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I thought the Elvis fan festival would be funny. It cracked me open and changed my life says Meg Watson. In my cynical early 20s, I thought the Elvis Presley fandom would make for
a novel story. But the community’s joy was so contagious I ended up joining it.

It’s often said that watching Elvis Presley was a religious experience. He sent women into fits and presided over his disciples, singing gospel and gently blessing them with silk
scarves. I’m not a religious person but in 2016 – 39 years after Elvis died – I saw the neon light.

This was also, not coincidentally, the year I gained sympathy for journalists who pursue stories about cults which they then end up joining.

I travelled to country New South Wales to cover the Parkes Elvis festival for the pop culture website Junkee. This rural town (population 11,000) hosts an annual celebration with
more than 25,000 Elvis fans, impersonators and tribute artists. The best among them compete for the title and glory of Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist. I went in thinking it would be a
funny and novel story. Elvis was good, sure, but who are these people dressing up and singing in the streets? I left as one of them.

Over the past four years I’ve desperately tried to communicate the joy that this festival and, more importantly, this community brings me – but I always come up short. It’s not what
you expect from someone in their 20s. People offer furrowed brows and pitying looks. Sometimes they laugh along, like this is a long, ironic joke. But there’s nothing ironic about the
Elvis posters and records and badges in my home. I’m not joking when I talk about “my favourite Elvis tribute artists” (ETAs), or detail the differences between a tribute artist and an
impersonator (let’s not start).

Fandom is intoxicating. Anyone who truly, wholly loves a boy band or a football team will tell you the same. But there’s something transcendent about the way Elvis fans love Elvis. It’
s eternal.

Kids slick their hair back and practise dances their families have passed down (the parents of one seven-year-old performer told me he picked it up from watching Uncle Jesse on
the 90s sitcom Full House). Women of all ages are allowed – encouraged – to be sexual. They twist and swoon and dab the sweat off Elvis’ chest as he gyrates on them. The men
performing are a mixed bunch: some do it for a laugh and others are more solemn in their mission to honour the man and the music. Ultimately they all want to make people happy.

Happiness this intense is contagious, and it brings out the best in people. Each year the residents of Parkes open their homes as extra accommodation for visitors. Elvis songs soar
through loudspeakers at all hours, and strangers literally dance in the street. Each ETA has their own community of open-hearted fans who, whether on the dance floor or in the
corresponding Facebook groups, share their lives with one another. There are bedazzled shirts at each show which don’t read “Elvis”, but “Sean Luke Spiteri” and “Kingsley Rock”.

This kind of daggy devotion was alien to me in 2016. I was 24 years old, spending too much time online where the default mode was cynicism, crippled by self-doubt and illusions
that “cool” was something not only worth chasing but best attained by being detached or aloof. Four years is nothing but I think it might be an eternity in your 20s. I’ve changed so
much. This fandom cracked my chest open and made room for something bigger, warmer and sillier.

My only friend who really understands this is the one who experienced it with me, taking photos of the festival in 2016. This year, for my birthday, she paid a not-insignificant sum
for us to watch the British ETA Gordon Hendricks at the Athenaeum. The other week we trekked to a pokies pub in Airport West for the Melbourne ETA Damian Mullin’s Sunday
matinee. We pulled out our dorky rehearsed moves to Suspicious Minds and made new friends while barely saying a word. In a place like that, you don’t need to.

We’re heading back to Parkes in January and I can’t stop grinning. You’ll find me on the dance floor, spreading that joy, eyes closed and arms raised, reaching for a silk scarf.

Originating Source - The Guardian

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By Meg Watson for The Guardian Newspaper