Everywhere you look on the Las Vegas Strip you’ll see something that isn’t what it seems. Hotels look like famous landmarks and everyday people can look like high rollers. Entertainers are in on it too. Show girls captivate audiences with sequins and feathers while magicians mystify by making cars and tigers vanish. It’s no surprise that in a city built on illusions there are those who can make even themselves disappear, becoming a famous celebrity or musician on stage.
“All of our drag queens are illusionists. They’re the best illusionists in town. You’re wasting your time going to see magicians when you could go see a drag show,” says Frank Marino while applying makeup before his show “Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas” at Imperial Palace.
Aside from Marino the show has female impersonators portraying Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Cher, Madonna and other famous divas who emulate every aspect of the celebrities they portray. Marino’s show is one of more than 15 on the Strip that feature either impersonators or tribute artists and that doesn’t include the numerous tribute bands that perform in the city’s lounges and small stages.
For Marino, his journey to become an impersonator began when he was attending medical school and working at a pharmacy on the weekends.“I guess I spent a little bit too much time at the makeup counter than I did dispersing the pills,” Marino jokes.
When Halloween came he decided to use his newly acquired makeup skills to dress up as his favorite singer at the time, Diana Ross. He was approached by a booking agent and soon started appearing as Ross at parties, weddings and other special events. Then he decided to change his character to someone who didn’t sing and wouldn’t require as much make-up.
“I figured I don’t sing well. I want to be live so I have to do somebody who does comedy, and I don’t want to wear all this black makeup all the time,” Marino says.
There were two famous comedians that fit his requirements, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, and he took “the lesser of two evils.”
I went out dressed as Prince to a party at the Hard Rock,” Tenner says. “People were following me around and wanting to take pictures, and I’m like ‘Dang, this costume is pretty good.’
Before that he was performing, also dressed in costume, in a ’70s and ’80s cover band called Mothership Connection. After Halloween he decided to add more of Prince’s songs to the set and soon they became the primary thing his band performed.
“Eventually we dropped the platform shoes and afro wigs and traded them for high-heel shoes and eyeliner,” Tenner jokes.
For Corey Melton, who performs as Michael Jackson in “American Superstars” at Stratosphere, being a celebrity impersonator was inspired by his admiration of The King of Pop and his natural likeness to the performer.
“When I was six my uncle gave me the ‘Bad’ album and ‘Off the Wall.’ I distinctively remember laying in my room just looking at the inside of the album, the pictures and trying to do the poses and trying to imitate him in his singing,” Melton says.
Whenever Melton was performing, even when he wasn’t trying to impersonate Jackson, people told him that he reminded them of the famous performer.
“The demand started being there more and more from the audiences to do more of his songs,” he says. So Melton put on his loafers and went to work. Being able to sing and dance like Jackson is something that Melton has been working on since he got that first album and continues to pursue.
Behind the seamless transformation that celebrity impersonators have mastered is hours of preparation and hard work. Along with learning to emulate Jackson’s voice and iconic dance moves. Melton puts a lot of time into researching who he was on and off stage.
“Well, like an actor – that’s what I consider myself to be, I go deep into the life of Michael,” Melton says. He’s gone by Jackson’s house and watched a television interview from 1980 with Jackson’s parents that he got a lot of insight from. He also tries to experience things that he believes Jackson would have done.
“It’s about a oneness with me when I’m impersonating him,” Melton says. “It’s not about doing the moon walk correctly it’s about giving off his energy and his spirit. That’s what they (audiences) want the most. I’m not Michael so I can’t give them Michael but I can give them what they really, really treasured about him.”
Developing the character is a different process for every celebrity impersonator. Being able to move and sound like Prince is something that Tenner learned from watching the movie “Purple Rain” probably more times than the film’s editors. He would watch the movie and then pause it and try to mimic Prince’s exact movements and facial expressions. To perfect his voice he would sit in his home studio and record himself singing songs and then listen to how they sounded against Prince’s voice.
“I did that for probably about a year. I figured if I’m gonna do it I’m gonna really trick people,” Tenner says. He also mentioned his physique as big part of what he does. At 5-feet-8 and 148 pounds, Tenner would like to put on a little more weight, but not if he needs to look like Prince.
“I gotta kind of stay small because Prince is so tiny, to maintain the illusion,” he says.
When Marino settled on Rivers as his new stage persona he memorized a comedy album she had out at the time and started performing the album live. He attended one of Rivers’ shows in Atlantic City and met the producers of “La Cage.” He auditioned and performed in “La Cage” in Florida for six months before moving to the Riviera Hotel and Casino.
