A bubbly 44-year-old given to patches of intense earnestness, McKay said that eight hours of pampering and nourishing my "honor and respect" would send self-esteem coursing through my veins; having given myself "permission to be fabulous," I would be able to wear my "imaginary crown" for life.
This sounded promising. But the more McKay talked about her own imaginary crown, the more it became clear that the crown is not always so . . . imaginary. As she picked up one of the glittery headpieces scattered around her ranch-style house, McKay said, "I often wear my tiara, even to Safeway."
"And do people let you cut in line?"
"Of course. I also wore it once to get out of a traffic ticket." Pointing to the radar photograph that lay on the judge's podium, McKay had told him that the picture was not of her: "I'm a queen, and I always wear this crown." The ticket was wiped off her record. Her glee shifting to something more sober— the aforementioned earnestness—McKay confessed to me, "It took a lot of courage for me to do that."
While men (King for the Day) and girls aged 12 to 17 (Princess for the Day) make up only 20 percent of McKay's clientele, the planning of their Ultimate Personalized Day of Luxury and Pampering is the same as it is for queens. McKay faxes you a list of possible activities (spa trips, tours of historic sites); you can also buy "extra-special indulgences"— an oil portrait with all your regalia, a full-, would start with a visit to a posh jeweler and conclude with the "knighting ceremony" McKay performs at her house.
Came the day. I was met at my Phoenix hotel at nine by the Town Car and a red carpet; upon seeing the latter I thought, We are amused. McKay, smartly turned out in a gold-threaded jacket and a navy blue silk skirt, held out an ornate gold leather crown perched on a velour pillow. I could hear every British person I have ever met laughing uproariously at me.
Our first stop was Molina Fine Jewelers, where, seated in chairman Alfredo Molina's office, I was shown a Kashmiri sapphire and a Colombian emerald. These dazzled. I talked with Molina about which jewels would befit my kingship: "I'm trying to say, Benevolent despot, but will amass troops at the slightest provocation." Molina, whose desire to please bordered on the aerobic, nodded. "I was thinking about a pinkie ring," I continued. A look of concern passed over his face--the look of a man who has reached the interstate, only to be asked if he has turned off the coffeemaker--whereupon he said, "A pinkie ring is going to send a Vegas message." McKay added, "It would weaken your stature." I instead borrowed a Patek Philippe watch with crocodile strap and, for my ring finger, a platinum band studded with sapphires and diamonds.
As we motored to our next stop--the Spa at Camelback Inn --I practiced the slight oscillation known as the royal wave; two passers-by waved back. I felt good. I felt strong. I thought, I have a beautiful ulna.
In the locker room, my armed bodyguard/chauffeur, Ben, lurked beside me while I divested myself of crown and clothes; his proximity seemed unnecessary, particularly given this regent's heretofore peaceable reign. Trying to offset any awkwardness, I said, "Glad to know you're packing heat, Ben." He smiled. Good, I thought. My minions adore me.
I proceeded to launch into a small festival of watery pleasantness, interacting with a Jacuzzi, a steamroom towel steeped in eucalyptus oil, and a gentleman fascinated by nozzles. I availed myself of a shower that bore 12 snakelike extensions: it was bathing's Medusa. For the Bindhi herbal treatment, I lay on a table while an aesthetician named Larry slathered a paste of crushed herbs all over my person, let it dry, scraped it off, and then applied oil. "I loved it!" I gushed to McKay in the lobby. "I felt like a large leg of lamb."
Outside, a Camelback guest asked, "Why the crown?" She smiled unsurely when I told her I want to be on stamps. As we pulled up at the Phoenician hotel, where I would eat lunch with McKay (most monarchs dine with their spouses), I spotted the paparazza that McKay had hired. Pushing toward the car, this energetic young woman started flashing her camera, causing a crowd of guests to look my way. When a visitor in her sixties asked, "Who's that?" and her friend responded, "Probably some TV commercial," it was only my sense of noblesse oblige that curbed me from telling her I was the bastard son of Count Chocula.
The paparazza followed us into the dining room, photographing me so assiduously that she bumped into a painting. Over a lunch of tortilla soup, salad with salmon, and angel food cake with strawberries in a white-chocolate crown, I spoke with McKay about how her business began. She got the idea in 1995 when, for her 40th birthday, some friends made her wear a tiara and treated her royally. Before moving from Dallas to Phoenix to hang up her shingle, McKay resigned from her 19-year career as a sales manager at a consumer products company. "I've seen how women don't stick up for themselves," she said. "I wanted to start a business that would empower them."
Certainly my Count Chocula moment had provided a moment of transcendence, and McKay's appearance at traffic court had been the very essence of expedience. But was this power?Glory?Moreover, both events had hinged upon wearing an actual, not imaginary, crown. I asked McKay how her kings and queens could stay strong once their special day had concluded. "The video helps," she said. "Whenever you're feeling low, you slip it in." I surmised that the song ("Oh, Queen [your name here]/You shine like a brilliant diamond/Sharing your talents and gifts with the world") would have the same effect; McKay said yes, and that she keeps a taped copy in her car as a pick-me-up. "I paid big bucks for that song," she said. "We play it while she's eating dessert. It usually gets tears."
I was suddenly glad I had not ordered the song.
McKay and Ben dropped me off at the office of Sangeet Khalsa, an "energy healer." I listened to her chant and tape-record affirmations for me (including "God in me, me in God are one") in English and Sanskrit. After I meditated, Khalsa wondered if I had a question. Indeed I did: "How do you reconcile the age-old history of savagery and persecution committed in the name of preserving the aristocracy?" Her eyes widened. "You're probably familiar with the works of Aristotle and Plato," she answered. "They talk about a king who is a protector." She encouraged me to "walk like a king but talk like a sage."
On the way back to McKay's, a pedestrian pointed questioningly at my crown. Separated from him by car window, I mouthed, "Desperate for attention." On the living room floor, I knelt for the knighting ceremony, and raised my right hand. McKay rested a large, dull sword on my shoulder and had me repeat an oath in which I promised to "treat myself, enjoy myself, do more to make myself happy." I gazed into her eyes. Something was on her mind. But what?I realized that I would soon write about her and, in so doing, reverse the modern phenomenon wherein former members of Britain's royal staff write tell-alls. Eureka! My power! My glory! Might McKay resent this?Peering at the blade, I became anxious. That the blade was dull only exacerbated my alarm: I foresaw multiple whacks. I breathed deeply. I summoned courage.
Finally, oath completed, I stood and sighed. "King Henry!" McKay trilled as she buzzed into her dining room. "Do you want to see the top hat and topcoat I bought off a guard who was standing in front of the crown jewels in London?"
Henry Alford's Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top is out this month.
Queen for the Day By appointment only; 888/827-8336 or 602/955-2046; www.queenfortheday.com. Packages start at $999.