Look At Us

turning the spotlight onto celebrity look-alikes

by by Caitlin McKenna

illustration by by Michelle Snow

Bill Hair's answering machine picks up after six rings. The tinny voice on the other end sounds vaguely familiar. "Hi," it says. "This is Bill and Jenny. Please leave a message after the beep. If you don't... you're fired." Hair, the self-proclaimed world's greatest Donald Trump impersonator, is in character even on his home phone. He entered the look-alike business ten years ago, when his dog breeder pointed out the man's truly striking resemblance--the hazel eyes, the orange helmet of hair. But Hair is confident that he shares more than appearance with Trump, whom he calls "The Donald." In a phone conversation, he explained that they were born 10 days apart and both had lucrative past careers in real estate: "If you believe in astrology at all--and you're a woman, so I'm sure you do--there are really similarities in people when they're born. We share many characteristics; it's just the way it is."

Tracey Lynne, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike out of DB Magic & Entertainment, grasps at different routes to establish similarity. Tracey hasn't seen the sun in four years, in an effort to get her part-Indian skin as snow-white as Marilyn's. She keeps her hair short enough to fit under the blonde wig that she treats like a baby. She has seriously considered breast implants, since she currently uses padding to recreate Marilyn's curves. Yet she claims that similarity of looks isn't as important as the ability to deeply empathize with the other person. Having read every possible book on the subject, Tracey knows that Marilyn was not without her faults; she was unhealthy, a perfectionist, difficult to work with and thought nothing of being hours late. "Despite all this," she says, "I love her, I love her very much. How can you be someone if you don't love them?"

Hotties and notties
Ron Bartels entered the business early on, founding Lookalike-USA, a Boston-based booking agency, in 1984. Ron was a recent college graduate and a disc jockey, spinning records at his local radio station. He saw a Michael Jackson impersonator perform at a club one night. Struck by the business potential, he collaborated with "Jackson," and slowly started building up his own "stable of look-alikes." He pulled names right off the records he was playing--Billy Idol, Cindy Lauper, Bruce Springsteen. With hooded, smiling eyes and a handsome, streamlined face, Ron himself performed as The Boss and Clint Eastwood, who resemble each other far more than you've probably ever noticed. The business of look-alikes was young, and the new company flourished.

Today, Ron runs Lookalike-USA mostly by himself, with occasional sales help from "Jessica Simpson" and "Bill Murray." Bill Murray's understated humor isn't big party material and Jessica Simpson is never as in demand as her more outrageous peers, so their look-alikes need to pull in the extra income. If Jessica and Bill aren't in high demand, who is? Elvis and Marilyn are eternal. Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton are hot. Sinatra and Bond are classy. Bush and Clinton are timely. They sell hair supplies at corporate trade shows, pose seductively in Korean cell phone commercials, sing toasts at retirement celebrations and greet retirees off of Newport cruise ships.

But not just anyone can pull off that celebrity magic. One corner of the Rockland, MA office is dubbed "the Wall of Shame." Here, the photos of certain wannabe look-alikes come to rest. The sixty-year old woman who says she can do Marilyn Monroe. "Marilyn died at thirty," Ron says with a snort. And then there's the man who claims he looks like Mel Gibson. "Oh yeah, you have his right eyebrow, that's it," scoffs Ron. It's a tight business, impersonating people whose faces are incredibly well known, and Ron plucks only from the A-list.

Method acting
At events, Derek Williams, a UK-based Sven-Goran Eriksson (one of Europe's most famous soccer managers) impersonator, tries to strike a balance between "being the character while relying on one's own wits to invent original and entertaining dialogue." He notes that a look-alike must provide far more entertainment value than the celebrity would at the same event.

Without inherent star cachet, look-alikes must "work their socks off all night" to be fun. Tracey Lynne will do whatever it takes to sell herself. When describing what she does at parties, she breaks into character, her voice soaring to Marilyn's flighty heights. Asked her name, she answers, "My name is Marilyn, silly." When pressed further: "I talk about Joe, how I love Joe very much, Bobby and Jack were okay, but Joe." However, if the conversation gets much deeper than that, Tracey will admit her own name and connect on a more personal level. Listening to both Tracey and Derek, their need to find equilibrium between the self and the celebrity, the performer and the person, shines through.

