Words Jason Holmes
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“…I’m only pretending to be someone else, which sounds completely crazy, but by doing this I’m bringing so much pleasure to people.”
From a certain angle, in the half light of the dressing room, she looks just like her. The platinum hair wreathing her face, the mirror’s bulbs making her teeth gleam, her eyes creasing just so as she laughs between applications of lipstick. She stands before me as a portal to the past, a modern-day Norma Jeane, or better, a spirit guide to an era upon which we all tend to cast our nostalgic glances. It could be 1956 all over again, but for the bitter London wind that blows outside through the streets of Soho.
“I make a living out of pretending to be somebody who is no longer alive,” says Suzie Kennedy, this country’s pre-eminent Marilyn Monroe impersonator. “At the beginning I thought ‘How does that even work?’ I always wanted to either be an actress or singer, but after college I got spotted and someone said I looked like Marilyn Monroe and that I should go along to an audition on Wardour Street for a commercial.”That day the room was full of Marilyn’s, she says, but she landed the job and realised an unexpected revenue stream which has kept her ever since in the manner to which Marilyn might have approved.
“My job is a complete fluke, but it’s the best fluke ever.” Her manner is light and uncomplicated, yet I am struck by the complexity of the person before me; I’m talking to Suzie filtered through the persona of Marilyn as portrayed by the performer Suzie Kennedy. But I let the duality side of things ride. We’re snugged away inside The Hippodrome. It’s taken a staircase, a lift and a couple of dog leg turns to get to the dressing room known as the Sinatra Room. Suzie walks from the mirror to the chaise longue and perches upon its edge, hands folded in her lap.
“I used to bunk off school and hang out in Soho,” she says. “I’d go to the theatre and enjoy the cafés. But Soho now is not the same. People say the old Soho was grimy and dirty but to me it was real. I felt safe. No one ever bothered me. People looked out for me. I’ve learned my stage craft in the Soho streets, from the old faces and how they spoke.”She says the old Soho has been ripped out and replaced with a lookalike. The irony isn’t lost on her and she laughs.
As a Brit born in Grants Pass, Oregon in the United States, her family later returned to London. She was raised in Bermondsey and later attended the Urdang Academy in Covent Garden. By her teens her sensibility was firmly a transatlantic one. “I learned from the best,” she says, “I learned from Marilyn Monroe. She was the first female celebrity to create her own production company. She did that in 1956. All the subsequent films saw her hiring the actors, including Laurence Olivier [The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957]. She was their boss.”
Of Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer once wrote: “She was our angel, the sweet angel of sex…Marilyn was deliverance, so gorgeous, forgiving, humorous, compliant and tender that even the most mediocre musician would relax his lack of art in the dissolving magic of her violin.”But an old-fashioned sense of femininity can be at odds with today’s entertainment world. Suzie agrees. “To the public, Marilyn was this girl-woman, this dumb blonde, but the real Marilyn was sharp and witty. I have learned a lot from studying her life. From the real woman, the woman that Arthur Miller fell in love with and married. She taught me how to be a good businesswoman while staying feminine, because the best asset you have as a woman is your femininity and charm. A lot of women don’t realise this in business and prefer to kill their greatest asset by acting cold.”
Suzie began performing at The Hippodrome when it reopened three years ago after a £45m refurbishment and performed her first one-hour, one-woman show with a live band for The Hippodrome crowds in August. All this she fits in between domestic and international engagements. “I’ve been doing this for 18 years. When I started out I made myself a limited company.”
Then she tells me the story of her father who shot himself dead in The Sands casino in Las Vegas in 1994. She’s driven, intent upon living a fuller life, perhaps to restore balance to one that is marred. “I’ll retire when the phone stops ringing. Or when I drop dead,” she laughs. “Whichever comes first. I’ll never get bored of doing this. If I’m called a tribute act, an impersonator or a lookalike, it doesn’t bother me because I’m only pretending to be someone else, which sounds completely crazy, but by doing this I’m bringing so much pleasure to people. If I bomb on stage, then I bomb as Marilyn, rather than myself.”
This, perhaps, is the insulation from critics to which she is attracted: they love her before she even appears, such is the enduring interest in Marilyn Monroe. “I don’t have massive insecurity about my ability to do the job, but I am careful of comparing myself to Marilyn because, make no mistake, I am not her. But I do try to replicate her as much as possible.”Discernible in Suzie is a need to lose herself in the persona of another. She has done it with Marilyn as Norma Jeane Baker also once vanished into a myth not of her own making, a myth so gargantuan and prismatic that, when viewed from the distance of half a century, it still fails to shed adequate light on the inner workings of the entertainment industry. So it could only be into the streets of Soho that Suzie first ventured in search of the answers she craved. It is in Soho, after all, where the rarer soul finds a permanent home.