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Surviving Fame: A Little Narrative of Alter Ego

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The healthy happy human may very well wear many masks, but the celebrity, rarely considered human, is forever torn between public image, public persona, brand, alter ego, character, stage persona, and protagonist, with the ‘real’ person, as cheap as this sounds, behind the mask. Attributes such as ‘fake’ and ‘manufactured’ are omnipresent companions of famous people, as if spilling the beans in front of millions is a behavioral norm, as if the common man would be willing to share details of his private life with the public in order to be considered ‘genuine’.

The Virtual ‘I’

Alter ego is defined as ‘second self’, ‘other I’. Our time is the time of alter ego, with reality constantly being restructured, rewritten, and refashioned by the creators of such reality, and then by the perceivers of it. Alter egos are no longer reserved for pop music, comics, literature, and standup comedy; they are the common man’s ‘second I’ in the digital world – daily acting out the roles of their online avatars. Look at social network profiles: the ‘other I’ of the users is carefully fashioned by the users themselves by choosing the imagery, audio, video, text, and context to describe themselves, creating characters, always somewhat different from the private person behind the screen – sometimes completely different.

The Static ‘I’

Consistency is the norm. Inconsistency is an aberration. Since primitivism is the religion the public preaches, hastily drawn out labels get tattooed into the skin, never to come off. MySpace, the veteran of social networks, gives you two choices to register as – personal and musician – because, what, you can’t be both simultaneously? (Please also note that if you are a musician, you are not considered a person). Facebook profiles cannot be altered according to the multiple roles a healthy human being plays every day (married in one country, single in another – does that scenario ring a bell?). As bloggers, writers have to stick with one topic, one ‘niche’, one tone, one style, one personality. Otherwise, oblivion is imminent.

The Wavering ‘I’

At the same time, to be popular, to fit in, the user has to be versatile, to change like a chameleon. Twitter is all about being succinct, making even the usually composed Noam Chomsky lose his cool somewhat (trying to make value judgments based on 70 character utterances is no easy feat even for a brain like his). Pinterest is all about visuals; YouTube is video based; LinkedIn drowns in CVs and job recommendations – with users having to shed skin after skin to play by the rules.

The alter egos for different social networks have different characteristics, demanded by the nature of the social network. The greatest irony is that users find no contradiction in branding most of the celebrity world ‘fake’, ‘manufactured’, ‘insincere’, lending celebrities no right to protect their lives behind the masks the rest of humanity is so eager to wear, all the while hiding conveniently behind pictures that look much better than people in real life (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that). It is hard to imagine a user putting a picture on their profile with eyes half closed and mouth agape (unless it’s ugly-cute – ‘oh look, don’t their antics look so funny here?’), to post pictures of unshaved armpits or cellulite dimples – yet that is what sells at the newsstand if the subject is a celebrity. Hypocrisy much? Much too much, if you ask me.

The Gaming ‘I’

And then there are computer games. The discrepancies between people and their avatars are sometimes startling – there is almost no connection between the one and the other, except that they are … the same person. For business purposes you can build alter egos online to lip-sync your message with the help of a digitally created talking head. You can also create an alter ego in eight easy steps on the popular ehow.com or play alter ego games online by reliving your life as someone else in a perfect alternative-life-story simulation. And while all this bullshit is going on, with hours upon hours spent perusing that artificially constructed reality of artificially constructed personas, celebs still get a beating for not being ‘real’.

The Creative ‘I’

Alter egos as a creative method have been used since time immemorial in music, comedy, film, comics, and literature. Some contemporary celebs have alter egos who play on the Jekyll and Hyde scenario (Slim Shady vs. Eminem, T.I. vs. T.I.P, Brook-Lynn vs. Mary J Blige, Roman Zolansky vs. Nicki Minaj). Others are excitingly original, inspired by other forms of art, like Janelle Monae’s Cindi Mayweather. In rare cases alter egos have seemingly melted into their ‘hosts’ (Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga) – these are the luckier bastards who can even pass unrecognized in the more obscure corners of the world without their camouflage.

