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The audience members are on their feet, applauding with categorical enthusiasm. Contestant #12 blew them away with his (You’re The) Devil in Disguise performance. The panting Elvis impersonator curls his upper lip and runs his fingers through the jet-black wig. The synthetic hairpiece combined with his sweat has resulted in a nasty rash across the back of his neck. When he lifts his arm to scratch the affected area, his ill-fitting jumpsuit unfurls to display a hairy nipple.
‘Thank you very much,’ he says in an awkward Mississippi-by-way-of-Thames twang. ‘You’re a beautiful audience.’
This year’s UK Elvis Impersonator Final in Martsable has attracted around 150 men and women of all ages and walks of life, mainly from the area. Among them are 65-year-old J and his 60-year-old wife K, sitting in the fourth row. They are the last two people in the refurbished Victorian hall to take their seats after the standing ovation. When they sit down, both mouth an emphatic ‘terrific’ to each other.
The couple’s devotion to Elvis Presley is unparalleled. In fact, without his music, it would be hard to picture them together after three decades of marriage. The King’s lyrics about love, hurt and loss have acted as a proxy for the things they would rather not say otherwise. His calls for a rebellion bearable even for the most conservative-minded people have kept their relationship solid and mildly exciting.
Sitting beside them is their only daughter, 30-year-old L, drawing a moderate smile. In her opinion, Contestant #12 was rather good. However, he was far from the best Elvis impersonation she had ever seen. Certainly not terrific. Terrifying for sure: that awful polyester costume made him look like a drunken lad on a stag-do in Benidorm. And despite having a relatively good voice, his accent kept wavering back and forth across the Atlantic.
But as much as L enjoys Elvis, that is not the point as to why she is there. Only recently has it dawned on her that her parents are actually getting older. That is to say, closer to death. She would swear that the last time she visited them, her father was not as stooped over as he is today and that her mother used to walk faster. Their decline only highlights her own eventual mortality.
Sure, London is a mere half-an-hour train journey from St Pancras to her hometown, but the rat race has held L hostage for the best part of a decade. Her job keeps her overworked and underpaid. As a result, the ever-evasive dream of home ownership is becoming a flat-sharing nightmare. However much she is trying to attain the goal of buying a flat, the London housing market is always one step ahead in making it impossible for her. This endless pursuit has resulted in her working around the clock, drifting away from friends and family. Her social life is moribund; her visits home happen once in a blue moon.
Despite no one addressing the issue in as many words (or at all), L’s estrangement from home has made her parents grow suspicious of her motives. Even though they, on the surface, appear delighted to see her (and on some level, they actually are), they would internally question her every move. ‘Why is she paying us a visit today, of all days?’
As a young girl, L would observe her parents’ fanatical devotion to Elvis wide-eyed. She would apply that same passion to her own obsessions: her studies, her friendships, her hobbies, and of course, Elvis. But that changed when she was a teenager: this Elvis fascination was plain uncool and embarrassing. L saw repudiating Elvis as necessary to develop a personality built in opposition to her parents and everything they stand for.
As a twenty-something small-town woman searching for direction in the big city, she embraced Elvis again. But this time with a cool, ironic detachment: that youthful tendency to not feel what you actually feel but to feel what you are supposed to feel. This, in turn, descended into a recalcitrant cynicism that infected everything else and numbed her in the face of a senseless world. L longs for the days when she used to feel something and belong somewhere, however naive or weird that may be. Bizarrely, this freak show ticks all the boxes.
As Contestant #12 leaves the stage, the evening’s MC emerges from the opposite side. The MC is a bald man who stands barely five feet from the ground and grins permanently. His attempt at a showbiz smile does not come naturally to him; his teeth are wonky and long, and his expression is glum. He is wearing a shiny green suit that reflects the stage lights almost as much as his hairless dome. Despite his best efforts to sell an image of glitzy American glamour for this evening, everything he does and says is a painful reminder that this is a low-budget British affair.
