THE TAN MERCEDES BARRELS DOWN THE 405, JOGGING IN AND OUT OF lanes precariously. Madonna, blond curls bouncing, drives with a Marlboro Light clenched between her glossed lips. She consults co-pilot Britney Spears for directions, then floors it. Madonna and Britney are late for a gig with Elvis. The back seat is covered with feather boas, a rhinestone cowboy hat, a white fur stole and 8x10 glossies. When you're a celebrity impersonator, you have to be prepared.
After all, this is big business. Look-alikes, at $200 to $2,000 a shot, are in high demand at theme parks, malls, corporate parties, cinematic re-enactments and, of course, television shows and commercials -- and not just here in Los Angeles. Only this morning, Madonna (real name: Holly Beavon) returned from Panama, where she filmed a Toyota commercial à la the Material Girl. Bronni Bakke, tonight doing a tribute to Britney Spears, spent the day at a recording studio getting a CD edited, then met with a choreographer to learn the demanding moves to the real Britney's "I'm a Slave 4 U."
We pull up to the Odyssey Banquet Hall, and Beavon paints a space between her front teeth to emulate Madonna's slight gap. She smiles, and the difference such a small detail makes is stunning. As the valet opens the car doors, he grins broadly, and almost shyly says, "Good evening, Madonna!" Earlier, a gas-station attendant addressed Beavon as Madonna, flirtatiously telling her he enjoyed her new album.
"It's all about presentation," says Bakke, who, after spending years acting in live theater and performing on cruise ships, started doing impersonations after someone asked her to do a one-off Marilyn act because of her physical resemblance to the star. Her performance was such a smash she has since become one of the top Marilyn look-alikes in town, along with Beavon (who's been doing Marilyn since '95), Suzie Griffiths and Gailyn Addis, who wrote the book Be Marilyn: A Glamorous Guide To Living Blonde.
Bakke's apartment is littered with research materials -- every conceivable Marilyn book published (mostly dog-eared and full of Post-Its), rock fan magazines and messy shelves of videos, including Monroe's full body of work as well as Britney Spears' live concerts, television specials and behind-the-scenes interviews. She wears special brown contact lenses when she is doing Britney, because her eyes are blue. She has exact copies of many of Britney's and Marilyn's outfits, from schoolgirl duds to "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" gold bugle-beaded gowns. Today alone, Bakke spent $195 having her CD edited.
"You have to have not just the look and costumes," Bakke insists, "but the tone of voice, every little nuance of the body language."
In addition to Britney and Marilyn, Bakke also occasionally does Felicity Shagwell and Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider character, Lara Croft, but dislikes playing Croft because she says she doesn't feel fully immersed in the role.
"I'm too Marilyn, too girlie, not butch enough!"
Resplendent in a black studded jumpsuit, Elvis (Paige Poole) meets Beavon and Bakke in the lobby. A couple of women on their way to the ladies' room do a cartoonlike double take. Tonight's gig -- booked by Double Take Entertainment -- is run by agency head Arlen Pantel, who himself does Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, Austin Powers and Richard Simmons. Pantel hustles the entertainers backstage (a linen closet), then collects everyone's CDs, hands them to the DJ and warms up the crowd -- tonight, employees of a moving company.
Bakke hovers discreetly near the banquet room's entrance, surveying the crowd and nibbling on a piece of cantaloupe. She's had to worry about her weight ever since she started doing Britney. When she was primarily impersonating Marilyn, she could eat whatever she wanted. "I wish Britney would stop doing sit-ups!" Bakke sighs.
A woman in a slinky evening gown sidles up to Bakke and, pointing at her, sings the opening lines to "Oops! I Did It Again," then wanders back into the crowd. "I knew a girl who was a Tiffani-Amber Thiessen impersonator," Bakke says, "and all she could do was stand around . . . like, 'Hi! I was on 90210!'. . . No one really knew who she was supposed to be!"
Beavon, as Madonna, saunters onto the dance floor and grabs the mic to appreciative hoots and whistles, flirting with the men, many of whom are enthusiastically going along with the ruse the way a toddler would at a birthday party when Cinderella or the Little Mermaid shows up to entertain.
Next up is Elvis, who makes the women swoon. By the time Britney comes on, the place is going nuts. The afternoon spent with a choreographer paid off; Bakke has every move down.