Fake That: The uncanny world of America's biggest celebrity-lookalike convention

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Holy mackerel! Look over there! Isn't that Richard Gere, with his dreamy silver hair and professorial wire spectacles, taking a leak in the Gents?

And OhMiGaaaad, am I seeing things or is that Sarah Palin holding a conversation with (pinch me, somebody) Arnie Schwarzenegger in a serious gun shop?

Well, of course it makes perfect sense, but to actually see them together ... Wait a minute, can that be James Gandolfini from The Sopranos posing all friendly with (gulp – isn't he dead?) Marlon Brando with cotton-wool in his cheeks for his role as The Godfather? What is this, some kinda Mafiosi nostalgia-fest? But that would hardly explain the presence in the parking lot of Bono from U2 (does he own any sunglasses apart from those pink wraparounds?) having a surprisingly public canoodle with the birdbrain actress Jessica Simpson. Or the fact that you cannot move in the local supermarket without encountering Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean posing, in his Hamlet blouson and pointy double-beard, beside the ice-cream cabinets, or Tupac Shakur contorting his fingers into an LA-gangland gesture, bang in the middle of the tinned-fruit aisle...

For the committed celebrity-spotter, life doesn't get any better than the Sunburst Convention, held each year since 2003 in Orlando, Florida. But, sad to relate, all the celebrities are lookalikes, or "professional impersonators" who make a living out of exploiting their fancied resemblance to Elton John or Joan Rivers on TV or at corporate events. Some impersonators seem no more than a lazy collection of accessories: you feel that, behind the lank black hair, the granny-glass shades, the skull rings and dangling silver pendants, almost anyone could look like Ozzy Osbourne. Others are scarily like the real thing: check out the dead-spit William Shatner from Star Trek, flanked by a brace of Tina Turners, one a convincingly wild rock chick, the other a goofily demure civilian in a fright wig.

The photographer Marcus Dawes has visited several of these conventions and discovered a faintly surreal atmosphere. He found himself sitting beside Jack Nicholson in the front of a minivan (Chevy Chase and Robin Williams were squashed in the back) driven by George Bush. According to Dawes, when they arrived at their restaurant, two huge black guys in long baseball shirts came up to the driver, stared at him with loathing – evidently seeing nothing odd about the presence of the US President in an LA burger joint with Jack Nicholson – and declared, "Bush, your days are numbered ..."

The convention is like a glimpse of Valhalla, the mead-hall of the immortal Gods, where Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast together, where George Bush and Bill Clinton chat by the lifts, and where Whoopi Goldberg can tell the photographer, "You missed what happened last night – Stevie Wonder was hitting on me big-time. In the end Johnny Depp had to scare him away." It's also, of course, the most brilliant fancy-dress party in the world, where the participants have not just "made an effort" to turn into Robert De Niro in his poolside slacker role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, but have mostly started with a resemblance of face, body and demeanour that suggests some really committed acting.

There's also, however, a pathos in Dawes' photographs, about the people who have so completely subsumed their own identities inside those of the globally famous – sometimes inside a single role (like Captain Jack) rather than inside an actor, making themselves into an echo of an echo of a real person. Look at Dennis Keogh, a professional Sean Connery impersonator, taking his modest lunch at the convention hotel. He's committed to being Connery in The Hunt for Red October; but he looks completely stuck inside it, doomed to spend his every waking moment being grim, gubernatorial, heroic and shlurrily Shcottish. Diane Arbus would surely have had a field day among these existential casualties.

You can't help wondering how much they remain in character when they meet: does Clint Eastwood chat animatedly to Borat, or punch him for being a pushy interloper? Are George W Bush and Bill Clinton icily polite, or do they go for a beer together? Do all the Tina Turners hit the same nightclub, muttering "What's Love Got To Do With It?" under their collective breath? According to Dawes, the impersonators as a throng are very friendly and mutually supportive. They all enjoy the sensation of being stared at by the public as they emerge from limousines on to the street in full public-appearance fig. But it says something about modern celebrity culture that these mock-ups, fakes and human forgeries give themselves near-regal airs. "You have to remember," John Morgan the Bush impersonator told Dawes, "that, underneath, we're just real people like everybody else..."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'