Many of the oddest, most shocking and most novel celebrities in the past century have actually been a creative invention. The people behind these creations have the freedom of extensive artistic license to embody a wild, larger-than-life persona and whether the motivation behind the invention of an alter ego to inhabit is artistic or personal, the results are usually fascinating.
Artists, musicians, and comedians all use their alter egos to push boundaries or explore new creative territories. The character is used as a mask or buffer, protecting the artist from the public and allowing them to play a role that they’d otherwise find impossible. Indeed, sometimes the artist so fully inhabits their creation that they begin to have problems separating themselves from their fictional double.
A look at some of the leading alter egos in media today illustrates just how significant a cultural phenomenon the alter ego has been. It also, of course, demonstrates the huge money there is to be made from a successful alter ego.
10. Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage: $12m
The Australian satirist and comedian Barry Humphries is best known for his two alter egos Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson, the former of which is one of the world’s longest running comedic inventions. Conceived in the mid 1950s, Dame Edna spent time on stage before migrating to TV screens.
Dame Edna’s distinctive ‘wisteria hue’ coloured hair and ‘face furniture’ were additions to the initially drab Australian housewife of the 1950s, whose appearance evolved into the more glamorous current version. Dame Edna has appeared on screen as a host, in multiple films, and has also written her own autobiography.
9. Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge: $12m
Alan Partridge is in the interesting position of being the creation of multiple writers, but is only portrayed by one of them. Though originally conceived by Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci (the creator of Veep and The Thick of It), Richard Herring, and Stewart Lee for the BBC’s Radio 4 program On the Hour, Partridge quickly gathered a back story, aspirations, and an apparent friendship with the naturalist and comedian Bill Oddie.
Coogan’s character hasn’t been far from the radio or screen since his first show in the early 90s; he’s appeared on Comic Relief, The Brit Awards, and has his own autobiography and recent successful feature film.
8. Nicki Minaj as Roman (and her 13 other alter egos): $45m
Onika Tanya Maraj, who started her career as an actress, claims that her love of alter egos stems from her troubled childhood. In an interview with New York Magazine the rapper stated that “To get away from all [her parents] fighting, [she] would imagine being a new person.” First came the character ‘Cookie’, which led to the infamous ‘Harajuku Barbie’, and then the creation of Nicki Minaj.
Minaj has appeared on her records under the guise of Roman Zolanski (her demonic gay brother), his mother Martha, and a character who resembles Mother Teresa (which saw a scarfed Minaj blessing and healing her fans). Minaj is famous for her rapid evolution, which means that characters are often created, lived, and discarded in quick succession.
7. Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G & Borat: $100m
When Borat first left British TV screens to make his international appearance in the 2006 British-American mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan there was an enormous backlash against his creator Sacha Baron Cohen. The largely unscripted film saw the character insulting his native country of Kazakhstan, as well as the clueless Americans unlucky enough to be caught on camera.
Baron Cohen (an Academy award winning Cambridge Graduate) is best known for his various creations which include Ali G, Bruno, and Admiral General Aladeen, who have appeared on TV and cinema screens since the late 90s. Although the movie deals have earned Baron Cohen a large sum of money, they have also landed him multiple death threats from various terrorist organisations.
6. Eminem as Slim Shady: $140m
The 41 year-old Marshall Bruce Mathers III is better known by his stage name Eminem, and his alter ego Slim Shady. He was the top selling artist of the 2000s, and has received a total of 13 Grammys in his career. The darkly comical Slim Shady first emerged in 1997, with the Slim Shady EP, and has continued to feature (though to a lesser extent after Recover as Eminem felt he didn’t really fit in his new image).
Slim Shady is best known from the 2005 hit ‘The Real Slim Shady’ which was written with help from Dr. Dre and Tommy Coster for Eminem’s third studio album. The song wasn’t originally featured on the album, having been written just hours before the final copy was due to be sent off.
5. Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana: $150m
These days the whole Hannah Montana looks increasingly surreal. The original Disney series (which ran from 2006-2011) starred Miley Cyrus as Miley Stewart, a fictional character who leads a double life as an ordinary schoolgirl and successful pop star.
Since the end of Hannah Montana (the last season of which was ironically titled Hannah Montana Forever) Cyrus has pulled one of the biggest career U-turns of this century; appearing on our screens draped over a wrecking ball, cavorting in a nude-suit with 37 year-old Robin Thicke, or playing out every teen celebrity stereotype by being arrested for a DUI and a fake ID. Cynics might say that she was trying to distance herself from her alter-ego, by any means possible.
4. David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust: $150m
On 10 February, 1972 at the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth in the UK, David Bowie made his first appearance as the bisexual extraterrestrial rock star Ziggy Stardust. To this day the red haired character remains one of the greatest figures of the glam-rock era. Soon after he was introduced, Bowie took to answering to the name Ziggy, and eventually re-named his band The Spiders from Mars.
Ziggy was so successful in catapulting Bowie into international stardom, that Irish rocker Bono started performing under the extremely awkward looking persona of the devil MacPhisto in an attempt to distance U2 from their earlier moral period. That particular alter ego was… slightly less successful.
3. Lady Gaga as Joe Calderone: $190m
In the winter 2011 edition of V Magazine Gaga looked back on the creation of her alter ego Joe Calderone: “How much exactly can we get away with?… How can we remodel the model? In a culture that attempts to quantify beauty with a visual paradigm and almost mathematical standard, how can we f**k with the malleable minds of onlookers and shift the world’s perspective on what’s beautiful? I asked myself this question. And the answer? Drag.”
The resulting gritty, greasy, male alter ego first appeared in the Japanese Men’s Vogue in 2011, and was rumoured to be Gaga from the start. He went on to appear in the music video for ‘Yöu and I’, and live at the MTV music video awards.
2. Beyonce as Sasha Fierce: $350m
In 2008, Beyoncé Knowles started insisting that whilst she was performing, she should be referred to as Sasha Fierce. In an interview with V Magazine Beyoncé stated that ‘When I’m onstage I’m aggressive and strong and not afraid of my sexuality. The tone of my voice gets different, and I’m fearless. I’m just a different person.’ And so Sasha Fierce was born. Big hair, dramatic looks, and stilettos all featured as part of the alter ego’s look.
In November of the same year Beyoncé release the studio album I am… Sasha Fierce, which was made up of two sections (in both physical and stylistic terms). The I am.. section featured mid-tempo pop, whilst the Sasha Fierce section was made up of up-tempo songs and duets with people like Lady Gaga.
1. The Beatles as the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: $1.5 – $2 billion
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts band was the brainchild of Paul McCartney. The idea was that by recording an album as a fictitious band, the Beatles would be able to experiment musically: “I thought, let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos … it won’t be us making all that sound, it won’t be the Beatles, it’ll be this other band, so we’ll be able to lose our identities in this”.
The fictitious band was conceived in early 1967, and the album (the band’s eighth studio album) was released that summer. Sergeant Pepper is widely considered to be the first art rock album, and is often cited as one of the best albums of all time. At the time, it enjoyed critical and commercial success, winning four of the seven Grammys it was nominated for, and also going 16x Platinum in the UK.