The life of an Elvis impersonator is not exactly an easy one.
There are more Elvis impersonators than any other tribute act on planet earth. But when you've been titled the best Elvis tribute artist in the world, things become quite a bit easier. Darren Lee knows all about it.
"Once you achieve a certain level of success, like winning the competition in Memphis and the 11 years in Vegas, it puts you at the top of the heap," he says. "Once you're there, there are maybe 10 guys who are the best at what they do, and they get paid the best for what they do."
Lee is one of these guys. Between 2000 and 2011, Lee was Elvis at the once-popular American Superstars show at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. Comprised of impersonations of all the major performers — Michael Jackson, Madonna, et al. — American Superstars was a highly entertaining ode to the American greats that would appear to be a prize gig for a tribute artist of any kind. Lee played to over a million people in thousands of shows in the 11 years in Vegas.
He remembers only a blur. It was not pleasant. It wa, ultimately, a huge mistake.
"I look back on the 11 years as a major disappointment in my life," he says. "Other people look on it as, 'Wow, you did 11 years. That's great,' or whatever but it was not fulfilling."
Lee's former manager was an Elvis impersonator himself and that resulted in frequent clashing of egos about how the show should be — and would be — performed. He had limited artistic control over the set — they wanted the '70s Elvis, so he wore a gold lemay suit six nights a week, every week.
This was certainly not what he got into show business for, but the money was good and it came easy. He never had to go out looking for work. He bought a house with his wife on the wages that he earned doing Elvis and by 2003, he was making decent business on the side entertaining weddings, which allowed him the creative freedom that American Superstars refused to offer. By 2007 he was ready to leave the Stratosphere for good.
Then, in 2008, the recession hit, destroying Vegas' economy. The wedding chapel that linked him up with most of his wedding business lost its license and he was hooked on to the Stratosphere wages, which had been cut significantly, to make ends meet. It took another four years before the Stratosphere cancelled the show altogether, relieving Lee of his contract and allowing him the freedom to carry on as he had before Vegas ever happened.
He relocated to Vancouver immediately, playing gigs whenever they come up. They come up often around Vancouver. Business, it seems, is good for an Elvis impersonator.