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View from the USA: Elvis Presley’s Graceland

The King would’ve been dismayed that Graceland — his refuge from the spotlight of fame — has become the gaudy high temple to the cult of celebrity

View from the USA: Elvis Presley’s Graceland
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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I once stared out Richard Gere in a bar. It was awkward. I thought he was some prat I knew from school. He probably thought I was a stalker. He gave me that multi-million-dollar smile, I gave him my face, hard and emotionless, for a full minute.

But then, suddenly, with absolute horror, it dawned on me: this was no prat from my past. This was American friggin’ Gigolo. Instead of asking for a selfie, I just glowered Pretty Woman’s boyfriend out the door.

What bothered me most wasn’t that I face-fought a complete stranger, it was that I’d missed an opportunity to suck up to a star. America is at the epicentre of the cult of celebrity. Forget nurses, teachers and ex-pat travel writers, the most revered members in society today are famous people.

It seems fame is a drug, but how did we all get hooked? To answer that, I went to the place where it all began: Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, home of the man they call The King. “Before Elvis there was absolutely nothing,” John Lennon once said. Presley was the first global pop icon, the first super celebrity of the TV age. Pre-Elvis, musicians were mere performers; he was the first star.

But his house, on the other hand, on a gritty edge of the city, is relatively humble — a Southern-style colonial mansion plonked on the side of a busy road, beside petrol stations and fast-food joints, like a scene from a ghetto version of Gone with the Wind. Inside is a resplendently over-the-top ’70s time warp: mirrored stairs to the basement, yellow curtains plastered over every inch of the pool room, and the ‘Jungle Room’ — a chintzy indoor forest with fake grass shag pile on the floor and ceiling, complete with a faux waterfall and carved wooden animals.

I toured an exhibition of his cars (he owned more than 200 during his lifetime); saw his stage costumes, including the infamous white onesie and cape that only Elvis could pull off; jumped in his private jet, the Lisa Marie, with its double bed at the back; and, at the in-house cafe, sampled his favourite snack: a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. There’s even a hotel next door where you can stay in an Elvis-inspired suite: white leather sofas, tiger-skin prints and a TV hanging over the bed — as close as you’re ever going to get to sleeping with The King.

But what really struck me was the voyeurism of the whole thing. Over 41 years since his death, more than 20 million people have come to pay homage at his home. Sure, there are diehard fans. But most people, I suspect, don’t come to Graceland to see where Elvis lived, they come to gawp at celebrity itself.

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut once said that celebrities are like a kind of artificial family, only better looking, richer and more interesting — or words to that effect. Perhaps that’s the secret of the cult’s allure. It’s like a magic mirror. The more we worship fame, the more it feels a part of who we are; we see ourselves reflected in its glorious veneer.

Elvis might have inadvertently helped to forge the cult of celebrity, but I’m sure he would’ve been dismayed at how it ended up. He was naturally shy and regularly suffered from stage fright (the Colonel, his manager, used to have to coax him on to the stage). How ironic, then, that Graceland — Elvis’s sanctuary: a place he could escape all the nonsense of fame — became a place strangers come to pore over the minutiae of his life.

And perhaps that’s something we should remember. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how many people watch what you do — as long as you love it and do it the best that you can. As Muhammad Ali once said: “If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man. I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen.”

Celebrity is a state of mind, not a state of worship. Elvis knew that. That’s why he was The King. Just make sure you remember it too next time you’re scowling at Richard Gere in a bar. graceland.com guesthousegraceland.com

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)