This Elvis Impersonator Does It For Love… And Money
Brendan Paul: As an Elvis impersonator, I meet fans and they're like - he could do no wrong to them. But I zoomed in on the flaws. I found that way more interesting than the - just selling a million records. That's boring.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Brendan Paul is an Elvis impersonator who owns Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. When I spoke with him over FaceTime, Brendan was home, off the clock. But the look was unmistakable. Jet black hair. Moussed up cowlick in front. Sideburns down below his ears.
BP: I wear a hat a lot. I'll just put a hat on if I want to try to just, you know, go out and not have someone go, "Thank you. Thank you very much."
AS: Uh huh. [Laughs]
People have gotten married at the chapel Brendan owns since 1939. It took on the name Graceland Chapel in 1977 after Elvis died — The King had stopped there once before while shopping for wedding locations. The chapel claims to be the site of the world’s first Elvis-themed wedding.
Today, they offer wedding ceremonies in six languages, seven days a week.
BP: If someone, uh, right now were to walk in, they would call me and say, there's a couple that wants to know how soon you can get here. [chuckles] So, but that's the business. That's what it entails. So-
AS: Uh, huh, sometimes it's not a lot of planning? [chuckles]
BP: Correct. Yeah. [chuckles] Right.
Brendan has been performing as Elvis for decades, initially in tribute shows that toured or played at Vegas casinos. He bought the chapel in 2003. And while he still does some side gigs, he now mostly performs there.
BP: When I walk in there's like everyone starts going crazy because it's kind of like, you know, a guy in a Spider-Man costume coming into a kid's party. And that's why "I'm like, all right, who's ready to get married?" And they're like, "oh yeah!" You know, it's just such a joyous thing.
AS: Mm-hmm. It might vary, but I'm curious, like of the - of the couples who come in, how many are marrying for the first time, and how many are renewing their vows?
BP: Oh, I'd say it's about 50/50. Um, I mean, I hate to say it, but [chuckles] a lot of times people come in for a 50-year anniversary, and the kids have organized it, and the parents look like they haven't talked to each other in 30 years.
BP: I mean, we ask them to kiss, I think twice. And the guy will say sometimes, "We haven't kissed this much in 30 years." And I say, "Sir, we've asked you to kiss twice." And - but the kids are all crying. It is funny that some - [chuckles] some of these couples, you know.
AS: On a busy day - like the busiest day at your chapel, how many couples have had ceremonies?
BP: Um, I think even coming up on February 22nd, because it's 2-- 2/2/22, that date. That's the number.
BP: I think we're doing 75 weddings that day.
AS: Holy moly.
BP: Yeah. And we're adding more. We open at 8:00 AM. We're gonna back up to 7:00 AM and then 6:00 AM, depending as we get to fill more, m-- Get more people in because it's such a big day.
AS: How long does each ceremony take?
BP: 15 minutes.
[BRENDAN AS ELVIS AT THE GRACELAND WEDDING CHAPEL: "By the power vested in me by the state of Nevada-- somehow. [Laughter] I now pronounce you husband and wife, kiss your wife." [Crowd cheering]]
AS: What's your favorite song to sing in a ceremony?
BP: Um, probably, you know, someone said to me once, um, "How could you sing like 'Love Me Tender' or 'Can't Help Falling in Love With You 'over and over?" And that's my favorite one, playing 'Can't Help Falling in Love with You.'
BP: Uh, I said, I don't ever get sick of it because - just because I've sang it 30 times that day, they haven't heard it 30 times. This is their first time, and it's a beautiful song. And to see - they don't even know that it's called 'Can't Help Falling in Love.' They go, "Could you sing that song, Wise Men Say?" They call it -
BP: - by the wrong.
BP: They just know the first line. "Wise men..." So they go, "Are you gonna do Wise Men Say?" I go, "Yeah. Yeah."
AS: They call it Wise Men Say? [chuckles] That's so sweet.
