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October 17, 2017

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What it takes to become Prince four nights a week


Tom Donoghue/

Prince impersonator Jason Tenner performs during the grand opening of the D Las Vegas on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.

Prince Impersonator Jason Tenner

Prince impersonator Jason Tenner performs in his show Purple Reign at The D showroom in downtown Las Vegas Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Jason Tenner, decked out in eyeliner and glitter, sat in his Mercedes and smiled as he watched a man in a Zorro costume cross the street in front of him.

Both men were dressed for work.

Zorro, in a cape and tights, spent the night posing with tourists on Fremont Street. Tenner, in a black wig and purple trench coat, spent it onstage singing “Little Red Corvette” and “1999.”

Tenner, 37, performs four nights a week as Prince in the “Purple Reign” tribute show at the D Las Vegas.

"This is such a great city, if the show ever ends, I can always make a living standing out on Fremont Street," Tenner said.

In a city with an Elvis on many street corners, being a celebrity impersonator is a serious job. Performers have their own trade group, the International Guild of Celebrity Impersonators and Tribute Acts (IGCITA), and convention.

The craft involves more than just a celebrity resemblance.

"I've had people grab me and start crying," Tenner said. "I want to say, 'I'm not Prince.' After I leave, the makeup comes off. It's an acting job. It's all theater."

Elvis impersonator Grahame Patrick said the goal is to suspend disbelief, if only for a few minutes or hours.

"Everyone knows I'm not Elvis," said Patrick, who grew up in Scotland and now performs in "Legends” at Harrah's. "Everything is wink, wink, nudge, nudge. But if I can get you to forget, just for a split second, we can all go to a special place with some great memories."

Tenner has performed as Prince for 18 years. He regularly sells out the 120-seat showroom at the D. Tickets cost $36 or $61, and the show is so popular, plans are under way to expand the theater to 200 seats.

Once a month, Tenner spends a weekend away from Las Vegas performing in California, Arizona or Colorado at 500- to 1,200-seat theaters. Those shows often sell out as well.

His success has earned him a reputation among fellow impersonators.

"Jason is the bar of celebrity impersonators I want to reach," said Michael Firestone, who headlines the “MJ Live” Michael Jackson show at the Rio. "When I first started this, I thought about doing a Prince show because the voices are similar. I saw Jason and thought, no way am I going to compete with that."

Tenner has made playing Prince a full-time career. His company Reign Productions owns “Purple Reign,” he oversees the show’s hiring, staging, marketing and management, and he puts together touring shows of impersonators.

"Too many musicians treat this like a hobby," Tenner said. "They end up partying or drinking too much. You have to treat it like a business. It's show business."

Tenner has seen the real Prince exactly once. Both men were at an after party celebrating the real rock star’s residency at the Rio.

Prince rolled his eyes at Tenner — a compliment.

"The guys in his band say if you get a reaction from him, he likes you,” Tenner said. “Otherwise, you don't even exist."

The first time Tenner dressed up as Prince, it was Halloween 1996. He had been playing guitar in a retro funk-disco band, without much fanfare. As Prince, he drew attention.

"People started following me around, taking pictures," Tenner recalled. "I was like, 'Really?' "

Within a year, he was performing as Prince professionally.

Tenner said he has watched the "Purple Rain" movie more times than he can count to try to nail Prince’s looks and moves.

Tenner’s transformation into Prince begins about 90 minutes before showtime at the house he shares with his wife, Deanna, and their teenage son and daughter.

Deanna Tenner makes costumes for the show. Jason Tenner tries to pack at least three costume changes into each performance.

On a recent Sunday night, he popped open a can of Red Bull to wash down tablets of ginkgo and vitamin B-12 for energy. He followed it with a couple of ibuprofen pills.

"As you get older, those splits get a little more painful," Tenner said.

He applied foundation, eyeliner, lip liner, bronzer and glitter to his face. He learned how to put on makeup through trial and error, he said.

"There's this one video I was watching, and he had glitter on his face," Tenner said. "I thought that would make me feel more Prince-y. And it does."

Tenner finishes dressing backstage at the D in a cramped dressing room shared by a dozen people. The room is so small, he hauls his costumes from home in luggage.

It’s five minutes to showtime. Tenner examines the stage, gives his equipment a quick check and yells an opening set list to the band.

Tenner always waits until the last minute to decide what order they'll play songs. The first and last sets are similar every night, but the order changes. The middle set is always in flux, as Tenner tries to play songs that fit the mood of the crowd. Most nights, the audience knows the songs and sings along.

“You want to play them as people are used to hearing them,” he said.

“But we also put on a show. We gauge the audience."

Tenner took one last look in the mirror, then headed toward the stage.

"OK, baby, let's have a good one," he said.

The stage lights rose and a keyboardist began the opening riff of "Let's Go Crazy."

Outside, two men dressed as Mr. T and Rick James smiled at tourists, as a woman made up like Marilyn Monroe posed nearby. The masked Zorro stood across the street, as yet another Elvis walked past.

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