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Vision in a White Dress


Kiss and Sell: Catherine Grillos has learned to pucker up in her life as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.

Impersonator Catherine Grillos spreads a little joy and sexual revolution

By Sarah Phelan

What better place to meet Marilyn Monroe than at a birthday party in May? After all, it was at a gala in May 1962 that the screen legend made her final appearance as Hollywood's white-hot party girl. As the golden beauty--gift-wrapped in a near-nude designer gown--sang a sexed-up version of "Happy Birthday" for JFK, she was the ultimate present for the man who had everything. Too bad her risqué serenade turned out to be her swan song.

Marilyn died two and a half months later, at the climax of her career. Thirty-four years later, the question of how and why she died remains tantalizingly open. Sure, she had suicidal tendencies, but what about her fatal attraction to John and Bobby Kennedy, and Hollywood's treatment of her?

Ironically, the controversy over her death has kept her legend very much alive. Perhaps what happened to this '50s "sex symbol" triggered a feeling of collective guilt about how we use and abuse man-made idols, especially the female ones. Maybe it's Marilyn's struggle with her contrasting self-images as a celluloid aphrodisiac and serious actress that's made her so magnetically attractive across the decades.

Or is the bottom line that sex sells? Go ask the U.S. Postal Service. First, it laughed all the way to the bank in 1993 when Elvis flashed his Cherokee smile across the 29-cent stamp. The King raked in a handsome $36 million profit from collectors who couldn't bear to kiss him goodbye at the mailbox. Then, in 1995, a dazzling image of Monroe at her sultriest proved to be just what the postmaster ordered. Although 250 million people licked her backside as they affixed her onto envelopes nationwide, 46 million others kept their hands on her assets. Eyes half-closed, mouth open, and wearing nothing but a come-hither look and the gold lame dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn was a 32-cent wonder who brought in a pretty $14. 8 million.

Whatever the reason for her popularity, one thing's for sure: Though Monroe won't be blowing out any candles on her 70th birthday come June 1, her spirit lives on.

Fairest in All the Land

Here she comes now, sashaying toward me in the billowing white dress that raised more than just eyebrows in The Seven Year Itch. Say goodbye Norma Jean and hello Catherine Grillos! Grillos is the winner of the Marilyn Monroe competition, sponsored by the post office as a promotional spinoff for its 1995 stamp-unveiling hooha. As my eyes slide across the platinum hair, down her plunging neckline and all the way to the tips of her arm-length gloves, it's easy to see why she won. Beyond these blatant visuals, her body language speaks voluptuous volumes.

Slowly she pats her platinum hair, parts her heavily lipsticked mouth, crouches slightly for the camera, and caresses her cleavage before extending her hands welcomingly to me. Then she gives me a long, sensuous kiss on the cheek. Mmm. She even feels like Marilyn.

But the identification runs much deeper than the satiny-soft skin. When her agent suggested doing Marilyn back in 1990, Grillos resisted the idea because of a disturbingly similar past: Both were raped as girls (Marilyn by an elderly lodger in her foster home, Grillos by her paternal grandfather). Both were met with anger and denial when they told their families this nauseating news, and both oozed sexuality from an early age--a fact that stood in the way of Marilyn's serious acting career in Hollywood, and that found Grillos constantly cast as the ingenue.

In the end, Grillos accepted the challenge of playing Marilyn, a decision that meant being prepared to go to hell and back as she came to terms with unresolved child-abuse issues. Grimacing wryly, she admits, "It's been a painful transformational process, but then, it takes a lot of shit to grow a rose."

Today this professional impersonator thanks the Hollywood movie star not only for the places she's been and the people she's seen along the way, but also for the opportunity "to play an ingenue with a sexual twist. Through Marilyn, I've learned not to refuse roles, but to accept them and use them to my advantage. I've discovered that you can take any image and redefine it. After all, we're constantly challenging what it means to be a man or woman, so why not what it means to be Marilyn? For me, Monroe is a glaring symbol of how women got locked in the child-woman role in the 1950s. A lot of people have a strong love of Elvis and Marilyn and the good old '50s, but in reality the roles then were really rigid."

Grillos believes that Marilyn represents a negative stereotype in so far as the way Hollywood used her. But the very '90s actress also sees the positive: "Marilyn's a goddess archetype with her soft child-woman spirit, and I wish she were around to see what an icon she has created. The average reaction, when I impersonate her, is one of surprise and delight. She gave us inspiration by showing us more of her child-self, and that's what made her so magnetically powerful."

More Happy Endings

Grillos doesn't stop with Marilyn: Barbie, Cinderella, Madonna--she fools with them all. Smiling subversely, she tells me that she redefines the characters, updates the attitudes and rewrites the endings. Personalizing each character to match the occasion--be it a birthday, convention or Christmas party--she uses them to do a little politicking in disguise.

Today, at Victoria Smith's annual birthday extravaganza, she's delivering a singing telegram as Marilyn. The underlying message of her party patter is that diamonds aren't a girl's best friend, women get more interesting as they age, and it's okay to play with your tooter anytime, anyplace and for as long as you want.

"With Barbie," she says, "I go in and tell those little girls that you don't have to be blonde and blue-eyed. And you don't have to wear makeup. That's just something we do for fun."

As for Madonna, Grillos draws strong parallels between her and Marilyn: "Both women followed their ambitions and had this honesty. They refused to wait for people to give them permission and that's why they played key roles in America's sexual revolution. If Monroe is the child-woman, helping us redefine our sexuality, then Madonna is the virgin-whore, helping us to reform our images of what is sacred and profane. Madonna had a lot of courage to put the sexual back into that icon--although Catholicism gave us the Virgin Mary, it forgot to make her into a sexual woman. In so many mythologies 'Don't do it!' is the gate we have to go through, the social taboo we have to break. Everything has its price, but when we play it safe, what do we get? Nothing."

To hire Catherine Grillos for any kind of event, call 438-8739.

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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