Elvis Presley is alive and well... in Porthcawl
A slice of Britain: Emily Dugan in the town where every second person seems to be The King himself
Sunday 27 September 2009
Danny Welsh is sweating. Droplets are forming beneath his black quiff, trickling down his oversized sideburns and falling into the hairy cleavage of his half-open jumpsuit. Fiddling with the tassled belt that almost disguises his sizeable gut, the 49-year-old painter and decorator from Essex is an unlikely rock star. But he is about to step on stage as The King himself.
Welsh is one of 26 Elvises vying to be crowned impersonator of the year at Europe's biggest Elvis festival, held every year in Porthcawl, South Wales. It is not for the faint of heart.
Trembling as he waits backstage, he says: "I'm the second one to go on and I'm really nervous. I've been doing this professionally for four years and it would mean a hell of a lot to win."
It is unlikely that, even in his final years, Elvis looked quite like this. As with many of the Elvis Tribute Acts – or ETAs as they like to be known – Walsh's enthusiasm for the crooner far outstrips any similarity. And enthusiasm, more than anything else, is what it is all about.
Normally sedate, Porthcawl is exploding with enthusiasm, as it does every year when the last weekend of September comes around. More than 10,000 visitors descend on the seaside town, doubling its population. And Elvis hysteria kicks in.
The Brentwood Hotel rebrands itself as the Heartbreak Hotel, unfurling Elvis banners and transforming its lobby into a makeshift stage. Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson – the closest thing urban South Wales has to royalty – have been out with friends dressed as Elvis.
The party to launch the festival is legendary. Officially, there are 25 venues in the town; in reality The King is everywhere. Standing in a chippie, walking along the seafront or just waiting for a bus, you are never more than 10ft from a pair of oversize sideburns.
The only people more passionate about Elvis than the Elvises are the Elvis followers. Nicola Lewis, 35, from Pontypool, has been coming since the festival began six years ago. Her group of eight friends and relatives all dress in matching, spangly Elvis T-shirts, custom-made of course.
"I was brought up on Elvis and my mum loves it too," she says. "So it's a great family day out." She confesses to the lengths they have taken to be there. "We were so desperate that when all the accommodation ran out we booked ourselves rooms in the Rest Bay convalescent home."
Festival director Peter Phillips views proceedings with a wry smile: "It's as if we open some portal to a lateral universe and these people just pour in." A TV producer, he first set up the festival for a documentary six years ago, but running it has proved more lucrative than his former career . Yet, he is unlikely to don a skin-tight, white suit himself. "Get up on stage as Elvis? No, there's not enough money in circulation that would get me to do that."
There's no shortage of those who will. In the Grand Pavilion, Elvises are legion – each with every last strand of quiff combed into submission, eyeliner drawn, and heaving bellies cajoled into jumpsuits for what is now known as "The Elvies Awards".
Gordon "Elvis" Barbarra, 25, is crowned the one, true(ish) King. The prize – a free costume and the chance to headline next year's festival – is not what has brought him here.
Barbarra came to the UK from Malta earlier this year to make his fortune as an Elvis lookalike. At home he worked as a beer delivery boy, but now he makes £500 a night being The King."I came to Britain because they value Elvis here. There's no future for me in Malta, but here it's different. My mum has always loved Elvis and now I can be Elvis for her."
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