Fake That: The uncanny world of America’s biggest celebrity-lookalike convention

Author: By John Walsh

And OhMiGaaaad, am I seeing things or is that Sarah Palin holding a
conversation with (pinch me, somebody) Arnie Schwarzenegger in a serious gun
shop?

Well, of course it makes perfect sense, but to actually see them together …
Wait a minute, can that be James Gandolfini from The Sopranos posing all
friendly with (gulp ? isn’t he dead?) Marlon Brando with cotton-wool in his
cheeks for his role as The Godfather? What is this, some kinda Mafiosi
nostalgia-fest? But that would hardly explain the presence in the parking
lot of Bono from U2 (does he own any sunglasses apart from those pink
wraparounds?) having a surprisingly public canoodle with the birdbrain
actress Jessica Simpson. Or the fact that you cannot move in the local
supermarket without encountering Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the
Caribbean posing, in his Hamlet blouson and pointy double-beard, beside the
ice-cream cabinets, or Tupac Shakur contorting his fingers into an
LA-gangland gesture, bang in the middle of the tinned-fruit aisle…

For the committed celebrity-spotter, life doesn’t get any better than the
Sunburst Convention, held each year since 2003 in Orlando, Florida. But, sad
to relate, all the celebrities are lookalikes, or “professional
impersonators” who make a living out of exploiting their fancied
resemblance to Elton John or Joan Rivers on TV or at corporate events. Some
impersonators seem no more than a lazy collection of accessories: you feel
that, behind the lank black hair, the granny-glass shades, the skull rings
and dangling silver pendants, almost anyone could look like Ozzy Osbourne.
Others are scarily like the real thing: check out the dead-spit William
Shatner from Star Trek, flanked by a brace of Tina Turners, one a
convincingly wild rock chick, the other a goofily demure civilian in a
fright wig.

The photographer Marcus Dawes has visited several of these conventions and
discovered a faintly surreal atmosphere. He found himself sitting beside
Jack Nicholson in the front of a minivan (Chevy Chase and Robin Williams
were squashed in the back) driven by George Bush. According to Dawes, when
they arrived at their restaurant, two huge black guys in long baseball
shirts came up to the driver, stared at him with loathing ? evidently seeing
nothing odd about the presence of the US President in an LA burger joint
with Jack Nicholson ? and declared, “Bush, your days are numbered
…”

The convention is like a glimpse of Valhalla, the mead-hall of the immortal
Gods, where Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast
together, where George Bush and Bill Clinton chat by the lifts, and where
Whoopi Goldberg can tell the photographer, “You missed what happened
last night ? Stevie Wonder was hitting on me big-time. In the end Johnny
Depp had to scare him away.” It’s also, of course, the most brilliant
fancy-dress party in the world, where the participants have not just “made
an effort” to turn into Robert De Niro in his poolside slacker role in
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but have mostly started with a resemblance
of face, body and demeanour that suggests some really committed acting.

There’s also, however, a pathos in Dawes’ photographs, about the people who
have so completely subsumed their own identities inside those of the
globally famous ? sometimes inside a single role (like Captain Jack) rather
than inside an actor, making themselves into an echo of an echo of a real
person. Look at Dennis Keogh, a professional Sean Connery impersonator,
taking his modest lunch at the convention hotel. He’s committed to being
Connery in The Hunt for Red October; but he looks completely stuck inside
it, doomed to spend his every waking moment being grim, gubernatorial,
heroic and shlurrily Shcottish. Diane Arbus would surely have had a field
day among these existential casualties.

You can’t help wondering how much they remain in character when they meet:
does Clint Eastwood chat animatedly to Borat, or punch him for being a pushy
interloper? Are George W Bush and Bill Clinton icily polite, or do they go
for a beer together? Do all the Tina Turners hit the same nightclub,
muttering “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” under their collective
breath? According to Dawes, the impersonators as a throng are very friendly
and mutually supportive. They all enjoy the sensation of being stared at by
the public as they emerge from limousines on to the street in full
public-appearance fig. But it says something about modern celebrity culture
that these mock-ups, fakes and human forgeries give themselves near-regal
airs. “You have to remember,” John Morgan the Bush impersonator
told Dawes, “that, underneath, we’re just real people like everybody
else…”

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