Queen of Las Vegas

Janet Street-Porter visits the kitsch capital of the world to celebrate Elton and Liberace, and renew her long association with the Little White Chapel
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The Independent Travel

A Chinese bride hitches her long white satin dress up to her knees, negotiates her way through the jungle with its palms 100 feet high, and pauses for a moment to drink in the sound of fruit machines spewing cash. Is it her lucky day? Her husband, in a tuxedo, and their two chubby little sons, in blue blazers, wait expectantly to one side. Just another afternoon in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

A Chinese bride hitches her long white satin dress up to her knees, negotiates her way through the jungle with its palms 100 feet high, and pauses for a moment to drink in the sound of fruit machines spewing cash. Is it her lucky day? Her husband, in a tuxedo, and their two chubby little sons, in blue blazers, wait expectantly to one side. Just another afternoon in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

Line after line of gleaming gold and silver machines and green baize gaming tables are surrounded by players in jeans and sweatshirts. My limo driver is frankly incredulous at my plan to walk next door to Caesar's Palace once I've checked in. According to him, it's the Las Vegas equivalent of attempting the marathon.

From my room on the 17th floor I look down on a floodlit, amoeba-shaped swimming pool and across several acres of white roofs. Below nestles the Caeser's Palace Shopping Mall, where Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana and Donna Karan boutiques offer the ultimate in label luxury. About three hundred yards away as the crow flies I can see my destination - the Colosseum theatre, where Elton John will be playing in an hour's time.

Of course crows don't fly anywhere in Las Vegas, and this seemingly short journey from one luxury hostelry to another is unlike any other you could take in America. In the land of dreams this is the city of the senses - you will be assaulted aurally and visually with a cacophony of sounds, a riot of excesses unmatched anywhere else on earth. At the end of my journey, Elton will play his piano in front of half a dozen images of Pamela Anderson pole dancing, each 200 feet high. In Europe we might have the Ring Cycle and Cosi fan tutte, but here in Vegas every cultural point of reference is not only plundered, but rendered bigger, brasher and more outrageous than ever.

My room features two huge double beds with gold canopies and a lavishly patterned carpet - imagine Aubuisson on acid. One wall is given over to a large window and in the distance I can see the lights of the Eiffel Towel flickering away at the Paris Hotel. In one sweep of skyline you can take in a gold pyramid (the Luxor), a medieval Castle (the Excalibur) and countless neon signs competing for attention - pink around the Flamingo, gold and red around the Aladdin.

My hotel is a three-pronged skyscraper entirely clad in gold glass; subtle it's not. Leaving the room, I walk down towards the elevator to the sound of The Eagles. Piped music spews out of every shop, every yard of Mall, every elevator, and every toilet in Las Vegas. Silence is anathema in this town - you might think for minute about what you're spending; what you're losing; who you're marrying.

This is my fourth visit, and each one has been utterly memorable. The first, in the early Seventies, when Vegas seemed run down and seductively sleazy, I stayed at the Flamingo with my first husband in a room with pink walls. The city was a romantic weekend destination, a forgotten wonder of the Western world where we played the machines and drank Margaritas.

The next time, 25 years later, I arrived by car from deep snow at the Grand Canyon, next to a man I had travelled thousands of miles with and already loathed. We checked into The Tropicana, and found ourselves in a room lined in bamboo with mirrors on the ceiling. Drunk, we were married at the Little White Chapel on the strip (the same place as Britney) at 3.30am by the Reverend Portia Powell, a blonde chaplain in red robes. I wore a shocking pink fake-fur mini dress, long since discarded.

On the eve of the new millennium I was back, with Elton John and some friends, for a private party at Caesar's. Elton was due to perform for us later. Earlier in the day I returned to the Little White Chapel and confronted Ms Powell, asking her the question I'd been saving up for five years: "Why do you marry people who are clearly drunk?" She pretended she'd never seen me before.

Who can blame her? Can you imagine how many thousands of people she has committed to each other at 3am in the intervening years? In the wrought iron bower out front, the perfect photo opportunity right next to the Drive-Thru Wedding Window, I knelt down and said a brief millennium prayer, apologising to God for my major misdemeanour. Then I set fire to my wedding certificate and felt a whole lot better. Soon afterwards we were asked to leave. We were probably not presenting a good image for business.

That night we drank Krug with Korean, Russian and Japanese high rollers before our man went on stage. Now I'm back to see his new show. Directed and designed by photographer David LaChapelle, it has just opened to rave reviews.

The lift from my eyrie in the Mirage deposits me near the jungle on the ground floor, and I pass the huge tanks of tropical fish, turning right through the shopping mall with its riot of designer leather wear (including white, chrome-studded jeans in all their tawdry splendour).

People are standing still, gawping, impeding my progress. Behind the glass wall on the right-hand side of the shopping mall is a large room containing a landscape of white plastic rocks and blue pools, and in it are several plasma screens showing a Siegfried and Roy (legendary animal handlers) video about their white tigers. All eyes are focused on the prowling animal on the other side of the glass. About six feet long, purest white, it's an extraordinary sight, noble even in the confines of a cage in a shopping mall. He stalks up and down, disdainfully ignoring the massed shoppers and their video cameras.

Outside, above the strip, the setting sun has scorched the desert sky flamingo pink and happy crowds are jostling on the sidewalk. I stroll beneath the flashing neon, past giant classical statues and white columns, and into Caesar's Palace.

