‘One minute they want your picture. Next you’re finding the back door’: the peculiar fame of the celebrity lookalike

John’s been a Tony Blair lookalike since 1997. Barry still has his Jimmy Savile costume. What happens when your double falls out of favour?

On 23 July 2011, a 24-year-old entertainer named Katie Robinson was working at a charity event in Aldershot, Hampshire. Dressed for the day in denim short-shorts and a pair of LA pumps, dozens of transferred-on tattoos carefully applied to her arms and a towering beehive wig secured to her head with pins, Robinson mingled with guests. She was being paid to be there as an Amy Winehouse lookalike, cackling, batting her artificial eyelashes, hugging strangers, posing for photographs. Later, as she was driving away, Robinson received a text from a friend that read: “RIP.” Once home, she turned on the news and saw reports of Winehouse’s death.

“It was awful,” the lookalike remembered. “It sounds sad, but it felt like I’d lost someone. A friend. Because I’d been following her so closely, reading about her, watching videos, learning how she behaved. It was a huge shock.” Robinson was so absorbed by the news that day, she forgot about the outfit she was wearing and got a shock when she looked up and caught sight of herself in the mirror. Suddenly, it all felt a little... gross. The tattoos. The wig. When she was called a couple of days later and offered work dressing up as Winehouse for a few hours on the streets of Camden (a morbid stunt arranged by a European television company), Robinson declined. She put away the beehive and entered temporary retirement, looking like no one but herself for a while.

Pity the lookalikes: theirs is not an obviously heroic profession, and as entertainers these women and men tend to be ranked near-bottom, thought of, if they’re thought of at all, as strange limpets of the celebrity age. Their fortunes are ineluctably hitched to those they impersonate; and when a star totters, or falls from grace, their lookalike will totter and maybe fall as well. The wrong kind of public scandal, a sudden switch in popular opinion or a shock result in an election or football match, and lookalikes can expect a drastic change in the quality of their work. If the work continues at all.

Katie Robinson, Amy Winehouse lookalike
Katie Robinson as Amy Winehouse Photograph: Alan Powdrill/Alan Powdrill for The Guardian

I spoke to lookalikes around the country and heard from them all roughly the same story about how they found their way into this strange business. Friends always told them they looked like someone famous. They sent off headshots to agents, and the agents arranged work for them, usually a few hours for a few hundred pounds, mingling or making speeches in costume, at a charity event or a corporate party, sometimes on TV or in adverts. Most did it to supplement other work (Robinson, when not paid to be Amy, is a cosmetics consultant). The money was OK, usually, but more than that, the lookalikes found the work thrilling and addictive – getting to pretend to be a sort of moving Tussauds waxwork.

It was unpredictable, too, and depending on who they imitated they might suffer short-term fluctuations in their popularity. Dean Taylor, an impersonator who for a while had a good thing going as Fabio Capello, back when the Italian managed England, told me what it was like working parties when football matches were being screened: “One minute they want your picture. Next minute you’re finding the back door because the real Fabio’s put the wrong substitutes on and England are two-nil down.”

Others have seen through more dramatic tidal shifts. A Tony Blair in Cornwall, real name John Brolly, now 52, started working as a lookalike around the time of the 1997 general election. Blair was massively popular back then Brolly got so much work, initially, dressing up in a double-breasted suit and brushing his hair a certain way to take part in tabloid stunts, ads, TV shows, that he was able to quit his job as an education officer. “I seemed to spend all of my time on the sleeper from Penzance to Paddington, travelling into London to be the prime minister,” Brolly said. “Then the Iraq war happened. He became toxic. For years, nobody would touch him.”

Brolly was sometimes paired on jobs with a Cherie, real name Caroline Bernstein. Together, they opened a ride at Alton Towers (Bernstein recalled a windy day and immense difficulty with her wig). Bernstein already knew what it was like to lose characters: she had been a Cilla Black for years, until that work dried up. And a Margaret Thatcher before that. Inevitably, Cherie went out of fashion, too. “You miss them,” Bernstein told me. All the mimics who’d left behind a persona said something similar: you missed them.

