Jennifer Gampell
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Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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January 2000

Isn't That Elvis?
What drives normally sane middle-aged men to don gold lamé jumpsuits and gyrate on stage?

By Jennifer Gampell

The "King of Rock 'n Roll" is a monarch dear to the hearts of many Thais. In a country where posters of the best-loved members of the Thai royal family outsell pop idol images, one enormously popular sepia-colored photo depicts their majesties the King and Queen of Thailand in Hollywood on the set of G.I. Joe. The year is 1960 and the royal couple, seated casually between a young Elvis dressed in army fatigues and actress Juliet Prowse, face the camera. King Bumiphol and Queen Sirikit are listening intently as America's own homegrown version of royalty--Elvis Presley--leans toward them.

Forty years after that photo was taken and nearly a quarter of a century after Elvis "left the building" in 1977, the famous sideburned crooner still elicits a surprisingly "big hunk o' love" from Thais of all ages. On practically any night of the week, an Elvis impersonator somewhere in greater Bangkok is gyrating to a perennial Presley favourite like "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock" or "Love Me Tender." Performing in swank hotel lounges, raucous nightclubs or modest neighbourhood bars, this stalwart band of Thai Elvis's work hard to keep alive the memory of their brown-eyed handsome man.

Why do Thais love Elvis and want emulate him? "He sings good, moves well, has style and looks handsome," explains 57 year-old Visoot Tungarat, the country's oldest and most celebrated Elvis. In 1998 MTV named him "Elvis Asia," but to several generations of adoring Thai fans, the still-handsome man with the wavy dyed hair and expanding midriff is better known as "El-Visoot."

Visoot has been bringing Elvis to life for an amazing 42 years--since 19 years before Elvis passed on. His modest house in the Bangkok suburbs sits behind a miniature version of the gate at Graceland, Elvis' Memphis mansion. Inside the makeshift studio are four decades' worth of recording technology (reel-to-reel tape recorder, synthesizer, MIDI player) plus the complete Elvis discography on vinyl, tape and CD. Thirteen exact replica jumpsuits--each bead and sequin meticulously sewn on by Visoot himself--hang rather unceremoniously under the stairwell. Among the myriad Elvis images covering the downstairs walls and ceiling, one particular head shot stands out. It takes a few seconds to register that the gorgeous young hunk with the smoldering eyes isn't the real Elvis.

Most Elvis impersonators enjoy the security of other jobs--as bank clerk, nightclub manager, TV actor, government official. One even does Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdink knockoffs. Only Visoot has devoted his entire life to being Elvis. During the Vietnam war, he sang for the American G.I.s stationed at bases throughout Thailand. He fondly remembers how the soldiers knew the words to every Elvis song. "When you sing for Thai people you cannot sing deep," he says sadly. "Only the popular songs."

Thailand's undisputed Elvis king performs at parties, on TV specials, in clubs and for his friends at home. He once tried to run a club on the outskirts of Bangkok, but with more talent than business sense he couldn't turn a profit and closed it down. To replenish his spirits (not to mention his pocketbook) Visoot travels regularly to Scandinavia, Europe and the U.S. where he consistently wows international audiences with his remarkable Elvis-ness.

The only other Graceland gate in Thailand belongs to Vasu Sangsingkeo. By day in his role as secretary to deputy foreign minister Sukhumband Paribatra, the slender 32 year-old wears somber pin-striped suits and a Patek Philippe watch. By night he dons his Elvis attire and transforms into a reasonable facsimile of the hard-driving, pelvis-thrusting singer he's idolized for over 20 years. The personable diplomat has a decade of experience juggling two disparate careers: before heading off to graduate schools in the US and the UK, he was the heartthrobbing lead singer for a locally famous Thai rock band.

"Elvis looks familiar to everyone," is how Vasu explains the star's ongoing popularity in Thailand. "You think of him as your family." He describes a Thailand swarming with Elvis devotees. "I see a lot of senior executives on the street or in a department store and I can tell they used to be great Elvis fans by the way they dress, how they comb their hair."

But it's not only old fogies who have Elvis always on their minds. Last year Vasu starred in a big-budget Las Vegas style musical about the star's life. In the space of two hours and 14 costume changes, Vasu portrayed his idol from his humble beginnings as a truck driver right through to his ignominious death. Originally scheduled for an 8-performance run in a trendy new Bangkok nightclub, the show proved such a smash hit that it had to be extended.

