At first glance, you'd swear it's Madonna.
The cherry-red lipstick, the mole above the mouth, the crucifixes and the gold tassels are strategically in place.
On stage, she tosses her bleached-blond hair, grinds her hips to the music and leans seductively into the microphone.
She struts. She pouts. She rolls around on the floor.
If she's Madonna, what's she doing here? Granted it's a worthy cause--a benefit sponsored by Spoons Grill & Bar for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. and Make-A-Wish Foundation. But would Madonna strut her stuff at a shopping center in Tustin?
Madonna wouldn't, but Denise Vlasis would.
Vlasis, a 25-year-old Laguna Beach resident, has made a living out of impersonating Madonna. With her pale skin, large green eyes and bleached hair, she's a Madonna clone.
Up close, there are physical clues that she's not the real thing. There's a slightly different curve to her mouth, a different shaping of the brow.
Yet Vlasis bears enough resemblance to Madonna that fans stop her on the street and ask for her autograph. When she hands them a postcard with Denise Vlasis' name on it, some walk away dejected.
But don't call Vlasis a Madonna wanna-be.
"I never was a girl who just wanted to look like Madonna," she says. "It's completely a business to me. I only dress up when I'm working. When the show's over, my costumes and character makeup all go back in the suitcase."
By impersonating Madonna, Vlasis has become a material girl in her own right.
She performs at parties, benefits, state fairs and promotions. She has toured the United States, Japan and the Philippines, entertaining U.S. Air Force troops. She's been featured in Pepsi Cola's Star Fantasy tour with other impersonators, where she received up to $1,000 a show. She won Tiger Beat's Madonna look-alike contest, and in 1988 Madonna herself chose her as first runner-up in her Make My Video contest for MTV. "You were supposed to come up with a concept video for Madonna's 'True Blue,' " says Vlasis, who re-enacted scenes from Madonna's previous videos.
Playing copycat to Madonna has opened many doors for Vlasis. She recently finished filming a small part in a new Sandra Bernhard movie called "Without You I'm Nothing." In the film, Vlasis performs briefly as a Madonna clone called Shashonna.
Vlasis even met her idol last year when she auditioned as a dancer for Madonna's tour. She didn't get the part, but she did get noticed.
"Madonna and I sort of looked at each other, looked away and looked at each other again," Vlasis says. "I introduced myself and she was very pleasant. She already knew who I was because of my video."
Vlasis came away from the meeting more enraptured with the star than ever.
"She's flawless. She has incredible skin and bright eyes. She's just naturally beautiful."
Vlasis first spotted Madonna on MTV six years ago.
"I was so intrigued," she says. "She was so unique, so original, so pretty and so tough. At that time, I'd wanted to be an '80s Marilyn Monroe. Then I saw her and thought, 'Somebody beat me to it.' I was infatuated with this image."
Vlasis didn't realize how much she looked like Madonna until her friends at Orange Coast College began calling her Madonna.
"People kept saying I looked like that girl on MTV," she says. "I was already wearing dance clothes and rags in my hair before it was trendy."
In 1984, a friend told her that a celebrity look-alike agency was holding auditions for a Madonna impersonator. Vlasis threw on some bracelets, a fishnet tank top, sandals and green socks and headed for Hollywood. She lip-synced and writhed around the floor to "Lucky Star." She got the part.
Not until Vlasis saw another wanna-be at the tryout did she realize she had made a mistake: She had painted the mole on the wrong side of her face.
"I looked at her and thought, 'Either she's wrong or I'm wrong.' "
Vlasis moved her mole, and she's been portraying Madonna ever since.
"I decided, 'I'm going to let this work for me.' The first time I walked into an entertainment agency, they said, 'Madonna who?' I said: 'Here's my picture. You'll need me someday.' "
Vlasis never tries to pass herself off as the real Madonna. She introduces her act as "A Tribute to Madonna--Denise Vlasis." She has disclaimers on all her printed material and she has hired an attorney to make sure she doesn't violate copyright laws.
"Fans don't care that I'm not Madonna. I can be the Madonna they never get to meet," she says. "I get fan mail and I have my own fan club."
If she shares a tiny part of Madonna's fame, Vlasis also takes the criticism.
"I've heard everything she's heard," she says, rolling her eyes. When critics object to Madonna's new video, "Like a Prayer," Vlasis defends her.
"A lot of people pass judgment on her, but nobody's in a position to judge. She came off the street with no money in her pocket. Now she's a top performer. I don't see how anyone can criticize her."
Vlasis' career rises and falls with Madonna's. When the star releases a new album or video, Vlasis finds that demand for her performances increases.
"When she's really busy, I'm more busy. When she's not working, I'm working on my own projects."
Her own projects include a band she's forming called Beauty and the Beast. She plans to move to Los Angeles in September and pursue her own music career.
"I love to play the part of Madonna, but I also want to reach out on my own," she says. "Some impersonators get so wrapped up in the character they lose themselves. When I first started this, some of my friends said, 'Oh, Denise thinks she's Madonna now.' "
Vlasis has no such illusions. She sees her Madonna act as an opportunity to use her own talents.
"Madonna does bring a lot of work because she's in such demand," she says. And she expects that to continue--"until Denise Vlasis becomes famous."