Most adolescents know what it’s like to be embarrassed by their parents when friends come over. Sometimes the shame involves lame jokes and stories, and, if you’re particularly unlucky, the naked baby pictures come out. But visual artist and director Stephanie Comilang had the edge on this one–her father is an Elvis impersonator.
Comilang recalls enduring embarrassment when her father, Steve, would burst into “Love Me Tender” and the like in front of her friends when she was growing up in Toronto. To deal with the shame, Comilang would hide behind the couch. But as she got older, she started feeling differently: Her friends loved it when her dad hammed it up in front of them, and Comilang started to feel, well, a kind of pride.
About 10 years ago, when she was 18, Comilang decided that in order to deal with her conflicting feelings she’d create a sort of improvised support group via a zine to be titled Children of the King.
“There are equal parts love and ‘Oh, Dad,’ and it’s always been like that,” she says. “I had these feelings of complete embarrassment, especially when I was younger. The zine was this really cheap way of reaching out to other people.”
Children of the King was made up of photocopied pictures of Comilang with her dad dressed in Elvis-style jumpsuits and short reports of her experiences as a child of an Elvis impersonator. One anecdote in the short-lived zine (there were only two issues) read: “For Christmas last year I bought Daddy a gorgeous pair of shiny silver Elvis glasses. I thought his gold ones were getting played out.”
She tried to get her zine into sympathetic hands by taking copies to sell at her dad’s gigs and at film festivals. But her target audience–the children of other Elvis impersonators–proved to be elusive.
Fast-forward 10 years. Having directed music videos for Canadian musicians Final Fantasy and Junior Boys, Comilang has returned to the idea behind Children of the King: She is working on a documentary of the same name, looking once again for the audience that she tried to find years ago.
“The zine was trying to reach out to other children of Elvis impersonators, to try to create this support group, and I wanted to see it through [with the film] and actually do it. Meet these people and make it more substantial by jumping into more layered issues,” she says.
For the still-in-progress film version, Comilang, who is of Filipino heritage, journeyed to Manila, Bangkok, and Tokyo, cities improbably rife with Elvis wannabes. She didn’t know what to expect from her meetings with their sons and daughters.
“The Elvis impersonators were like: ‘That’s great, you’re here! Let’s talk about what I do,’ ” she says. Meanwhile, the Elvis impersonators’ offspring were taken aback. “They thought it really hilarious that I came all the way from Canada to their houses,” she says.
Once Comilang had a chance to sit down and talk to the people she met, the bond was immediately obvious: “They had the exact same feeling that I had about my father,” she says.
At last, Comilang had found kindred spirits, right down to the way the home of every tribute artist she visited included a collection of Elvis memorabilia. When she was growing up, her own home had a collection in the basement. And while her father has visited Graceland, some of her film subjects took it to the next level with replicas of the gates at Graceland made especially for their homes.
The documentary not only chronicles Comilang’s quest to connect with the like-minded, long-suffering offspring of Elvis, it also, like its predecessor zine, explores the relationship between daughter and dad. For those segments, Comilang turned to animation. “I was working on vignettes that echo the sentiment of the zine, that it’s kind of handmade and has this cheap, funny, and personal style,” she says.
She animated one story that took place at her aunt’s house on Easter weekend, shortly after her father had been in a New York Fries advertisement dressed in full Elvis garb with the tagline “Real fries in a fake world.” At her aunt’s house, they found all of her cousins with the fast food tray liner version of the ad, asking for his autograph. “He was in heaven, totally in love with it,” she recalls, painting a picture of an absurd scene: a lineup of 10 Filipino children in Toronto holding New York Fries tray covers, waiting for her father’s autograph.
Bringing the idea she first started as a teen on photocopied chunks of paper to a feature-length documentary film feels a bit like completing a circle, Comilang says. “But I’m not done yet, so it’s only a 70 percent completed circle.” There’s no release date set for the film.
While the film may complete the circle and finally help reconcile Comilang to the mixed feelings she’s always had about her father, she doesn’t see this as any kind of final resolution. The fact that she is a child of an Elvis impersonator will continue to permeate her personal and professional life well after the film is done and out to the world.
“My dad and I have done other projects together,” she says, “with him always as Elvis. I feel these all fall under that umbrella title–Children of the King–and I think it’ll always be that way.”
Reprinted from Broken Pencil(Fall 2010), a Canadian magazine whose coverage of underground culture and the independent arts “challenges conformity and demands attention.” www.brokenpencil.com
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.