It’s not always easy being Johnny Depp. That’s certainly the impression I get after an afternoon at the South Ayrshire home of Andy Macdonald: artist, musician and Scotland’s premier Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator. Depp’s recent legal entanglements mean Captain Jack didn’t carry quite the same pull he used to for a while. And no, the chaos of the pandemic years hasn’t helped either, slowing a once busy sideline even further down to zero.
Macdonald began his unusual career at a fancy dress party in the late-2000s, which he attended in his ordinary clothes. He hadn’t seen a single frame of a Pirates of the Caribbean film, but the other guests wouldn’t shut up about his likeness to Depp’s lead character.
“They went on about it so much that I ended up just deciding to give it a go,” he explains. “I’m still amazed by the reaction I get. No one knows I’m Scottish. I do the voice, the mannerisms. I have whole conversations in character. I’ve seen a couple of other guys and they can only do lines from the movie.”
But the last few years haven’t exactly been straightforward for Macdonald, a single father, and certainly Depp’s court appearances haven’t helped. “I wasn’t following it at all though a lot of my mates were. If he was found to be that sort of person, I’d have had to give it all up, I wouldn’t have been happy portraying someone like that. I’ve had cars stop in the street and ask how the trial’s going. I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘wife beater’ and stuff like that.”
Certainly, the career of a celebrity lookalike is not for the easily disheartened. There are few more unstable or fickle industries, by its very nature. At no time is your fate really your own, but instead that of the celeb you happen to be impersonating. Fashions change and scandals break. Elections sweep household-name politicians into immediate obscurity and beloved football managers are guillotined with spectacular ruthlessness. One unforeseeable move and tidy livelihoods can be reduced to rubble with dizzying speed.
UK lookalike history is filled with the ghosts of the disgraced or the permanently out of fashion, from Rolf Harris to Tony Blair. If this in-built precarity was a cost of doing business before 2020, then matters weren’t improved by the onset of the pandemic. When Covid hit, it didn’t really matter who you were or how well established, things were tough all over. For many who didn’t fancy trying to eke out a living in cameo appearances or via sporadic online video bookings, it meant falling back on other work (even in the best times, only an elite minority make their entire income from full-time impersonating), or sacking the whole thing off entirely.
Thankfully, the industry has embarked on a spirited fight back, as I find out when I speak with Andy Harmer, co-founder of the Eastbourne-based Lookalikes Agency, one of the biggest of its kind in the UK with well over 2,000 lookalikes and tribute acts on its books. Harmer has serious pedigree, having spent two decades as one of the world’s most successful David Beckham impersonators. Sure, it was hard in the teeth of lockdown, he tells me over the phone, “but now things have come out the other side, it’s been busy again,” even with a depleted roster, shorn of some old reliables. “I’ve not even got one Del Boy any more. They’ve retired. Two of my Queens don’t drive, which was a nightmare with the Jubilee this year.”
The “market” isn’t always rational. Far from it, Harmer explains. You have to be nimble to react to the vagaries of clients, as well as the news cycle. “I get loads of weird requests every day and loads of new lookalikes coming in.” Mostly, it’s a case of clients approaching him directly, though he occasionally hands his card out when confronted with an exceptional likeness in the wild.
The reality of life as one of Britain’s lookalikes is often resolutely unglamorous. A couple of hours spent at birthday parties and weddings, corporate functions or even the odd advert or bit of television work as a stand-in or body double. Fees might range from a few hundred pounds to the low thousands, depending on the gig, a solid, if unpredictable, income stream.
There are benefits: there will always be special memories for Macdonald from his work trips across Europe and Japan. “I went out dressed as Jack and everyone went nuts.” But after the catalogue of scandals that have plagued Depp over the past half decade there are those who just can’t or won’t acknowledge the dividing line between lookalike and the real thing. “I’ve had people commenting on it as if I’m him. It makes you weary. People can flip just like that.” In 2019, Macdonald was assaulted while in character. “It was the middle of the afternoon. The guy just snapped when I asked him politely to stop touching my bike.”
Some kinds of notoriety are more useful than others. A couple of weeks after the Oscars, I was in touch with a well-established Will Smith impersonator. Shad Ellis had been close to retiring his act of 25 years, when the “Slap” catapulted him into a blizzard of international bookings, he told the Sun. The requests just kept on coming. He’d even turned down $5,000 from an American influencer who was working on a parody video, citing the desire to keep his work respectful to Smith.
It can occasionally come as a surprise, which characters endure and which sink without trace. Dan has been performing his Dani B (Ali G, replete with full, preternaturally shiny yellow tracksuit and goatee) act for almost two decades. He fell in love with Sacha Baron Cohen’s creation as a drama undergraduate at Liverpool John Moores University in the early 2000s. Dan’s initial impressions in front of friends went down well. “I then got an outfit together and put together a little video of me mucking about in a petting zoo, or something like that. I sent it to a few lookalike agencies and they started getting me gigs.”
Dan, a self-described “jobbing actor”, has worked hard to refine his act over the years, throwing in bits of standup and even finding a way to keep things relatively family friendly. He still makes a tidy living at birthdays, barmitzvahs and weddings across the country, even as Ali G has faded from immediate cultural relevance.
