Almost Famous: Uncovering the celebrity impersonating industry


Marilyn Monroe look-alike

 “I’m your biggest fan,” are words Carol Woodle hears every day/

 Onlookers freeze in pure shock and often approach her, sometimes crying and shaking as they try to express their admiration. 

“Every single day someone mistakes me for Oprah,” Woodle said. “I’ll be trying to check out [at the store], and O Magazine is sitting right there on the stand. People look at the picture, look at me, and do this two or three times, and next thing I know, it starts down the line: ‘Is that her?!’” 

Constantly being mistaken for Oprah led to an amazing opportunity for Woodle, who joined the ranks of the celebrity impersonating industry in 2006, she said. 

Woodle said she decided to become an Oprah impersonator after an elderly woman approached her, crying, asking to take a picture with her. 

“She was sobbing as she held my hand and said the only dream she had in life was to meet Oprah, and she felt [meeting me] was the closest she was ever going to get to her,” Woodle said. “That was when it clicked.” 

A majority of celebrity impersonators, or “tribute artists,” enter the industry after constantly being told they resemble a famous person, according to Woodle. Impersonators earn a living by simply exploiting their likeness to a famous person or character, hosting corporate events or entertaining at parties where they earn between $500–$1,500 a gig, Woodle said. 

Janna Joos, founder of Reel Awards, an awards ceremony for celebrity impersonators, estimated that there are roughly 20,000 impersonators in the U.S. 

Northern Illinois University sociology professor Kerry Ferris studies celebrities and has written multiple journal articles on celebrity impersonators since 2010. Through her research, Ferris has concluded that defining the actual number of impersonators is impossible. 

“There are so many different ways to be a celebrity impersonator that I think most of the people who do it are under the radar,” Ferris said. “The people who do it professionally are actually the minority of [celebrity impersonators].” 

Though Woodle was born with Oprah-like features, not all impersonators are look-alikes, said Sheri Winklemann, a Chicago-based impersonator and owner of entertainment company Wink Productions. According to her, some actors analyze celebrities’ makeup, costumes and characteristics until they are able to perfect and imitate them. Her career as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator accidentally began five years ago after she graduated from DePaul University with a theater degree. 

“I don’t even look anything like [Marilyn]—it’s a lot of costume and makeup,” Winklemann said. “People kept calling my entertainment company, [Wink Productions], asking for a Marilyn [impersonator], and I didn’t have anybody. So I said I could do it … It was a comedy version in the beginning, and then I started to get serious about it because I realized it was an art and a craft.” 

Since then, Winklemann has made appearances at many events around Chicago, including a birthday party for Chicago Bears player Lance Briggs and private parties for both the Oprah Winfrey staff and Chase Bank executives at the Drake Hotel. Winklemann said she has made numerous appearances at downtown restaurants and bars in addition to touring internationally and performing on cruise ships alongside real performers Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon and The Beach Boys. 

The amount of preparation involved in portraying Marilyn Monroe is time-consuming and costly, Winklemann said. She regularly reviews films featuring Monroe, reads biographies of her and rehearses her songs. 

“There were years of work I put into research,” Winklemann said. “It’s constant; there’s always more to learn.” 

Winklemann said she’s always on the go. When she’s not traveling, she spends her time booking events, invoicing previous clients, rehearsing, choreographing and taking voice lessons. Much of Winklemann’s week is also devoted to creating new costumes—having garments custom-made, styling her wigs and replenishing her vast makeup collection, she said. 

“Marilyn had an entourage,” Winklemann said. “She had someone to help her with her makeup, her look and her dress. Well, I do all of that, and carry all the sound systems and do the setup for all of my gigs.” 

From an intellectual property standpoint, the right to copy a movie or recording star’s persona may be in jeopardy due to a doctrine called the right of publicity. 

Violating this right, sometimes known as commercial appropriation, means taking a celebrity likeness—be it physical or verbal—and using it without authorization for “trade purposes,” usually interpreted as advertising or an endorsement. Michael Boyle, administrative editor of the John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law, authored a Sept. 18, 2012 blog post on the journal’s website that points out the arguments pro and con: Defenders claim the impersonation is essentially artistic rather than commercial, akin to fair use, while critics contend the celebrities’ “images are being exploited for financial gain.” 

Boyle suggests as a solution to this dilemma that impersonators pay a licensing fee to the celebrity’s estate. ”A compulsory fee…would help strike a balance between expression and exploitation.” 

Despite its controversial legal status, the impersonating profession extends across the globe and is even honored through the annual Reel Awards, which began in 1992, and are hosted every February in Las Vegas to honor the most talented and successful look-alikes in categories ranging from “rising star” to “tribute band” and “best actor.” 

According to Joos, a committee monitors the industry’s impersonators worldwide, just as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences oversees the Oscars. 

