the (unfortunately) enduring image of “fat elvis”

SAY “ELVIS IN THE ’70s” and a lot of people im­me­di­ately think “Fat Elvis.” This is partly due to car­i­ca­tures of Elvis as grossly obese, leading many non-fans to be­lieve that he was sloppy-looking during his life. This was not true: while his face puffed out and his waist­line ex­panded, Elvis never had the sloppy look one as­so­ciates with ex­cess fat in the stomach, the butt, the arms, or the legs.

One can see all the ev­i­dence one needs in the doc­u­men­tary movies That’s The Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972) and the tele­vi­sion spe­cial Aloha From Hawaii Via Satel­lite (1973). The tra­jec­tory shown is one of Elvis looking like an ex­ceed­ingly trim young man in his twen­ties (he was 35 at the time) fleshing out his physique into a well-built man ap­proaching his for­ties.

Presley did have is­sues with his weight: his fluc­tu­ating weight and how it af­fected his looks goes back to the ’60s, and can be par­tially at­trib­uted to diet. His love for starchy foods often gave him a soft look, padding his face so that his jaw­line was al­most lost.

 

Pres­ley’s fluc­tu­ating weight goes back to the ’60s and can be at­trib­uted to diet and his in­creasing use of pre­scrip­tion drugs.

 

And there was his in­creasing use of pre­scrip­tion drugs for mal­adies real and pos­sibly imag­ined. These be­came the dom­i­nating force on his health and his ap­pear­ance as the ’70s moved on.

All of this was brought home to me as I was working on an ar­ticle ti­tled “Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 8.” It col­lects car­i­ca­tures based on Pres­ley’s ap­pear­ance in the 1970s. 

While se­lecting the im­ages for in­clu­sion, I re­mem­bered the first taste­less “Fat Elvis” car­i­ca­ture that I had seen back in 1976.

 

Fat Elvis: photo of Elvis on stage August 1970.

Elvis Presley en­tered the new decade in peak con­di­tion: he had trimmed his physique for the taping of the NBC-TV spe­cial in June 1968 and had re­mained fit through the rest of his movies and his re­turn to live per­for­mance in July 1969. The photo above was taken in Las Vegas in Au­gust 1970 and was used as the front cover of the That’s The Way It Is album (1970).

That’s the way it wasn’t

While Pres­ley’s weight bal­looned up and down, he was usu­ally trimmed and toned when touring. He shed ex­cess pounds by ex­treme di­eting (dan­gerous to his health) and drugs (ditto). This was the pat­tern until 1975, when he began ap­pearing on­stage no­tice­ably heavier.

This beefier Elvis is the Elvis that fans saw at the con­certs of the last two years of his life.

This beefier Elvis has since “in­spired” count­less clue­less car­i­ca­tur­ists, co­me­dians, and im­per­son­ators.

Presley should not have been on the road per­forming during the last two or three years of his life. He may have been suf­fering from a form of chronic depression—although few of us rec­og­nized it as such then–and self-medicated his way through his life. He often looked bad, and often per­formed poorly on stage.

It is no se­cret that Presley took a lot of “pre­scribed” med­ica­tion. The ef­fect of some of the drugs was that he re­tained water, giving him a swollen, bloated look—notably about the face and mid-section.

But to critics, fat was fat and that was that!

This did not go un­no­ticed by jour­nal­ists re­viewing those con­certs, few of whom were at­tuned to noticing a dis­tressed and de­pressed person. In­stead, they saw the be­gin­nings of a joke—the “Fat Elvis” joke.

 

Fat Elvis: cover of July 1976 issue of NATIONAL LAMPOON with caricature of Elvis.

The July 1976 issue of Na­tional Lam­poon fea­tured a car­i­ca­ture of a grossly obese, sloppy-fat Elvis. The artist mis­tak­enly drew the guitar strapped on Pres­ley’s back for a left-handed player—a rather egre­gious error for such a widely cir­cu­lated pub­li­ca­tion.

Nationally lampooning Elvis

None of this was helped by the July 1976 issue of Na­tional Lam­poon, which prob­ably hit the news­stands in May. It fea­tured what would be­come one of the most widely seen car­i­ca­tures in his­tory: a nasty drawing of Elvis with a huge beer-belly and thick thighs, both straining the seams of his jump­suit.

Un­for­tu­nately, the mag­a­zine cover re­ceived far more at­ten­tion than Pres­ley’s new record­ings were re­ceiving at the time.

