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Courtesy of Paige Niemann

Inside the uncanny world of professional celebrity lookalikes

Three lookalikes of Ariana Grande, Barack Obama and David Beckham explain how they use make-up, prosthetics and the gym to pose as their chosen celebrities

This week marks five years since the launch of Dazed Beauty! Over the next five days we will be celebrating this anniversary by bringing you big celebrity interviews, cultural deep dives into the weird and wonderful trends of today, and going back through the archives to resurface some of our favourite pieces.

To quote our co-founder Bunny Kinney in his original editor’s letter, Dazed Beauty is: “a space for us to document, deconstruct and experiment with beauty in all its forms, in every dimension, and tell the stories of the lived experience each one of us has in our own individual bodies as we navigate the world, both online and off.” We hope we’ve remained true to our promise and will continue to be challenging, anti-establishment, diverse and exciting. Thank you for being part of our journey.

“I am looking at your headshot and you really look like Obama but your ears… your ears really don’t stick out, do they?”

I am on the phone to Reggie Brown, the world’s most famous Barack Obama lookalike, trying to tread the delicate balance between interrogating his likeness to the former US President and not offending him. Luckily for me, Reggie is agreeable, but other lookalikes take it more personally when told that they don’t resemble their doppelgänger. As I would find out.

“Well those are actually prosthetic ears and one of the best artists, his name is Vincent van Dyke," explains Reggie. "I paid him to build them for me. We were 3D imaging Obama’s ears in pictures and he developed them so I could just glue them on every time. Obama’s do stick out a little more now but I spent so much money on these that I really didn’t want to get the life cast re-done. That thing is a nightmare. Have you ever had yourself life cast?”

No, I say.

“It’s basically how they build prosthetic make-up. So you’re sitting there, no clothing from your mid-chest up and then they start smearing this rubber on you that gets in every little pore, every scar, every imperfection. Then they put 20 pounds of plaster of paris over it so they create a full 3D cast of your upper body. That's how they develop the make-up, or in this case, the ears. It's a weird process, towards the end your body and your brain thinks you’re being buried alive because things are closing in. You can’t talk, you can’t see and there are only two holes to breathe out of your nose. I freaked out. I just didn’t want to do it again so the ears are as close as we can get right now. But you’re right, Obama’s are more like satellite dishes.”

The lengths people will go to make themselves look like a celebrity are extreme. We only need look at the recent story of Elliot Rentz’s transformation into Justine Wildenstein to realise this (although that one turned out to be a prank) or to the fans impersonating Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner to varying degrees (some are more committed than others, see The Mail Online). Often, the impetus is idolisation, but for others, it can be financial. Beyond a tabloid splash about surgery, looking like a celebrity can earn you a full-blown income in the weird world of professional lookalikes, people who build a career out of becoming someone else.

Reggie realised he looked like Obama when he was working as a waiter in Chicago in the 00s, but around 2008 the comparisons began to flood in more frequently as the real Obama began his campaign to go from Senator to President. Quitting his job, Reggie moved to LA, where he had found an agent who had promised to help him become an impersonator. “A colleague told me that if I sell that to corporations I could make a tonne of money and travel the world like Steve Bridges did as George W. Bush.” Only, a couple of months later, when Reggie was still perfecting his Obama routine, the agent dropped him.

“Steve, a 44-year-old white guy, who took three hours of make-up to look like George W. Bush, had secretly developed his own Obama make-up,” says Reggie, whose mother is Irish and Polish and dad is African American and part Native American. Shockingly, he had been superseded by someone in blackface. But he kept at it, found another manager and in 2011, got thrown off a Republican Leadership Conference in costume, making international headlines. It was his big break, and it led to Fox News, WWE and countless talk show appearances. “I’ve performed on Broadway, been on TV many times, and performed in 23 countries,” he says proudly.

To stay looking like Obama, Reggie has to maintain a diet and workout regime that keeps him close to the former President’s build. “We are the same height, but he’s always been really skinny and I’ve always had a little more muscle and tone to me. Usually I can hide it in the suits and things but his face is really thin and that’s one thing I struggle with. I’m from Chicago! I like to eat pizza!” Then there’s the age difference; “I think, the older I get, I’m starting to see one or two greys pop up and I know when I become him I have to make the whole thing grey now.” How he convincingly does this, he will not tell me, since other lookalikes copy him, but he says he used to use Ben Nye make-up on his hair, which didn’t work because it reflected the light in photos.

This is the constant struggle of being a lookalike: that you’re caught in a double bind. To sustain your career you have to look like someone, and when you look like someone, it becomes difficult to have time off from being them. The line begins to blur between character and reality. Andy Harmer became David Beckham thirty years ago, and recently, after years of having the footballer’s tattoos meticulously drawn onto his skin for shoots, decided to just save everyone a job and get them permanently inked on.

“I've got tattoos of my own,” he says down the phone, “so they'd cover mine first with latex, then powder it, then put hairspray on it to fix it, and then draw his tattoos on with a Sharpie. It took four hours. After a while, I had these stamps made and an ink pack, and I'd stamp them on. But the one on the back of the neck was always the trickiest, the cross with the wings. When I sweat the stamp would blur. I got so bored of it that about three weeks ago I went and got it done properly.”