About 15 years ago Marino started thinking that Rivers might lose some of her mainstream relevance so he decided to create a new, larger-than-life femme fatale character that he transforms into after his opening act as Rivers.
“I did that because I thought with Joan’s age how much longer could she go. Little did I know,” Marino quips.
Abigail Galloway described what she had to learn to emulate Britney Spears in “American Superstars” at Stratosphere as the most challenging thing she’s ever had to do as a performer. The physicality that goes into being able to sing and do all Spears’ vigorous dance moves at the same time requires hours of conditioning in the gym.
“For me, because I sing the show live, I have to make sure that I get cardio in because there would be no way if I didn’t. It’s a lot of dancing and to be able to sing and dance like that at the same time takes a lot of cardio training,” Galloway says, while sneaking in a workout during the interview for this story.
Along with learning the moves and the voice, acquiring the right wardrobe is another part of being a celebrity impersonator. For Matt Lewis, Elvis in “Legends in Concert” at Harrah’s, that means maintaining a wardrobe of about 15 different jumpsuits, gold jackets, black leather suits and other iconic outfits. A wardrobe like this doesn’t come cheap. Lewis, who has been performing as Elvis since he was 12, explained that his custom-made white jumpsuit is about $3,500 and another of his gold lamé jackets is about $1,500.
Lewis also keeps his hair dyed black and cut like Elvis’s which is so iconic that even when he’s not in costume people think he’s The King.
”The one thing that you have to deal with, because you have long black hair, is everywhere you go you have to hear ‘Hey Elvis’ or ‘Look at the guy who wants to be Elvis’ and I’m just like ‘Yeah that’s me.’ So you have to put up with that, but its not that big of a deal though,” Lewis says.
Tenner also has his costume pieces specially designed for him as part of his Prince transformation. With some of his suits costing about $1,100 and his long coats at $700, his wife is now apprenticing as a seamstress so she can help make and maintain his wardrobe.
With 17 quick costume changes into mainly Bob Mackie-designed gowns and about four or five wig changes a night, Marino explained that things like having the gowns made, the photo shoots done and getting the wigs styled is a constant maintenance job.
”A lot of times people tell you they can style wigs, and they can’t,” Marino, who has three wig stylists, says. “It’s so much harder than hair plus I don’t want to look just like the girl next door. I want to look like something crazy. It’s Vegas so I always figured let’s just make it a little over the top so people could have some fun.”
Finally, there’s the actual transformation that celebrity impersonators do every night before a show. For some performers like Galloway this takes about 15 minutes, but other performers have a more involved process.
Melton’s transformation into Jackson takes about 45 minutes and involves lightening his skin and putting on some eye makeup.
“I’m really, really blessed not to have to do so much. Many of our features (Jackson’s and Melton’s) are pretty similar it gets to be kind of bizarre,” Melton says.
Tenner makes sure to devote time right before the show to stretching. It takes him about 10 minutes to do his makeup and another 20 minutes to stretch and get warmed up to do “all those splits and all that stuff.”
“Do you know how hard it is for a 43-year -old man to look like a 76-year-old woman? Not easy,” Marino jokes.
His transformation into Rivers takes about an hour. To ensure that everything goes smoothly before the show he has his makeup, wardrobe, accessories and wigs preset and an assistant to help him along the way. While he transforms into a woman every night Marino made it clear that it’s all just part of being an entertainer.
“I never feel like a woman, really. So it’s not like I’m just trying to look like a woman. I’m just trying to look like something exotic for Vegas for a production,” Marino says.
The illusions that impersonators create not only entertain audiences, but in some cases they even create new fans.
“Once we get the people in and they realize we’re not selling a lifestyle, we’re selling just a form of entertainment then it all works out. A lot of times men might be hesitant about coming in, but they end up leaving saying ‘My wife dragged me here,’ no pun intended ‘and I loved the show more than she did,’” Marino says.
Lewis has seen a similar response to his Elvis impersonation.
“You get a lot of people who say ‘well I wasn’t really an Elvis fan, but then I saw you. Now I’m like ‘Wow, actually he was really cool.’ People come to the show, and they don’t run out and buy my album. They run out and buy an Elvis album,” Lewis says.
Illusions in progress
Watch Frank Marino transform into Joan Rivers before his show “Divas Las Vegas” at Imperial Palace .
Watch Matt Lewis transform into The King before his performance in “Legends in Concert” at Harrah’s.