‘Didn’t he do well?’ he yells in an arrhythmic Estuary accent. ‘Just a reminder, this is the 2022 UK Elvis Impersonator Final. Tonight’s winner will be crowned this year’s UK Elvis. And what better way to do it than by the seaside in beautiful Martsable.’
The audience cheers, and for a good reason. You hardly ever used to hear ‘Martsable’ and ‘beautiful’ together in the same sentence. Most people in the room tonight remember when Martsable seafront was a dirty and dangerous (and exciting) place where the gritty locals would revel in their misery. Nowadays, it is a cleaner and safer (and predictable) place where pretentious urbanites and ravenous seagulls fight for food supremacy. All it took was a timely decision by the council to embark on a white elephant project involving a multimillion-pound investment right before the 2008 recession.
‘Tonight’s prize: round-trip flights and an all-inclusive hotel stay for a week in Las Vegas, Nevada, US of A. And of course, tonight’s victor will be the UK representative in the 2022 Elvis Impersonator World Competition at the Vegas International Hotel in August, marking the 45th anniversary of the passing of the King.’
‘Lies!’ yells a heckler in the sixth row. ‘Elvis is alive.’
Those who believe this claim to be false laugh heartily; a handful who are on the fence about his death whip out their phones to verify the information on social media. The MC puts his hand over his eyes like a visor and laughs nervously; he clears his throat and produces a cue card. The card’s content wipes his awkward smile off his face for the first time in the evening; his frown turns corrugated, and his glistening bald head shines bright red.
‘Good game, good game,’ he mutters to himself. ‘Up next, our wildcard contestant – no qualifiers, no nothing. Anyway, all the way from London–’
The way he pronounces ‘London’ strikes a chord with most in the audience. As far as they are concerned, London is a satanic faraway land stuffed with snobs and eccentrics hell-bent on ruining everything they enjoy. J is among those who scoff at the very mention of that infernal place.
‘Please welcome Contestant #13,’ says the MC without much fanfare. ‘The song is Suspicious Minds.’
At best, the audience’s welcome of the wildcard contestant from London is lukewarm. The many, who are whispering and shaking their heads disapprovingly, overpower the few, who are applauding out of politeness. The ones checking their phones are too confused to do anything: they are now convinced Elvis is still alive. J and K look at their daughter, squeezing their mouths, opening their eyes and twisting their neck as if to say, ‘Unbelievable. This is what it has come to.’
L cannot believe that her parents are among those disapproving of Contestant #13. She raises her eyebrows as if to say, ‘What are you on about?’
Contestant #13 is dressed as Elvis in one of his 1968 Comeback Special outfits: an all-white double-breasted tailored suit with oversized lapels and wide-legged trousers, white leather boots, and a blood-coloured neckerchief. It is a bold choice given its sobriety compared to the more ornate Elvis jumpsuits from his tenure in Vegas after 1969. In other words, Contestant #13 looks more like an Evangelist preacher than the general population’s idea of Elvis. But the outfit is not the problem.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentleman,’ says Contestant #13 in a perfect baritone voice.
Even the contestant’s near-identical Elvis voice fails to impress the hostile audience. But the voice is not the problem.
The quiff is also rather impressive: it stands tall, greased-up and is as black as night. Even the contestant’s eyes are ice-blue like the King’s eyes. Were it not for the sticker with the number thirteen on her lapel, the likeness would be uncanny. In fact, Contestant #13 looks more like Elvis than any of the previous contestants put together. But the likeness is not the problem.
However, the sideburns appear to be fake; they have probably been painted on. But that is not the problem as such either. Instead, it is the biological reason why Contestant #13 has had to resort to fake sideburns that seems to be the problem. In other words, Contestant #13 was born a woman.
‘Come on, boys,’ she says to the band. ‘Suspicious Minds. A-one, a-two, a-one, two, three.’
The musicians for hire stare at Contestant #13 with derision and contempt. If it were not for the healthy cheque that awaits them at the end of the show, they would have left a long time ago. The fact that full-blown adults would dress up like this American guy and pretend to sing like him is beyond their comprehension. Contestant #13 detaches the microphone off the stand, and she does a ten out of ten hip-swivelling move during the guitar intro.
