How does one pay tribute to a tribute artist? I suppose before anyone pays anything, we should clarify our terms ? a ?tribute artist? is not a mere impressionist or impersonator, which, respectively, might suggest a Monet or an identity thief. Instead, a tribute artist is a performer whose portrayal of a culturally-relevant personality is so nuanced and realized that it stands as an affectionate homage to the original.
When it comes to in-the-flesh depictions of the iconic Marilyn Monroe, few, if any, can rival the thousands of performances masterfully rendered by Sonoma?s own Diana Dawn.
On June 1, Marilyn Monroe?s birthday, Dawn, a local celebrity in her own right, will hang up her platinum blond wig for the last time. She?s retiring her tribute of Monroe after 27 years of bringing Monroe vividly back to life.
Dawn?s decision isn?t the result of a 27-year-itch, or even the fact that she?s outlived the actress who died 1962.
As Monroe herself said, ?A career is wonderful, but you can?t curl up with it on a cold night,? and Dawn is ready for new and varied pursuits.
She had originally considered retiring the act when she herself was 36, in deference to both the star, who died at 36, and the fact that playing a single role was obstructing her other acting pursuits. But the gigs as a Marilyn Monroe tribute artist kept coming.
By her own estimation, Dawn has sung ?Happy Birthday? (in the mode of Monroe?s famous recital for President Kennedy) about 10,000 times. Often, she would be in-character three times a night, performing local Bay Area gigs or on far flung adventures cruising Baltic Sea or launching commemorative collectibles in Asia. Marilyn has been good to Dawn and Dawn has endeavored to honor the icon in return.
Along the way, Dawn has met or worked with several of Monroe?s real life contemporaries, including Jackie Mason, Mickey Mantle and Kirk Douglas, among others. During the peak years of her tribute career,
Dawn even enjoyed the rare opportunity to try on a couple of Monroe?s own gowns. They fit perfectly and it?s no wonder ?
?36-24-36,? says Dawn without missing a beat, before one can even finish the question. To those of a younger generation, these numbers might read like the cypher that confounded viewers of Lost. A reader whose cultural currency has accrued more interest will recognize the bombshell measurements of the 20th century?s most enduring sex symbol.
?The interesting thing is, this wasn?t something I planned to do. It was after meeting Joe DiMaggio when I was about 19 -years-old at a City of Hope Golf Tournament,? recalled Dawn, referring to Monroe?s second husband, Yankee?s slugger ?Joltin? Joe.?
DiMaggio sought Dawn as a hostess in his Joe DiMaggio Invitational Tournament, in large part because she reminded him of ?Norma Jean,? which, if you happened to miss Elton John?s pre-Princess Di tune, ?Candle in the Wind,? was Monroe?s original name.
?I did accept his invitation and a few other invitations after that and he came to my house with a bottle of champagne to thank me and of course, I?ve been bubbling over it ever since,? says Dawn, who seamlessly slips into a Monroe voice for emphasis. It?s a beguiling transformation that has captivated audiences for nearly three decades, though it wasn?t until a family friend encouraged the Marin County native to enter a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest that her tribute began to take shape.
She was hesitant at first but she rationalized, ?Well, I?m putting on a wig, I?m putting on makeup, nobody?s gonna know who I am so, if it doesn?t work, I can just step backwards and go back to my regular life and nobody will have to know about it.?
Dawn adds, ?But I did it and it was such an overwhelming and positive experience that people made me feel again that I embodied Marilyn?s essence, her spirit, her walk, her talk, her moves.?
Ironically, she didn?t win that particular contest. She won a career instead.
?That day changed the course of what I thought was going to be my life,? she says. Globetrotting adventures and sometimes misadventures soon ensued. While in Taiwan for the release of a Monroe-themed stamp, she was assigned an entourage of a dozen people and circulated through the nation?s top talk shows.
?They decided they wanted me to be as authentic as possible and didn?t want me to wear a wig. They wanted me to be blonde,? says Dawn, whose hair color is naturally a few shades darker than Monroe?s artificial platinum.
A pair of Taiwan?s top colorists arrived to make the change but something was lost in translation and Dawn?s hair ended up orange. She used the wig after all.
Without Marilyn Monroe in her life full-time, Dawn is looking forward to exploring new professional pursuits. Likewise, she will continue hosting ?Some Like it Hot,? her radio chat show, which airs Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. on KSVY 91.3 FM, and she?ll keep managing her tribute artist booking agency at SFTalent.com.
?There are so many things I want to explore in my life, and 27 years is a good run. A lot of people have said, ?You should write a book, I?d love to read about your adventures,?? says Dawn. ?I think it?s time to sit down and relive all the adventures on paper and share them with everybody.?