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King clones invade Graceland

Elvis impersonators from around the world are in town for the first estate-sanctioned competition to crown the swivel-hipped best.

August 15, 2007|Woody Baird | Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Finally welcomed by Graceland after all these years, Elvis Presley impersonators need to keep one basic rule in mind -- respect the King.

Managers of Presley's home in Memphis plan to anoint their first-ever official Elvis "tribute artist" this week as they mark the 30th anniversary of his death there. But they don't want tacky, they don't want kitschy and they don't want a ridiculous spoof.

The contest judges will be looking for sincerity and respect -- even if it's accompanied by karate moves, black pompadours and rhinestone jumpsuits.

"It's all about paying tribute to the life and legacy of Elvis," said Paul Jankowski, marketing chief for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., the company that operates Graceland and its sprawling tourist complex.

The Ultimate Elvis contest has been underway since March with a series of qualifying rounds around the world. Twenty-four contestants made it to Memphis, but 14 were eliminated Sunday in the final qualifying round.

The winner will be chosen Friday at the end of a week of events to commemorate Presley's Aug. 16, 1977, death (a candlelight vigil in his honor will start tonight). The Ultimate Elvis will get $5,000 in cash, a $5,000 shopping spree at Graceland tourist shops, a $3,000 gift certificate toward the purchase of an Elvis-inspired jumpsuit, a one-of-a-kind Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist championship belt and other prizes.

The tribute artist contest marks a big change for Graceland, which has long regarded Elvis impersonators with a mixture of resigned bemusement and outright disgust.

But with a new corporate parent, CKX Inc., in charge of the $40-million-a-year business in all things Elvis, Graceland managers have taken a new attitude toward the pompadoured ones.

"There are competitions all over the world, and they're all fantastic, but to have one run by Elvis Presley Enterprises is something special," said Paul Larcombe, a professional tribute artist from Crewe, England, and one of 10 finalists for the Graceland crown.

Unofficial Elvis impersonator contests, with performers ranging from the ridiculous to the reverential, are held around the globe, drawing participants of all sizes, ethnicities and ages. There are even female Elvises.

But for the serious tribute artists, some of whom make a living copying the King, winning the official Graceland title, or just getting to the finals, can be particularly rewarding.

"It's already enhanced my career just getting over here," said Larcombe, who got to Memphis by winning a preliminary contest in Blackpool, England. "I might get some more high-profile agents to work with me, which means more lucrative work."

For many Elvis fans, the Graceland-sanctioned contest is also special. The Elvis faithful refer to the management of the Presley business as simply "Graceland," in the same way a presidential administration might be referred to as "the White House."

"I've never been to any competition as good as this," Betty Buckner, 63, of Kansas City, Mo., said at Sunday night's performance. "It's a way for them to show their love for Elvis and his music, and I'm glad Graceland finally understands that."

Jack Soden, the longtime chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises, now a subsidiary of CKX, has never been a fan of Elvis impersonators, but he's giving the tribute contest a chance.

It would be difficult to stop Elvis impersonators, even though EPE owns the rights to Presley's name and likeness. Keeping Presley's picture off a coffee mug is one thing, but telling a singer he can't wear jumpsuits and rhinestones is something else again.

"This is a genuine, spontaneous aspect of the Elvis phenomenon . . . and we should embrace it to some extent," said Soden, who like other Graceland managers avoids the word "impersonators," favoring "Elvis tribute artists," or ETAs, instead.

"We want to be careful, though. We don't ever want the ETA contest to become the center of the story," he said.

Graceland's contest may also elevate the standards of Elvis imitators in general, many of whom live "in a kind of world unto itself," Soden said. "There are still people out there dressing up and performing like Elvis who probably shouldn't be."

The finalists in Graceland's contest are all practiced performers. But at the unofficial Images of the King contest, which has been held in Memphis for two decades, the opening acts are often far from polished.

Over the years, it has hosted professional entertainers and amateurs alike, including some from abroad who could speak little English and had only a phonetic grasp of the lyrics to Elvis songs.

Also staged in August near the death anniversary, the show has long been popular with Presley fans and expects little trouble -- this year at least -- from Graceland, said director Michael Hoover, a professional Elvis imitator from Virginia.

"For years and years, Graceland has pretty much ignored the Elvis tribute artists. I don't know if this is just an experiment for them or they're changing their ways," Hoover said. "But I think there's enough work for everybody to go around right now. There are plenty of Elvis impersonators in the world and there are lots of contests."

Winning at Images has also been a career booster for many Elvis performers like Hoover, who won in 1988 and took over the contest a few years ago from founder Doc Franklin, Elvis' former veterinarian.

Serious Elvis impersonators "can make a comfortable living" performing at private parties, concerts, corporate functions and the like, Hoover said. The successful ones have their own bands, booking agents and even fan clubs.

"If you're good, you're full time and you work at it real hard, you can probably do a six-figure income, but you've got to work at it," said Hoover, who began his Elvis journey as a teenager. "I was doing Elvis when Elvis was still alive."

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