‘Political correctness gone mad,’ J whispers to his wife. His arms are securely crossed. K scratches her forehead, making her gold watch and bracelets jingle around her wrist, essentially agreeing with her husband.
L blinks in disbelief: how can these people who are related to her by blood be so fundamentally wrong? The city-dwelling daughter looks around the room to see how many people in the hall look like they agree with her parents. Indeed, it is more than she initially thought. It is almost as though she’s caught in a trap.
For those willing to suspend disbelief, Contestant #13 has been the only person tonight who has been able to transport this chunk of Southeast England anywhere near the other side of the Atlantic. As for the great majority in the venue, they are murmuring like a hungry stomach. An elderly couple in the second row stands up to leave. L’s eyes follow the couple with a judgemental stare. J and K look at each other, wishing they could do the same, but they remain seated out of discretion. They do not want to make a scene. They can’t walk out.
‘We can’t go on,’ says the indignant outgoing husband to the MC as they exit together with suspicious minds.
The wife drags the chair across the wooden floor, making a grating noise. The husband throws his hand in the air and swats it down to state his displeasure. The impersonator on stage is visibly hurt; the tears are real. Yes, she’s crying.
But despite the open hostility from part of the audience, Contestant #13 ploughs through the 1969 hit with confidence. She even regales the audience with an impressive trademark half-split at the famous false ending before Elvis repeats the chorus. She dries the tears from her eyes.
Contestant #13’s impersonation is so accomplished that it reminds L why people have total devotion to Elvis Presley; the King’s magnetic on-stage presence transcends gender, age, creed and culture. Briefly, her performance even erases the band’s cynicism. The lead guitarist draws a genuine smile as he plays the closing chords of Suspicious Minds. He does not want it to end; he loves it too much, baby.
‘Thank you very much. You’ve been a wonderful audience.’
Contestant #13 takes a bow and leaves the stage, looking down at her feet. A few among the audience, including L, clap enthusiastically. The rest, including J and K, grumble and shift uncomfortably in their seats. Two people boo, alleging the performance was a ‘travesty’ and that it made a ‘mockery out of everything Elvis stood for.’
Amid the slight unruliness, the MC jumps back on stage. His god-awful showbiz smile now beams a smattering of self-satisfaction.
‘You’re a lovely audience, so much better than last week’s. Ha! Who will be crowned UK Elvis–?’
The muffled, silky sound of the new Mercedes Benz SUV engine serves as an ambience for the awkward silence. For all of J’s unsavoury comments about the Germans over the years, he has surrendered to the fact that their cars are superior. The automobile glides over the winding country lanes with the grace of a swan. Long gone are the days of ‘mentioning the war,’ satirical goose-stepping, and general Krautphobia. J is a reformed man.
K, who is sitting in the passenger seat, turns the radio on to some inconsequential commercial station. In it, mainstream music lives side by side with bleak adverts for soulless corporations designed to guilt-trip the British public into consuming: emotional blackmail for people who generally find it difficult to process and express their emotions.
…’Bye, mummy. Bye, daddy.’
‘Bye, Lisa Marie. Have a safe journey.’
‘I’ll see you next Christmas.’
[Train departs the station.]
We know it’s hard to see them grow and to see them go. You fed them, bathed them, played with them, and now they’ve gone. The big city awaits them with its frenetic lifestyle, long working hours and sparse visits. But now, staying in touch with them is easier with the hyperfast broadband from OC. Now for only £25 per month for six months. OC, because mattering matters. Offer only valid for new customers. Terms and Conditions apply.
J, who is driving, presses one of the buttons on the steering wheel to turn the radio off.
‘She will never be Elvis,’ he says. ‘No matter how hard she tries.’
‘What does that even mean?’ says L, who is in the back seat. ‘Nobody will ever be Elvis, apart from Elvis himself. And by the way, she was the best contestant this evening by a country mile.’
‘L, what your father is trying to say is–,’ says K.