It didn’t always sound fair, what determined whether this lookalike or that lookalike stopped getting booked. The three-person team at Susan Scott Lookalikes, an agency based in north London, told me that, to their continued surprise, they were able to find work for the Hitler on their roster. But not for the Pierce Brosnan. Not for the Sarah Ferguson. “Poor Fergie,” company founder Susan Scott said, speaking in her office one afternoon, shelves around her busy with box-files full of headshots. “She didn’t do any work after the toes. The toes were it for her.” One of Scott’s colleagues said they worried for their Daniel Craigs: popular for years, paid to work rooms around the country in their tuxedos, but what would happen to them now that Craig seems to be cooling on the Bond franchise?

They would wait and see. The professionals I spoke to agreed that death, for the lookalike, was the real career-threatener. One Thursday night this summer, I went to watch a David Bowie called Paul Longland do a tribute show at the Broadway theatre in Barking. I sat in the audience next to another Bowie from Essex, a pleasant, 52-year-old furniture dealer called Steve Spratt. On stage, Longland swung his hips and manhandled his mic stand, moving in time to the nuclear “do-do-dos” of his opening song, Rebel Rebel. (“Good evening, Barking!” he purred, swishing aside a straightened blond tuft, pouting in a slim blue suit. “Here’s one for you rebels. Do we have any rebels in?”) Longland styled himself a tribute artist, not a lookalike, because he sang and danced like the person he was paid to imitate. Spratt, watching on from the stalls, was impressed – envious, too.

As anyone in the business of celebrity impersonation will tell you (probably a little peevishly), there are essential and irreconcilable differences between being a lookalike and being a tribute artist. This was never more evident, to Spratt, than in the months since Bowie – the real Bowie – died in January. Spratt’s fortunes diverged sharply from Longland’s, and while the tribute was being booked to be Bowie more than ever (fans who wanted to hear the music live having no other option now), Spratt’s lookaliking had entered a decline.

Steve Spratt as David Bowie.
Steve Spratt as David Bowie Photograph: Alan Powdrill for The Guardian

At the height of his career, Spratt worked at parties for banks, charities and minor celebrities, and made appearances on TV shows such as Time Trumpet. Though about 10 years younger than Bowie, his craggy, small-mouthed face is startlingly similar to the late musician’s, and there have been incidents of mistaken identity even when Spratt was off duty, on holiday or out with friends in bars and pubs. “Even once when I was shopping in a Boots in Harlow. And God knows what people thought Bowie was doing in a Boots in Harlow.”

Spratt admitted to me that he would not always correct such misunderstandings, especially not if it meant an interesting freebie coming his way. (He was once mistaken for Bowie during a weekend in Venice, he said, and given the use of a chauffeured speedboat.) When I asked if this ever felt icky, or plain wrong, Spratt said no: because to teeter in this way between the real and the fake is just what makes encounters between lookalikes and the general public successful. Spratt said the delight in lookaliking was the moment that conviction (“It’s him!”) gave way to doubt (“Or is it?”) and then, most of the time, to realisation (“Ah, well – can I have a photo anyway?”). It was a rollercoaster of emotion, he said, that he enjoyed being paid to provide. But it could happen only when Bowie was still around, alive, encounterable.

“Life’s still good,” said Spratt, who has put on a bit of weight recently, the uncanny facial similarities buried a little beneath thicker jowls. “But it’s a bit like champagne without the fizz. People look at me now and think, ‘That bloke looks like Bowie.’ Now that he’s dead, I’m never going to be really mistaken for him again.”

There was only one worse fate a lookalike could suffer. At Susan Scott’s agency, I asked about those impersonators on their books who’d been scandal-swamped. Did they still have any Rolf Harrises for hire? Any Jimmy Saviles? The team had once had a Rolf, they said, but he hadn’t been in touch for a while. They still had a Jimmy – a 60-year-old, Northwich-based, called John Barry. When I called Barry, he said he was still ready to go. Just find him a booking.

