Forget Elvis and Marilyn – there's a new generation of lookalikes in town

Cheryl Cole, Simon Cowell and Kate Middleton are among the most wanted doppelgängers of 2009. Charlotte Philby hears the stories behind their double lives
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The Independent Online

you have even heard of Calum Best – the 27-year-old son of footballing legend George Best – you'd be forgiven for thinking that his was one of the most useless "careers" in the history of pay checks. A reality-TV-star-turned-socialite by trade, Calum now makes a living by "attending parties". No magic tricks or cocktail-shaking performances are required for his wage; he only needs to show up. The true definition of the Z-list celebrity, he is one of that fame-hungry breed who make their living being wherever the cameras are – and you might think it would be hard to fathom a more useless job than the reality TV/socialite bracket. But such a thing does exist, for we have found it. Somewhere in Britain, as you read this, there is a man whose job it is to attend events pretending to be Calum Best. Yes – the world has surely fallen off its axis – Calum Best has his very own lookalike.

The body-double business is not a new trade. During the Second World War, Field Marshal Montgomery had his own doppelgänger. Perhaps the most famous political decoy in history, M E Clinton James was hired to impersonate Monty, while the real thing was elsewhere, so as to confuse the Germans. Hitler, Stalin and Yeltsin are among a number of others reported to have had official impersonators in their time. Probably quite useful, given that each of them had an enemy or two to deflect. But a reality TV star? Annoying as he or she might be, I can't imagine many are the subject of an assassination plot.

Even the accounts manager of talent agency A-List Lookalikes, Amy Crumpton, is flummoxed by this phenomenon. "Of all the requests we get," she says, "the strangest has to be the people who call up asking for Z-list celebrities like Big Brother stars, who don't cost much to hire anyway." If proof were needed that society has reached the height of "celebrity" mania, there's arguably no more compelling evidence than this. Glossing over the questions it raises about the sort of people who hire a reality-star lookalike to schmooze guests at their office party – the most common request for this sort of act – surely no self-respecting person would choose to flog themselves like this anyway?

Except that spending an hour meeting-and-greeting at a corporate event, or posing for photographs with another impersonator at a shop opening, can earn a lookalike more than £500. Suddenly dignity seems an over-valued concept. And if you are a lookalike who can also carry a tune, you could find yourself elevated to the status of tribute act, and this is where the big bucks start. According to A-List Lookalikes, their most popular bookings are still the classics: Marilyn Monroe, Cher and Elvis Presley among them. And the fee for such acts is more than £900 per performance.

With that sort of cash on offer, one might imagine a phalanx of newly unemployed bankers adjusting their CVs to include karaoke skills. That's not as ridiculous as it seems. The agents we spoke to claim to have high-earning civil servants, office managers and even established journalists on their books. As the public thirst for celebrity reaches an all-time high, they explain, the demand for lookalikes is greater than ever – and there is no shortage of impersonators willing to cash in.

So let's meet the new breed of celebrity double – some more convincing than others – who are making a pretty penny, ahem, "duping" crowds across Britain.

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Michelle Obama

Marlene Reid, 35

Since Barack Obama's electoral campaign, my life has changed dramatically. A whole new world has been opened up. The first time I saw Michelle Obama, I was at home in Ilford, Essex, watching the electoral candidates on television. There was a brief shot of Barack's wife and I thought "she looks nice", but I didn't see the resemblance. As a mother of two, I have very little time to myself and rarely even look in the mirror. As the elections continued, my husband kept saying I reminded him of Michelle, but it wasn't until others told me the same thing that I believed him. I was shopping with my children one day, and a man said to me: "Goodness, what is Michelle Obama doing here?" The next day, I contacted a lookalike agency. They said I could do TV commercials, corporate events and modelling. I can't wait for my first job. Since being signed, I've been working on perfecting her looks and mannerisms: Michelle has a specific smile – she often doesn't show her teeth – and has a specific style of clothes. When I go shopping, I focus on buying formal pieces like hers, rather than jeans. I had long hair down to my lower back for years, but I recently had it cut above my shoulders, like Michelle. And I'm trying to perfect an American accent. I'm Jamaican, so it's not too far off. My kids help me practise and always pull me up when I use words or phrases Michelle wouldn't use. I hope my hard work will pay off. One day, I'd like to be a famous actress, and play the part of the First Lady in a film about her life.

Simon Cowell

Andrew Monk, 45

I've been playing the role of Simon for six years. You wouldn't believe how many people there are involved in this industry, it's like an exclusive club. Sometimes we go out in a big group and really freak people out. On one occasion, "Jack Nicholson" and I were accosted by fans at a Motorhead concert. Ozzy Osbourne, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Elton John were on their way to meet us there, but broke down on the motorway en route. I imagine their AA man had a bit of a shock. My first job as a Simon Cowell lookalike was judging the regional finals of a karaoke competition in Manchester. The very next day I received a phone call from 'The Richard and Judy Show', asking if I could go into the studio. There, I was one of three Simon Cowell lookalikes who formed a panel, and had to judge a group of performers, like on 'X Factor', in the style of Simon Cowell. We hadn't realised that Simon was actually in the studio, promoting his latest book, and suddenly he walked in and had to judge which one of his lookalikes did the best impression of him. And he chose me. After that, Cowell himself hired me to work on the door of one of his parties, with another lookalike, and greet guests. By day I run an audio-visual company and work as a part-time DJ. The lookalike career is just another creative outlet. I really enjoy the performance side of the job. Even though Cowell is famous for being mean, he's a fun part to play. I've met him a few times, and despite his reputation, he's actually a really nice guy.