Nowadays a number of hugely successful artists flaunt multiple alter egos, using them both for art and as aspects of their public personas: Nicki Minaj has already presented ONika, Barbie, Rosa, and Roman Zolansky; I have a feeling there are more on the way. Stefani Germanotta has Jo Calderone, Yuyi the Mermaid, Mother Monster, Mary Magdalene, and … what was the other one? Ah, Lady Gaga! I nearly forgot.

Some alter egos last an album (Xtina by Christina Aguilera); others a video clip (Mariah Carey’s Bianca). Alter egos sometimes make an artist, as in the cases of David Bowie vs. Ziggy Stardust, Katy Perry vs. Katy Hudson (and let’s not forget Katy Perry vs. Kathy Beth Perry). And in the world of standup comedy, Borat, Bruno, and Ali G all by the tireless Sacha Baron Cohen have made alter egos indispensable in modern pop culture.

The Public Image ‘I’

But when it comes to public image, celebrities are increasingly deprived of that opportunity to be versatile. Fergie, once an addict but clean for many years, is incessantly interrogated about her addiction and her struggles, even though she has evolved into a completely different person, and has put all of that behind. Seems like once the label is on, it is hard to get it off. Mary J Blige struggled to find commercial success as a happy, fulfilled woman for a while – no, the public wasn’t happy at all to see her dry her tears and stand strong. Ellen DeGeneres was out of work for three years – how dare she go gay on the public when all was going so well? Steve Martin made the public ask for their money back when he talked about ‘An Object of Beauty’ as an author instead of spitting out penis jokes (Who does he think he is? Salman Rushdie?). Severing the public ‘I’ from the real ‘I’ was the premise of the popular Russian talk show Shkola Zlosloviya with Tatyana Tosltaya and Dunia Smirnova until the hostesses realized that wearing masks is actually the healthiest survival technique in the dog-eat-dog reality of mass culture.

The Brand ‘I’

It’s all about branding, it’s all about what the consumer thinks, says to brand-guru Martin Lindstrom on America’s Next Top Model: All-Stars’ second episode where each of the (fully grown, somewhat accomplished) women are given a label they have to wear: Lovable, Daring, Candid, Trustworthy. No matter how corny and empty the label is, consistency is better than contradictory little truths; being hated is better than being forgotten. It doesn’t really matter if a contestant thinks she is smart. If the public isn’t picking up on that, she has to stick with what the crowd says. Identity has to be distilled, ironed out to the perfect flatness of a paper doll.

The Cliché ‘I’

Real understanding demands time. But who has time these days? The bigger the label, the bolder the letters, the faster the message sinks in, no matter how shallow. It’s like running around a dozen cafes in a day – that doesn’t make one a connoisseur of good food. And boy, do we get flooded with those ‘value judgments’ in the digital frenzy of today. In H8R, a TV show about celebs and their haters, people present their versions of famous people. According to the public, Kim Kardashian is not supposed to date black men; Eva Longoria is at fault because she is skinny; Scott Disick is the ‘ultimate douche’ – just because! Of course Longoria is comically confused with her most famous character, Gabrielle Solis from Desperate Housewives (confusing Kim Kardashian with the character she portrays on Keeping Up with the Kardashians is too fucking subtle, I will not go there; the same thing happened to Kseniya Sobchak in Russia, by the way). H8R is supposed to be breaking stereotypes but instead it reinforces them (Latinas have to speak Spanish, be good cooks, have curves, and know how to dance, and hey, look, Longoria possesses all those characteristics, therefore she is a real Latina), and I don’t think the creators even suspect it. (Did I mention the haters on the show are picked up from a crowd of audition hopefuls for another TV show, striving for that spotlight alongside the people they hate with so much ardor?)

The Real ‘I’

The dizzying transparency modern media culture has created for celebrities pushes them to find survival techniques which allow them to be successful yet keep their privacy (if you think I am exaggerating, take a look at the world from the perspective of Britney Spears in her car chased by paparazzi). Not everyone is enamored with fame, and there is one great example from the literary world: JD Salinger, who fought for his right to privacy till his last breath. He could have been huge – bigger than Capote or Hemingway – but he didn’t want to. But times change; the 21st century model of a successful writer is Grigory Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin, Anatoly Brusnikin, Anna Borisova) who has been as interactive as it gets, playing with masks to please his public, keeping his alter egos secret for years without anyone suspecting.

