Tribute-show acts are not the real deal, professional copycats complain

BBC1's latest Saturday night entertainment flagship promises a prime-time talent show that will "leave viewers amazed and wondering if seeing is believing" as look- and sound-a-like singers battle it out for the chance of a three-month residency in Las Vegas performing as the celebrity of their choice.

But The One and Only, hosted by the comedian Graham Norton and which enters its crucial second round tonight, is generating a furious debate among the nation's armies of ersatz Elvises and fake Freddie Mercurys over whether or not it is bringing their unique styles into disrepute.

Leading the charge for the opposition is the not inconsiderable figure of Dean Torkington, who has been earning a handsome living impersonating the heavyweight rocker Meat Loaf for the past 15 years. "This is really setting the industry back. People watch programmes like this and some of the contestants are awful," he said yesterday.

According to Mr Torkington, who also spent a profitable three years as an official fan-club endorsed Elton John, the number of tribute acts was growing apace while the number of available venues was decreasing – making it harder for the true professionals to earn their living. The weekly televised showcase of wannabes was not making things any easier, said the 45-year-old from Bolton, who earns between £700 and £1,500 a gig.

"The industry is dying on its arse. I'm not a knocker of fellow tributes – there are some fantastic ones out there, but these are a load of bloody rubbish. There are tribute acts and there are pub singers who dress up as tribute acts. The best are not in there," he said.

Many artists say they are too busy performing to take up the prize residency at the Legends in Concert extravaganza in the desert gambling capital, even if they did win. Phil Fryer, who has built an international reputation as a Frank Sinatra tribute and appeared in the BBC trailer for the show, agrees.

"I think it's a bit of an insult to say it is a search to find the best tribute in the country. The busiest tributes are working. I think it makes a mockery of the industry and it has not done the tribute game any favours," he said.

Another source of contention among some performers was the corporation's stipulation over who could be impersonated.

The George Michael impersonator Robert Lamberti, who is a former Stars In Their Eyes heat winner, was told he could not be on The One and Only because the former Wham! star was too controversial.

"They replied back to me with a list of acts and I asked them why he was not on it. They said it was because of his political views about the US President, George Bush. Because the winner goes to Las Vegas, they didn't feel that the American people were liking George Michael at the moment," he said.

For Mr Lamberti, business is showing no signs of abating. Riding the crest of the wave of the 1980s revival, he was returning from performing at a Marks & Spencer staff party in London on Thursday night before a gig last night in Doncaster. "The more that George is in the news, the more work I get. When he was arrested it was absolutely brilliant," he added.

But not everyone in the industry was critical of The One and Only. For Anna Slater, the founder of Pink Entertainment, which boasts a roster of female tributes modelling themselves on everyone from Girls Aloud to Pink and Avril Lavigne, these are boom times.

"It is brilliant at the moment. I started doing this eight years ago thinking it was a short-term thing, but I am still doing it because the money is getting bigger and bigger. With tribute acts the public know exactly what they are getting," she said.

With six million viewers tuning in last week, the show is being hailed a hit by BBC bosses. They said: "Far from making a mockery of tribute acts, The One and Only is a celebration of the dedication, hard work and professionalism which goes into making a convincing tribute act."

Top tributes

* George Michael: Robert Lamberti, based in Lincoln, is a tribute artist with 14 years' experience as the former Wham! singer.

* Meatloaf: Dean Torkington commands a loyal following as the wild man of rock.

* Freddy Mercury: Gary Mullen is billed as the ultimate Queen frontman and has an international fan base.

* Frank Sinatra: Phil Fryer's Ol' Blue Eyes is indistinguishable from the real thing, say his fans.

* Tina Turner: Milli Munro describes herself as the UK number one lookalike – also does Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross.

'People tell us we are better than the real thing'

The tribute band Girls Alouder have found a ready live audience for their singing and dancing routines modelled on the female winners of the ITV1 talent show Popstars: the Rivals. And according to band member Emily Clark, the crowd reaction is always gratifyingly positive. "After shows we have had people come up and tell us we are better than the real thing and actually we are very strong on both the dance and the singing side. Everyone seems to be pleased with us," said the 27-year-old vocalist, who spent two years working at Butlins before joining the band. But while the "real thing", below, are regulars on the front of celebrity magazines and at the top of the pop charts, for their impersonators life is more a matter of long slogs up and down the motorway network performing up to five nights a week to crowds ranging from children's football clubs to mess rooms of soldiers. Not that this bothers them. "It's a good laugh. We have long journeys but we get on very well and we are good friends. Normally the audiences are well behaved but some men can get a bit carried away. We encourage the audience to come up on stage but they can get a bit touchy-feely. We had one man stripping off but it is normally just a lot of fun," she said.