This image of Elvis seems to be the basis of many artists doing car­i­ca­tures of Elvis forty years later—despite the fact that Presley never came close to looking like this.

Nonethe­less, it is this image of him that re­mains in many peo­ple’s memories—although that’s the way it wasn’t in the ’70s.

 

Fat Elvis: photo of Elvis on stage July 1976.

This is what Elvis ac­tu­ally looked like at the time that Na­tional Lam­poon hit the news­stands. This photo as taken at the Philadel­phia Spec­trum on June 28, 1976. The rounded bloating of his face is ob­vious but what is sur­prising is his rather trim waist.

They captured me just perfect

Prior to the re­lease of Na­tional Lam­poon on the na­tion’s news­stands, an­other car­i­ca­ture made the dead­lines, at least in the Cincin­nati area. On March 21, 1976, Elvis was per­forming at the River­front Col­i­seum when he was given a copy of that morn­ing’s Sunday En­quirer news­paper. It fea­tured a car­i­ca­ture of him by local artist Jerry Dowling.

“They cap­tured me just per­fect,” Elvis said to the au­di­ence while laughing. “All I want to say is who­ever drew this … I hate the son of a bitch.”

It is likely that Elvis saw Dowl­ing’s drawing be­fore he saw the Na­tional Lam­poon, as March was early for a mag­a­zine cover-dated July (un­less it was a comic book).

 

Fat Elvis: caricature of Elvis by Jerry Dowling from 1976.

On March 21, 1976, Elvis was per­forming at Cincin­nati’s River­front Col­i­seum. He was given a copy of that morn­ing’s Sunday En­quirer news­paper, which fea­tured an un­flat­tering car­i­ca­ture of him. I as­sume the drawing above is that drawing, as it’s the only car­i­ca­ture of Elvis that I found on the In­ternet at­trib­uted to Mr Dowling. Oddly, it could easily be mis­taken for a caricature of Mick Jagger.

Wrapping things up

While Pres­ley’s appearance—good and bad—are fair tar­gets for any car­i­ca­turist, for the afore­men­tioned “Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 8” I did not se­lect any art that I thought re­flected in­spi­ra­tion from the Na­tional Lam­poon cover. And as­sem­bling that ar­ticle led me to write this ar­ticle. 

The first Fat Elvis car­toon most of us saw was the cover of the July 1976 issue of Na­tional Lam­poon. Click To Tweet

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken during Elvis’s ap­pear­ance at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Ok­la­homa, on March 25, 1977. While hardly the svelte sex idol of yore, he doesn’t come close to any of the more in­sulting “Fat Elvis” car­i­ca­tures that have been drawn of him during the past forty years.

Less than five months later, Elvis would be dead …

 

Golden Caricatures Volume 8: photo of Elvis in gold lame suit 1957.

POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I have planned four vol­umes of car­i­ca­tures of Elvis in the ’50s, and two each for the ’60s and the ’70s. There are at least two artists who have done enough high-quality car­i­ca­tures of Presley to merit a volume of their own, Al Hirschfeld and Al­berto “Sting” Russo. Plus there are a few spe­cial ar­ti­cles:

The First Pub­lished Car­i­ca­ture of Elvis Presley
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 1 (Rockin’ the 50s)
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 2 (Rollin’ the 50s)
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 3 (Rat­tlin’ the 50s)
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 4 (Shaggin’ the 50s)
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 5 (Stuck on the 60s)
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 6 (Wild in the 60s)
Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 7 (Elvis by Hirschfeld)
• Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 8 (Love Let­ters from the 70s)
• Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 9 (Aloha from the 70s)
• Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 10 (Elvis by Russo)

 

This is one of the Fat Elvis figure that I didn’t use in Elvis’ Golden Car­i­ca­tures Volume 8, but I thought I’d in­clude it here be­cause, in its way, it’s just so darn cute!

 

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He did get very over­weight in the months be­fore his death. His waist­line was likely held in check as much as pos­sible by his big belts and tight clothing. How­ever the car­i­ca­tures are pre­cisely that, and a little cruel I think, es­pe­cially in hind­sight and knowing how much he strug­gled with being Elvis.

The Elvis of Elvis In Con­cert was a sad sight for us true Elvis fans. I sin­cerely wish that the show had never been recorded or tele­vised. It would today be de­scribed as “car crash” tv.

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