Celebrity Impersonators

Celebrities, People
on January 14, 2010
Gayle Harper Dean Zeligman makes his living portraying the King of Rock 'n' Roll during 550 shows a year.

As Dean Zeligman runs onto the stage with his guitar, shouts of "Elvis!" erupt in the audience at a Legends in Concert show in Branson, Mo. (pop. 6,050).

"Well, it's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go," belts Zeligman as he swivels his hips and shakes his legs so wildly that a hank of backswept black hair flops forward, reminiscent of the 1950s heartthrob.

"The more screamin' and hollerin' you do, the more shakin' I do," he tells the crowd in a husky drawl that sounds straight out of Memphis.

Dean Z, as the 26-year-old calls himself, hails from Lancaster, Calif., not Memphis. He wasn't even born when the King of Rock 'n' Roll died in 1977, but he makes a living impersonating the world-famous singing star in 550 shows a year. The Elvis tribute artist is among thousands of celebrity impersonators who've parlayed their looks and talents into careers for themselves and entertainment for fans.

"Your turn, baby," Dean Z says as he beckons a gray-haired woman sitting in the front row. He bends over and kisses her cheek, then croons, "Baby let me be your lovin' teddy bear."

After the concert, the smiling fan stands in line to meet her idol. "I drove 14 hours to see him," says Rita Hall, 63, of Wytheville, Va. (pop. 7,804). "I'm about hoarse from screaming. When I was going up to that stage, the years just fell off me and it was like I was 13 again.

"I know he's not really Elvis," she adds, "but he brings back so many memories."

Cases of mistaken identity
Dean Z started jumping into Elvis jumpsuits and performing at contests and fairs at age 3 after seeing a television documentary about the King. But many professional impersonators launch their careers as adults after repeatedly being told they resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger, Britney Spears, George W. Bush, Madonna, Tina Turner and a multitude of other famous faces.

That's why Home Depot manager Dan Schneid, 51, of Laguna Niguel, Calif. (pop. 64,469), decided to embrace the fact that he's a dead ringer for popular television psychologist Phil McGraw, known as Dr. Phil.

"Pretty much I can give advice on any level on any topic," says the former U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor who impersonates Dr. Phil at corporate parties and charity events. "I'll follow up with 'This is just my advice, but what do you see yourself doing?' It's all impromptu. You just talk and ask questions and people will give you all the material you need."

Some people refuse to believe Schneid isn't Dr. Phil. He showed one fan his driver's license, but still couldn't convince him. "The guy looked at it, handed it back and said, 'You know, this is great. They even give you a fake ID so people won't bother you.'"

Marie Levin, 51, a Reba McEntire impersonator from New Tripoli, Pa., is mistaken for the singing star and redheaded actress all the time. Levin, who naturally has dark brown hair and eyes, had never heard of the country music entertainer until she put on a strawberry blonde wig and landed a role as a Reba look-alike in a dinner theater production in 1995.

Since that show, Levin, who grew up in Palmerton, Pa. (pop. 5,248), has worked hard to perfect the speech, mannerisms and singing voice of Reba, who hails from Kiowa, Okla. (pop. 693). "I know every detail of Reba's face," says Levin, who's performed at least 1,500 times as the entertainer. "I take this very seriously and want to honor Reba."

Levin's attention to detail, whether it's pronouncing "syrup" as "sirp" in Reba-style, matching her smile or singing on stage, has paid off. When singer Tim McGraw spotted her at his own concert in Allentown, Pa., he looked surprised and shouted, "There's Reba McEntire right there in the front row."

The grand-prize winner in a Country Weekly magazine celebrity look-alike contest in 2000, Levin has attracted her own fans, including Carl Koser, 64, of Carlisle, Pa. (pop. 17,970).

"She's funny and down-to-earth," says Koser, who's attended six Levin concerts and says the resemblance between the singing look-alikes is remarkable. "If you saw them side by side, you wouldn't know which is which."

 Levin says she feels a kinship with her famous double because of their humble backgrounds and love of horses, roping and barrel racing.

Presidential pretender
Daily double takes from strangers convinced Reggie Brown, 29, to quit his day job as a waiter at the Dana Hotel in Chicago and set his sights on impersonating the president of the United States.

"Eight years ago at my first waiter job in Chicago, someone told me, 'You look just like my Professor Obama,'" Brown says. When the University of Chicago Law School lecturer became a politician and his face began attracting national attention, Brown's face got noticed, too.

"People couldn't walk past me," he says. "They'd run back and tell me, 'I just have to tell you, you look so much like Barack Obama.'"

The skinny and big-eared Brown, who's been hamming it up and mimicking celebrities since high school, made a video of himself holding a press conference. He submitted the video to a California talent agent and landed a contract in December 2008.

Brown since has worked full time as impersonator-in-chief on national television, in commercials and a movie, and at conventions and parties. Sometimes, he puts a comedic twist on the president's campaign slogan, touting "Change We Can Count" while promoting an Obama coin bank.

"People say that the presidency has taken a toll on my health," Brown quips to a gathering of the National Association of Community Health Centers. "That's not from the job. My mother-in-law's living with us."

Though the standing ovations thrill him, Brown says the most rewarding part is using his pay to help his close-knit family. "I went home and paid all of my mom's bills for the month with my movie money," says Brown, whose father died of leukemia when he was 13. "It was one of the best feelings I've had in a long time."

Flanked by faux Secret Service agents, Brown had his funniest brush with reality last September while impersonating the president and shaking hands with diners at a restaurant in Madison, Wis.

"Obama was actually giving a live speech on TV right behind me," Brown says. "I thought, 'These people are never going to believe this.' But they did. They just told me I looked younger in person."

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