BP: Yeah, they always say, "Could you sing Wise Men Say?" I just - you know, I always go, "Absolutely."
AS: Will you - will you sing me a little bit more of that from the beginning?
BP: Oh yeah. Let me grab my guitar. Let me see. Where's my guitar? I'll do a little bit on the guitar. Oh, yeah. My wife's grabbing my guitar. Thanks, hon. There we go. [Strums guitar]
[SINGING/PLAYING: Wise men say
Only fools rush in
I can't help falling in love with you]
Brendan married his wife, Carla, who handed him his guitar, in 2019. And things seem pretty stable for Brendan now. He owns his home and, after a pandemic slump, business is booming again. But for a long time, Brendan could not imagine his future. He grew up in Los Angeles, and when he was a teenager, he saw the band KISS perform in full makeup. And Brendan was inspired.
BP: I had played in bands in LA, guitar, and bands around the clubs in the '80s, when like Guns N' Roses were playing in the clubs, we played with them with the Troubadour and the Whiskey A Go Go and -
AS: Oh, how fun.
BP: - on the Sunset Strip. So yeah. So that was -
AS: What were you - what were your bands called?
BP: It was a band called Fractured Mirror. We played with like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction. When these bands were in the, um - they were all coming up kind of in the clubs, you know? So it was a very exciting time. So I had done that and-and I-I kept going in and outta school. I'd drop out, but my parents just kept saying, "Please keep going, keep going." [laughs] And after 11 years, I got a four-year degree.
BP: My dad would go, "This is pathetic." I said, "Dad, I'm an art major. What did you expect?" You know?
BP: I wasn't, like I wasn't on a path of, "Oh, once I get my degree, I could make a living." I was killing time 'cause there was no future, the way I thought really, with limited, um, skills, ADD, these-these are - I struggled in school to get, um, Cs. I mean, when I was in high school, my counselor said, "You should go in the Army, and you'll probably never even go to college." And they discouraged me. They made it like, "That's not for you." And so in a way, when I graduated, it was like a - kind of a - an F you to all those counselors. I almost wish I could have gone back and said, you know, "You never count someone out 'cause it just makes them feel that they're - they can't do stuff." You know?
BP: And I-- And then I never even cared if I used my degree. It meant nothing, which I never did use it. I became an Elvis impersonator. But, um-
AS: I think you're using it.
BP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. My mom goes, "You're using it." My wife always says, "You're using that."
AS: That's so cool. Well so, so you finish from UCLA after 11 years...
BP: Oh yeah. So I'm in my last year at UCLA and I have - I'm dying my hair black, because from the rock band, it was real long. I had real long black hair. So when I, I told my hairdresser, my friend - let's cut my hair and just, I don't want this long hair. So she cuts it short, and I have little sideburns but you could never see 'em because I just had this messy black hair. And I was literally driving home in Hollywood from her salon, and at a red light, someone's like yelling, and I roll down the window, and they're like, "Elvis!" And I'm like, "What?" I just go, "Oh, okay." So I wave and I - I called my hairdresser next day. I said, "You know what, maybe I'll come back and we gotta do something, 'cause, you know, Elvis, I don't know. I have these little sideburns." And then the next day at UCLA, a girl came up and said, literally, "Are you a musician?" I said, "Yeah." She goes, "My-my roommate in my dorm is a huge Elvis fan. If I give you $100, can you come sing happy birthday?" I said, "Absolutely."
BP: Where-where, you know, where's your dorm?" It just kind of - things kept happening. And my hairdresser I remember called me, and she goes, "When are you gonna come in? We'll - we'll lighten your hair." And I said, "You know what? Gimme a couple weeks with this, because I made $600 this week."
AS: And a career was born. Amazing.