Bill Hair worries much less about self/celebrity, performer/person mumbo jumbo. He finds it easy to get into character because, like his double, he's used to mixing with people. For him, it's not about balance; it's about exploiting what he already has in common with Trump. "I talk about anything you want. I'm very well-educated--I've been an aeronautical engineer and a pilot, I collect fine art, restore rare automobiles, I've written a gourmet Italian cookbook."

At least Trump has interests to exploit. Ron Bartels is shocked that "Paris Hilton," a persona without any particular entertainment value, is currently Lookalike-USA's most popular female look-alike. According to him, when "Paris" comes to your party, she, well, impersonates Paris: "She hangs around, drinks, pretends she's text messaging her friends, smiles, says 'Nice dress' and 'You're hot.'" She's particularly requested for kids' parties and bar mitzvahs. "I don't know why anyone would pay money for these things," he exclaims.

For Jo Wiskin, the founder of Lookalikes-Unite, a UK-based non-profit that promotes look-alikes, it's easy to understand why. She explains that celebrities make people happy. Most people can't meet celebrities. Lookalikes are cheaper than celebrities. Lookalikes make people happy. Bill agrees with this and will sometimes even break the golden rule of impersonation by not correcting fans who approach him in public. Recently, while leaving a California luncheon, he was stopped by a turnstile attendant. The attendant gushed, "Oh God Mr. Trump, you're the greatest man in the world," so Bill gave him a headshot and drove away. "I don't tell them I'm not Donald Trump. I let them enjoy it, let them go home with a happy feeling. There's no harm."

Magic, deception and a male Joan Rivers
Look-alikes and their agents fight for respect in an industry where they're more likely to be linked with tabloids and Vegas than talent and Hollywood. Kerry Ferris, a sociologist at Northern Illinois University, is one of the few researchers on celebrity impersonation. She says that most look-alikes are initially entertainers and artists, seeking recognition themselves, who exploit their resemblances to the famous to make ends meet. Few dream of becoming impersonators, she claims. It's a job and it takes work.

Tracey says that even Marilyn didn't look like Marilyn. "Sometimes, she took as many as nine hours to get into her Marilyn persona. Her voice wasn't really like that. When she would walk around in a brown wig, no one would notice her." And Derek recounts a famous anecdote in which Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest and won third place. Derek explains, "To convincingly 'be' our character, we have to be slightly 'larger than life' and 'more real' than the real thing... This is a rare talent which is often unrecognized."

Tracey doesn't completely resemble Marilyn Monroe, but she's mastered the art of "being" the star in other ways. She got her start through happenstance. David, her husband of sixteen years, has a beautiful voice. He and his brother even won a Country Music Award in 1989, but when their partnership fell through, he combined magic with his music. One day, his agent called and said, "My Elvis isn't available, I need an Elvis. Can you do it?" So David shaved off his goatee and transformed himself into Elvis. His main routine was magical singing telegrams. Tracey did all his booking, and a customer, responding to her personable phone voice, said, "Tracey, you could do Marilyn." She replied, "No, no I can't, I don't even look like her. I have long brown hair. I can't sing." The customer insisted, so Tracey put on a white dress and a blonde wig and started to get inside Marilyn's head.

When Tracey was younger, she wanted to be "Tracey the Movie Star." No longer destined for Hollywood, Tracey's professional life is now playing Marilyn alongside David's Dean Martin. "I'm doing what I kind of wanted to do," she says. "I just didn't know it would go this way." Tracey and David have a business on the side, a magic trick factory that they run out of their Connecticut home. And it's no surprise that impersonation and magic should go hand in hand--they both provide entertainment through friendly deception.

At the end of our conversation, Tracey sighs, "I would love to walk the red carpet though. God, how awesome." Then she checks herself. "Actually, next week Marilyn will walk a red carpet outside a Pratt & Whitney airport hangar with a male Joan Rivers. I'll be walking the red carpet next week."