Photo by W. Scott Berry
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.
After the gig, Britney, Madonna and Elvis are supposed to hang around for a meet 'n' greet so revelers can take pictures with the "celebs" and talk to them. But the party is breaking up, and no one seems interested. Arlen hands them their pay, and without much fanfare, Elvis leaves the building. "Well," Bakke says to Beavon, "at least it's not like a Marilyn gig."
"Oh, I know," Beavon says and, with all the Madonna attitude she can muster, rolls her eyes.
Bakke explains: "Everyone always comes up and asks you, 'Who was better, JFK or RFK?'"
Art Scene: Among the Big Painted Girls
COUNTING FACE JOBS BECAME THE highlight of the evening after we became bored with counting celebrities. We were at Julian Schnabel's opening at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, and even the stars looked preoccupied. I thought I saw Elton John standing alone for a split second, looking helpless and lonely, just like a regular person (well, sort of). Here we were among the Beverly Hills chic, a lot of Hollywood wankers, Oscar nominees and the plain ol' filthy rich at the art event of the season, and there was not a drop of champagne or wine or even nonalcoholic beer to be found. Some flimsy excuse about insurance policies and lawsuits circulated the room, but even the dumpiest art spaces at least have a keg of Pabst. You'd think an uppity joint like the Gagosian could manage some sort of refreshments.
Of course, we pros always have our flasks with us, and half of the guests were likely on anti-depressants, so drinking was a no-no for them. But even Dustin Hoffman looked like he could use a drink. He scrawled an autograph with such aloofness and hostility that I felt embarrassed for the guy who was stupid enough to ask for one. Schnabel on the other hand seemed open and casual. He was comfortably dressed down, while his wife was dramatically overdressed. Even though the New York artist is not exactly known for his affability, he seemed approachable. Obviously the guests of honor were provided liquids.
So there we were, all sober as judges, and maybe that's a good thing -- to be forced to actually look at the art at an art opening. But not everyone was paying attention, even though Schnabel's new series, Big Girl Paintings, was hard to ignore. Each of the four walls in the main gallery was covered with one very, very large canvas painting, each a portrait of a blond girl, in the same frontal school-yearbook pose, with only slight variations. Apparently the artist was inspired by a painting that he acquired from a thrift shop back in 1987. The paintings dominated the entire gallery (in the back room was a painting of a redhead), dwarfing everyone in the room as the painted girls triumphantly peered over the cashmere-clad crowd. Except they couldn't really look out, because each girl had both her eyes wiped out with one simple brush stroke. You know that eerie familiar feeling you get when someone is staring at you? That's what these paintings were like. Then you involuntarily turn to look, and there she is, but she's got no eyes.
This "force[s] the viewer to look at the paintings and not the eyes," read a gallery description of the work. Okay, I'll buy that. But I couldn't help but look at Schnabel's paintings in the context of this crowd. Maybe the Big Girls had their eyes hidden to protect their youth and innocence from the flock of gawkers, hangers-on, sycophants, poseurs and celebrities. I like to think the crowd was really part of the whole show, an installation revealing how no one really was looking at the art. How no one really cared about the art. How people can go through life blindly, not really seeing the whole picture. And why weren't any Los Angeles artists there? Where was Schnabel's West Coast alliance? Isn't Schnabel's new body of work worth the support of his peers? Doesn't it merit the attention of other important groundbreaking artists?
Or does that even matter in making art today? Is that just something from the past, back when Schnabel was really making a statement with his art? And why does he have to come up with a gimmick to have viewers pay attention to his paintings? To call attention to the quality of his painting?
Unchained Melody: Roquero Heaven
DURING THE MID-1990s I WAS THE rock en español writer for the Spanish daily La Opinión. When I needed to hear the latest buzz on what bands were in town recording or the type of info label publicists didn't want me to know, I walked a few blocks south on Broadway past Seventh Street, inside the once majestic Globe Theater --- now a small scrappy swap meet -- to La Cara del Rock (the Face of Rock). It is Los Angeles' first rock en español record store.
I hadn't been there in a while, but I recently heard that the theater's landlord told the founder of La Cara and seven other business owners that they had to move out by April 1. The Globe is to be turned into a nightclub called Orion. I decided it was time to make a pilgrimage.
Inside the cavernous theater, past a makeshift garment stall and a Buddha statue outside a fortuneteller's kiosk, I find the small but well-stocked booth, its walls covered with black sheets pegged with white skulls. There, behind the counter, is the man who runs La Cara, Edmundo Hernandez, a pony-tailed Mexico City rocker, or roquero, who has been selling records and preaching the rock en español gospel for more than 20 years. He began by selling bootleg cassettes on sidewalks before going legit in 1985.
Hernandez moved from Mexico to Los Angeles during the early 1980s, where he noticed that he couldn't find any music from Mexico's talented but underground rock bands. Wanting to re-create the stand he had in El Chopo -- Mexico City's museum with a famous swap meet where rockers shop for music and paraphernalia -- Hernandez opened La Cara and began importing records and cassettes of renegade groups like El Tri, Tex Tex and folksinger Rockdrigo. A small but loyal group of followers found La Cara and spread the word.
By the early 1990s, rock en español was being widely promoted by big labels that pushed bands like Mana and Los Caifanes (now Jaguares) into Latino stardom. Hardcore enthusiasts like Hernandez fought hard without big publicity machines to thrust the local rock movement into the Spanish-language mainstream. Bands found a niche in venues like Chinatown's Hong Kong Low, which proved to be fertile breeding ground for many local rock en español acts. Hernandez, with his band, Cero Maldad, was at the forefront.
"Those were the days when you had to prove that you were really a rock en español fan," Hernandez says, pointing toward the walls filled with billboards announcing gigs at the Hollywood Palladium and other venues. "We had to fight hard to be accepted."
Now everybody in the Latino world is into rock en español. Record chain stores everywhere carry Spanish-language rock music. But for true roqueros, La Cara del Rock remains the place to get hard-to-find CDs, news of the latest gigs, gossip, even Mexican trinkets (Aztec necklaces, sheets emblazoned with rock-band logos). It's still the ticket to the Mexican rock underworld.
Just ask Hugo Retiz. Still in his cook's whites, he walks up to La Cara and asks Hernandez if he has La Cruz's Reloj de la Medianoche (Midnight Clock), the only album that the hard-rocking Tijuana band recorded for BMG in the late 1980s as part of that label's Rock en tu Idioma series. Hernandez reaches in the back and gives the clean-cut kid a cassette.
"This is perhaps the only place in L.A. or even in Mexico where I can find this tape," Retiz says. "This place is the real thing."
What's on display is good, but Hernandez keeps his best stuff hidden. He reaches down under a back counter and brings out stacks of almost impossible to find LPs from bands like Hermanos Carrion and Peace and Love, groups from the '60s that were as popular in their day as Three Dog Night or even the Dave Clark Five.
"This is what separates us from those chain stores," Hernandez says, as he shows me records I thought I would never see again. There's an old album by Vitorino, the 350-pound Mexican rocker who scored a few hits during the 1980s. And bad girl Alejandra Guzman, who would one day become as scandalous as Madonna, smiles at me innocently from the cover of her first record for the now defunct Melody label.
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As I get ready to leave, I wonder, is this the end of L.A.'s first Mexican rock store?
"I will fight to keep it going somewhere else," Hernandez insists. "I started out selling tapes out of a bag on the streets. La Cara del Rock will go on."
A week later Hernandez calls me on the phone with good news. He's found a new location in another swap meet at the Trade Center, a block away from the Globe, and is already open for business. La Cara del Rock goes on.