Barry told me a little about his life as an imitator. For a long time, in the late 90s and 00s, he’d been an Austin Powers. He took up Savile in 2009, hoping for “a nice change. After 12 years of doing Austin, I thought that if I had to say, ‘Do I make you horny, baby?’ one more time, I would scream.” He bought a string vest, a shellsuit, a blond wig and a fake cigar, and for a couple of years was happy to find himself in regular demand. When Savile passed away in 2011, “I felt gutted. I thought, ‘Jimmy, what a time to do this! Why didn’t I start impersonating you years ago?’”

Then came the rumours. The mounting accusations. The months-long national scandal. Barry recalled: “Someone put a picture of me as Jimmy up on Facebook and wrote, ‘Poor sod. The bookings must have dried up for this guy.’ I wrote back saying, ‘That poor sod is me.’” For a while, as the outrage was still taking shape, Barry kept gigging. He tried to see it as a kind of positive review, he told me, whenever people hissed words at him like “molester”. “You had to see it as a compliment,” he said, “that I was so convincing they believed I was real.” It couldn’t last, though. As stories about Savile continued to get more and more disturbing, Barry took a final job at a party in Euston (“I said to the booker, ‘Do you still want me? Even though it’s snowballed a bit?’”) and went back to doing Austin Powers.

“I have kept the shellsuit,” Barry told me, “just in case.”

Tom Larg as Daniel Craig
Tom Larg as Daniel Craig Photograph: Alan Powdrill for The Guardian

Because, as a lookalike, you never know. Sometimes the retired or the redundant have been surprised to find themselves thrust back into employment. About 18 months after she gave up playing Winehouse, in 2011, Robinson received a lucrative offer to appear at a Christmas event for the car company Audi. “They wanted an Amy, a Mick Jagger and a Queen,” she remembered. “I was concerned about it. I’d always been used to working as Amy and people wondering: ‘Is that really her?’ I couldn’t see how it was going to work now she was dead. I wasn’t sure how people would react to seeing me dressed up. I was nervous.”

But she took the booking and went on, Robinson recalled, to outshine Jagger, even the Queen. “Everybody wanted time with Amy,” she said. “It showed me that, even though she’s not around, people could appreciate my work. They can’t have their photo with Amy, but they can with me. It’s the next best thing.”

Meanwhile Brolly, the Cornish Blair, who’d likewise assumed he was finished, done in by Iraq, suddenly found his lookaliking career entering its richest phase. It was 2007, and Blair was newly out of office. Brolly had taken up other work, as a motivational speaker, as an associate at a theatre in Cornwall. All of a sudden, “I was being flown to millionaires’ parties. To billionaires’ parties.” He spent time as Blair in Nice, in Tuscany, in Amsterdam, in Cape Town. “Everyone wanted Tony again.”

It took Brolly some time to figure out what was happening. Now that the real Blair was free of Westminster, and taking bookings on the international speaking circuit, the former PM was more available than he’d ever been. But he couldn’t be everywhere. Brolly guessed he was being brought in as a lookalike by hosts who’d missed out on Blair, but who didn’t necessarily want their guests to know they’d missed out. “Sometimes I’d be asked to mill around a party, but be gone before anyone realised I wasn’t him. Sometimes I’d be sat at a faraway table, so no one could tell. Quite often it was literally to put on the suit and walk through a room. Go hundreds of miles to walk through a room with an entourage.”

This was in 2008, 2009. I asked Brolly if the renaissance had lasted.

“For a while there,” he said, wistfully, “my agent was just making up numbers. I got paid £1,000 for an hour once.”

But no, it had not lasted. “I’d work as Tony for a bag of chips now,” Brolly told me. He hadn’t been booked for significant work in years. Not even in the days after the Chilcot inquiry, last week, when the real Blair came back into national focus? Brolly said it had been interesting to see his doppelganger back on TV. He was surprised to see how much Blair had aged, and wondered if he’d still be able to pull the imitation off. But there had been no new inquiries. “The moment has passed,” Brolly said.


Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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