Facing the world with the face of another

When resemblance is remarkable, it can also be profitable

Pop Culture

January 26, 2003|By Gina Piccalo | By Gina Piccalo,Special to the Sun

HOLLYWOOD -- 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. At the time, Griffiths was 22 years old and wearing platinum hair. "He kind of wanted to stay in touch," she said. "But you know what? It was a little weird."

For many, so is the world of celebrity impersonators. However, for the earnest folks inside the industry, 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 La-Chappelle and Bruce Weber. Even without the glamorous guise, she bears a striking resemblance to the world's most enduring sex symbol. She appears publicly as many as 22 times a month.

Impersonation nation

While Las Vegas is considered the most competitive market for celebrity impersonation, South-ern California, with Hollywood at its symbolic center, is a close second. Thousands of impersonators and look-alikes populate the region.

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. 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 the Monday before New Year's, Griffiths set out a red, backless gown and donned one of her 20 platinum wigs. She was preparing for her eighth annual "mix and mingle" at a Long Beach hotel with hundreds of senior citizens. For an appearance such as this one, Griffiths earns as much as $1,500.

Recently, 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. On New Year's Eve, her birthday, she performed at a casino in Palm Springs.

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."

How fickle is fame

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. After the success of the 1992 film Basic Instinct, Ornest, a flight attendant, was in demand. Since Stone's career has stalled, 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.

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.

Some impersonators 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 show. He has befriended the show's writers, waited by the back entrance of CBS Studios and written to Letterman.

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."

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.

Gina Piccalo is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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