Just a hunk, a hunk of burnin' love ... Forty-five years since his passing, The King can still draw a crowd. Last weekend, thousands converged at the Wayne County Fairgrounds in Belleville, Michigan, to celebrate the life and work of Elvis Presley.
Founded in 1999, The Michigan Elvisfest is one of the largest Elvis tribute festivals in North America. "This event is different from most Elvis festivals in that it is not a contest," said Mary Decker, who has organized the event for more than 17 years. "These artists are all here to honor the life and spirit of Elvis through their performances."
Contrary to popular belief, Elvis impersonators have existed since the mid-1950s, when Presley was just beginning his career. To make their performances as close as possible to "the King of Rock and Roll," later generations of impersonators purchased rhinestone-covered jumpsuits from Presley's own costume designer, Nudie Cohn.
The Michigan festival was canceled two years in a row due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making fans extra excited to see their favorite tribute artists back onstage.
Sandra Maciejewski flew from Fruitland, Florida, to see Cote Doenath, whose career she's followed for 19 years and whose face she wore on her T-shirt. Doenath, who performed as "Hawaiian Elvis" and "G.I. Elvis," is also from Florida and won the Elvis World Title in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2018.
Many Elvis tribute artists began cultivating their performances early in life. Bryson Vines, a 6-foot-tall 14-year-old from Howell, Michigan, is the youngest performer to ever take the stage at the festival. Vines began working on his act at the age of seven.
As he prepared in his trailer, he shared how he got his start.
"My mom got me hooked," he said. "When I was seven, she put on some dusty Elvis 45s, and I immediately wanted to be like him — I wanted to have his charm and charisma. Elvis was the best entertainer of all time, and I like to honor that."
With his deep baritone and in his pink blazer, Vines bore an uncanny resemblance to a teenage Elvis as he sang gospel songs and struck classic "King" poses. A crowd of mostly seniors cheered for him and sang along.
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Vanessa Leroy is a photo editing intern at NPR and a freelance photographer and photo editor, based in Boston, Massachusetts. She holds a BFA in Photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She remains on the hunt for new ways of seeing, remembering and altering the world through photography. She is drawn to image-making because of the power it holds to create nuanced representation for marginalized people and uplift their stories. She sees photography as a tool for social justice, and with it, she hopes to create worlds that people feel as though they can enter and draw from, as well as provide a look into an experience that they may not personally recognize.