Viewed for years by the gatekeepers to Elvis Presley's Graceland with a mixture of resigned bemusement and outright disgust, impersonators of the King finally have their first chance to participate in an officially sanctioned tribute to the rock legend.
Managers of Presley's home in Memphis plan to anoint their first-ever official Elvis "tribute artist" tomorrow, near the end of a week of events commemorating the 30th anniversary of Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977. Elvis died at 42 of heart disease worsened by drug abuse.
The rules are simple: Nothing tacky or kitschy, and no ridiculous spoof. The judges will be looking for sincerity and respect -- even if it is accompanied by karate moves, black pompadours and glittery jumpsuits.
"It's all about paying tribute to the life and legacy of Elvis," said Paul Jankowski, marketing chief for Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that operates Graceland and its sprawling tourist complex.
The "Ultimate Elvis" search has been under way since March with a series of preliminary contests around the world. Twenty-four contestants made it to Memphis, but 14 were eliminated on Sunday in a final qualifier.
The finalists for the contest are all white men in their 20s to 40s, but Jankowski said preliminary contests, which must be approved by Graceland, are under no orders to restrict contestants by age, race or ethnicity.
The decision to hold the contest follows a change of heart by Elvis Presley Enterprises after its sale two years ago to CKX, which owns the American Idol TV show.
"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, shapes, ethnicity and ages.
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.
"I've never been to any competition as good as this," Betty Buckner, 63, of Kansas City, Missouri, 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 is giving the tribute contest a chance.
"This is a genuine, spontaneous aspect of the Elvis phenomenon ... and we should embrace it to some extent," said Soden who avoids the word "impersonators," favoring "Elvis tribute artists" instead.