This story comes with pictures. You haven't even started to read it, but already you've judged Pete Vallee. Already you're thinking: What could be more pathetic?
All by itself, the fact that he's an Elvis impersonator has sent your mind running in that direction. He wears a ring he says was given to his late mother by Elvis Presley himself, who—wait for it—Pete believes to be his biological father. He claims he's tracked down some Presley DNA. You guessed it: perfect match.
He lives in Las Vegas, in a modular home strewn with Elvis memorabilia. In casinos you've probably never heard of, he performs over karaoke tracks while, on TV screens behind him, the original Elvis, resplendent in a spangled white jumpsuit, cavorts about in Aloha From Hawaii—the final time that even he himself was the real Elvis Presley.
Pete, however, does no sustained cavorting. You see, he's no ordinary Elvis impersonator. He's Big Elvis.
When he adopted that stage name—15 years ago at a show in a nearly empty community-college auditorium outside Tacoma—he weighed more than 400 pounds: about the same as Sun Records Elvis and Elvis-at-his-fattest combined. At a friend's suggestion, Pete embraced the weight, made it part of the act.
Boy oh boy, did Pete embrace the weight. He kept needing bigger and bigger spangled jumpsuits. He couldn't walk the 10 steps from his dressing room to the microphone without getting winded. Unable to climb the three stairs to the stage, he sang in front of it, perched on the edge for most of the show. Eventually he got a custom-made wooden throne and planted himself there instead.
Between songs he sucked on an oxygen tank.
At home it took him so long to get out of bed and to the bathroom that sometimes he'd soil himself. In 2005, he agreed to be towed on a float in Las Vegas' Helldorado Days parade. Pete watched the event later on TV, dumbfounded. The sweaty guy with the fish-belly-white death pallor was not the 40-year-old man Pete saw in his mind's eye.
This guy was huge.
Pete went to the post office. Entered through the back so no one would laugh at him and asked if he could use the bulk-mail scale to weigh himself. Pete Vallee tipped that scale at 960 pounds.
Fattest. Elvis. Ever.
Wrong. You couldn't be more wrong.
Pete's story, though it somehow never does, ought to start with his voice. Not with the weight. Not with the Cadillac and other cars he's quietly given away, the funerals of penniless friends he's anonymously paid for. Not with his mother's deathbed confession that he was Elvis' love child. The voice: that rich baritone uncannily similar to Elvis Presley's.
Most Elvis impersonators are just cheesy mimics. Pete—now 45 years old—never consciously tried to sound like Elvis. It just came out that way. He learned to sing as a boy, copying gospel-quartet LPs, and only later discovered that the real Elvis had done the same thing, with some of the same records.
As a young man Pete did look like Elvis, but he no longer does or even tries to (hair, glasses, and costume notwithstanding). But forget what you see. Listen.
There's no straining for big notes, no overemoting. Pete is an artist. He's a sincere and genuine man, smack-dab in the middle of the most cynical, phony place in America.
"I'm amazed how real he sounds," says Sonny West, one of Presley's Memphis Mafia bodyguards. "Pete's effortless. Others seem to force it."
Singer Jimmy Velvet, a longtime Elvis friend/hanger-on, calls Pete "the Perry Como of E.T.A.'s." As in Elvis Tribute Artists. Velvet means this as a compliment, but it doesn't prepare you for what it's like to hear Pete sing, for the power and heart he pours into his 900-song repertoire.
For the past eight years, Big Elvis has been the free lounge act at Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon—a dark-paneled, unthemed joint across from Caesars Palace. You can wander the fake streets of the major casinos' simulated cities for a week and never see a well-attended lounge act, but a measly gamblin' hall needs a show that can draw a crowd.
About 150 to 200 people fill the seats for each Big Elvis performance. Most have seen the act before, some dozens of times. When the guy at the soundboard punches up "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"—the theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Elvis himself once deployed as he took the stage—Pete emerges from his dressing room, swathed in a black jumpsuit, draped with gold scarves and chains.
He is, today, a miracle to behold.
In less than five years, the man has lost 500 pounds. The equivalent of two average-size NFL tight ends.