“I do a bit of voiceover work here and there, and a bit of writing where I can. But the tribute act has continuously been one of my main sources of income.” He has two schools of thought, he explains, as to why the character has remained so popular. “It’s just so iconic that it doesn’t seem to matter that it started so many years ago… and my act has an appeal in that it’s funny and it’s a show that fits neatly around an event. And I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet.”
For others, the path to lookalikedom is decidedly more random. Nottingham-based civil servant Dionne Rose certainly never planned to carve out a niche as a Michelle Obama impersonator, but that’s exactly what happened during the buildup to Barack’s inauguration in early 2009. “During the campaign, people would come up to me saying I looked like Michelle. I just laughed it off and took it as a compliment. It got to the stage where everywhere I went, people were saying it.”
At a friend’s urging, Rose eventually decided to send a few photos to Susan Scott Lookalikes, a leading London-based agency. That same afternoon she was booked for a photoshoot in the capital with the Daily Mail. “It just took off from there. People have invited me to give awards and do presentations. I was on BBC East Midlands. The biggest thing, which I really enjoyed, was being on GMTV with Lorraine Kelly.”
Naturally, things have been quieter since 2016. The invites and booking requests mostly dried up when the Trump administration came into office, though Rose is sanguine. “It was fun. I didn’t take it seriously, as I always had a full-time job. It was a sideline thing, a bit of excitement that I was thrown into, really. I don’t mind the attention, but not too much of it, if you know what I mean.”
My own lookalike fascination started in a packed Derbyshire field in early July 2016 at the annual Sausage and Cider Festival, held in the vast grounds of an 18th-century stately home. The journey up from London had been particularly stressful, a mess of overpacked trains and signal failure, but it was worth it to see my family who live nearby. But it was also worth it, frankly, for the entertainment: Miss Madonna; Navi as Michael Jackson (“The ONLY impersonator to officially work for Michael Jackson as a decoy,” screams the bio on his management’s website); Planet ABBA; Simply Spice Girlz… Just a selection from the bill of A-list tribute acts that day, offered up for an entirely reasonable £10 entrance fee.
Memories of the afternoon itself now exist mostly as a series of quasi-psychedelic fragments. A ghostly figure dressed as Woody from Toy Story presiding over the ritual sausage-eating contest; a three-piece band serenading a hologram of a Leicester City football-top-clad Richard III; the furious intensity of a Keith Flint double, performed to an equally enthusiastic sunset audience. Multigenerational fun, with just enough hints of derangement to keep things interesting. How often, after all, do you get to see ABBA back-to-back with the Prodigy in the middle of rural Derbyshire?
When I tell Jodie Jackson, aka Miss Madonna (as of 2013, she has officially been the UK’s Number One Madonna tribute act) that I’d seen her perform that afternoon, she responds with a cackle. “Oh my God, the Sausage and Cider festival? Yeah that would have been me. That’s bizarre.” Miss Madonna is a tribute act, rather than a straightforward lookalike. It’s a distinction that matters. Born and raised in Hull to working-class parents, from early childhood Jackson had always longed to be a performer. After going to drama school in Surrey, she toured the world, dancing in a South American circus and taking roles in Monte Carlo and London’s West End. It was only in 2009 that Miss Madonna came into being.
“I thought it was a bit strange at first, being somebody else,” she says. “But it’s been 13 years now and I never dreamed I’d still be doing it today, but I’ve got bookings into next year. As long as people keep paying me, I’ll carry on.”
Despite Jackson’s success, the onset of the pandemic still represented a “nightmare”. As gig after gig evaporated, Jackson took a series of stopgap jobs, from graveyard shifts at Tesco to administering Covid tests at Hull Prison. “I couldn’t just sit at home, I’d be bored. The gyms were shut, you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything.” The first gigs back were strange, with fully masked and seated audiences, though it didn’t take long to get back into a well-rehearsed groove. “Madonna is a spectacle, it’s a show. So I put on a show. You know, with the lights, the costume, it’s the whole package.”
For those inside the world of celebrity impersonation, it can be a tight-knit community, though one with its own fairly rigid hierarchy and divisions. The difference between lookalike and tribute act is hardly trivial to those with a stake in the game. Bedfordshire based Guy Ingle (“THE Prince Charles Impersonator,” according to his website) is quite clear on this when we speak. “My job is as an entertainer and an actor. A lot of these ‘lookielikies’ have regular jobs, regular incomes. People like me don’t. Covid knocked my business for six. The government gave us a bit of help, but that’s it.”
Like so many I spoke with, Ingle is keen to stress just how unpredictable their line of work is. “It’s really all or nothing. I’m off to say hello to people at a shopping centre in West Bromwich for the Platinum Jubilee. It’s like when Harry and Meghan got married – I must have earned about £4,000 that week. But it’s up and down.” He certainly doesn’t want to disparage any other lookalikes, even those “who stand there like a mannequin. I love them all to bits and I’ll help anyone if I can. If they need a Queen, then I’ll suggest one.”
During the end of my time with Andy Macdonald, I ask if he has any plans to resurrect his Jack Sparrow act. It’s hard, he explains, to think about it too much, considering his other responsibilities. Most pressingly is the need to look after his young daughter and sell enough of his art to survive, month by month. “I would do it. But I really don’t know to be honest. Everything is still so up in the air.” There were good times, for sure. But these days, Macdonald increasingly values his privacy. Recognition is an odd thing. “You’re an easy target when people find out what you do. Somehow, it’s like they feel they own a piece of you.”