first of all, that’s going to be attracted to you.” And if they do like him, he wonders, do they like him or Elvis? “She’s thinking in her mind: That’s my Elvis. I’m Priscilla,” he fretted. And then, “You just have to decipher, hey, do they really love you as a person? Or is it just a facade that they love?”
The real Elvis used to wonder the same thing, once telling an interviewer, “Well, the image is one thing and the human being another. . . . It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
That’s one of the contradictions of Elvis impersonation: It’s simultaneously unachievable — no one can be Elvis — and undesirable — the loneliness, the addiction, the ugly death, the fact that, at the end, Elvis himself felt like an Elvis impersonator. And yet.
There have to be more Elvises per capita in Las Vegas than anywhere else on earth: Elvis singers, Elvis parade leaders, Elvis human selfie props, but most especially, Elvis wedding officiants. My third Elvis, Brendan Paul of Graceland Wedding Chapel, performed 33 ceremonies on a recent Saturday. They run about 10 minutes each and start at $249.
In a typical ceremony, Elvis takes the bride on a speedy walk down the aisle, has the couple recite Elvis-inspired vows (“I promise to always love you tender and never leave you at heartbreak hotel”), and then performs some songs (two in the basic package) before ushering one couple out and the next one in. It’s Elvising as an endurance sport.
Of the wedding Elvises I witness, Paul is the best: campy and sincere in turns, and most importantly, unflagging. Once, the last couple of a long day marveled at his stamina. “You paid the same amount of money as the people at 10 this morning,” he told them. “So you don’t deserve to get an Elvis that’s worn out.”
And when he does it right, a kind of illusion takes hold, especially for the older people who grew up with the real Elvis, he explained. “They don’t see me. They see through me and they see Elvis somehow.”
Back out on the highway, I’ve accepted my imminent death. Elvis and Richard are bickering, and we’re speeding in the direction of a Los Tacos drive-through for burritos.
The Cadillac was mostly undamaged by the accident, and Grice had got the brakes working again, but he was still not risking stopping at red lights or stop signs. He had a wedding to perform that evening, and if the brakes died again, picking the couple up in an Uber was not going to cut it.
The wedding would be held at the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign marking the start of the Strip. To me, the sign evoked all that was most artificial about Vegas: the drunk tourists pulling up in hired party cars, the people you can pay to help you take a flattering selfie, the Astroturf under our feet.
Add a volatile Elvis impersonator and a failing Cadillac to that mix, and the whole thing seemed inauspicious. But one of the odd things I noticed over the course of the few days I spent among the Elvii, is that the line between artifice and real feeling was often thinner than I had imagined.
Brendan Paul explained this to me in Graceland Wedding Chapel. People come in expecting the ceremony to be a joke, he said. “It is campy. I mean, look at me. I’ve made a living for 27 years in a onesie, sharing another man’s hairdo.”
But at some point in every ceremony, something shifts — when the bride walks down the aisle, or when the vows begin, or when the rings are exchanged. And it isn’t a joke any more.
At the Vegas sign, Elvis led the wedding party to one side, away from a rowdy group taking an apparently infinite combination of photos. Elvis’s mic wasn’t loud enough, and the photographer wasn’t showing up. I could see unease sketched on the bride’s face.
But then Elvis pressed play on his speaker, and the notes I had heard, conservatively, a dozen times over the course of a few days rolled out and over us. Elvis’s voice was weak, but it didn’t matter — goose bumps rose on my arms as he began to sing the first words of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
And just like that, the bride began to cry.
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- Reporters: Julian Benbow, Diti Kohli, Hanna Krueger, Emma Platoff, Annalisa Quinn, Jenna Russell, Mark Shanahan, Lissandra Villa Huerta
- Photographers: Erin Clark, Pat Greenhouse, Jessica Rinaldi, and Craig F. Walker
- Editor: Francis Storrs
- Managing editor: Stacey Myers
- Photo editors: William Greene and Leanne Burden Seidel
- Video editor: Anush Elbakyan
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