Alisabeth Von Presley
Iowa City Pride Festival mainstage, downtown — Saturday, June 16 at 6:30 p.m.
When Alisabeth Von Presley was a little girl, she believed she was the reincarnation of Elvis. She’d perform in front of a mirror, singing into her dad’s hairbrush.
The 30-year-old entertainer now embodies the King of Rock and Roll in other ways, from her name — changed from Caraway to Von Presley — to the Elvis portrait tattooed on her left forearm. She’s taken up guitar, and often performs in glam, eye-catching outfits that harken back to Elvis’ sequined jumpsuits.
But Von Presley has forged her own larger-than-life persona onstage — a persona that will be on full display during her headlining performance for the Iowa City Pride Festival on June 16.
Elvis isn’t the only inspiration Von Presley has commemorated on her skin: She also has tattoos of Madonna, Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (with his quote, “Don’t dream it, be it”) and Barbie.
“Growing up, I lived out in Springfield, Iowa which was miles and miles away from, dare I say, civilization. So I kind of had to find things to do with my time, and if I got bored, I’d play a silly song on the piano or I’d go in my room and play with Barbies,” she said. “I would play all the parts. I’d play the guys, the girls, the moms, the teachers, the babies. I’d have friends over and we’d play Barbies together and it would turn into them just sitting and watching me play Barbies because I’d make it such a show.”
Though Von Presley hasn’t performed at a Pride event before and doesn’t identify as LGBT herself, it’s not hard to see why Pride Fest organizers turned to the stage actor and American Idol alumna to top their bill. Von Presley’s shows are Lady Gaga meets Pat Benatar with a dash of Michael Jackson, full of electric guitar, back-up dancers and, she says, “all-out girl power.”
Von Presley is coming off her first tour, which took her 4,800 miles and included a performance for the Girl Scouts of America.
For Pride, she plans to present a rock-pop medley, as well as a couple brand new original songs being developed for her upcoming album, Pink Renegade.
“I’m obsessed with the color pink,” she said. “Everything in my life is pink. My electric guitar is pink. My outfits are pink. My world is a pink-painted world. I love color, I love seeing color and costumes that are eccentric and crazy.”
Her songwriting process usually takes place in an empty parking lot, sitting inside her Volkswagen Bug, she said, before she and co-writer Tim King put the ideas to music.
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Von Presley has a range of creative currency: as a photographer, who serves as visual director of TINT Photography in Cedar Rapids; as a musical theater performer, whose roles have included Maureen in Rent, Holly in The Wedding Singer and Cassie in A Chorus Line — “determined women who also sing and dance,” she said; and as a dancer, choreographing for Cedar Rapids’ Kennedy High School and honing her craft as a backup dancer for drag queens at Club Basix and Studio 13.
“I pretty much grew up at Studio 13,” she said. “I was pretty young backup dancing for [drag queen and former Miss Gay Iowa] Natasha Cass. I think I really learned how to be a woman from her. Those girls kick over their heads, they do splits, they put more effort into their shows than some people touring as professional musicians. They’ve got it, and they look gorgeous.”
She said she’s ecstatic to share the Pride Fest stage with Roxxxy Andrews, JuJubee, Monica Beverly Hillz and Iowa City’s own Sasha Belle, veterans of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Von Presley has some experience with reality TV herself. She earned a golden ticket for the 12th season of American Idol in 2013, and said it was both thrilling and nerve-wracking to meet and perform for the likes of Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Randy Jackson.
“You have to know who you are and you have to stand strong in who you are, because cameras are always rolling and always trying to catch you,” Von Presley said. “My roommate I was staying with in Hollywood — she broke down, she completely broke down. They’d open our door in the morning and videotape us waking up and she would just cry, she was so tired … I loved the experience. It was fun being there and representing Iowa.”
Von Presley also had an untelevised audition for The Voice in 2015, which she said was a less stressful affair. But she thinks Idol is going in a better direction now, to which Iowan Maddie Poppe’s win this season attests.
“I was rooting for her! I think Maddie Poppe is a great representation of Iowa. Just a girl and her guitar singing songs from the heart,” Von Presley said.
Her own shows have a lot more glitter and choreography than Poppe’s, but Von Presley never neglects to spend some time on heart, breaking for ballads at her piano.
“I’ll do a song with six backup dancers and then my next song will be just me all by myself on the stage, exposed. I like to take my audience on a ride, and I guess that’s exactly who I am as a person. Ups and downs all the time,” she said. “[Performing] is elevated reality. It’s just who you are times 10 and with tighter pants.”
Emma McClatchey will spend Pride Month blasting Janelle Monáe, repeat-watching Call Me By Your Name and partying at Pride Fest. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 244.