When you’ve come second to ‘Freddie Mercury’ in TV’s Stars In Their Eyes final, your showbiz days should be over. But for Stephen ‘Frank Sinatra’ Triffitt, they were just beginning. Simon Fanshawe tells his story
This is a real showbiz story, full of coincidences and lucky breaks. It weaves its narrative around Bob Geldof, OK! magazine, a producer who was once accused of bribing a judge, and even some sex. One day it will make you believe in stars. It’s about a photocopier salesman who became Sinatra. It all started one night when he staggered in, late and tipsy, from a karaoke bar in Tenerife and said to his wife that he sounded exactly like Ol’ Blue Eyes. Sensibly, she told him to “fuck off” and went back to sleep. Three weeks later, she heard him herself. And then, since she is the ambitious one, she decided to make it happen. You may have seen him. He came second last year to “Freddie Mercury” in ITV1’s Stars In Their Eyes. His name is Stephen Triffitt. “But tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be the Chairman of the Board, the Leader of the Pack. The Voice.”
Since then, he has stopped singing at Pontin’s in Weston-super-Mare for 80 quid for 45 minutes. In June an American producer paid him $7,000 for six weeks to play young Frank in The Main Event, a show of Sinatra’s life. It was the summer season production in the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel, Atlantic City, which was the last casino date Sinatra ever played – in November 1994, four years before he died. This time next year, it is planned that The Main Event will come to the West End.
Triffitt perfectly fits the new century’s obsession with retro and self-reference. He is about to become famous by being someone else. It’s like the Apple Mac ad says: “Think different,” and then you’re shown a picture of Einstein, a real, one-off, certified genius you can aspire to copy. There are no new stars now, only people who recycle the old. But there’s no need to be unfair to Triffitt; he’s just a lad from Weston who wants to “provide a good living for his family”. And the thing is, he really does sound exactly like Frank Sinatra.
Atlantic City is the Blackpool of the US. It is a man-made resort full of people wearing man-made fibres. If casino owners wanted to create their own energy, they need only rub together the ubiquitous bulging Lycra shorts of gambling matrons,and they could fuel the slot machines and the 24-hour illuminated signs for years to come. Everywhere, the promise of instant money offers to make dreams come true. There’s a “Car Giveaway” at Trump Plaza; “$60,000 cash prizes daily in the Slot Tournaments”. The flashing signs above the one-armed bandits scream “California Dreamin’ “, “Reel ’em in”, “Double Diamond Deluxe” and, as if it needed saying, simply “Filthy Rich”. It is Viv Nicholson in neon. Spend, spend, spend.
And the people are huge. A sign in the lift says “maximum elevator weight capacity six persons”. In any other country, this would be 24. Hauling that weight up 16 floors, this lift is industrial. It could raise the Titanic. Yet all day long these people are lined up at the buffet. If they had drunk as much as they appear to have eaten, the waitress would be able to say, like a weary barman, “Sorry, sir, I think you’ve had enough.” But for $19.99, they plough on through half a cow, washed down by cream of potato with bacon soup. Triffitt and I are served by a 55-year-old waitress, Jane, with crooked lippy, who looks like a bit part from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More. If there were any dignity in the world, she shouldn’t still have to work. Especially here.
Triffitt is keeping his spirits up. Six weeks in Atlantic City may be a long haul in nylon hell, but this is his big break. And every night except Sunday, when there is boxing, he sings the young Sinatra. And it’s only through coincidence that he’s here at all. After five weeks, he is going a little stir crazy. “People in the cast are saying that they’re really sorry this is the only bit of America I am seeing.”
His time will come. If this career move works out as it should, he will be staying in the very best hotels in the very smartest cities in the US. If it doesn’t, of course, he can always give up being Sinatra.
After the show, we’re sitting in a bar full of men watching the national basketball championships on television. And Triffid says, sitting among the audience that has been watching him earlier, “The moment they stop enjoying Frank is the moment I stop and concentrate on Neil Diamond or Barry Manilow.” He doesn’t look like either of them – which is a blessing for his wife, no doubt – but he can sound like them. So he might as well do them. He’s always been keen to do what the audience says.
