A successful writer once told me, “If your novel bombs, you could always try porn.” He was right. My novel did bomb, and a year later found me broke and desperate. Grad school does that. So I took the successful writer’s advice, sort of. I snapped a bunch of selfies and sent them to an agency that specialized in lookalikes.
Everyone has their own version of rock bottom. Mine involves a bottle of cab and an email that basically reads, “People tell me I look like all kinds of celebs. Can we turn this into money somehow? I’ll do any event, including kids’ birthday parties and Vegas weddings.”
Two glasses into the evening, I started cry-laughing. Three years ago, I’d imagined myself sharing tapas with John Grisham. Signing so many books that my assistant had to give me a hand massage. Lying in a king-sized bed at a hotel overlooking a river with star-lit bridges. Watching my Amazon sales rank climb toward #1 on my free smartphone as I drifted off into a peaceful sleep. The phone would be a gift from my ever grateful publisher.
Now I could only picture myself dressed up like Snow White, handing out cotton candy to preteens at amusement parks. Not even polite kids, either. The kind that crinkle their nose and say, “My mom thinks you don’t look like Snow White, at all. She wants her money back.”
How quickly our dreams sour.
The agency wrote back a few weeks later. They said: “Can you send more pics of yourself? We can’t tell what celebrity you’re trying to look like.” Wow, a little harsh, but at least honest.
So I summoned the courage to send another handful of selfies. I replied, “I don’t know what celeb, either. People say Kate Beckinsale a lot, but I don’t know. Tell me what you think.”
If you want to torture yourself, tell someone you look like a celebrity. Wait for them to respond. It’s like locking your self-esteem inside an iron maiden. Why would anyone do this for a living? Nobody had even hired me as a lookalike yet, and I was already exhausted.
That’s how I felt for a week after the Kate Beckinsale pitch I made to the agency. Every day they didn’t write back made me feel like a pathetic, narcissistic bitch. It’s one thing to not look like a celebrity, but something else to make the comparison yourself and wait for validation.
In other words, I felt like I’d made a huge mistake. I’d given into vanity, and allowed myself to give up on a career as a writer and academic.
That writer who told me to go into porn? It was actually three writers. All mid-list, but making ten times as much money as me. People actually attended their readings and signings. They had agents. Their publishers spent money to promote their books.
We were at a bar in the middle of a book festival. At the height of a gossip orgy, one of them turned to me. “So your publisher laid down some serious bucks on you, didn’t they?”
I almost laughed. “Not that I’m aware of…”
She showed me her phone. A pic she’d snapped earlier that day. A big book display showcasing different authors. A cardboard cutout of some vampire ice queen staring wistfully at…a nearby vending machine.
At first I thought it was a joke. A prank. But she insisted the ice queen was me. The other two writers explained to her. No, it wasn’t. I didn’t even write young adult fantasy.
As proof, I pulled out my phone and showed them my actual book display. A stack of postcards with my cover printed on them. A sad consolation prize for my case of books getting lost during shipping.
That’s when my writer friends started telling me I should give up on literature and write young adult. They commiserated with me over the lost books. That’s when they recommended porn. A joke. But also a prediction, that my foray into conventional publication would end in debt and despair. That I wasn’t really that talented. I’d gotten this far on my looks. And that’s all I had. Looks. Not even personality.
My successful friends had given me a kind death sentence. Not to mention the insult to porn actors. Everyone thinks they can go into porn because they look pretty. Hey, I know that’s not true. I know a few porn actors. It’s hard work, not a backup. So disclaimer: I’m not trying to knock porno. It’s a wonderful, thriving industry. There’s a reason I tried the lookalike biz instead. I knew I would suck at porn, too.
I’m not writing this post to gather up a bunch of comments like, “You DO look like a celebrity. SO much like a celebrity.” We all know that I don’t look like Kate Beckinsale. You don’t have to look like someone else to appreciate your face.
But do we really know that? We see all kinds of stories about men and women who undergo a dozen surgeries to look more like a specific person.
More than one man has made the news for spending thousands of pounds on eyebrow lifts and Botox injections to look like…hold your breath…David Beckham. Really? He’s handsome, but so are lots of other guys.
Google “living Barbie” or “living Ken,” and you’ll find a handful of people who’ve spent fortunes on cosmetic adjustments. Some of them go into debt. They do interviews about their regret.
They say things like, “I don’t want other people to make the same mistake.”
And they’re right. It’s a good thing that they come clean and confess. Sure, these people fucked up. Imagine all the ridicule they endure telling their stories. I’m sure they know that, for some people, they’re just a spectacle. We ignore the trend, the bigger lesson. More people lay down money to alter their appearance every year. Some of them die as a result.
Someone buys latex from Home Depot and tries to pump it into their ass. Because they can’t afford a butt lift. But they think having the rump of a Kardashian will bring meaning to their lives.
What motivated these aspiring lookalikes?
These people looked completely healthy and attractive before their transformations. Many of them looked better— not that it’s my place to judge. But I can’t imagine slicing up a perfectly good face to make it more like another face that happened to appear in movies.
Insecurity over our appearance plagues us these days. We see more celebrities than ever. Social media gives us the chance to celebrate our own beauty while also drowning us in ideals. Life bursts with contradictions and irony.
