On the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, the starlet’s most well-known impersonator describes how she transforms into one of the silver screen’s most iconic stars and why Marilyn’s legacy endures even so many decades after her death.
Two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, Erika Smith prepared to get on stage in front of 2,000 people in Cairo. She took a deep breath and told herself, “I am Marilyn.” The audience wasn’t waiting to see the brunette actress from Boston. Instead, they wanted the blonde bombshell star that died half a century ago. “I have to just drop my Erika world and what Erika’s thinking about, and I become Marilyn,” she says. In her head, she thinks about what Marilyn might be telling herself before a big performance. “I hope they like it, and I hope they like me,” she says, her voice rising up an octave with that breathless quality for which Marilyn is famous.

Smith is one of the top Marilyn Monroe impersonators in the world and has the daunting task of channeling arguably the most recognizable icon of all time. She does commercials, corporate events, weddings, and, of course, birthday parties, where she plants the birthday boy down in a chair and serenades him with Marilyn’s famous version of the song.

Becoming Marilyn Monroe is time consuming, not to mention intimidating. First comes the makeup, which takes an hour and a half to apply, even though Smith has it down to a precise art. The mole placement itself can take a few tries. Then there’s the costumes and the wig, a shiny mop of curly, platinum locks. The pièce de résistance: the character.

Everyone has expectations for how the movie star talked, sang, acted, and looked, so a simple slip into Smith’s normal voice can ruin the effect. After three years of performing as Marilyn, Smith has captured one of the most famous personas of the 20th century. Her voice is breathy and soft; her moves subtle and seductive. Easy as she makes it look, Smith says the hardest part is duplicating someone else’s mannerisms while embodying a character as carefree as Marilyn. “What’s difficult is to really drop all of that and live fully in the moment. You just have to become the person and for that moment be that person and believe that’s who you are.”

After seeing Gone With the Wind as a 12-year-old, Smith became obsessed with movies of Hollywood’s golden age and their legendary stars and starlets. After college she moved to California to pursue acting and soon was getting gigs as Marilyn Monroe. Her physical similarities—the pouty lips, wide eyes, and curves—had casting agents putting Smith into Marilyn roles before she even recognized the uncanny resemblance herself. A friend suggested she go into the more lucrative business of impersonations, and Smith dove in. She bought key props: the white dress from The Seven Year Itch, the glamorous pink get-up fromGentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a blonde wig to cover her brown hair. Then she rewatched and reread everything she could find by and about Marilyn.

Smith’s biggest coup came when she befriended Lena Pepitone, Marilyn’s longtime maid and confidant. The elderly Italian women painted a portrait of Marilyn as a real person Smith could relate to, not just a shallow, beautiful movie star. One night, Pepitone cooked spaghetti and meatballs for Smith and her boyfriend, telling them that it was the same meal she’d served Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio on New Year’s Eve not long after her divorce from Arthur Miller.

Soon, Smith was booking commercials, movies, and plays, not to mention frequent parties where people pay top dollar to watch and mingle with Marilyn. Sometimes the hardest part of the job is not reacting like Marilyn would react. One drunk birthday boy grabbed Smith while she was in the middle of her act. “Marilyn would have slapped him and said ‘Fuck you’ and ran upstairs,” she laughs. Smith, on the other hand, played it off and kept in character to the extent appropriate in front of a crowd of 60.

The gig has brought her to opportunities an average young actress in Manhattan might never have. “Erika the actress normally makes like $100 a day, but as Erika the Marilyn impersonator, I make thousands of dollars and get put up at five-star hotels,” Smith says. She’s sung in front of Paul McCartney and performed at the 100th-birthday party of one of Dwight Eisenhower’s top intelligence advisers. Next week she’s flying to Beirut to perform at a wedding. “It’s amazing to be good at something, and it’s amazing to be recognized for my work,” she says.

Fifty years after her death, Marilyn is still one of history’s most captivating celebrities, enough so that Smith can make a living based on current interest in the star. She attributes this enduring fascination to the role of sex symbol that Marilyn developed.

A young girl named Norma Jean waltzed into mainstream Hollywood “with her wiggly walk and her curves and her undeniable sexuality,” says Smith. “And that was very pioneering for the tightly constricted society that the ’50s were.” The epic, movielike qualities of her life enabled people to hold on to the mythology for five decades. And Smith is trying to bring the enigma to life. “I can’t say that I understand Marilyn, because I don’t really know her, I haven’t met her,” Smith admits. But after hundreds of Marilyn gigs, she’s gained insight to the smart, witty side of the star she hadn’t seen before. “Marilyn was cool. She hung out with cool people and was a dinner guest and a friend that you would enjoy talking to, not just some dumb beautiful woman.” She’s also found that their similarities go deeper than a physical resemblance. What some viewed as naiveté in Marilyn was a childlike wonder that she never outgrew, and Smith says she’s always felt too.

Being famous on someone else’s account can be bittersweet. Smith, who also writes screenplays and pilots, wrote a revealing pseudo-autobiographical series about the life of a Marilyn impersonator. The plot centers around an actress celebrated for her impression, but longing to be recognized in her own right as an artist. “I really do have feelings like that,” says Smith, who cited a recent appearance as Marilyn on a CBS talk show. “It would have been great if I got to be on CBS as myself. It’s kind of frustrating.”

Smith is realistic, and even though she calls impersonating her “survival job,” she plans to stick with it until her career as Erika Smith takes off. She guesses she’ll probably have to stop impersonating Marilyn, who died at 36, when she’s around 45, but thinks she’d move to someone else, an older star. Joan Rivers or Madonna, maybe. But there’s no one quite like Marilyn.