In 1998, when Andy started, he was part of a double act. His girlfriend at the time looked just like Victoria Beckham. When their picture found its way onto the cover of The News of The World with the quote “He hates Man United, she says Spice Girls suck!” (a quote he says was entirely made up by the paper) they hit the big time, touring the world together as the famous couple. Independently, he would body double for the real Beckham on commercials and in films (like Bend It Like Beckham for instance). Andy describes the first time he met David as ‘awkward’, “I think he'd already heard about me – he must've seen me making money off his back. He shook my hand but we didn't really talk that much. I didn't know what to say.”

Eventually, Andy started an agency for lookalikes, which in turn led to a comedy TV show about an agency for lookalikes (Reggie appears in the first episode). When promoting the show, Andy experienced one of the hardest moments in his career to date. He was going through a bad patch in his personal life and had put on weight. “I had to go on This Morning, and I didn't want to. Then I trended #1 on Twitter for being so bad [as a David Beckham lookalike] and so overweight. It was awful. I didn't want to do the second series of my TV show because I felt that bad.” The Twitter moment was a wake-up call; “I realised it’s all I've done since I was 18, it's my job, but I've always had it in the back of my mind, what am I going to do when this finishes? When the bubble bursts? My CV looks very unique, so what am I gonna do?”

To try to stay looking like David, Andy lost the weight again, and although he hasn’t yet, he says he would consider fillers or a hair transplant, perhaps in Turkey, where it’s cheaper, in order to look more like David. Now, he’s back working as a lookalike, but as someone who has been doing it so long, and who runs a lookalike agency of their own, he thinks the game has changed slightly, that social media filters coupled with more awareness around of the powers of contouring allow people to distort their image more easily. The industry is more competitive, and it’s hard to tell who’s got what it takes.

Across an ocean, Paige, a 14-year-old girl in California, was at school when she first got compared to Ariana Grande at the age of ten by another kid in the playground. She puts the likeness down to the fact that they’re both Italian American, although accepts that there is a big and fairly obvious age gap. Still, after it happened a couple more times, Paige asked her mom to do her make-up like Ariana – straighter, thicker eyebrows, winged eyeliner and a lot of bronzer – and the resemblance increased. Something she later perfected further by watching Ariana make-up tutorials online. She got Instagram and started posting lookalike photos in the make-up. She found that when people acknowledged the likeness, online or off, it boosted her self-esteem. “I thought she was so gorgeous, it was such a huge honour.”

As Paige amassed a following online, now at around 10k followers, she realised that people weren’t always following to compliment her. “When I started to do my looks like her some of her fans are really sweet, but the other half are the meanest people I have ever seen online,” she explains. “Ariana fans get so offended when people do anything similar to Ariana. They’ll be like ‘be yourself’, or that they don’t like people stealing, or that there is only one Ariana, that I’ll never be her.” This was upsetting to Paige, who calls herself an Arianator and has a poster of Grande on her bedroom wall, but she’s learnt to deal with it. “I don't care what haters say. I’m just going to keep on doing what makes me happy, and looking like Ariana makes me happy.”

It was online in the lookalike community, that Paige found comfort from the abuse. First, there are the other Arianas, dozens of global wannabes. Not Jackie Vasquez, the most famous Ariana, who is closer to the same age as the real thing and has been doing it semi-professionally for years, but the smaller ones: “I’m friends with pretty much all the lookalikes, not Jackie because she’s too popular.” She estimates there are about twenty, mostly in Italy and America. “You just search #ariannalookalikes and if you find an Ariana lookalike, see who they are following then you’ll find more. We just message each other like ‘don’t listen to the haters’,” she explains. “It’s relatable because they get the same hate. We support each, we like all of each other's pictures.” Then there are the other kinds of lookalike, a boy in Brazil who looks like Harry Potter for instance. Paige and he have been DMing. She shows me his picture, the likeness is uncanny. He’s also cute, I point out. In the future, she tells me, she hopes to branch out into tutorials, starting a YouTube channel to show people how to change their face using make-up, to teach more people to look as much like Ariana as she does.

What I realise, after hours of conversations with these lookalikes over the phone, is the power that they hold, both to incite anger, and to bring people joy. “I mean... people cry, people have fainted around me, people really act as they would around real Presidents, screaming in my face,” Reggie tells me. “Republicans have tried to punch me. Seriously, I’ve got in two fights where I have had to defend myself before. I’ve had people on their deathbeds… a one-hundred-year-old black woman came up crying, saying she never thought she would see a black president in her lifetime. These people have really, wholeheartedly believed I am him, and sometimes, when these people get really emotional, I just have to hug them and thank them and let them have their moment. I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m not him."

The question that remains is whether, in an age of fake news, image manipulation, the popularisation of body modification and prosthetics, does it matter if we are seeing the 'real thing'? In a TEDx talk Reggie reminds us that "what you think becomes your reality". If these people can scarcely feel out the boundary themselves, maybe it means the reality of who we are is not as fixed as we think. Paige, at 14, calls her likeness to Arianna “shapeshifting”, it’s not becoming another person, it’s morphing into another aspect of yourself with the help of make-up. Andy meanwhile, says that for him, it tipped over, he became almost too connected to his character.

“Conversation always comes up about them, you have to talk about them all the time, you can't get away from it, so a lot of the time I was thinking… what would I be without him?” He says he began to lose himself, he became reliant.

“Would you say you had a codependent relationship with your own affinity to David Beckham?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he says, “that’s exactly how I’d put it.”

This article was originally published 13 February 2019.