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."
On the afternoon before a typical gig, she would now begin to apply sideburns, one hair at a time, sticking them to her face with spirit gum--the most time-consuming part of the Shelvis transformation process. Today, though, she's in more of a hurry and has only me to impress, so the sideburns fall by the wayside.
"So, okay, you take this Queen Helene stuff, which I buy by the gallon," she says, scrutinizing herself in the mirror, "and I wet all the hair in the back with lots of water and lots of gel. Then I throw on some ultra-stiff stuff."
With her longer hair pushed to the back, it's now clear that an area around her ears of perhaps a one-inch radius has been clipped very short. "Cheating," she admits, "but you can't push long hair back in that particular place. It's gotta be short or it will screw you up."
She now slicks her hair back, without a part, gathering it into a long ponytail. "Which looks like a DA, once I turn my collar up," she explains. "Now I blow it dry, high and stiff, I make my pomp. Get the height with the blow dryer on high heat but medium force. It's, what, about five inches long. You get a flip going. A lotta guys don't. As soon as it's right, you let it sit there to dry, and you smooth your sides and nail them with gel. But never gel the front--it looks ridiculous. So do wigs."
Finally, she resprays the front of the pompadour, separates a few hairs so it presents less of an impenetrable wall of hair, and sprays it again. "Make it look wet, but make it move," she suggests. "His hair moved, you know?"
Unbeknownst to Muha, there was, in fact, a brief window of time during which Elvis's hair was less than perfect. "His girlfriend Linda Thompson had been cutting it for him," recalls career barber Danny Rupoli. "It was pretty badly chopped up."
Rupoli did not notice this while watching Elvis on TV or taking careful note of publicity photos. No, he noticed it because one day in 1976, he was summoned from his family's north Denver barber shop to cut the King's hair. Elvis was in town on a notorious trip during which he was made an honorary police officer--and was so fulfilled by the experience that he bought new Cadillacs for many of the principals. But Rupoli knew nothing of that. His connection with fate was Denver police captain Jerry Kennedy, who'd been getting his hair cut at the family salon--named Fiore's, after Danny's father--for years.
"Captain Kennedy called me up and said he had something pretty big going on down at the Regency Hotel, and could I bring over my tools at six o'clock that night," Rupoli remembers. "I was driving this old Chevy Nova down 38th Avenue. I had given myself about five minutes to get downtown, so I was pushing it a little, and all of a sudden, police lights came on behind me, and it was, oh no, what do I do now?"
At Rupoli's suggestion, the patrolman in the cruiser radioed Captain Kennedy. When he heard what Rupoli's mission was to be--something Rupoli himself hadn't even guessed at yet--he provided an escort, lights flashing.
"I got to the hotel and just sat down. I watched all these people milling around in tuxedos," Rupoli recalls. "Then Kennedy and three other policemen came and got me. The captain says, 'I hope you're on tonight, Danny,' and then he opens the door, and there's Elvis standing there. It hits me, I'm going to cut his hair. I couldn't even swallow."
To steady his nerves, Rupoli focused on his three-generation heritage of hair-cutting, inherited from Italian immigrants on both his mother's and his father's side. He opened his case and looked at his tools--none of which seemed the slightest bit familiar. He noted with some alarm that his hands were shaking. Elvis suggested he calm down. "Yeah, treat him like just an ordinary guy!" Rupoli relates. Some ordinary guy! Only his bodyguards were allowed to shampoo the man, as Rupoli remembers it, for security reasons.
With Elvis shampooed, Rupoli began to cut the King's chopped-up mane of hair, while the woman responsible, girlfriend Linda, "wearing some kind of terrycloth shorty pajama thing, knelt between his legs, put her arms up on his legs, and they carried on a conversation," Rupoli says. "It made me very nervous."
But not too nervous to take note of certain salient features of Elvis's hair. "It was dyed jet-black, with that dye I like to call shoe polish," Rupoli remembers. "I combed it straight back with a pomp, which you just blow and spray till it's built up. Sides went straight back. I used a lotta spray. His hair was very fine and very straight--no wave at all."
Elvis, pleased with the haircut, handed Rupoli a wad of cash that later turned out to add up to $110 and asked if Rupoli would be available for spur-of-the-moment haircuts anywhere in the world. He'd send his private Lear jet, Elvis added. Sure, Rupoli stammered. And that was the end of that haircut.
But for days afterward, Fiore's was besieged by women wanting to purchase a lock of that jet-black, fine, straight hair--not a shred of which Rupoli had saved. One year later, however, he came close to acquiring some. This time Elvis was staying at the Brown Palace during one of the last concert tours before his death in 1977. Once again, Captain Kennedy alerted Rupoli to the possibility of a high-profile 'do.
"This time I wasn't nervous at all," Rupoli recalls. "I was drivin' down there thinking, this time I'm gonna get me a Caddie. I was pumped!"
Sitting in the Brown Palace lobby from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., though, waiting on the call from Elvis, his excitement gradually subsided. "At the end of the day, some lady came down and told me Elvis was sorry--he'd been sleeping all day and they couldn't get him up, and now he only had twenty minutes to get ready for the show," Rupoli remembers. "I was real disappointed, but I went to the concert anyway."
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His seats were terrible, and the show was typical of the later, bloated Elvis, lasting less than an hour and consisting mostly of slurred, forgotten lyrics and silk scarves thrown into the audience. "It was sad to see how much he'd changed in just one year," Rupoli says. "He had a much bigger belly on him, and he didn't look right."
Except for his hair, which in the years that followed, Rupoli was to consider over and over again, particularly when he took in an impersonation show. "Those guys dye it jet-black and try to comb it up, build it up, but they don't even come close," he insists. "The last time I saw Elvis, it was hard to get a good look, but his hair...it was much the same as I had cut it."
The Shelvis hairdo is complete, having taken three minutes max--not counting any sideburns. It's quite a trick. Almost imperceptibly, Muha raises a lip at herself in the mirror. Then she changes into black pants, a black shirt, white belt and shoes and a loud black-and-white sports jacket. It strikes just the right sartorial note during "Don't Be Cruel," which she performs right in the basement, to the astonishment of a US West repairman who has happened by with a pair of wire-cutters.
"So," she resumes, turning her soundtrack back down, "I definitely have the ponytail going on, and I have boobs, but you can't really tell unless you're looking--and so what? Everyone knows I'm female. You just turn your collar up and go out there and be Him.