He's down to about 450, and he did it solely with diet and exercise. No surgery. No pills. No shots. No crash diets. No personal trainer. No medical supervision, except for some intensive work with a psychiatrist. No gimmicks at all, unless prayer counts.
He unleashes "A Little Less Conversation." In the original, recorded for a movie, Elvis Presley sounds eager to wrap it up and get to his karate lesson. But Big Elvis sings like he means it. Halfway through the song, he has to sit down. "Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me. Satisfy me, baby!"
Most 960-pound people barely leave their bedrooms—much less brave public ridicule to perform two shows a day. Onstage, though, no one saw it get to Pete. He wanted his audience to have a good time. He fed off that. Unlike the horrendously caloric fast food he'd eaten most of his life, performing really did nourish him. And—big, bigger, or at Pete's biggest—audiences sensed it.
Women in particular. He's been married twice and is engaged once again and, in between marriages, never had trouble finding a girlfriend. "I can't see it," Pete says, shrugging. "I don't get it, and I never will." Often, the women flash him, even leap onstage and try to unzip his jumpsuit—though he favors classier ladies than that.
Early on he developed a knack for dealing with hecklers. Once, during his first sustained Vegas gig, at the now-defunct Roadhouse Casino, a drunk—himself a good 40 pounds overweight—sent a cheeseburger to the stage, mid-set. The drunk and his friends broke out laughing.
Pete stared at the cheeseburger. For a moment, he froze.
The laughter grew louder.
Pete picked up the cheeseburger, held it aloft like Yorick's skull, and cued "Suspicious Minds."
"We're caught in a trap. I can't walk out. Because I love you too much baybeeee."
The crowd loved it. They loved him. Pete owned them.
Inevitably, though, there were times when the stray taunts stung too much, times when Pete finished a show, locked the stage door, and wept, wondering how people could be so mean.
They'd never ridicule an alcoholic, a drug addict, or an anorexic, would they?
"Anyone who eats like I did," Pete says, "there's a serious problem, whether it be insecurity, whether it be unhappiness, whether it be the loss of a loved one, whatever the case may be."
Pete was the youngest of four. His father was an alcoholic who divorced his mother in 1971, when Pete was 5. There were pictures around the house of Delores Vallee with Kitty Wells, Elvis Presley, and other stars—taken in the years before Pete was born, when Delores was shuttling between Tukwila, Washington, and Nashville, where she hoped to make it as a singer. Wells became a pal, and it was she who introduced Delores to Elvis. Delores made demos and worked with musicians who'd played on big stars' records. She just never got her breakthrough record deal. Then, somehow, she was stuck back in Tukwila with multiple mouths to feed—a nurse, working two jobs to make ends meet. In weak moments, she blamed her children for causing her to miss her chance.
Food was scarce, sometimes because she couldn't afford it, sometimes because she was hung up at work for more than a day, and sometimes because she got drunk after a shift and passed out instead of going to the store. When times were better, Delores treated the family to fast food and filled the fridge to the point of overflowing. She assuaged her guilt by giving Pete cash for takeout pizza. "Food," he says, "meant things were okay."
In 1979, at age 14, Pete—a sleek six feet one and 185 pounds—sang a few Elvis songs and won his school talent show. Delores pulled up stakes and moved with him to Las Vegas, where they lived in a grim apartment building surrounded by sketchy bars and run-down motels. Delores balanced a job in a cancer ward with her new passion: trying to make it as a mother-son duo. She'd sing country, Pete would play guitar, warble an Elvis hit and maybe some gospel.
The demand for a mother-teen country-gospel duo wasn't what Delores had hoped. Pete persevered, solo, with her blessing, but it took him a while to get traction. Off and on, he quit singing, to go to community college, to work security. But the microphone kept calling, and finally, in 1995, Big Elvis was born.
Delores seemed happy about her son's success, but there were always qualifiers. She didn't think playing lounges was good enough for him. She thought he could get what she never had: a major record deal.
All his life, Pete had heard whispers from various family members that his absentee father wasn't his real dad. For reasons never explained, Pete had two birth certificates—one from Memphis, one from Canada. As Delores was dying, she confided to Pete that she'd had an affair with Elvis Presley. Pete was born in 1965. Delores had spent some time in Tennessee in 1964—the date on those pictures of her with Elvis. They worked with many of the same musicians.