How is Austin Powers still relevant in 2019? And why hire the Queen for your birthday party? Alex Casey talks to the movers and shakers of New Zealand’s celebrity impersonator scene.
It ain’t easy being shagadelic.
Orewa local Gary Brown, the only legally authorised Austin Powers impersonator in the world, knows that cold hard truth better than anyone.
“The job can be exhausting. When I’m in that outfit, I am the character. I’ve got no choice. I’ve got to keep up the mannerisms, the walk, the crazy one-liners – it’s what the people expect.”
By the end of a gig as Austin, Brown’s velour suit will frequently be soaked with his own sweat.
Some might assume that celebrity impersonators are a dying breed. In a time where Prince can perform as a hologram and any old Snapchat filter can transform you into a Kardashian catfish, they seem like a relic from bygone days when celebrity felt like something glamorous and illusory. But across the world, and here in New Zealand, there are many hardworking people who still have a lot of skin – and sweat – in the impersonation game.
Gary Brown has been performing as an impersonator since 1988, when he first toured America as Crocodile Dundee. He’s now been sharing his life with Austin Powers for more than 18 years, and describes it as “quite the enterprise” at about 40-60 paid gigs a year. First donning the cravat in 1999 for a swinging ’60s house party, he noticed more than a passing likeness. Not long after, he was contacted by a friend needing entertainment for a large event in Australia.
He told them he could sing, he could dance and he could do Austin Powers.
“They wanted Austin and that was that. I got the crooked dentures done, the suit and the wig made and found the right glasses.”
When Brown arrived in Australia, accompanied by former TrueBliss member Keri Harper in the role of Felicity Shagwell, he realised the “large event” for his first paid Austin Powers gig was the Sydney Olympics.
“It was so amazing, things got so crazy that we had to get security guards to stop people getting photos with us.”
Just like Brown, Auckland actor Judy Rankin first fell into impersonating through her notable appearance. After playing Queen Elizabeth II in a local theatre production in the 1990s, word of mouth began to spread of her regal resemblance. “People started saying ‘you look quite a lot like her’ and the jobs just flowed in from there,” she says. Her first gig was for a business association, sitting outside an estate surrounded by cucumber sandwiches and tea.
Entry to the imitation game can also be born from a deep idolisation of a celebrity. Pauline Berry, an ex-Marilyn Monroe impersonator, can testify to that. “I just really loved her, and nobody else was doing her at the time.” Working as a backup singer, Berry saw an opportunity to do justice to Marilyn’s talent. “I wanted to do her as classy as she really was, not in that garish kind of way. People think that she wasn’t a good singer, but she was the real deal.”
Her first appearance as Marilyn was being driven in a vintage car in the Auckland Christmas Parade. The crowd, she remembers, went nuts for it. “I could see that it made people really happy, they bought into this nostalgic moment where Marilyn was still alive. It was just so nice.” The idea of who Marilyn Monroe is changes depending on the person, according to Berry. “I think she is a touchstone for a lot of people, but also a projection of their failings or their successes. They see her one way, where someone else might see her totally differently.”
Another fan who was driven to embody his hero is Brendon Chase, New Zealand and Australia’s premiere Elvis impersonator. He recently moved to the Gold Coast to broaden his Elvis audience base, and is hoping to book a third trip to Graceland soon. “I’ve always loved Elvis ever since I was a kid. So when I went down to Rotorua in 1996 to support a friend in the first ever New Zealand Elvis contest, I thought ‘I’m sure I can do this’.” He went back the next year, and won the whole competition.
“I just want to keep his memory alive, that’s my vision,” says Chase, one of a global network of self-declared ETAs – Elvis Tribute Artists. “It’s also a way of keeping my passion alive in a different way from just buying posters and pictures of him. When you’re onstage, you can see people go back in time to a different, happier, point in their life. Music can bring back those memories pretty quickly.” Although it’s his full time job, he prefers to call it a “well-paid hobby”.
The transformation requires much more than a cheap costume and wig, but nailing the aesthetic is a good place to start. “Marilyn is very ‘impersonatable’ because she has such a distinct look,” says Berry. “If you grab all the elements and throw them together, you’ll have some kind of simulation.” In her Marilyn days, she maintained the iconic platinum blonde at the salon every three weeks. “I was never as thin as her though, she was teeny.”
In a similar vein, Chase currently owns seven bespoke Elvis suits – with another in the mail.
He has them custom-made by Lansky Bros in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the same store that dressed Elvis throughout his career, and bought his patterns after he died. “All my clothes are from there. That’s how seriously I take this job, because they aren’t cheap. If I was a carpenter, I would need a saw. It just so happens that I’m a singer and I need a suit.”