Kate Middleton

Louise Lyne, 28

A friend of mine secretly sent my photo to a lookalike agency, so I was rather surprised one day to receive a phone call asking if I'd make a 'royal' appearance outside Buckingham Palace. I had to stand around, smiling and waving at the tourists who walked past. Since Prince William has proven to be very serious about his girlfriend, Kate Middleton's public profile has exploded. Because of this, I've had an amazing number of requests. One day I'll have to spend hours walking up and down a street, re-enacting Kate being "papped" by the press, and the next I'll be meeting-and-greeting guests at a champagne reception for a corporate event. Luckily, Kate's the perfect girl to emulate: she's stylish and smart. Although we have very similar features, I know I'm not the spitting image of her. She's slightly slimmer than I am, so there have been tricky moments failing to squeeze into a size-eight dress before jobs. Getting the look right requires some research, so at events I'll usually have a professional stylist on hand to recreate her look, and spend time flicking through the most recent pictures of her in order to check she hasn't changed her hair or make-up style. Actually, she is very consistent: she always has the same black kohl eyeliner, shimmery eye shadow and blushed cheeks. The way she dresses is quite predictable too, so I don't have to spend lots of money on keeping up with what she's doing week-to-week.

Cheryl Cole

Kelly Doncaster, 22

At first I didn't like the idea of being Cheryl Cole's lookalike. I felt it would be unfair to make a career from looking like someone else. But I don't think she'd mind, as I make a real effort to portray her in a positive way. Since her husband's alleged affair and her joining 'X Factor', the public have really taken Cheryl into their hearts and I get a really good response whenever I do events. I feel it's a real honour being Cheryl's lookalike: she's such a lovely person and I think she's really beautiful. I've been working as a wedding planner for a while, and joined a lookalike agency after loads of people kept mistaking me for Cheryl in the street. Whenever I went shopping, I'd be asked to pose for photographs and little girls would ask for my autograph. Since the end of last year, things have really taken off for me. I've been opening a lot of shopping centres, making personal appearances at festivals, and regularly have photos taken for companies to put on their websites. It's a really diverse second job. I'm now taking each day as it comes. This is not something I ever expected to do, but now I love it. It's all been a bit of a whirlwind. The number of jobs I get depends on Cheryl's success, and now that her band, Girls Aloud, are hitting the States, I hope that I might become as successful as Posh and Becks' body-doubles, who get paid to travel around the world. I still want to be known as Kelly rather than Cheryl, but I'm really excited about what the future could hold for me in this business.

Amy Winehouse

KellyBorkertas, 28

I couldn't be more different to Amy Winehouse in real life. I do a tribute act as her, and am known for my professionalism. In fact, I always get comments from my bookers about what a refreshing change it makes to have an Amy who turns up on time, is polite to the technical staff, and doesn't fall over during a performance. The nearest I have got to getting drunk on stage was one time when my sister and some of her friends came to see a gig. I thought it would be funny to wind her up, so I filled a wine glass with water and red food colouring. I could see her face in the crowd, as I seemed to get increasingly bleary-eyed and sloshed the "wine" all over my top. She was getting really anxious and desperately reassuring her friends that this wasn't my usual behaviour. She was right, but it is fun getting into character and getting progressively wobbly as the set goes on. I spend an hour at least getting ready before each gig. I have a number of transfer tattoos, a fake lip jewel and a big, manky beehive wig. I'll have one of her live DVDs on while I prepare. She's got a very different accent to mine, and she talks a lot to the crowd during shows, so it's not enough just to sing like her, I have to become her and take on all her strange mannerisms. I get a number of gigs, from festivals and club nights. I've just come back from Turkey, where I played three venues. I sold 1,000 tickets and even made it into the Pegasus Airlines inflight magazine. I'll never get used to being swamped by fans after I play a show.

Daniel Craig

Steve Wright, 41

Once I was flown out to St Tropez by a millionairess. She was holding a party for her friend on a yacht. I was asked to re-enact the famous scene where James Bond emerges from the sea in blue swimming trunks. I was told to wait a few yards out in the water until my cue came – the theme tune from 'Casino Royale'. But when it did, it sounded very faint. I suddenly realised that somehow I had drifted 100 yards out to sea and had to lurch back with sea water slapping in my face. By the time I reached the sand I was totally out of breath and staggered out of the water. A more typical event would be schmoozing ladies at corporate events. The first I did was at a tobacco-company function. Unfortunately, it was a black tie ball, so I didn't stand out easily. When I waltzed into a room of 250 people and attempted to charm the female contingent of the party, I found myself being treated like a repellent sex pest. I tried taking a woman's arm and saying: "So, you must be Pussy Galore, would you like to be my escort for the night?" by way of a chat-up line – but I had failed to introduce myself as James Bond first. She pulled her arm back very quickly and called her husband over. From that moment on, I always introduce myself before attempting to charm my target. The most ridiculous incident was when I flew to Belgium to read one line as Daniel Craig in a sitcom based on 'Sex and the City'. It turned out there were three pages of script I hadn't been given. It got a little more amorous than I'd intended. In the final scene, I lay on a sofa and an actress jumped on my chest, ripped my shirt off and started crying: "Oh, James, Oh, James." Some jobs are better than others.