BP: Really, The goal was just never to have to get a real job. I mean, that's the truth. [Laughs]
BP: I just thought like, "If I can never have to sit down at a desk - " Like my dad worked for the government and hated it, and would come home and complain. And I just looked at him. I just remember going, like, "That's what you do in this world?" I-I just was like, "I wanna put on makeup and join KISS." You know? [laughs]
BP: "I wanna be in a band. I want - I don't want that life." And so, it was amazing because he always wore a tie. And so throughout the years, when I had to do - go to like a wedding and someone - and I had to get a tie, he would always, um, help me do my tie. And then he told me just loosen it, hang in your closet, you could put over your head and tighten it up.
BP: And then when my dad - and when my dad died, um, sorry.
AS: That's okay.
BP: I said at his funeral, I said, you know, my dad always got a kick out of that I never wanted to have to do a tie, and the tie wearing here he did for me. And I just always - to this day, I don't know how to do a tie, you know.
AS: Yeah. Oh, Brendan. I picture in your closet, like the way you would store those tied ties that your dad tied for you.
BP: Yeah. It's exactly. It's just - it's - it's sweet. But, and it was like - he knew I did - he always said, he goes, "You-you always did your own thing. You never - ," and you know, when he saw my success, he got to see a lot of it. Um, he couldn't believe it, you know.
AS: Yeah. Well, also, it strikes me as you know, that was a choice for your father. He could have said, "I don't care what you're gonna do in life, you have to learn how to tie your own tie."
AS: And instead he said, "Let me do this for you."
BP: Right. I think he knew I wasn't gonna be the guy that was gonna be a businessman, and work in a cubicle, and very limited in so many things. But I like to make people happy. And now I'm in a business where it's people's wedding day, every day, and I'm partaking in that, and I'm lifting them up and celebrating that and saying, how awesome.
AS: Mm-hmm. When did you lose your dad? How old were you?
BP: Uh, 2000 - when I was 42, 2009.
BP: So, but he got - I bought the chapel in 2002. So when we would film things over the years, like a TV show was coming. Uh, they needed a couple to come in just for a clip. And I would use my mom and dad quite a bit.
BP: And they'd come in. And yeah, it was so very sweet. They were married like 45 years, but they would come in and be the stock couple for photos and things, because if we didn't have a real couple, I'd say, "Mom and Dad," and they'd come down and sometimes I'd act like, I didn't know 'em.
BP: I'd just say, don't act like - so they [laughing] - even though they lived in Las Vegas, they'd say, "Oh we're from LA," they'd make up a backstory like where they were originally from. Because it was embarrassing to say, "Actually, this is my mom and dad."
BP: I'm glad my dad got to see that 'cause cameras would be going around and he'd be, you know, acting like he's just renewed his vows with his wife, and he didn't know me.
BP: So it was - for him, he always got, uh, he was so tickled by that, which was sweet.
Coming up, Brendan shares what he's learned from decades of thinking deeply about what it means to be famous.
BP: You get so famous, you just get isolated. You have people around you just - yes ma'am - and it's dangerous. You know, I mean, you don't have family. You don't have real people that care. And a lot of times it will cause you not only happiness, but your life sometimes, you know.
This episode is a collaboration with Conde Nast Traveler – they produced a whole series of essays and conversations about love and travel in their latest magazine issue. They explore the joy of taking a new partner home to meet your family… and your city… for the first time, the loneliness of traveling after a breakup, and poet Ada Limón wrote about going on a girls trip to Sonoma with her two best friends. Plus, you can read more about Brendan, including why he decided to get ordained.
BP: To turn my back on a same sex couple to me is like one of the worst things you could do. And I became legally ordained basically to tell all the ministers here, "You know what, you don't want to do them? Step aside."
Find Conde Nast Traveler’s entire love and travel series at the link in our show notes.
And all of this talk about weddings with Brendan got us thinking about long-term romantic relationships. And we’re wondering…for those of you in them…how’s it going out there?
We did an episode about decision fatigue at the end of last summer, and now, we're looking directly at the particular stresses our long-term relationships are under right now.
