Managers of Presley's home in Memphis plan to anoint their first-ever official Elvis "tribute artist" this week, as they mark the 30th anniversary of his death there. But they don't want tacky, they don't want kitschy and they don't want a ridiculous spoof.
The contest judges will be looking for sincerity and respect — even if it's accompanied by karate moves, black pompadours and rhinestone jumpsuits.
• PHOTO ESSAY: The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest
"It's all about paying tribute to the life and legacy of Elvis," said Paul Jankowski, marketing chief for Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., the company that operates Graceland and its sprawling tourist complex.
The "Ultimate Elvis" contest has been under way since March with a series of qualifying rounds around the world. Twenty-four contestants made it to Memphis, but 14 were eliminated Sunday in the final qualifying round.
The winner will be chosen Friday at the end of a week of events to commemorate Presley's Aug. 16, 1977 death (a candlelight vigil in his honor will start Wednesday night). The "Ultimate Elvis" gets $5,000 in cash, a $5,000 shopping spree at Graceland tourist shops, a $3,000 gift certificate toward the purchase of an Elvis-inspired jumpsuit, a one-of-a-kind "Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist" championship belt and other prizes.
The tribute artist contest marks a big change for Graceland, which has long regarded Elvis impersonators with a mixture of resigned bemusement and outright disgust.
But with a new corporate parent, CKX Inc., in charge of the $40-million-a-year business in all things Elvis, Graceland managers have taken a new attitude toward the pompadoured ones.
"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, ethnicities and ages. There are even female Elvises.
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. The Elvis faithful refer to the management of the Presley business as simply "Graceland," in the same way a presidential administration might be referred to as "the White House."
"I've never been to any competition as good as this," Betty Buckner, 63, of Kansas City, Mo., 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's giving the tribute contest a chance.
It would be difficult to stop Elvis impersonators, even though EPE owns the rights to Presley's name and likeness. Keeping Presley's picture off a coffee mug is one thing, but telling a singer he can't wear jumpsuits and rhinestones is something else again.
"This is a genuine, spontaneous aspect of the Elvis phenomenon ... and we should embrace it to some extent," said Soden, who like other Graceland managers avoids the word "impersonators," favoring "Elvis tribute artists" or ETAs, instead.
"We want to be careful, though. We don't ever want the ETA contest to become the center of the story," he said.
Graceland's contest may also elevate the standards of Elvis imitators in general, many of whom live "in a kind of world unto itself," Soden said. "There are still people out there dressing up and performing like Elvis who probably shouldn't be."
The finalists in Graceland's contest are all practiced performers. But at the unofficial "Images of the King" contest, which has been held in Memphis for the past two decades, the opening acts are often far from polished.
Over the years, it has hosted professional entertainers and amateurs alike, including some from abroad who could speak little English and had only a phonetic grasp of the lyrics to Elvis songs.
Also staged in August near the death anniversary, the show has long been popular with Presley fans and expects little trouble — this year at least — from Graceland, said director Michael Hoover, a professional Elvis imitator from Virginia.
"For years and years, Graceland has pretty much ignored the Elvis tribute artists. I don't know if this is just an experiment for them or they're changing their ways," Hoover said. "But I think there's enough work for everybody to go around right now. There are plenty of Elvis impersonators in the world and there are lots of contests."
Winning at "Images" has also been a career booster for many Elvis performers like Hoover, who won in 1988 and took over the contest a few years ago from founder "Doc" Franklin, Elvis' former veterinarian.
Serious Elvis impersonators "can make a comfortable living" performing at private parties, concerts, corporate functions and the like, Hoover said. The successful ones have their own bands, booking agents and even fan clubs.
"If you're good, you're full-time and you work at it real hard, you can probably do a six-figure income, but you've got to work at it," said Hoover, who began his Elvis journey as a teenager. "I was doing Elvis when Elvis was still alive."
Terry Balliew, 57, of Calhoun, Ga., took in the qualifying round of Graceland's contest and also planned to attend the "Images" contest with wife, Barbara, an avid Elvis fan.
While withholding judgment on Graceland's tribute-artist contest, Balliew said setting higher standards might be a good idea, particularly for some of the older Elvis tribute artists.
"They still want to perform. I can understand that," he said. "But you can get too old."
Elvis died at 42 of heart disease worsened by drug abuse.
The finalists for Graceland's contest are all, like Presley, white men in their 20s to 40s, but marketing manager Jankowski said preliminary contests, which must be approved by Graceland, are under no orders to restrict contestants by age, race or ethnicity.
"This is not an impersonator contest," he said. "This is all about paying tribute to Elvis."