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We’ve got the stars -- and a lot of the impersonators

Times Staff Writer

The kittenish Susan Griffiths curled up on her bathroom counter, hovering close enough to the mirror to apply heavy eyeliner, false eyelashes and a fake mole -- adornments that transform the pretty blond actress into a long-dead screen legend.

As she worked, Griffiths recalled the first and only time she met Marilyn Monroe’s biggest fan: Joe DiMaggio. The encounter took place in Las Vegas years ago and an executive of the Dunes hotel and casino arranged the meeting. At the time, Griffiths was 22 years old and wearing platinum hair. “He kind of wanted to stay in touch,” she said, her voice dropping to a breathy whisper. “But you know what? It was a little weird.”

And, for many, so is the world of celebrity impersonators. However, for the earnest folks inside the industry, many of them actors and performers whose stars failed to rise, borrowed fame is better than none at all.

Griffiths is among the most well-regarded in the business. Known as the “No. 1 Marilyn,” she appeared in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction” and landed the starring role in the 1991 TV movie “Marilyn and Me,” based on the story of a man who claimed to have secretly married the star. As Monroe, Griffiths has posed for photographers David LaChappelle and Bruce Weber. Even without the glamorous guise, she bears a striking resemblance to the world’s most enduring sex symbol. Her colleagues speak of her with reverence. She appears publicly as many as 22 times a month -- which, in these tough economic times for impersonators, is particularly revealing of her talents.

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While Las Vegas is considered the most competitive market for celebrity impersonation, Southern California, with Hollywood at its symbolic center, is a close second. Thousands of impersonators and look-alikes populate the region and fuel a cottage industry of agents, managers and booking agencies.

They are sustained by the public’s insatiable appetite for fame. Often, visitors in town for a corporate convention or a group tour hire impersonators to add sparkle to an event. Since real celebrity is out of reach, they settle for the look-alikes, even if Elvis Presley’s sideburns are too bushy and Cher’s nose isn’t quite right.

On Monday afternoon, Griffiths set out her red, backless Tadashi gown and donned one of her 20 platinum wigs in preparation for her eighth annual “mix and mingle” at a Long Beach hotel with hundreds of senior citizens who had come from out of state to see the Rose Parade. For an appearance such as this one, Griffiths may earn as much as $1,500.

“They loooove Marilyn,” said Griffiths. Earlier in the month, she cooed at gamblers at a Commerce casino one night and spent a weekend in Jamaica at the risque birthday party of an extremely wealthy man. “I probably shouldn’t talk about that,” she said. On New Year’s Eve, her birthday, she performed at a casino in Palm Springs.

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But Griffiths admitted that gigs aren’t as plentiful as they were during the salad days of the late 1990s, when party-happy dot-com millionaires fueled the business. Rates vary wildly -- from $250 for a few hours’ time for a lackluster “Robert Redford” to more than $2,000 for a bring-the-house-down “Joan Rivers.”

Merely looking like a famous person does not necessarily lead to constant employment. For instance, Sharon Stone look-alike Marti Ornest has had a rough couple of years. Like many in the business, her career is vulnerable to the professional ups and downs of the star she resembles. Following the success of the 1992 film “Basic Instinct,” Ornest supplemented her flight attendant’s salary by donning a white mini dress and wearing a short blond hairdo at trade shows and corporate parties. Since Stone’s career has stalled in the last few years, Ornest has worked just a few times. Unlike true impersonators, Ornest is really just a look-alike, and isn’t expected to perform as Stone. “She has her looks, her eyebrows, her hair, the whole way she dresses,” said Ornest. “But as far as doing stand-up or having a personality to imitate, you can’t really go that far with it.”

Then, there are the Michael Jackson impersonators who, after weathering nearly a decade of controversy, suffered another setback this fall when the pop star was photographed dangling a child over a balcony. “There’s guys who got nose jobs and everything saying, ‘Oh my God! I got all this done and I can’t get work!’ ” said Dennis Morrison, owner of Jam Entertainment and Events, one of the main Southern California agencies that book impersonators.

“You as a mother would not want ‘Michael Jackson’ coming to your house if you have children,” said Janna Joos, owner of Northridge-based International Celebrity Images, a competitor of Morrison’s. “And you wouldn’t want ‘Rosie’ [O’Donnell] coming or ‘Winona Ryder’ or ‘Nick Nolte.’ They ride the media just like anyone else.”

Business aside, the world of celebrity impersonators and look-alikes is a quirky one with its share of divas and eccentrics. Some demand limousine rides and backstage luxuries even for the most modest affairs. “They think they deserve star treatment,” said Morrison.

Joe Diamond, who represents Griffiths/Monroe, doesn’t book Michael Jackson impersonators any more because they often arrive hours late and require extraordinary accommodations, just like the pop star. “Every Michael Jackson I’ve tried to book, there’s been an attitude problem,” he said.

Nick D’Egidio, a Fontana actor and composer with his own record deal, has appeared at parties and nightclubs as Frank Sinatra for 12 years. He also performs with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. impersonators for a “Rat Pack Tribute Show.”

D’Egidio takes his image very seriously and reveals a Sinatra-like adamancy about being categorized. “I refuse to do any television for look-alikes, because they make us look like a bunch of idiots!” he said. “Everything I do is high quality.”

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D’Egidio, who can earn as much as $15,000 per gig, insists that he does nothing to enhance his appearance. He dons a tux and takes the stage with his 17-piece Dry Martini Orchestra. “I let the audience believe what they want to believe,” he said. “I don’t impersonate. Impersonators are like Halloween. I just comb my hair, put on a suit and do my performance.”

Others become preoccupied with the character they resemble. Take, for example, David Letterman impersonator Greg Chelew, who for years has tried to land an appearance on Letterman’s talk show. He has befriended the show’s writers, waited by the back entrance of CBS Studios and written countless letters to Letterman. “I have written letters to Julia Roberts too,” said Chelew. “She’s Dave’s favorite.”

Next spring, he plans to visit Letterman’s mother, Dorothy, at her Indiana home. “Just to say hi,” said the 45-year-old Laguna Beach real estate broker.

Chelew isn’t coy about his motivations. He revels in the spotlight his resemblance has garnered. “You get hotel rooms and picked up in limos,” he said. “It’s a way for people like us to actually pretend we’ve got all the fame and all the fortune of these actors, and we can live the part and then go home and not be trampled.”

For Griffiths, however, the perks of the impersonation gig have lost their luster. Brushing out her wig, she lamented the fatigue that sets in after spending several hours channeling Marilyn’s childlike exuberance.

“It’s exhausting to be nice to people, but you have no choice,” she said. “I’ve got a house payment. I’ve got to make sure people hire me back.”


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