July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

It was in 1982 that Kay Kent, a brunet from the working-class town of Chatham, 30 miles southeast of London, began taking her Marilyn Monroe impressions seriously. Ever since she was a teenager in the grim port, Kent had been partial to ’50s-style makeup—bright lipstick marked off against a pale complexion. In 1982, soon after she “took the plunge” into platinum, as she put it, her cosmetic metamorphosis took on emotional dimensions. Gradually, increasingly, she came to style herself as Marilyn incarnate, and her transformation was rewarded. Signing in 1983 with Look-alikes, an agency featuring doubles for such notables as Princess Di and Gorbachev, she became a British sensation; making department-store appearances and occasional TV commercials, she earned $90,000 in 1988. She posed for the December 1987 issue of Penthouse, recreating some of Monroe’s most memorable poses in the buff.

It took years for Kent to bring her imitation to perfection until finally, two weeks ago, she gave it a tragically apt finishing touch. On the night of June 12. her naked body was found sprawled across her bed, just as Monroe’s had been found in 1962. Among the scattered photographs of Monroe in some of her most famous films were a vial of sleeping pills and a half-finished bottle of vodka. A suicide at 25, Kent had copied her idol down to nearly the exact manner of death.

“Marilyn was a hugely talented person,” Kent once said, “but she had a troubled life…. It’s almost as though by taking on her appearance I’ve inherited her troubles.” That legacy seemed most painful toward the end. Four months ago Kent’s mother, Pearl, died of cancer. In late May, Kent’s boyfriend, rockabilly singer Dean Hammond, left her. Just as Monroe’s had been, Kent’s last days were marked by a seemingly inconsolable loneliness.

When she was once asked why she wanted to look like Monroe, Kent replied, “I suppose it’s because the real Marilyn is no longer alive and I’m the next best thing.” It was a mission she undertook with a crusader’s zeal. Kent spent thousands of dollars on Monroe-style clothes and just over $3,000 on silicone breast implants to ensure a Monroe-style fit. She pored over books about the fragile screen goddess and listened to recordings of her voice. She had the pout, the mincing walk and even the trademark-lisp down pat. “Her outfits became more nd more outrageous,” said a former classmate of Kent’s. “She always dressed like Marilyn, and not just for the cameras. It was an obsession.” If her identification with Monroe concealed some inner suffering, Kent didn’t let it show. The money, the celebrity, the flower-bearing fans seemed to satisfy her needs. Shirley Millward, who lived next door to Kent and her mother in Chatham, remembers Kay as “a lovely, levelheaded girl.” Douglas Taylor, who boarded with the Kents, says she seemed to be “a happy-go-lucky person.” It was Taylor who discovered Kay’s body.

Following the death of Pearl (which, coincidentally, was Monroe’s mother’s middle name), Kay began to break down. “When my mum died, we all cried,” says Kent’s brother, Jay, 27, who lived across the street from Pearl and Kay, “but Kay withdrew. I don’t think she could cope without our mother. Without her, Kay was a little lost.”

Shortly before she died, Pearl asked Hammond, Kay’s longtime boyfriend, to move into the house so that Kay wouldn’t be alone. Two weeks before the suicide, Hammond, who’s known professionally as Dickie Dynamite, told Kay he wanted to split up.

“The last time I saw Kay was when I went round to collect some clothes a day or two before she died,” said Hammond, 29, who reportedly left Kent for a 16-year-old singer. “She pleaded with me not to leave her. I tried to calm her down, but in the end I had to go. If I had any idea she would do something like this, there’s no way in the world I would have walked out that door.” A note found with Kent’s body begins, “Dear Dean, I love you so very much,” and ends, “Love, Kay.” The rest is illegible.

The small, terraced house has become a temporary shrine to a minor star. A child playing ball out front tells passersby, “Kay used to live there, but she doesn’t anymore. Now she’s dead.” Those who know her still wonder why she copied her idol down to the last, ultimate detail. “I thought I knew her inside out,” said Hammond. “What was she thinking of?”

—Margot Dougherty, Janine Di Giovanni in London

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