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The Hair Apparent

Over two decades after his death, everyone remains obsessed with Elvis Presley. Not to be fascinated with the man seems downright un-American. But our fascination has elicited so many facts about the King that these days it's nearly impossible to be an Elvis generalist. The field is too crowded with people who have decades of scholarship under their wide, studded Elvis belts. So you specialize.

I could have picked Elvis's cars, Elvis's grade-school report cards--one of which I saw at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame--or delved deeper into why, exactly, he so appreciated the furtive viewing of girls in large white underpants. Instead I picked his hair--in the structural sense, as opposed to the aesthetic. Most people with a pompadour that grandiose and greasy will find that it lists slowly to one side and then collapses. In concert, Elvis's did the same thing, but in a magnificently theatrical way that has seldom been equaled. What, exactly, were his building materials? And is it true that his trademark blue-black hair was not natural but dyed?

"AND the eyebrows, AND the lashes," confirms Lori Marie Muha, a former Denver security guard turned operational supervisor. "Tony Curtis, that's who Elvis was inspired by. He wanted that jet-black hair going on, and his natural color was a sandy brown, so he dyed all of it."

Muha says this with some authority, and I trust her. As "Shelvis," the female Elvis impersonator, she's been a hot ticket on the local Elvis circuit for the past four years, once beating out 44 men to win the grand Elvis title at a local casino. In performance, she looks like a slightly buffer King, right down to the sneer. And it goes without saying that her hair is exactly right.

When not inhabiting the body and soul of Elvis, or John Travolta, Neil Diamond, Tom Jones or Buddy Holly--her other "legendary boys," as Muha likes to call them--she is a casually dressed 34-year-old woman with waist-length curly dark-auburn hair. To look at Shelvis, you would never guess what a hair handicap Muha operates under. Elvis himself could not beat her pomp.

"I'm not gonna put down other impersonators--I'm not one of those types," Muha says. "But I do everything myself, including the hair. I'm very well-known. I think what it is with me is I do what I do so well, I'm not really an impersonator anymore. I'm an entertainer."

And the difference between entertainer and impersonator, she explains, is a stark one: An impersonator cannot, by definition, become famous--unless he's a man doing a woman in Las Vegas. "Never has happened and never will," Muha insists. "I want to be in a category all my own."

She certainly has the bloodlines for it. Her mother, a former Radio City Music Hall dancer, filled their Union Town, New Jersey, home with music--not just Elvis, but Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and the best of Motown. By the time Lori, the youngest and the only daughter, was four, she was lip-synching at family holidays. By the time she was eight, she had focused her artistic energies on Elvis. And when she was ten, her parents took Lori to see Presley live at one of his last concerts. Wearing a miniskirt and "leotards that itched like heck," she forced her way down to the front row and got a good look she would never forget. Her father did better: He snatched one of the silk scarves Elvis threw into the crowd, "and grown women nearly ripped his hair out," Muha recalls fondly.

That scarf now constitutes approximately 1 percent of the artifacts in Muha's basement Elvis room. There are Elvis drawings, by Muha and others, posters, photographs, unwrapped dolls--one representing her other childhood hero, John Travolta--and a CD player stocked with Elvis soundtracks. Minus his voice, of course: Muha supplies that herself.

"I've always had a deep voice and a masculine presence," she says. "Back in the Eighties, in high school, I was seen as some kinda alien, looking and sounding like this. People called me Vinnie Barbarino. But my friends understood. See, as a woman, there was no one really BIG--big like David Cassidy or Barry Gibb or John Travolta...or Shaun Cassidy! I wanted THAT kind of attention, and I couldn't get into being a female. I couldn't, for example, be Diana Ross. I couldn't be her physically. It was a good thing I saw Tootsie. I thought, if Dustin Hoffman can do this, so can I, except he's ugly and I'm not bad-looking. And now it's the Nineties. Nothing is odd anymore. Here I am, bringing out the woman side of Elvis, all kinds of Elvis. Only no jumpsuit Elvis. I don't do that."

What Muha will do, to my everlasting gratitude, is let me watch while she creates Shelvis's hair.

We begin in the officially designated Elvis bathroom, used for nothing but coiffure. Making several trips to other parts of the house, Muha assembles her supplies: three brushes of different bristle strength and shape, two combs, Queen Helene extra-strength hair gel, extremely stiff hairspray by Suave, a coil of dark-auburn artificial theater hair, a tube of spirit gum and a blow dryer. "Oh," she adds, "and I go through hair ties...like, fuggedaboudit."

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