Guardian angel: we send a 21-year-old mega-fan to perform at the world's largest Elvis festival

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Guardian angel: we send a 21-year-old mega-fan to perform at the world’s largest Elvis festival
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

When 21-year-old Aaron Arter feels blue, he sings along to the King. When he is happy, he sings along to the King. When he’s getting ready for bed, or walking down the street, or doing odd jobs as a gardener, or entertaining the elderly residents of local care homes, he sings along to the King.

There are Elvis pillows in his bedroom, an Elvis fob on his keychain. He wears a chunky brass signet ring with the initials TCB on it. (TCB stands for Taking Care of Business, Elvis’s personal motto.) He has a wardrobe full of Elvis clothes: silk shirts with exaggerated collars and leather jackets and crisp high-waisted trousers. There is a photo of Elvis on his mirror, which he kisses for luck. He dreams of owning a pink Cadillac. If you cut him open, you’d probably find a map ofGraceland, the singer’s former mansion, tattooed on his heart.

Guardian angel: we send a 21-year-old mega-fan to perform at the world’s largest Elvis festival
© Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian Aaron Arter outside the Salvation Army store in Nunhead, for which he raised over £4,000 in lockdown.

Arter loves the King so much that it’s hard to know where he ends and Elvis begins. “Elvis is in my heart,” he says. He feels happiest when he’s performing. “Some people are miserable,” he continues. “I make people happy, you know.”

Meeting Arter near his home in Nunhead, south-east London, I’m struck by how much he resembles Elvis Presley. His hair is black and Brylcreem-shiny; his smile broad and crooked. Arter has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which affects his speech, although there’s no trace of it when he sings in a low, lilting, Elvis-like croon. (He bursts into song often during our conversations, to my delight.)

Amid the first wave of the pandemic, as Britons stood on their doorsteps to Clap for Carers, Arter would perform Elvis classics while his neighbours danced along, raising £4,113 for the Salvation Army in the process. He was aided by his friend Michael Peacock, 62, a retired railway worker, who spread the word about Arter’s performances, sorted the equipment, and collected cash. “He was amazing,” says Peacock. “He just lifted everyone’s spirits.”

Even before Covid, Arter often performed as the King. At care homes, he would comb his hair back and hip thrust and gyrate, much to the delight of the ladies. “I like to make people around here happy,” he says. “People are bored, sitting down all day, in front of the telly. They can come out and listen to Elvis, be happy and relax.”

It was Arter’s grandmother who got him into Elvis. She was a huge fan. They would have singalongs together. “Every time I felt a bit down,” Arter says, “I’d get on the train and go and see her, and do Love Me Tender.” She died eight years ago. Arter misses her and talks about her all the time. “I like doing it for her,” he says, of his performances.

During his charity fundraising, Arter was occasionally met with hostility or scorn. Once, when he was performing outside a cafe, a man made a snide comment, saying he couldn’t sing. Arter felt annoyed. He did what he always does when he’s feeling low. “When people wind me up, I walk away, go home, put YouTube on, and watch Elvis,” he says.

Related: Guardian angel: a Hackney hero takes his team bowling

But most of the feedback was positive. People would dance in the streets. Once, a local bus driver even donated, mid-route. Around his neighbourhood, people know Arter. They call him “the King of Nunhead”. When he walks down the road, people will exclaim ‘Elvis!’”

When I tell Arter that he’ll be performing at the Porthcawl Elvis festival – the world’s largest dedicated Presley festival (held at the end of September), where thousands of fans gather annually in the Welsh seaside town to eat, drink, and sleep all things the King – he is stunned. “Oh wow,” he says. “My God.” After a while he composes himself, and shakes my hand. He starts composing his set list. “Suspicious Minds, Hound Dog …”

At the festival gala on Saturday night, founder Peter Phillips presents Arter with an award for his charity work. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Phillips says. And then Arter’s performance, in front of thousands of Elvis fans, all dressed in full King regalia. He was so nervous his hands were sweating. He thought of his nan, for reassurance. “My nan always told me,” says Arter, “do your best.”

On stage, he performed The Wonder of You to a live band, serenading his girlfriend, Leah. “They put the lights on me,” he says, “so I couldn’t see the crowd. But when the light went off it was amazing.”

He wants to go again. “Next time I want my mum to come with me,” Arter says. Afterwards, he enjoyed watching the other performances, especially the female Elvis impersonator. “They were good,” he says, “but I was the best out there.”

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