What are you struggling to decide about in your relationship? Should you commit, or should you leave? Should you open up your relationship? Do you want to move in together or live apart? More broadly: What are the conventions or rules that you want to let go of or hold onto?
We’re putting together a panel to help you answer these questions… send us an email or record a voice memo telling us about your relationship dilemma, and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Brendan Paul did not set out to become an Elvis impersonator. But his interest in celebrity culture started when he was young… when his family moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles when he was eight years old.
BP: I remember one of the first celebrities we ever saw was Sonny Bono driving down Santa Monica Boulevard. And we just freaked out like, 'cause - and to me, I remember thinking like, "I can't believe we're seeing people that you - we saw on this little black and white TV as a kid." It was just so neat to me. Anything like that, anything connected, to something you see as a kid, then to see them in the flesh was just like, uh, I found um awesome. So like, I don't know if we can see behind me. Can you see this yellow dress?
AS: Oh, yeah.
BP: That was Cher from Sonny and Cher's show.
AS: Um, I have to tell you, Brendan, someone -
AS: - shifting the pho - the angle of the camera to say, "Do you see this behind me?" And then, I see a yellow jumpsuit dress that Cher wore on Sonny & Cher, that has never happened to me before.
BP: I collect like memorabilia, celebrity memorabilia.
AS: Oh wait. What's the - I saw a red collared shirt next to Cher. What's that outfit?
BP: Oh, that's Sammy Davis Jr.'s tuxedo.
AS: How did you not pause and show me that? That's cool.
BP: Oh, yeah. [Laughs] I know. Yeah.
BP: It's awesome. That was actually one of the first things I ever bought when I was going to college at UCLA. I went to a - he had died and they, um, there's another lesson in, uh, showbiz. When he died, he was in debt to the IRS, so they literally auctioned off everything he owned to pay the IRS. They didn't care that he died, that he was the greatest entertainer of all time. They're like, "Where's our money?" So they auctioned off everything, cufflinks, it's crazy you know.
AS: Hm. So before you were living in Vegas, and embodying Elvis's persona and wearing Elvis's clothes, you were collecting clothes of other celebrity entertainers before that.
BP: Yeah, it's true. Yeah. That's yeah. Before I did Elvis, I was using him in a lot of my artwork to talk about excess and you know, like - and well, his whole story's amazing. Just rags to riches like poor boy, all that money, still no taste. All these great things about him were just, um, almost more fascinating to me than the music for him, just as a-as a-as a human, an entertainer.
AS: Mm. It's funny how that just rolled off your tongue about Elvis when you said, "All that money, still no taste."
AS: Um, you know, like, I guess I - I assumed you would speak to him with a sort of rev - like so much reverence that like you wouldn't point out things that you thought were, um, you know, that Elvis didn't have taste.
BP: Right. No, I - that's what attracted me to him, all the, like the flaws and the other stuff was more, way more interesting. I mean, anyone could be a good looking guy that gets every girl and sells a million records, and lives happily ever after. But like other stuff is more interesting to me about him, you know. I mean, so - here's a religious man that was, uh, you know, addicted to pills, but couldn't reach out for help, and I was more attracted to that.
BP: You know, someone said, "If you could meet Elvis in 1956 or the day before he died, where - who would you rather meet?" I said, "Oh, the guy, the day before he died would be much more interesting to meet than a kid that's 21, that's just blowing up and having success." That's not that interesting to me, you know?
AS: Mm. What would you wanna talk to him about the day before he died?
BP: Um, I-I would just ask him, like, what-what-what is it like just to have this career and still be lonely? I mean, 'cause I've read these things from his bodyguards. I met some of his bodyguards where they said, um, he would make comments like at the end of his life, like, you know, "They always said it was lonely at the top. I just didn't know it was this lonely." I mean, that's heartbreaking to me.
BP: That's like, that's what that guy was feeling? That loneliness, that despair, that unsatisfied inside? That's horrible, you know?