In the days leading up to the anniversary of the legendary demise on August 16, 1977, the pace of Thai impersonating speeds up significantly. The handful of professionals and sundry other Elvis wannabes get all shook up boppin' around the country from one major commemorative event to another. "Elvis Memory Lives On," probably the biggest of the annual extravaganzas, has been going strong for 10 years. Owing to its increasing popularity, the 1999 event was moved from the smallish lounge-bar in the Asia Hotel where "Elvis" appears nightly to the hotel's cavernous ballroom. Not counting all the impromptu Elvises who turned up for the singing and look-alike contests, the "official" contingent of nine Thais and one Macanese was the biggest ever. The 1,200 tickets sold out more than a week in advance.

Towards 7 p.m. on the big night, the various Elvis paraphernalia and photo-sticker booths in the ballroom foyer were doing brisk business. The audience, a well-heeled and predominantly middle-aged crowd, crammed around the scores of low tables. (Generally, Thai audiences prefer to observe concerts from a seated position instead of rockin' out on the dance floor.)

The miniscule dressing room near the ballroom stage was awash in gold lamé and shimmering satin. Jumpsuits in a variety of sizes and colors filled the single rolling rack. Several Elvises peered into the mirror, sculpting their thick dark locks into the traditional pompadour.

The entertainment kicked off around 8 p.m. with a desultory version of "Can't Help Falling in Love," by a painfully shy wannabe who intoned that "some tings are meant to be." (Alas, this wasn't one of them.) Next up, Vasu leapt onto the stage. Nattily dressed in black, shimmying and shaking from behind huge clouds of synthetic smoke, he injected a massive dose of energy into the proceedings with his faultless renditions of Crying in the Chapel, Love Me Tender, and an impossible-to-sit-still-for version of Jailhouse Rock.

Interspersed with dance contests, lucky draws and official announcements, the show rocked along as one after another the impersonators took the stage. Consummate showman and nightclub producer Jaruk Viriyakit (who also does Tom Jones and Engelbert on the side) drew inspiration from the 1968-1972 period with his slick "Wonder of You" and "Girl of My Best Friend." TV actor Jeerasak Pinsuwan who has been singing Elvis for 30 years rendered the obscure "Lonesome Cowboy" to a crowd who clearly didn't hear it very often. Winner of an Elvis competition a few years back, Lek Presley (aka Sucin Punnahitanon) turned in credible performances of "All Shook Up" and "Kid Creole."

The youngest Elvis of the night was Nong Piraporn, a precocious six year-old garbed in white Nancy Sinatra boots and a micro-mini version of the famous white-caped jumpsuit. Clutching a handheld mike, she shimmied, shook and strutted her way through energetic renditions of "Jailhouse Rock" (pronounced "lock") and "Hound Dog." As she placed her palms together in the classic Thai-style wai of respect at the end of her short set, the audience went wild.

Sometime after midnight, a flashing strobe and the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey announced the show's climax-- the one and only "El Visoot." His moves may have slowed and his girth increased but Visoot exudes an intangible sense of Elvis that nobody else comes close to emulating. He works the crowd, walking into the audience and talking to them as Elvis, not Visoot. He needs no bumps and grinds to conjure up the spirit of his hero. Standing in one spot he still conveys the message. Visoot has Elvis SOUL.

Trying to pin down what constitutes great impersonation is a daunting proposition. Physical resemblance and a good costume are important components but not absolute prerequisites of the elusive Elvis mystique. "I think some people are born to be Elvis, blessed by God almost," says Vasu. "They have a soul connection." Is Vasu such an Elvis doppelganger? "No," he replies. "I'm just someone who loves him and is happy to sing his songs."

Visoot's connection to Elvis goes much deeper. Around his neck he wears two thick gold chains: one carries a $50 silver Elvis medallion, the other an amulet of a highly venerated Buddhist monk. In a newspaper interview nine years ago Visoot claimed that he and Elvis must have been related in a previous life. He said that on stage he's experienced moments of feeling "Elvis and I are one person."

Who knows how long the crooner will continue as the Big Boss Man for his devoted fans IN Thailand and elsewhere in the world. But as long as people Can't Help Falling in Love with his universal charms and timeless appeal, it's likely they'll be getting All Shook Up about him for a long time to come. After all, It Feels So Right that I Just Can't Help Believin' he'll still be around A Hundred Years From Now.

Copyright © 2000 Jennifer Gampell