But he hasn’t quite got the hang of the showbiz thing yet. It requires more than just being able to do your bit and please the audience. You have to make it special, sparkling. You have to do it “your way”. Yet all through our conversation, Triffitt affects not really to care that much about being able to do Frank, and makes out that it doesn’t take any effort. He probably thinks this is cool. Sinatra once said, “If they can see that we’re working, we’re not trying hard enough.” But in Triffitt it comes over a little smug, behaving as if he is the star, rather than just a very good impression. But then close your eyes and, as I wrote in my notebook, “It works, it really works.” So maybe he doesn’t need to care.
Triffitt was born in 1963, the elder of two, to a family that he has “never described as anything really. Just my family, who worked.” His dad was in the RAF for 22 years. Triffitt went to 13 schools, was as a child fluent in German, which he has now forgotten, and until he was 15 and came back from living in Malta, he did a lot of am-dram. After school, he joined the RAF, like his dad, who was by then running his own company scanning x-rays in Weston-super-Mare. He left after a few years and, returning to Weston, became a salesman. He also returned to am-dram, with three different groups, “because they didn’t have enough men of my age to do young lead roles”. While in No Sex Please, We’re British, he met his wife, Tessa. In the next play, Ritual For Dolls, they kissed on stage in front of 350 people and “enjoyed it so much we carried on”. He was 28, she was 24. She already had one child and now they have two more together, the three aged between 14 and seven.
Tessa is clearly the driving force. She has used Stephen’s recent success to start her own management company and now looks after an 11-piece soul band called The Orphans, two singer-songwriters, Tony Mogg and Suzi Woods, and Harry Crawley Jr, who works with Triffitt as “Two Rats From The Pack” doing Dean Martin. Triffitt says of himself, “I have never been ambitious. If it turns out I am good at something, it’s just luck. I never wanted to be the best salesman, or the office champion with the prizes.” But he was a good salesman. Then the recession hit in the early 1990s, and you couldn’t give away fax machines or fire extinguishers. After working for Thompson’s Directories, he took enough money for a month, got the plane fare together and went to the Canaries to sell time shares. Tessa followed in 1992. They stayed in Tenerife, in a village called Callao Salvaje, until Christmas 1995. And during that time Stephen started to sing.
He helped a man called Jimmy, the brother of an old friend, to run a karaoke club in the neighbouring village of Playa Paraiso. Selling time share is part David Mamet-like desperation and part Butlins Redcoat. “We were on commission,” says Triffitt. “You had to make friends with the people you were selling to, and then in the evening we’d be doing the entertainments for them.” One night he sang New York, New York in the bar and everyone went crazy.
Eventually, they returned to Britain and he started selling again, but Triffitt found it no longer gave him the buzz it once had. He realised that “in the back of his head” he really wanted to be a singer. So he became a househusband and, with Tessa out at work, he started on the pub and resort circuit in the west of England. Several hundred caravan parks, a couple of weddings and one funeral later, he applied for Stars In Their Eyes.
A funeral? “Yes, there was a couple who used to sell bingo tickets at the caravan park in Burnham-on-Sea, called Charlie and Jess. I used to sing there. Then Charlie died. And every time I sang Sinatra, Jess would cry because it reminded her of him. Then she died and her daughter asked me to sing My Way at her funeral. I had to do it just before the coffin disappeared behind the curtain. All I could do was look at the clock at the end of the room. Everybody was crying, and when I’d finished no one applauded. I just had to walk back up the aisle as the coffin was being burnt.” We are laughing at the bizarreness of it all, and then he says, “I suppose in my own little way I know how Elton John felt. And her daughter asked me how much I wanted to be paid. I mean, how much do you charge for a funeral?”
He tried to get an audition for Stars In Their Eyes three times and almost gave up. He was singing Fly Me To The Moon and his back-up personality was Neil Diamond. In the end, “Frank” got into the final. With Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, Morten Harket, Tina Arena, Lisa Stansfield, Frankie Valli, Kele Le Roc, Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Page. On the day of the final, the Sun ran a story saying that the result was going to be a fix. A huge amount of money had been put on “Freddie Mercury” by city traders, who had dubbed it the Fred Spread. Suspicion was rife. “It put a damper on the whole thing,” says Triffitt now, “but once the show started we forgot it. I was on last. When the votes came in, the highest vote under me was 100,000 and then I got 485,000, just about as high as anyone has got in winning a final so far. Then there was a big jump to Freddie, who got 800,000.” Triffitt comes within a lawyer’s letter of wondering if indeed there was a fix, but consoles himself: “I never expected to be in the final, anyway. So, getting that far, I was happy. The fact is that a lot of people thought I should have won. Every gig I have done since then, everybody who can remember the show comes up and says so. Even if I didn’t win, I’m the one who has got all the work.” Steady, Frank – sorry, Stephen. You’re not Chairman of the Board yet.