BP: Because a lot people go, "I bet you wish you were Elvis," and I always go, "Not really." [laughs]
AS: Mm. Well, Brendan, it's interesting to me that you think about this and you think about what it must have been like to be Elvis, and be - live inside his body. And as an Elvis impersonator, and you dress up as Elvis, and you're meeting people and what, uh, is presumably sort of like the lightest, most joyful of their lives. Do you know what I mean?
BP: Right, absolutely.
AS: Like that, um, I mean, what-what do you think that is? Why do you think people want to come to you dressed as Elvis, when they are ready to commit themselves to one another in marriage?
BP: I think they want to have like - well, okay, it depends. 26 years ago, it was more, a lot of Elvis fans. They go, "I love Elvis. My wife just love - loves Elvis." And when I walk them down the aisle, sometimes they'll cry. They go, "When I was a little, ever since I was a little girl, I dreamt marrying of Elvis, so this is the closest thing." And when I sing and I'm walking back to get them on my arm, I see them looking at me. But I also see them in a way looking like through me, they're not really looking at me, they're seeing what they wanna see, which was, they're now 12 years old, and here comes Elvis to get them.
BP: What I'm doing is, reminding them of someone that was great. It's not me, but it's what-what-what I represent, what-what you're buying into here, like an illusion, if you will. But what you get now, I've noticed because a lot of people now getting married weren't even alive when Elvis was alive. You know, they're 25 years old, he's been dead for 40 years so to them, Elvis was something else. They didn't grow up hearing his newest records or seeing his movies. We have these cute vows where she promises never to step on his blue suede shoes and uh, never return him to sender and she goes - sometimes a young girl would go, "Return Him To Sender?" And I say, [in Elvis impression] "That was a big hit for me, honey." You know, I try to make a joke, but I realize, first of all, they don't even know the song "Return To Sender," but I'm not sure if they know that return to sender is something that was stamped on -
AS: Yeah. [chuckles]
BP: - an envelope, because they've only sent emails and you know, so they - To them they're like, "What does return to sender even mean?" And I'm like, wow, this is like gone beyond - I've done this so long that my references need to come with little notes to help the youth.
[MUSIC: Elvis - "Return to Sender"
Return to sender
Brendan bought the chapel with his first wife, DeeDee. They split up after about two decades of marriage. But they still co-own the chapel. And sometimes, they work wedding ceremonies together– he sings, and she officiates.
BP: I marry people a lot where I do the whole ceremony, and I'm ordained. But some people go, "We had to compromise. The wife didn't want Elvis at all." So they compromise. They have a minister do it. And then Elvis just walks her down the aisle, sings and performs.
AS: I see.
BP: And so it's-it's-it's so it's like a mix. And so we'll be in there sometimes together. We have two wonderful boys in college. And like, there's no time to in life for bitterness and anger. You just have to like move forward and be happy, you know?
AS: Yeah. When your job is to show up and, uh, and marry people, and it's something you do day in and day out. And when you were starting to notice that your own marriage, um, wasn't how you wanted it to be, was it hard to go to work?
BP: Um, yeah, but I've always been able to somehow - it's like a showbiz thing in my mind. Like - like the show must go on, you have to go in there like, I don't remember this. Someone said, "When your dad died," they go, "I remember, you'd sit out in a parking lot crying, and then you'd come in and do a couple weddings, and you go back and sit in your car, and I'd see you crying." I don't remember that. But if I did, what I knew was when I came in, those people didn't need to know that my dad just died. This is their wedding day. So you wipe the tears and you act like this is the greatest thing of your life. And then you go back and deal with your own stuff on your own time. They don't need to know if I'm sick, if I'm tired, what's going on. That's not what they've paid for, what they've come for, and what they expect. In a way it's like Mickey Mouse to Disneyland, you're-you're-you're putting on this thing, and becoming something else to people. And so you get in that mindset for as long-
BP: -as you do it.
