Parade floats filled my TV screen.
“There you are!” said my manager, Lucille, who was watching with me. The float I’d ridden earlier in the day at Las Vegas’ Centennial Helldorado Parade slid into view.
There I was, dressed in full Elvis regalia, belting out “Teddy Bear.” But instead of feeling proud of the career I’d built as Big Elvis, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Is that me? I thought. Is that what I look like?
At 40, I’d been putting on weight for years. As a kid coming home to an empty house while my mom was out working two jobs, I always found my dinner in the fridge with a note. Mom couldn’t be there, but I took comfort in the food she’d left.
I was still eating to soothe myself. But now, moving from the bedroom to the kitchen left me out of breath. I used an oxygen tank in my dressing room between shows.
My weight problem was out of control. I knew it, and yet the sight of myself was a complete shock. My voice was strong, but I looked pale, weak and bloated. Like my body wouldn’t last much longer.
“Elvis died at forty-two,” I said to Lucille. “I won’t make it that far.”
You might think Elvis impersonator was no job for a 940-plus pound man. What could I have in common with Elvis? A lot. We were both born into poverty and attended the Assembly of God Church, where we sang in youth gospel choirs.
At 14 I sang “Jailhouse Rock” at the school talent show and the crowd went crazy. Elvis was my role model back then. I’d tried to keep his memory alive through my singing ever since.
That night of the parade, I thought about how blessed I was. I had loving friends, enough money to support myself and my kids. Best of all, I got to sing Elvis’s music 15 shows a week on the Las Vegas strip. I had so much to be grateful for.
I was sure that was the way Elvis looked at his life. Any Elvis fan knows there’s a lot more to the man than his music. I grew up hearing of his kindness, how he gave things away, like cars, jewelry, money and such.
Once he read about a lady who needed a wheelchair and sent one right over. He flew across the country to visit a sick girl who wanted to meet him. Elvis gave to hundreds of charities regularly and anonymously.
I tried to emulate Elvis on stage and off. I did charity performances and helped out people in need, when I could. The preacher back home taught me to follow Jesus’ example by caring for others. For me following the Lord’s example and Elvis’s were close to the same thing, because Elvis gave from his heart.
My stomach rumbled. Elvis loved food, like fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and greasy burgers. But he could never understand how I’d gotten to this point. I prayed for sleep to come and take the image of me on that float out of my mind.
Lucille came over the next day looking more serious than I’d ever seen her. “I’ve been thinking about what you said about dying,” she said. “I’m ready to fight for you if you’ll let me. You can get healthy again.”
“I’m scared,” I said. “I don’t know how to change.”
“A little at a time,” she said. “God will help you.”
It seemed impossible. But then, hadn’t God performed the impossible in my life already? “I’ll try,” I said.
Lucille, who’s an excellent cook, moved into my house. She presented me with a bowl of chicken vegetable “stoup”—a cross between stew and soup—on diet day one. Instead of a crash diet, she put together healthy meals, and scheduled friends to come in shifts to make sure I didn’t stray off course.
I wish I could say I was as strict about the plan as she was. Once she caught me in bed with a pizza. “I had the guy deliver it through the window,” I admitted.
She replaced it with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks. “You’ve got to give it all you’ve got,” she said. “I can’t do this for you.”
But what did I have? Without food and the feeling my hero understood me I felt empty and depressed. And the scale wasn’t helping. “It’s hopeless,” I said after one week. “How can I believe anything is happening when I can’t see it?”
“That’s why they call it faith,” Lucille answered.
I’d had faith in the Lord my whole life. Why should this be different? With new trust in him, I bought a backyard pool. I wasn’t swimming laps, but any exercise was good.
Lord, I’m relying on you to see me through, I thought as I kicked my legs in the water. You and Elvis. The king always helped those who needed it. Next time I weighed in I’d lost 15 pounds!
I quickly learned my best exercise was my shows. That’s the first place I noticed a difference in my stamina. Instead of sitting after half a verse of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” I made it through the whole verse.
There was nothing like the enthusiasm of Elvis fans to cheer me on. Some fans had been coming to my shows for years, and they weren’t shy about expressing concern for my health. Their caring inspired me.
Unfortunately, not everyone understood Elvis. One night I came home angry. So angry I was tempted to order a pizza! But I settled for sugar-free Jell-O. “What’s the matter?” Lucille asked.
“Just some guy I overheard as we were leaving the casino,” I said. “You know the type. Thinks the only thing to know about Elvis is that he was unhealthy and he died.”
“Not even worth listening to.”
“It makes me angry people don’t understand. Elvis was overworked. He wasn’t eating right. He’d been prescribed multiple medications. He wanted to get off that roller coaster, but it was out of control.”
I trailed off, struck by what I’d said. I thought Elvis couldn’t understand. This was something else we shared. Elvis had lost his battle, but with God’s help—and Elvis for inspiration—I vowed I would not lose mine.
Today I’m 44 years old. Two years older than Elvis when he died. I’m still Big Elvis at 400 pounds, but that’s over 500 pounds less than I once was. I feel closer than ever to the king, but it’s not because of the numbers on my scale.
I might sing like Elvis and aspire to be a good man like Elvis, but I’m never more like him than when I’m struggling my hardest and looking to the one real King we all have in common.