MEMPHIS – If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Elvis Presley must be beaming.
Nearly 70 Elvis impersonators from around the world gathered this week on the outskirts of town to compete in the 20th annual Images of the King contest, the original and largest Elvis Tribute Artist competition in America.
"It keeps Elvis' memory alive; he'll never die," said Donna Stuckey, an ETA fan from Pontiac, Ill.
Fifteen Elvii of all shapes and sizes strutted into the ballroom of a local Holiday Inn Tuesday to karate kick off the weeklong competition, just one of the ways Elvis fans show their passion for the legendary entertainer.
Some wore beaded replica jumpsuits; others chose the rockabilly look that marked the King of rock 'n' roll's early career.
There were Elvii who've been around the block and those barely out of diapers. But they all have the original Elvis Presley at heart.
"When I was 5 years old, my mom and dad took me to Graceland, and ever since then I've been trying to sound like Elvis," said Tyler James, 18, of Fort Smith, Ark., who despite his fresh face decided to portray Elvis in his later years. He is currently an ETA full time and dreams of one day taking his act to Las Vegas.
Images of the King was started in 1987 by Elvis' former veterinarian Ed Franklin and his wife, Jackie, as a way to drum up business at their nightclub, Bad Bob's Vapors.
"It was a promotional event, really, and it just took off," Jackie Franklin said. This year's competition is dedicated the memory of her husband, who died earlier this year.
The contest is now run by Bobbie Hoover and her husband, Michael, one of the first winners of the Memphis competition.
The ETAs compete for cash and prizes worth $4,500 for first place, including gift certificates for jumpsuits and wigs. The winner will be crowned Saturday night.
Each performer gets 15 minutes in the spotlight, enough time for about four or five songs. They use their hips, their arms and their voices to work the crowd, an adoring bunch who gleefully venture to the stage in hopes of getting a scarf and maybe a kiss from the singing ETA.
There are song favorites: "Suspicious Minds," "Hurt," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "American Trilogy" and Elvis' gospel songs.
The contestants split down the middle between portraying young and old Elvis.
"You have the older ones -- 30s, 40s and 50s -- who have been doing this so they stick to the later Elvis," Hoover said. "But then you have these young whippersnappers and they're moving and dancing all over the stage doing the early Elvis."
Over the years they've had Elvii from as far away as Japan, the Netherlands and Jerusalem, who try to find the right mixture of Elvis in their act.
"I think first and foremost you have to be a fan," Hoover said of the ETAs.
There are other not-so-secret ways to be a good ETA, too.
"Vocal ability, actually -- your looks, your charisma, your stage performance and your presence, and just knowing you're not Elvis is a big part of it," Hoover said.
"You have to be grounded enough to know that you're just acting," Franklin said. "You have to take it with a grain of salt. The adoration you get, you have to think, 'Well, some of this is really for me but most of this is for Elvis.' It takes a certain type of humility to pull it off."
At 9 years old, Demi Downing is already a seasoned ETA. She's been snarling her lip for about three years with the help of her coach, her grandma Debbie Heitlauf.
"Well a true Elvis fan likes all of Elvis' songs, but if I had to choose my favorite it would be 'Can't Help Falling in Love With You,'" said Downing, of Adel, Ga., who's taken her pint-sized act to Las Vegas and New York.
The former beauty pageant contestant watches Elvis movies before bedtime and has the gates of Graceland painted on the wall of her bedroom.
"We're always told to not look at other performers. We're told to study by Elvis because he's the original thing," Heitlauf said.
"I teach her that it's not just the outside. It starts inside because what he's best known for is the heart, not just the talent, the swiveling hips, the charm. It was about his love."
Children do not compete in Images of the King, Hoover said. They do perform in a children's showcase and on Tuesday these mini-Elvii seemed content to run around the ballroom in their jumpsuits, just being kids.
The competition is also an opportunity for the Elvii to mingle, share performance and costume tips and inspire a younger generation.
Kevin Adams held court over a booth of notion-studded Elvis belts he creates by hand in his Memphis home. Each belt takes 14 hours to make and sells for between $150 and $300.
"I feel like I'm supplying a thing for the Elvis Tribute Artists to help them look their best to be on stage," Adams said. "Some may not sound good, but maybe if they'll just feel good looking good then that's halfway there, even though the voice is the punch."
But beyond the competition, it's also about the fans. Stuckey has been coming to Images of the King for nine years.
"Even though I come by myself, I'm never alone," said Stuckey, who has emphysema. "It's one big family. This is what my doctor says I live for. This is what keeps me going."
For every fan like her, there is an appreciative Elvis Tribute Artist doing his or her best to honor the King's memory.
"I do the best I can," James said. "Nobody's going to be exactly like Elvis because there was only one."