Four Marilyn Monroes. Three Chers (one male). Two Michael Jacksons. And Arnold Schwarzenegger marrying Shania Twain. No, it's not some LSD-addled Christmas carol—it's the real-live scene last spring at the Celebrity Impersonators Convention in Las Vegas.
"For years these performers were known as 'freaks,' " says organizer Elyse Del Francia. "But they're not corny—they're very professional." Indeed, most tribute artists (the politically correct term) earn between $1,000 and $5,000 per day, with a standout—say, the top Jay Leno—getting upwards of $6,000. Even run-of-the-mill Elvis replicas gross $200,000 yearly.
The Unreal Deal
Back in 1992, Del Francia, a sales manager at a Palm Springs hotel, dreamt up a look-alike show (inspired by Vegas' Legends in Concert) to drum up attendance at her property. She got some impersonators on the cheap through a connection she made at an Elvis convention; three weeks into the production, the director had a heart attack, and Del Francia stepped in. Though in her 40s and accustomed to a steady income with medical benefits, she quit her hotel job, dove into show business, and never looked back. "I think God gives you whatever you're supposed to be doing in life," she says simply. Equally blasé about the learning curve, she adds, "It's all the same—you're booking either hotel rooms or look-alikes." And Del Francia still works with meeting planners—like her, they're booking either hotel rooms or look-alikes.
A Flock of Elvis
In 2000, Del Francia launched her convention at considerable risk. Because she invited entertainers and agents, and the latter often compete with one another, "I didn't know if anyone would show up," she says. But with a three-day cutoff date (to accommodate performers who hold out until the last minute in case they get a paid gig), she got 67 attendees, and it's grown ever since.
Last Memorial Day weekend, over 250 impostors—from Travis Tritt to Tina Turner—gathered at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino (home to the Legends show). The shams heard motivational speeches by a fake Jack Nicholson and Carmen Miranda; traded tips on pay scales and other professional topics; and watched as Arnold and Shania, who met at 2003's convention, wed in a genuine ceremony with ersatz witnesses George and Laura Bush. They also strutted their stuff for agents and producers at a talent showcase hosted by Ricky Martin.
Del Francia's biggest challenge at first? Dates. She tried a Friday-Saturday setup but most performers work paid gigs on weekends. The Sunday-Tuesday Memorial Day slot is ideal, she says—it doesn't compete with corporate events and isn't too hot for her made-up, bewigged attendees. Now, she's got a battered-women fundraiser in the works as well as a telethon ("People can call and talk to Marilyn, Sinatra, or Wayne Newton!"), plus a self-inspired reality show called The Agent.
Del Francia works year round on the event, has no staff ("It's all me"), and makes no money. "I end up spending money on it," she sighs. "But it wasn't meant to be a moneymaker. It's my contribution to a great industry that's been around 25 years and has never been organized."