‘No, let him say it. What do you mean – what does it take to “be Elvis”’? Is it the face? She was his spitting image. Is it the voice? She nailed it. Is it the outfit? It was an exact replica of the Comeback–’
‘Now you mention the outfit,’ interjects J. ‘Suspicious Minds came out in 1969, a year after the Comeback Special.’
‘And that rules her out entirely?’
‘Dad is right, I’m afraid,’ says K with the certainty that the matter appears to be settled for good.
But L leans forward between the two front seats and says, ‘No, he’s not. We all know his issue, but he will never admit it. The goal of an Elvis impersonator is to be the most accurate approximation of him. Being born a woman did not stop her from doing a bloody good job. Believing that any impersonator will live up to the idea of Elvis so much that they will become him is naive. To put it in terms that you will understand, she was more Elvis than any of those other men will ever be. An Elvis impersonator is an Elvis impersonator, whether you are born a man or a woman.’
‘Listen, I am the most tolerant person around, but there are some things that just cannot be,’ says J cuttingly. ‘It is against Elvis’s nature: Elvis was born a man and died a man. But there is one thing that woman does not have that stops her from becoming Elvis.’
‘So there we have it,’ says L.’ The one thing that made Elvis Elvis was his genitals, according to you. Why do these kinds of conversations always end up becoming a debate about genitalia?’
‘To be fair,’ says K. ‘While I agree that there was more to Elvis than, well, his you know what, you can easily imagine how her such and such can be a problem. I am sure the other contestants feel uncomfortable sharing a changing room and a bathroom with her. Next thing she will be going around schools in the county telling little girls they can be an Elvis impersonator if they wish to be. I mean–’
‘What do you mean “so what”?’ says K. ‘Listen, I am not against women who want to be an Elvis impersonator, but that is something that one should decide when one is an adult. A child’s mind is not ready to make such a momentous decision.’
‘“Momentous decision”?’ yells L. ‘Are we still talking about impersonating Elvis effing Presley?’
‘Language, miss,’ replies K.
From an early age, L’s parents have told her that using expletives automatically makes your point invalid. L has always thought that is a weak-minded cop-out from people who cannot stand being wrong. Indeed if you are right, it does not matter whether you use foul language or not: the point still stands. Reaching for the ‘Language, miss’ card over the euphemistic ‘effing’ is a first. A new low, as far as she is concerned.
‘She was the best impersonator out there, and you bigots made her cry!’
J pushes the indicator lever down and drives the luxury SUV to the hard shoulder, where it comes to a smooth halt. Blimey, isn’t it smooth! Even the tyres crunching the gravel underneath sound like a soothing Australian rainstick.
‘Warning lights, darling,’ whispers K.
J slams the bulbous red button on the dashboard and turns around within an inch of his daughter’s face. His expression, however, is as neutral as it can be.
‘“Bigots”? Your views aren’t more valid than ours, just because you live in the big city. I respectfully listen to your opinions, however wrong they may be. And all we get is abuse from you, London girl. We didn’t pay for your education just so we are silenced by you. You’re no better than the Nazis!’
J starts the German car again to a deathly silence. That is until K turns the radio back on.
… Mother is depressed, and her rheumatism is getting worse. It’s raining outside, and she’s stuck at home, alone. Father succumbed to the cold winter last year. Remember you didn’t attend the funeral because you were too busy with work? Everyone in the family resents you for that. Anyway, it’s getting late, and mother is hungry. And she is considering removing you from her will. So why don’t you swing by? Make sure on your way there you buy two sizzling double cheeseburgers with crispy bacon, two sides of deluxe chips and two large soft drinks of your choice for just £5.99. Only at O’Crooks. [Whistling jingle.]Offer valid until the 30th of June. T&Cs apply…
L runs her index finger and thumb across her forehead towards her temples. Her hand is shaking, and her eyes are getting moist. She knows she is right. But might is also right. She is not willing to risk it all over an Elvis impersonator.
‘I’m sorry,’ says the flat-renting daughter. ‘I guess you have a point.’
She knows ‘being right’ this time will not help her secure a deposit for a flat in London.