My brief decision to audition as a celebrity lookalike made me feel like an utter hypocrite. My entire life until then, I’d struggled against norms. Now I was going to try and profit off them. I felt disgusted with myself corresponding with that agency. Was I honestly going to pay my rent with money made from looking like another person?
What if the agency wrote back and recommended plastic surgery? How much would that cost? What would I be willing to do to make some side cash? I told myself whatever I did, it would be temporary. Just until I finished my degree. But somehow that felt thin. Dishonest.
Self deception. Delusion. Lying to yourself, when you know you’re doing it. That’s one of the worst feelings a human can experience.
Part of my deception: “You didn’t ask for this, Jessica. Your lookalike status was thrust upon you.” As if I were a heroine in a fantasy novel.
Back in my teens and 20s, I did hear Kate Beckinsale a lot. In fact, weekly. Not because my face resembled hers, but because vampires were a big fucking deal. Underworld. Blade. Twilight. True Blood. People thought about vampires all the time. They saw them in theaters, bookstores, billboards, and their own living rooms. We were saturated.
At the time, I wore a lot of black. I was pale. Dark hair. Sad face. Go figure. It helped that people have a natural inclination to find celebrity lookalikes. It’s an icebreaker, especially if you’re trying to score. Tell a girl she looks like Celebrity X, and she’ll talk to you for at least five minutes.
The Internet teems with sites and apps that offer to analyze your face and compare you to a celebrity. I’ve tried. Never got Kate Beckinsale, not even once. But I did get other celebrities who look like her. So does that count?
According to one website, I look 50 percent like Grace Phipps. Who’s that? Beats me. But here’s her picture:
Although I’ve never heard of her, she’s beautiful. She starred in The Vampire Diaries, which I’ve never seen. I’m sure it’s great. It’s most likely my fault for not knowing who she is. Thanks, Internet. I’ll take it.
My bank even suggests celebrity lookalike as one of my password questions. “What celebrity do you most resemble?” That’s an interesting example of our culture at work. I wonder how many people type “Selena Gomez” or “Taylor Swift.” When bank A.I.s develop, they’re going to roll their eyes hard.
The span of youth where I looked like a vampire was truly flattering. But I hadn’t even seen Underworld. Never watched it until a few years ago. I was too busy writing short stories and waiting tables. I didn’t watch television or go to movies that often.
So it always surprised me. When a group of people started calling out to me at a mall, “Hey, Selene! Selene!” I turned around and stared blankly at them.
That only made things worse. Because that’s what Selene does a lot in these movies, whip around and stare blankly.
“Who’s Selene?” I said.
I thought they’d mistaken me for someone they knew. Or maybe I’d gotten wasted last night and introduced myself to a bunch of people as Selene. Both sounded plausible.
My confusion led to “Oh my god, you haven’t seen Underworld!” And then the plot was explained to me. “This chick, she fights werewolves. She’s a vampire. You definitely need to check it out!”
I never quite got used to the attention. Another week, I dragged myself into a Starbucks after an epic weekend grading papers. The barista stopped me before I could order my espresso. He said, “Do you know who you look like?” Pause. “Selene, from Underworld.” Pause. “Have you seen it?”
“Sorry,” I said. “So…can you make it a triple?”
At a crosswalk, a complete stranger once shouted out of their car window, “Kate Beckinsale!” It was so random, part of me still thinks it had to be a dream. That kind of shit doesn’t happen in real life. Except it does.
Imagine the let down when that agency finally wrote back. “Sorry, we don’t see any Kate Beckinsale. We’ve studied your photos and can’t match you with any celebrities. This doesn’t mean you’re not attractive. Best of luck with your lookalike career.”
That email felt too much like a breakup letter. As things turned out, I’d based more of my self worth on my resemblance to a celebrity than I thought. I’d gotten used to the random compliments, even if I didn’t know exactly what they meant. It was a “like” button in real life.
Now I had to face a post-lookalike future. Not just believing in my smarts, but somehow using them. I had to figure out how to lead with my brains, and take control of how other people perceived me.
So I got a job tutoring online. On top of grad school, I worked 15 hours a week teaching college students about thesis statements. It paid for my groceries and, long-term, made me a better teacher. It also eased my soul. I could live with myself working for a education corporation. The students I helped never even saw my face, but they appreciated my comments.
There’s no magic formula for accomplishing that feat — trusting your brains. Most of the work happens under the skin, behind the eyes. You focus on what matters, and over time that’s what people see.
Some time after that, I finally rented Underworld and waited for the out of body experience to happen. That moment when I’d go, “Wow, all those people were right! I really do look like Selene…”
That didn’t happen. All that did was I liked a movie from ten years ago. Besides, right around the age of 30, those comparisons to characters from vampire movies stopped.
Lots of reasons, I guess. I probably didn’t look that much like Kate Beckinsale in the first place. I just fit a profile. Other reasons: vampires have faded from the cultural imagination. Plus, when you get older it becomes less socially acceptable to comment on people’s physical appearance.
My pub crawling days are over. I don’t frequent places where I’m likely to receive comments on my physical appearance anymore. I don’t even spend that much time in coffee shops. That’s a good thing. Your 30s is a great time. People stop telling you how young you look, or who you resemble. They start taking you seriously. Some people manage to reach that place sooner than others. I’m just a fool who finally learned her lesson.