In the Elton John Shop queues of female shoppers are fighting over vests emblazoned with "The Bitch is Back" in gleaming silver. I buy a Margarita in the bar by the entrance to the Colosseum, where the counter is an undulating wave of perfect blue glass. Behind it are more fish tanks (projected in oval panels), along with 20ft-high white plaster mermaids and sea horses. A man in a shocking pink sequinned Hawaiian shirt heads past me for the show, followed by a woman in a black velvet cape with a long grey plait down to her waist.

The auditorium holds just over 4,000 people and the atmosphere is electric. Men in cowboy hats and women in black dresses with rhinestone-studded shoulder straps clutch huge cartons of drink. A man in the front row has a peroxide blonde Mohican haircut and a skin-tight denim sleeveless shirt.

The next 100 minutes pass in a trice - the giant stage is a blur of activity. The screen at the back shows a series of arresting images, from modern dance to anti-war films to montages of the Seventies and Eighties. Elton, in a black Yohji Yamamoto suit and a long dusty-pink satin shirt, walks up and down the stage between numbers acknowledging the huge applause.

David LaChappelle's vision is an amalgamation of the brashness, the glitz and the relentlessness of Vegas. His series of visuals for Elton's greatest hits seem fresh, ironic, and, above all, artistically arresting. Eight images of the Empire State building form a backdrop and catch fire, mutating into a rocket which takes off into outer space. Justin Timberlake plays the young Elton in a movie accompanying a protracted version of "Rocket Man", capturing perfectly the almost crippling shyness of the real star, when confronted with endless parties and persistent fans demanding autographs and acknowledgement.

During "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", a film shot in one take from one camera position shows an apartment throughout one day and night. A waitress returns home from work and fights with her husband in a series of brilliantly-choreographed, balletic moves. Eventually the whole place gets destroyed - the effect is compelling and shocking. "Candle in the Wind" features a Marilyn lookalike re-enacting her last photo shoot - sad, lost, drunk and bewildered.

Throughout the show, Elton and his band play like demons and the atmosphere is totally infectious. Pretty soon they have a whole gang from the audience up on stage, joining in the party. At the end of it all, a carnival atmosphere prevails. Confetti rains down on the crowd and the stage is full of jumbo-sized props - neon dollar signs and red hearts; enormous inflatable hot dogs, hamburgers and bananas. Everyone leaves on a high, streaming out into the casino for drinks and gambling.

The next morning I go back to the Little White Chapel for old times' sake. It's pouring with rain, and there's no sign of Portia Powell. At the largest souvenir shop in town I buy glasses with gold dollar signs on them and a pair of "fun" specs with a large pink penis attached.

To remind myself of the greatest showman in Las Vegas past, I visit the Liberace museum out beyond the airport. It's doing brisk business in spite of the rain, and inside devoted fans shuffle slowly past rhinestone encrusted knickerbockers and feather capes. There are mirrored cars, painted grand pianos, and replica jewelled piano-shaped rings on sale on the gift shop. I am reminded of last night - Elton has taken up the mantle from Liberace and come up with a show that sums up the new spirit of Vegas, a town that continuously re-invents itself.

We leave at 11pm, fun city in full swing below. Our jet climbs up from the arid desert floor and over the spectacular mountains encircling this oasis dedicated to pleasure. I know I'll be back for another weekend but I promise you there'll be no more trips to the Little White Chapel.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Janet Street-Porter travelled as a guest of United Vacations (0870 606 2222, www.unitedvacations.co.uk), which offers a range of holidays in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the US. United Vacations is the holiday company of United Airlines. Holidays from the UK are based on United's scheduled flights from Heathrow to New York JFK, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco andcodeshare flights with BMI.

GETTING AROUND

Public transport is surprising good, cheap and reliable; the website www.rtcsouthernnevada.com provides details of the soon-to-open new monorail, which runs between the MGM Grand and the Sahara for a flat fare of $3 (£1.80).

If you wish to rent a car for more extensive exploration, United Vacations has a special offer for Independent readers, providing a complimentary car upgrade on bookings to Las Vegas: book a compact car and receive an intermediate, book an intermediate and receive a full-size, or book a full-size and receive a premium car. All rentals must include Alamo Gold insurance to qualify. Bookings between tomorrow and 30 April, for travel between 21 March and 14 July, or from 1 September to 19 December. This applies to new bookings only and must include flights and accommodation; conditions apply. Quote reference YY399 when booking.

STAYING THERE

Rates for most Las Vegas hotels are extremely flexible. At quiet times, you could pay as little as $99 (£63) for a room in a top-class hotel such as the Mirage (001 702 791 7111, www.themirage.com). On a busy Saturday night, the price could rise to $299 (£190) or beyond. At the USA Hostel Las Vegas (001 702 385 1150, www.usahostels.com), a bed costs $25 (£15).

BEYOND THE NEON

The Nevada State Museum (001 702 486 5205, www.nevadaculture.org) is away from the Strip but is easily accessible from downtown Las Vegas on bus 207. Current exhibitions include the fascinating Neon Unplugged show (until 27 June), featuring signs from demolished hotels.

MORE INFORMATION

For a brochure pack on Las Vegas and Nevada, call 08705 238832; alternatively, visit www.lasvegastourism.com

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