Half of Elvis Has Left the Building: In 2005, Pete Vallee weighed 960 pounds. Today, thanks to a sensible diet, walks in the park, and laps in his backyard pool, he's pared himself down to 450.
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.
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.
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?"
As you've undoubtedly heard, the number of obese people in America is soaring. What you probably don't know is that the percentage of morbidly obese people (body mass index of 40 to 50) is growing twice as fast. And the percentage of super-obese (50 or above)? Three times as fast.
You think it couldn't happen to you—precisely what everyone that heavy once thought too. How many people at any random 12-step meeting expected to find themselves there?
Family history often plays a role in weight trouble. Pete had a lone fat uncle. Childhood obesity is another factor, but as a kid, Pete was never chubby. Like so many of us, he packed on the pounds in his thirties. He used food to ward off debilitating anxiety and melancholy. Problem is, the fatter you are, the more your hormones and neurotransmitters go haywire. Pete wrestles daily with very real feelings of starvation; his body reacts to the dietary changes he's made much as it would if he were on an epic hunger strike.
Yet he has endured. He's beaten the odds. Diet and exercise alone rarely help you shed more than 10 percent of your body weight—and that weight generally comes back within a year. Pete has lost five times that much since 2005, and so far, he's kept most of it off. He wants to get to 280. It's that sort of determination—and the voice, and that big, generous heart of his—that makes Pete Vallee freakishly unusual.
"I just love all of him," says his new wife, Amanda Lasham. "Inside and out. He's a beautiful person."
The lounge is draped in veils and white silk, transformed into a chapel just for today. Pete climbs the steps and stands onstage, beaming. Sonny West is the best man. Lucille Star is the matron of honor.
Near the craps tables, Amanda Lasham—a slim, pretty bride, part Hawaiian, part Filipino, her hair concealing the ELVIS PRESLEY tattoo on her neck—takes her father's arm and heads up the aisle.
It's been three years since she first set foot here in Bill's Gamblin' Hall, then-boyfriend in tow. Amanda had been supporting the two of them with her job as a greeter at the Riviera. The couple had been fighting. Amanda was pounding Long Island iced teas from small plastic cups. She would have left, but she wanted to check out Big Elvis. She considered herself a strict judge of E.T.A.'s.
When she heard Pete's voice, she says, "my mind blew."
She introduced herself after the show. At the time, Pete was in a relationship too. Amanda kept coming back, sometimes with the boyfriend, sometimes solo. She and Pete leaned on each other during their respective breakups. Amanda, then 29, was so young and beautiful that Pete didn't dare to think of her as anything but a pal. Over Chinese food, on their umpteenth friend-date, she asked him if he found her attractive.
Love bloomed. Some of Amanda's friends were mystified by her attraction to Pete. Amanda couldn't understand. "I just love all of him," she says. "Inside and out. He's a beautiful person."
She moved in and picked up where Lucille had left off, cooking healthy meals and taking pizza coupons straight from the mail to the trash. In September 2009, Pete did what he was once incapable of doing.
He got on one knee and proposed.
Now he takes Amanda's hand. They exchange vows. They kiss. In the glare of the spotlight, Mr. and Mrs. Pete Vallee dance.