“Just like any awards presentation—the Grammys, the Oscars, the Emmys, the Country Music Awards—it’s important to them,” Joos said. “It’s their award, and it’s coveted. It’s just a smaller industry.” 

In addition to a public audience, Joos said the awards ceremony usually draws anywhere from 75–200 impersonators, but starting in 2008, the awards show started to see a decline. The last two years have had the lowest attendance of impersonators with as few as 50 in the audience, Joos said. 

This is because, like other entertainment enterprises, the celebrity impersonating industry has suffered because of the recent economic downturn, Joos said. The 2013 ceremony has already been canceled because impersonators can’t afford to attend, and Joos finances the awards show out of pocket. 

Unlike the majority of impersonators, business for Enrico Hampton has been booming since 2009 when one celebrity’s popularity was boosted dramatically. Hampton has been impersonating Michael Jackson for more than 30 years, but he said his career exploded after Jackson’s death. 

“Before that I was working a lot, but when he passed, it kind of skyrocketed,” Hampton said. 

With a wardrobe of more than 15 Michael Jackson outfits he made himself or custom-ordered from Japanese costume companies, Hampton tours locally and nationally, working up to six shows a day. He has performed events for the Chicago Bulls and many local festivals like the Taste of Chicago, he said. 

Regardless of the size of the event, Hampton says he enjoys them all. 

“I don’t think there was one [show] better than the other one,” he said. “Even a kid’s birthday party can have so much flavor. It can be just as great as when I performed at the Chicago Bulls.” 

Besides Elvis, Marilyn Monroe is the most impersonated celebrity in the field, Winklemann said. She said there are so many impersonators because celebrities are so highly regarded in today’s society. 

“Celebrities are given this out-of-this-world status in American culture,” she said. “They’re worshiped. We love to build them up, and we love to tear them down.” 

Dr. James Houran, a New York-based psychologist who studies celebrity worship, said glorifying stars is natural in a media-driven society. 

“Human beings are hardwired to worship something, and in the absence of … organized religion, we turn to trying to copy and learn from people that are successful,” said Houran, who has co-written more than 100 journal articles and a book on celebrity obsession. 

Through his years of research, Houran said he has observed a continuum of celebrity worship, ranging from healthy admiration to pathological behavior. 

He said celebrity worship begins with positive intentions, helping individuals pay homage to role models, develop a sense of identity and come together in a social group. But given the right set of variables, Houran said celebrity worshiping can become predictably dysfunctional. 

“At the early stage, celebrity worship is very voluntary, meaning people can turn it off,” Houran said. “You can put down the magazine, you can turn off the TV, you can get away from the Internet. However, at slightly higher forms of celebrity worship, it stops being voluntary, and you start seeing addictive or compulsive elements come into play.” 

Houran said celebrity impersonators aren’t an unhealthy endorsement of celebrity worship. However, if someone is unable to discern his or her actual identity from that of the personality, that’s cause for alarm, he said. 

“There are other people who impersonate because they want to physically look like their favorite celebrity, almost as a way to copy them so they feel they’re a success,” Houran said. “It’s one thing to put on Spock ears to make money at a convention. It’s another thing to put on Spock ears seven days a week when no one is looking.” 

During his work as a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine from 1997–2003, Houran oversaw a clinical outpatient program for patients who received psychological care. At the clinic, Houran said he frequently dealt with patients who would operate under delusions of grandeur—feeling as if they were actually someone they were not. 

Houran noted an extreme case of a patient who believed he was Jesus. He said the man was “so convinced that he would start interacting and talking with people about it.” 

Houran said that to be a celebrity impersonator, one would need a level of fantasy proneness, or the ability to take oneself in and out of reality. In the case of celebrity impersonators, Houran said he could see delusions being at a higher risk level. 

“Impersonators [who] make their living being Elvis for 25 years, that I would say would probably reinforce their celebrity proneness,” Houran said. “A line of work where you’re constantly having to stay in character without a lot of break back to reality, or to your own identity, that’s more of a risk factor.” 

Working in the industry, Hampton said he has met a few impersonators who have gotten lost in their characters, believing they’re actually famous and demanding a celebrity lifestyle. 

“Outside of doing the character they do, they live that life— they just walk around thinking they’re that person,” Hampton said. “But I don’t get caught up because after I get home and take off all the makeup, I’m just myself.” 

However, Ferris said it’s a common misconception that celebrity impersonators would be susceptible to such identity crises because most impersonators are aware they are acting. 

“It’s a popular notion that celebrity impersonators are the craziest of all crazy fans, and that’s just not true,” Ferris said. “This is a performing art—they’re actors. They know that they’re acting, and the audience knows that they’re acting.” 

While there is a fine line between celebrity impersonation and fanaticism, for Woodle, it’s just her profession. 

“God gave me the gift of looking like [Oprah], and it’s up to me to put it to good use,” Woodle said. “I know a lot of other [people] say, ‘Get a real job, Carol,’ and I say I have a real job, and I love my job.”