It was mostly just ordinary gigs that came his way, but a couple were exceptional. One was a birthday do for Felix Dennis, the publisher of Maxim. And Dennis is now a big fan. But, more significantly, Colin McFarlane saw the final. Who? The guy in The Fast Show. Ah. McFarlane is an actor and producer, and had plans to do Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos in London. The play’s most famous line is “Hell is other people” and it’s about three people trapped with each other, in hell. McFarlane thought it would be funny to open with Sinatra singing “Heaven, I’m In Heaven”. Since Frank was dead and recordings are expensive, he thought, “What about Triffitt?” McFarlane had also cast Jeanne Marine, who happens to be Bob Geldof’s girlfriend, in her London debut. At the first night in London, “everybody” was there. “Everybody” meant, with a certain irony given the Freddie debacle, Roger Taylor from Queen and OK! magazine. Stephen had his picture taken with Bob by OK!
This is the point of the story at which it goes cute and transatlantic. For many years in Las Vegas, a producer called Jeff Kutash has been, as it says on his CV, “represented in the resort-casino market with Aquacade (formerly Splash), Cover Girls, Show Stoppers, etc”. In the 1970s, he was a dancer and formed his own troupe, Dancin’ Machine, who appeared with Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and, of course, Frank. They toured for 14 years, and Kutash is credited, probably by his own publicity, with having taught Michael Jackson to “moondance”.
Whatever, he appears to be rich, has too much of a tan and a ponytail. He is also crazy about Sinatra, in a very touching kind of way. He has been following him since he was a teenager. He still tells a breathless story about filming Sinatra at the Century Plaza Hotel when he was 16, and rushing backstage to catch the great man. He was so excited and ran so fast that he smacked right into Sinatra, who said, “Where the hell are you going, you son of a bitch?” Kutash recounts this tale with the same kind of awe that British people reserve for their descriptions of the day the Queen said hello.
No longer a dancer, or even a boxer, which he was as a teen, he has become a success in Vegas – although he ran into a bit of trouble four years ago, when he was accused of bribing a judge. An occupational hazard of working in the casino industry, you might think, Kutash describes the incident now as “turf wars, a political drama. Look, in Vegas you can indict a ham sandwich.” Anyway, he was acquitted and says to me two days later on the phone, “Let’s not go too negative on that stuff in Vegas. It’s the last thing we need coming into London.”
The Main Event, Kutash’s Sinatra show, is being billed by one newspaper as “his comeback”. But he has been planning it for many years. The trouble was that he couldn’t find anyone who could sing the young Sinatra. That is, until his girlfriend bought a copy of OK! magazine. Kutash saw the picture of Geldof and Triffitt, and came to London. And at Christmas last year the Triffitts were celebrating Kutash’s offer to star in Atlantic City.
In one final, rather sexy twist, the show is being brought to London by the producer, socialite and owner of the Old Vic, Sally Greene, in association with veteran producer Duncan Weldon. Greene was approached by someone who had heard of the show and knew that she was a huge Sinatra fan. “I went to see Jeff Kutash in LA in Christmas 1999. He had hundreds of albums and posters and books about Sinatra. He wouldn’t stop talking to me about him, and I really didn’t know whether he was for real or not. I mean, he’s got a ponytail! But his enthusiasm was enormous.”
And she shared his fascination for Sinatra. “I met him when I was 18,” says Greene. “I was at drama school and I got this job working on a private jet in 1976. The plane was based in Geneva and it was hired to fly Frank to and from his European gigs that summer. I got to know him very well.” How well? “Very well, very well indeed.”
So, to recap. A salesman who sounds like Sinatra when he sings, looks like him when he dresses the part and can hold the crowd sings New York, New York to a bunch of tourists in Tenerife buying time-share. He ends up on Stars In Your Eyes, whence he is booked to support Bob Geldof’s girlfriend in her London debut, and is photographed for OK! On the other side of the Atlantic, the picture is spotted by chance by a producer’s girlfriend. The producer invites over the singer, who is auditioned, contracted and booked for the summer in Atlantic City, where Sinatra made one of his last appearances. Next year, he will arrive in the West End, produced by a woman who 25 years ago slept with Frank. You have to believe in fairytales, really, don’t you?
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