The public is not cruel. The public is ruthless. The hypocrisy that rules the judgment process behind most celebrity myths is deemed amoral once applied to celebrities themselves. Surface judgments balloon into the realm of the ridiculous in the digital world with sarcasm and humor misinterpreted, quotes violated, truths turned upside down. Few people get what a brutal satire Bruno was, how poignant the message was, because many can’t even tell what Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego Bruno is satirizing – celebrities accessorizing with African babies, or the public labeling celebrities’ adopted children accessories.

Consistency and primitivism work. If something doesn’t add up in the interview responses, the celebrity is branded ‘insincere’. The viewer becomes a zombie that has no time to analyze but only time to consume and mindlessly move on to the next victim. The public say ‘they have chosen this path’ or ‘they owe it to us’. No one chooses to have the best voice in the world, or the best dance moves. It’s a gift. It’s also a curse. How were Amy Winehouse’s looks or personal lifestyle relevant to what she did musically? The same can be said about Whitney Houston. Why did it matter if Michael Jackson had a pet chimp when he did what he did? Don’t get me started on the rest of them. You will drown in my spit.

The Survivors

There is a handful of survivors that seem to keep it together, and for good reason. Beyonce, being a class act, a true lady, a faithful wife, obviously cannot spread her legs on stage, shake her stuff for the world to see, writhe her back provocatively – Sasha Fierce steps in for her. Clichés rule the mentality of the mob, and the survivor celebrity knows that. It’s useless to explain that Beyonce is not a flat rock with a single label defining her essence engraved for eternity but a diamond with a myriad facets – singer, daughter, lover, whore, businesswoman, bad cook, sly fox, cold bitch, but above all a smart girl – so she won’t explain all of the above to anyone who can’t understand.

Does anyone remember still that Madonna is not the real name of the best selling female in the world? What do we really know about this woman except her masks? Madonna has a faithful disciple following in her footsteps. Jo Calderone lands covers of major magazines and opens award shows. The woman behind the mask knows what she is doing, while no one knows her at all, most confusing and identifying her with her other famous alter ego – Lady Gaga. Stefani Germanotta may scream at the top of a mountain that she and Lady Gaga are one, she may even believe that herself – nothing wrong with a good actor getting a little bit lost in the game, but she isn’t fooling me. I am not worried for her. With the bulletproof walls she has built around herself she has nothing to worry about either.

The latest addition to the alter ego club? Lana Del Rey, universally branded ‘fake’. Lizzie Grant didn’t work out all that well, so she played that old re-invention trick used many times before her, and while haters hate, her bank account is plumping up, just like her lips.

It seems to me when I analyze the careers of those who fell victim in this war, I see that those who tried to resist the law of alter ego, the brand, the label, the ever changing kaleidoscope of masks that hide (and protects) the human, were crucified mercilessly. Those who learned to change, evolve, camouflage, put on facades, invent names, accents, and lives, have persisted, have flourished.

In the 21st century there is no definite knowledge; there are only many knowledges, and the mask of alter ego may be the best way to express this multivocality. With the technology (Photoshop) and philosophy (post-modernism) to make this trick even more potent, the alter ego becomes a little narrative of the Self, one facet of the many ‘I’s a healthy happy human being has to host merely to survive.

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About Sviatlana Piatakova

  • Abani

    I really do find this interesting. Not that this topic hasn’t already been discussed by so many other people but this slightly different perception is an interesting add to the mix. Sometimes, I figure alter egos and bipolar disorder could well mean the same thing with the way people talk about them like a mental illness of some sort. In fact, they are mental illnesses. They both basically, involve a change (drastic or not, severely or mildly) change in personality dependent on moods as well as situations and other different factors, perhaps minute. This article talks about alter egos while trying not to put too strong a label or should I say an emphasis on the ‘illness’ part. (my words).