06/02/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT SOUNDS LIKE THE GUEST LIST FOR the perfect dinner party: Albert Einstein is at one end of the table, flanked by Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx. Opposite that power triad are contemporary headliners Tom Cruise
, Prince Charles and Bette Midler.
With all this talent, where can mere mortals sit? On the laps of the famous, of course, since we're talking about the celebrity-lookalike chairs of Toronto artist Elaine Barrett.
As it happens, Barrett's chairs have moved a little closer to the head table. In April loyal husband Larry Labovitch, a cab-company owner, made a 16-hour drive to New York City, where he talked NBC staffers into presenting his wife's Cruise model to Rosie O'Donnell
. Charmed, the chat show host added the gift to her set. "I adore it," she confided to the audience, "and I will sit on it frequently."
The daughter of a pharmacist father and a social worker, Barrett, 47, was a high school math teacher and amateur artist when she started experimenting in the late 1980s—bolting hand-painted profiles to ready-made chairs, mainly as a way to display her mother's costume jewelry. When she donated a Marilyn Monroe to a charity auction in 1992, it sold for $350 and an art form was born. Since then, Barrett has turned out more than 100 one-of-a-kind chairs, selling for up to $1,000 each. "My techniques are bizarre and of my own making," says the self-taught craftswoman, who sometimes puts in features with her fingers instead of a paintbrush.
Sold from her studio, Barrett's catchy chairs move so quickly that she only has two left in her suburban home—a Queen Elizabeth II and a Bette Davis that may, in fact, be spoken for. "My cat," she confides, "likes to sit on Bette."