Once you have the iconography in place, you need to lock down the characteristics. “I work hard on the Queen’s voice,” says Judy Rankin. “I have never been able to smile like her, so I try and avoid that at all costs. Luckily, she doesn’t smile very much in public anyway.” When preparing for Marilyn, Berry describes an intense mental game. “I think about being her all day, I watch her old films and focus in on the way that she talks. It’s an attitude that’s very hard to sustain.”
Having been Elvis for 26 years, Chase doesn’t have to prepare as much these days. In fact, he boasts that he can “fall out of bed in character” and sometimes forgets what his real voice sounds like. But that didn’t come without a lot of practice and study. “It’s like trying to get better at a sport. There are four main things: the look, the presence, the outfits and the voice. Many people have got two or three of them, but not many have got all four… I’m looking at three and a half, I think.”
Playing a fictional character, Gary Brown admits to having slightly more freedom when it comes to his Austin Powers act. But that didn’t come without a few legal hurdles. When he first launched his website, he received a letter from a solicitor on behalf of Warner Brothers in California listing a slew of copyright infringements. He got their piracy manager on the phone and convinced him, then the marketing division in New York, that he was the real deal. They waived the infringements, and granted him authorisation to keep the character alive.
Does that mean it’s possible that Mike Myers from Hollywood knows about Gary Brown from Orewa? He can’t be sure on that one, but he was certainly made aware of what is outside the Austin character oeuvre according to the character’s creator. Promoting firearms is a big no-no.
Taking a polarising character like Austin into the real world isn’t without its risks. Brown performs everywhere from birthdays to corporate events, the Sevens rugby and free public gatherings, and says that almost everyone he meets responds positively. “People either love Austin or they hate him, but [the haters] generally have a change of heart.” There was only one instance, during the V8 Motorsport in Mansfield, where things turned ugly. “Some guy didn’t like Austin, so he threw me into the pool. I dislocated my shoulder and I couldn’t perform for the rest of the day.”
Similarly, Berry faced a couple of uncomfortable situations when she was working as Marilyn Monroe. “I really loved the singing but I wasn’t so much into walking about with the doopy-doop voice, sitting on laps and rubbing men’s bald heads.” She quickly found out that kind of interaction is what some people were paying for. “I had one woman who was very disappointed that I didn’t swoon all over her husband and sit in his lap. That’s just not my thing. I did find it quite stressful trying to figure out if clients were expecting Marilyn the singer or Marilyn the slut.”
Despite a handful of bad experiences, the impersonation industry appears to have no shortage of incredible stories. Rankin generally only appears as the Queen these days for 100th birthday parties, of which there are more and more. “If it still makes people smile, then I’ll keep doing it. Because I’m obviously not in it for the money.”
It was at one man’s 70th birthday where Chase had a particularly good day in the office. Upon Elvis’ arrival to the party, the elderly man immediately stood up out of his wheelchair and started trying to dance.
“His kids all started bawling their eyes out around him. They told me he hadn’t been able to stand up by himself for 20 years. That was pretty surreal.”
The nostalgia icons of Marilyn and Elvis may live on forever, but their impersonators aren’t quite so indefatigable. After travelling to Hollywood to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death, Berry decided to leave the act behind.
“I initially related to her feeling alone in the world, but at some point I stopped feeling like that. I realised that I had actually outgrown her.” Judy is less poetic about the Queen circuit. “If the work dried up, I wouldn’t be brokenhearted. It’s just a bit of fun while it’s there.”
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Working towards winning an Elvis world title, Chase isn’t letting go of his blue suede shoes any time soon. The fans won’t either. “Audiences still love him and they love the music. There are extremely fanatic people out there, I still get screams and yells.” One of his good friends – another ETA – didn’t take out the world champs until he was 55 years old. “I’ve got a bit of time left in me, which is quite nice. I’m fortunate that I keep fit and the music keeps me young. As long as I don’t become the fat Elvis, I’ll be alright.”
As for Brown, he’s still “riding the flow” of Austin Powers – 15 years after the last film was released. He’s got gigs booked all the way through until 2020, but is also hoping to launch his real estate career. To juggle the two demanding jobs, he’s reached out to fellow entertainer-cum-realtor Shane Cortese for advice. “It will be an interesting transition – I want to keep doing my shows because that’s what I love doing the most.” Without missing a beat, he offers a solution.
“Maybe I could just become the grooviest person in real estate.”