March 5 2014 12:00 AM

Local Elvis impersonator hip swivels his way into international competition

Sure, it’s been 50 years since the dawn of Beatlemania, but a decade before the Fab Four took Americans by storm, a certain hip-thrusting rockabilly had all the poodle skirted chicks to himself. Sixty years ago, Elvis Presley made his first record — “That’s All Right” — launching Elvis mania ... and the careers of a million impersonators.

And one of the best happens to be a local man, Matt Chantelois — better known by stage name, Matt King —an Elvis tribute artist from Leslie. Last month, he won first place at the Midwest Tribute to the King competition in Springfield, Ill., where he beat 20 other competitors for $5,000 and a $1,500 gift certificate for a professional Elvis jumpsuit. He also secured a spot as a finalist in the “King of the World” world championship in Memphis this August.

This wasn´t King´s first big win, though, according to his grandmother, Sandra Launstein. In 1998, King won the title of International Grand Champion in Ontario, where he beat over 100 other contestants from around the world. In 2006, King won a contest at Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant, where he received the grand prize of $2,500.

King, 35, said he started his Elvis journey when he was just 14 years old while working at a costume shop in Dearborn.

“They had an Elvis jumpsuit upstairs, and I decided to buy it for Halloween that year,” King said. He took this costume to a high school dance his freshman year where they had karaoke. After singing “Blue Suede Shoes,” King said a teacher came up to him, commented on his likeness to Presley and suggested becoming an Elvis impersonator. After researching the topic, King realized he could make a living out of being an Elvis tribute artist, and started his journey.

“When he was a little boy, he saw an Elvis tribute artist that did a show, and he always felt he wanted to be an entertainer,” Launstein said. “He sang in the church choir when he was growing up, and he has a powerful voice.” She said he has a vocal range of threeand-a-half octaves.

While a three-and-a-half-octave vocal range is impressive, even more impressive is the fact that King never had a vocal instructor.

“I trained myself,” King said. “I´ve always been able to do vocal impersonations. I can do Joe Cocker, Conway Twitty and Paul Mc- Cartney.” (Elvis doing the Beatles? Somewhere, someone’s head just exploded.)

In order to train himself, King said that he would listen to live CDs and mimic what Presley said between songs, studying the way he moved, even how he laughed.

“I´m just an actor really, portraying a part I´m just really good at playing,” King said.

Launstein has always supported her grandson through his journey, and just like King, she’s taught herself a key element of the impersonation game: She makes most of his performance outfits herself, based on designs of actual outfits worn by Presley.

“I started sewing when I was a little girl and sewed for several years for my family growing up,” Launstein said. “You just can´t buy patterns or designs for these suits.”

Aside from Launstein, other family members have worked with King throughout his career, making it more of a family business. King´s wife, Veronica Chantelois, does all the photography for his shows; his brother runs the sound equipment; and his grandfather runs the spotlight with King´s dad.

“It really is a family thing, and it´s blossomed into me making a pretty good living on it,” King said. He’s also the co-founder of the largest festival dedicated to Presley in the United States: The Michigan ElvisFest. The 2014 ElvisFest, marking the 14th year of the festival, will be July 11 and 12 in Ypsilanti´s Depot Town. King said that the first year of the festival brought in 2,000 people, and by the second year, attendance had jumped up to 6,000; this year, around 23,000 attendees are expected to show for the weekend.

This year, aside from the concerts and impersonations, the festival will hold be a candlelight vigil in honor of the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death. Apparently imitation isn’t necessarily always the sincerest form of adulation.