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Notes on Impersonation

My mother told me when I was young
‘We are all born superstars’

—Lady GaGa

Betty Atchison belts GaGa’s “Born This Way” and brushes her blonde and black ponytail wig from her eyes, flanked by back-up dancers swaying in unison. She never performs without them. “A lookalike onstage without dancers is glorified karaoke,” she says, and Atchison is no amateur. Her act features an authentic GaGa bra that shoots sparklers on command, custom-made by her husband. At the most recent Sunburst Conference for Professional Celebrity Impersonators in Orlando, Atchison won Best Performance Showcase, Best Overall Celebrity Re-Creation, Best Costume, and Most Professional Impersonator. She has no illusions about who or what she is: she is Lady GaGa.

lady gaga
Betty Atchison’s official website.

To many, the terms "professional" and "impersonator" are contradictory, as diametrically opposed as "real" and "fake." If a sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden awaited Lady GaGa and Atchison took the stage, I imagine the audience would boo out of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations for the "real" GaGa, though the "real" GaGa and the "fake" Atchison perform the same set, dance the same moves, sing the same songs. The audience has not paid to see GaGa; they’ve paid for the big budget, the no amateurism guarantee, a singer who will never miss a note, and refer to these expectations as "the real thing."

If Britney is home in Louisiana making herself a sandwich and Derrick Barry is sweating and gliding through “Slave 4 U” live in Vegas right now, which one is more "Britney" at this moment?

Celebrities have many functions: participate in US Weekly melodrama, fuel masturbation fantasies, shoulder the vicarious living of millions of "regular people," and act as receptacles for collective inspiration and awe. Impersonation offers a counterpoint: it humanizes through liveness. I could watch a Brad Pitt movie any time I want. Anywhere I go, I could see a photo of Brad Pitt on my phone. Yet, if I want him in the flesh, my best bet is impersonation. Satellite Pitts. Local Pitts. “You can’t get to the real,” says Greg Thompson, coordinator of the aforementioned Sunburst Conference. For Thompson, celebrity impersonation is about access, a way to transcend the distancing mediums of photography and video, even death. Elvis is dead, but how many times has impersonation resurrected him, plucked him off the screen and into your local bar or next corporate event? Awe can shake my hand.

collage of celebrities
Sunburst Conference Website.

Impersonation democratizes—distributes fame to the fameless. Some impersonate to honor, others to invade. Artist Martha Wilson impersonated First Ladies, most notably Barbara Bush, to strip their power. In Bush’s cadence, Wilson sings: “A politician’s job is to create illusion.” “The Gulf War was a theatrical piece.” “I look forward to a new world order in which everyone will take advantage of everyone else equally.” Facile criticisms from the mouth of Wilson, but transposed into Bush’s mouth, accusation becomes confession.

Most impersonators love and honor their tributes. Because of this faithfulness, many impersonators call themselves "tribute artists."

"Original" Artist:

  • Evasive about copying; admits to ‘influences.
  • Aims for personal accolades.

Tribute Artist:

  • Unabashedly copies.
  • Sacrifices personal fame for tribute’s life and work.

Why do self-respecting performers waste "talent" on faking when they could be pursuing their original snowflakeness? Derrick Barry, an aspiring performer in Los Angeles, hated auditions. He says the first time he dressed as Britney Spears, “It felt so natural.” Impersonation: a container for one’s pre-existing skills; a shortcut. He ditched originality, performed in La Cage in Vegas, and toured the world. His talent was not buying a sequin bra and memorizing the lyrics to “Toxic.” Barry can dance; he executes Britney’s choreography sharper than Britney herself. “People don’t think it’s a talent,” he says, jumping red chiffon as if jumping rope. “Why don’t you go put on some makeup, put on some heels, and then criticize?”

If one belts out a song onstage to the best of one’s ability, one is already unoriginal. Attempting an idyllic virtuosity is performance’s most rampant cliché. Contestants on American Idol and The Voice perform songs previously sung by celebrities without the common courtesy of wearing the requisite fake hips and wigs.

  • If a contestant sings a Tina Turner song dressed as herself, and another contestant dresses as Tina Turner and sings Tina Turner’s song exactly as Tina Turner would, which one is more "talented?"
  • Could donning a Dolly Parton wig be synonymous with buttoning one’s business suit, police uniform, or military fatigues? Don’t costumes give regular people "power?"
  • If this essay were a Susan Sontag impersonation, would that make it less "good?"
  • Why do leading actors and actresses in Hollywood biopics regularly win Academy Awards? Is the award for acting or for virtuosic copying?
  • Is every person wearing a LeBron James jersey a LeBron James impersonator?
  • If Britney is home in Louisiana making herself a sandwich and Derrick Barry is sweating and gliding through “Slave 4 U” live in Vegas right now, which one is more "Britney" at this moment?
Derrick Barry’s Instagram.

A world of copies is the ideal world. In Harmony Korine’s film Mister Lonely, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, The Pope, Madonna, Sammy Davis Jr., Buckwheat, The Queen of England, Shirley Temple, and The Three Stooges live together in a celebrity impersonator sanctuary, a home for people who were "born" other people, “a place where everyone is famous.” One evening, they perform for the locals. “We are humble impersonators, regular people like you,” says the Queen. Regular people performing for regular people, amateurs applauding for amateurs.

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