BP: So I think with me, I-I lift up the couple and that's what it's about then. And I deal with my own failure, my marriage on my own, you know.
AS: I imagine you see people who are very young who have fallen in love. You see people who are, um, have been together years and years. Have you, have you had couples who've come where you can tell that, um, one of them is close to the end of life?
BP: Oh, absolutely. Uh, we've had people, you know, a couple came in and the guy pulled me aside and it was a huge, you know, 35, 40 people crammed in the chapel. And he goes, Elvis, just so you know, real quick, he's like, "I'm dying." And he's like, "So this is kind of like a last big trip for the family." And he goes, "So w we just want to make this fun." I said, "Well, you've definitely come to the right place." And I don't - I do the same jokes. I do the same - they deserve that. But again, what a great thing, not like, "Let's all go to Disneyland." He's like, "Let's go to Las Vegas and renew our vows." Like at the end of their life, they want to say, "I love you." So that stuff is so touching. And so, and on stuff like that, uh, you know, sometimes I'll just tell the couple, you know what, I'm just gonna comp your whole wedding. When I see stuff like that. We don't need the money. Uh, I know the coordinators get mad because there goes their commission, but I'm like, oh, well. I'm like, you know, these people are just, sometimes you can just tell it's like, life is going to be hard, we don't need their $350 that bad.
AS: Why did you decide to buy the chapel? What prompted that?
BP: You know, my mind would go back to of all things like to the Sammy Davis Jr. auction when he died. Because I remember thinking, like being an entertainer, you could make good money, but if you don't save it or have a passive income or something, you think - like an athlete, you think it's going to go on forever. You have this mentality - this is great! But when it ends, you're used to living a certain lifestyle. And a lot of these guys don't, um, downsize. They don't know how to, they see themselves as a big star still. These guys don't live in, in reality, I think sometimes. And I don't want to be that guy. I don’t want to be 45 and like too old to do Elvis and then have to go try to get a job. I remember literally going to a guy's house. Yeah, I moved here when I was like 28. And so he was an older Elvis, but I mean, he was probably my age now, he was probably in his 50s, but to me, he just seemed like an old Elvis guy because, you know, he had - uh, I could see roots, white roots in his chest hair. And I walked out with my friend and I said, I think - Pete was his name - "I think Pete dyes his chest hair black." And my friend goes, "Well, yes, his chest hair's probably white." And I said, "The day I'm dyeing my chest hair black, please shoot me." [laughs] And now, starting about a year or two ago, I started dying my fucking chest hair.
BP: I became that guy. Oh, my God. It's, you know, 'cause at the time I'm like, "I don't wanna be that old-old Elvis guy." And then I like, but then you start making a good living and you go, "How long can I continue to do this?" [laughs] Bring out the Miss Clairol, it's time to get to work. [laughs]
That's Brendan Paul as himself. You can catch him as Elvis at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. This episode is part of a collaboration we did with Condé Nast Traveler. Check out their love and travel series at the link in our show notes. Including a piece they wrote about Brendan.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Caitlin Pierce and Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Afi-Yellow Duke, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Gabriela Santana. The Reverend John DeLore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Instagram at Anna Sale Pics, that P-I-C-S. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you to Stacey Bergwerff in Ottawa, Ontario who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Stacey and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Brendan does not do every wedding at the chapel… he has a few other Elvises on the staff. But he says it takes a certain type of performer to enjoy singing for such an intimate crowd.
BP: I've hired people that have done stage shows and they go, "This is weird. I'm used to being on stage and I can't see the audience. And yet I'm singing in front of two people and I'm really uncomfortable." So I go, "Yeah, it's a different dynamic." But for me, it's like, I don't know. Somehow it, it, it it's like the perfect fit. I've performed the NBA All Star game in front of 50,000 people. But if I could do that again or sing two feet away from two people in love. I'll opt for the two people in love.
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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