Hello, Dolly: Without the wig, the makeup and the five-inch heels, Melissa Lee looks like any other pretty bartender, albeit an unusually well-endowed one. But when Lee, one of Denver's best drink mixers, dons the fringed leather, the skintight pants and the ear-to-ear smile, she's Dolly Parton--or close enough to get jobs as a celebrity impersonator.
That's her weekend gig. During the week, Lee tends bar at the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery. General manager Carol Schauer says they recruited Lee "relentlessly" from the nearby McCormick's, where she worked for over seven years--and where she met her husband, Ken Cutler, who's still behind the bar at the fish house. Before that, Lee, 37, was a kindergarten teacher in Jefferson County for ten years, which makes you wonder about the poor boys who grew up to discover that not all women look like Miss Lee. "One of my students from years ago came into the ChopHouse recently," Lee says. "He yelled, `Miss Lee!'" and, boy, did he have a surprised look on his face. I was a little surprised myself."
Although Lee won an award from the principal for having the most fathers as classroom helpers, it's the kids she misses most. "They do say the darnedest things, and they always made me laugh," she says. "One time this little boy drew a picture of me and he said, `I had to use black and yellow crayons for your hair, Miss Lee, because of the roots.'"
Her hair was just part of the package that grabbed the attention of the Guinness Import Company, which chose Lee as one of five national finalists for Miss Guinness in 1990. As a result, in what she calls a "fairy tale," she won $10,000, got to travel all over the world and drink all the Guinness she could hold. And when Bill Husted wrote a blurb about her in the Rocky Mountain News, she got her first fan mail--a guy in prison wrote her a six-page letter confessing his undying love.
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Lee started bartending over a decade ago as an evening thing, to earn some extra cash and keep out of trouble. "I figured if I was going to be in the bars on the weekends, I might as well make some money," she says. The Dolly impersonation bit added a whole new, er, dimension to Lee's career. "I get hired for parties and benefits," she says. "It's a lot of fun, but I get weird looks from my neighbors." Once, not long after she and Cutler moved into their new house, a local Cher look-alike stopped by in her get-up. "No wonder no one talks to me," she says, laughing. "They probably think I turn tricks all night." Adding to the confusion is the fact that Lee also does Mae West and Elvira.
But Dolly is the big draw. "You'd think this would make guys say disgusting things and just generally be jerks," Lee says. "But, really, I've been amazed at how they act like gentlemen." Whenever things get hairy, she calls upon her experience handling drunks at the bar. "I run into a lot of unusual situations," she says. "For instance, at this convention for the peace talks, where Yitzhak Rabin was going to be, I went as Annie Oakley, and they made us turn over our guns for inspection so they could make sure none of us would shoot the guy."
Lee's met the real Dolly three times, the first at the premiere of 9 to 5. "She said, `My goodness, you do look like me,'" Lee says. "She made me feel so good about myself. I really admire her. For her guts."
And isn't that why everyone likes Dolly?