Pete had long suspected that Elvis was his father. He'd even gone in search of proof. In 2002, he had gotten some of the King's DNA from a former employee of Elvis', he says, and it came back a match. At first, Pete was "ecstatic." But in no time he realized it wouldn't be good enough. The only way to prove the DNA was Elvis' was to get a sample from Lisa Marie Presley. Pete didn't want a penny from the estate. He'd sign anything the lawyers put in front of him. He just had to know. The estate made it clear that that was never, ever going to happen.
Pete gave up. Other supposed Elvis love children approached him about joining their lawsuits, but he found them creepy and opportunistic. "If anyone thought of Pete like that," says his manager, Lucille DiPietro Star, "it'd kill him." During the period between revelation and surrender, Big Elvis was gaining 30, even 40, pounds a month.
Lucille Star had just lost her first husband to colon cancer. He was a radio executive, and it was his job that had brought her to Las Vegas. After 12 years of practicing family and criminal law in Boston, weary of the screaming spouses and the plights of exploited children, Lucille used the move as an opportunity to launch a new career as a talent manager. Now, though, she was heartbroken.
Her father had come to visit her after the funeral to lend what help he could. She was just starting to get her bearings when the two joined Pete for the 2005 Helldorado Days parade. Lucille's father drove the truck towing Big Elvis' float. She rode on the tailgate. When Lucille took a look at Pete, she saw more heartbreak ahead.
"He's not long for this world," she said.
Pete wasn't just a valued client—one of the top-paid lounge acts on the Strip, she says—he was a friend. His mother—a "classic enabler," Lucille says—had died in December 2003. At the time, Lucille thought the silver lining, for Pete, might be fewer of the late-night pizza binges Dolores had helped trigger. Instead, Pete sank into clinical depression and, seemingly overnight, gained 300 pounds.
At her husband's memorial service, Pete could hardly walk. Now he looked even worse.
"Lucille," her father cautioned, "you need a whole team. He needs to be checked into a hospital."
She shook her head. "He has no health insurance," she said. "He needs to pay his bills. He has two kids to support."
She swung into action. She had closed her office and worked from home while caring for her dying husband. Now she installed a computer in Pete's home and devoted herself to saving his life. Pete welcomed the help. "I knew if I didn't, I wouldn't be around for much longer."
Lucille's father brought in a psychiatrist from Boston for an intensive three-day session.
Lucille made Pete vats of her grandmother's giambatta, a hearty chicken-and-vegetable dish Pete calls stoup (stew + soup)—the staple of his diet to this day. She slept on his couch and recruited friends to monitor his every bite.
Every afternoon Lucille took Pete to a park near the UNLV football stadium, driving beside him as he walked. At first he'd manage only 10 or 12 steps before he had to lean against her car to rest. Children would point and laugh. Parents too. If there was a soccer game, Pete would wait for everyone to leave. During hot spells, when the temperature would climb above 110, he'd lace up his sneakers at three in the morning.
He got a 15-foot pool from Walmart and put it in the yard behind his modular home. No bathing suit fit him, so every night he flopped in naked and dog-paddled back and forth, a couple of laps at first, then three, then four. In a year, he was up to 50.
The pounds started to slough off.
"That first year was hell. It was like going 55 miles per hour in a car and shifting gears into reverse," Pete says. "There were many nights I thought I was going to die."
Good to Be the King: Jewelry, hair, glasses, and, yes, considerable bulk aside, Pete Vallee is not your average Elvis impersonator. He's got a rich baritone similar to Presley's, and his 900-song repertoire never fails to draw a crowd at Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon.
How is it possible to wake up one day and suddenly notice you weigh half a ton? To be so oblivious to oblivion that you allow yourself to think, "My blood pressure's normal, my cholesterol's okay, I don't have diabetes"—all of which was true in Pete's case—"so what's the problem?"