It’s official: Taylor Rodriguez is one of the best Elvis Tribute Artists on the planet.

Fans of the King worldwide finally learned what Lynchburg audiences have known for almost a decade when Rodriguez, 21, won the 2019 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist (ETA) Contest at Graceland on Aug. 10.

With this win, Rodriguez achieved a goal he has been striving for since he first started performing as Elvis at the age of 9.

“It has not set in at all,” Rodriguez, 21, said in an interview from Graceland earlier this week. “It’s kind of like [I’m] on cloud nine right now.”

Held every year at the King’s home in Memphis during Elvis Week, The Ultimate ETA Contest is an international competition to find the best Elvis Tribute Artist.

Those who win official preliminary competitions held earlier in the year are brought to Graceland to compete in a semifinal round during Elvis Week. The Top 10 artists then perform again in a final round, with the Top 5 singing once more before the winner is announced.

This year, 17 ETAs, hailing from the U.S. as well as Canada, Brazil, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, advanced to Graceland.

It was the second Ultimate appearance for Rodriguez, who was named the champion at Tupelo Elvis Festival in June. In 2017, he represented the Myrtle Beach Elvis Festival and placed in the Top 5 at that year’s finals in Graceland.

“I didn’t know what to expect the first year in 2017,” Rodriguez said. “This year, I was so much more relaxed, and being able to perform and have fun onstage, I think that’s really what made the difference.”

Rodriguez also attributed his success to the extra support he got from Tupelo Elvis Festival, which offers an Elvis boot camp for its winner and has produced six of the 13 Ultimate champions since the competition began in 2007.

The team at Tupelo helped him work on his vocals and song selection and also provided style tips, he said.

“[Taylor’s] background in theater was a strength that proved to play a role in the competition process from interview to performance,” Debbie Brangenberg, director of Tupelo Elvis Festival, wrote in an email to The News & Advance. “Our time together was spent polishing the apple.”

A Jefferson Forest High School graduate, Rodriguez became a local celebrity when he started performing at his parent’s restaurant El Cazador, which has locations in Bedford and Altavista.

He has since gone on to win the semi-pro division of the Elvis Performers Impersonator Championships (EPIC) in 2015 and make appearances at Elvis festivals and events across the country.

Rodriguez, who was actively involved in high school and community theater around the Lynchburg area, also hosts an annual concert at Jefferson Forest to benefit the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“He will always have [a show] for his hometown,” said Taylor’s mother, Donna Rodriguez.

Over the years, Rodriguez’s performances have mainly focused on the rock ‘n’ roll Elvis of the 1950s and the movie star Elvis of the 1960s.

At Graceland, Rodriguez “took a calculated risk to move to the ‘70s jumpsuit era,” Brangenberg wrote, “and it proved to be a good move for him.”

Throughout the rounds, Rodriguez sang such hits as “Rags to Riches,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Impossible Dream.”

“From the minute Taylor stepped onstage he owned it, working the entire stage, playing to the audience and interacting with the band in true Elvis style,” wrote Brangenberg, who was at Graceland for the competition.

Then the moment finally came. After multiple rounds of competition, Rodriguez was named the 2019 winner.

“The man [who announced it] never got ‘Rodriguez’ out of his mouth [before] I ran as fast as I could to that stage with open arms to give him the biggest hug,” Donna Rodriguez said. “I felt like I was on ‘The Price is Right,’ and I had won the grand prize. Tears [were] just rolling down my face.”

While Rodriguez is not the youngest artist to win Ultimate, Christian Ross, a PR specialist with Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), which manages the late singer’s estate and assets, confirmed he is one of the youngest, making his success all the more impressive.

“Honestly, I just did not expect it at all, so it really came [as] a shock to me,” Rodriguez said. “Not at my age.”

As the winner of Ultimate, Rodriguez received $20,000 and a one-year contract to perform with EPE. He also is now recognized and endorsed by Graceland as one of the best tribute artists in the world, Ross told The News & Advance via email.

“That recognition and support from EPE and Graceland can be beneficial in his career,” Ross wrote. “A number of our ETA contest winner[s] have received touring, TV and movie opportunities.”

Under his new contract, Rodriguez opened the Ultimate Return concert, which features past Ultimate winners, on Aug. 11.

“[It] was a little nerve-wracking because I’ve looked up to a lot of these guys,” Rodriguez said. “... But I did get to do that, and that was really, really cool. It was an honor.”

Rodriguez also is under contract to perform at the 2020 Return concert and may have more opportunities to perform at the King’s home in the future, as ETAs often return for special appearances and events each year, Ross wrote.

Said Rodriguez: “Memphis will be like my second home.”

Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.

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