“It wasn’t me!” read the headlines when news broke that online scamsters have been starting fake social media accounts pretending to be Shaggy in order to con his fans out of money in some elaborate pop-reggae confidence trick.
And foolhardy conmen they are too, since Shaggy is on record as being famously untrustworthy, advising his friends to deny all wrong-doing to their partners even when they’ve been caught red-handed, arse-out, banging the girl next door on the bathroom floor, with all of the counter, sofa and shower action captured on video tape. Would you lend this guy 20 quid? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d be much more likely to give your bank account details to someone pretending to be Charles & Eddie. I mean, would they lie to you?
I feel Shaggy’s pain. Not because I’ve garnered a reputation for deviousness by giving people terrible relationship advice in song, but because I too have been the victim of an imposter pretending to be me. Some years ago a letter arrived in the NME inbox – back when we had a letter’s page rather than a Facebook feed full of people who hate everything, asking what Noel thinks – from someone claiming that they’d been pretending to be me at the door of indie gigs for a decade and was always let in for free. If you’re thinking of trying this yourself, don’t bother – you’re more likely to find out you’ve been barred from the venue for the past three years and have your phone confiscated to pay a crippling wine tab that I ‘forgot’ to settle in 2006.
Yet I felt somewhat violated, as if a tiny piece of my soul had been stolen or, more realistically, as if someone else might have got any amount of drugs out of an unwitting band that were rightly mine.
More than that, though, I feel for the real pop imposters. Those noble souls of yesteryear who noticed their favourite superstar doesn’t have a Twitter or an Instagram and, with no thought of profit or advantage, took it upon themselves to ‘become’ them online.
I could relate to these bedroom Beyonces. Like them, I never had the superstar looks to be a celebrity impersonator, rolling up to the finest clubs and restaurants with a pretend bodyguard, flashing a don’t-you-know-who-am grin and enjoying endless nights licking expensive brandies off the buttocks of royalty, courtesy of the management. I wasn’t even lucky enough to benefit from the alleged Sheeran Effect that’s seen every ginger bricklayer in Suffolk become a fake-Ed Casanova. The only benefit to looking like the attic cousin of Julian Barrett and Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall, I’ve discovered, is if you really enjoy having the older passengers on a bus offering you recipes for butternut squash and the younger half demanding to see your cybernetic eye.
So why not grab at the chance to become a virtual superstar? Initially the internet offered these unsung heroes – with their slightly misspelt surnames and their many, many handle numbers – a new lease of life, a taste of real fame. And they, in turn, offered us much amusement. Instead of an exhausted work experience student faking enthusiasm for a star’s latest product or media appearance in a flatulent, cynical shitstorm of heart and sparkle emojis on the official account, we got wit, satire, sauce, rumour and fan fiction pertaining to be no-holds-barred celebrity insight. Fake accounts would spit back at haters and tabloid gossip, try to start inter-celebrity beefs and pour their fake hearts out over every high-profile break-up. We knew full well it wasn’t real, and all selflessly provided by some anonymous stan in return for just a signature from their hero. Albeit at the bottom of a Cease & Desist letter.
Occasionally they’d bring out the true nature of the star they were purporting to be – who could forget Kanye turning on his caps lock for a rant about his fake Twitter accounts, and leaving it on for 10 years? But mostly they just wanted a little reflected glory and attention, and a hint of a connection. In 2015, Vice interviewed a 20-year-old student who’d posed as Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato online before settling on Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards. “I relate to Perrie very much,” she said. “We have a lot of similarities. Being happy and sad at the same time —I see that in Perrie, and that’s me too. So it is definitely a homage to her and it is part of why she is my idol… Some people like to play football, but this is what I like to do in my spare time. It helps me relax and escape my real life.”
There’s something very endearing about that. It’s social media as an extension of role-play, one cyber-step forward from turning up at a Lady Gaga signing session in a dress you’ve made out of smashed Pepperamis. I always hoped that these people were cashing in in some way too – if Kylie Jenner is getting the price of a yacht for tweeting up some bargain bucket lipgloss, you’d hope that @kylorenner was getting a few quid for bigging up their local Beaks ‘n’ Feet fried chicken outlet, or something.
But there’s a worrying side to the interview too: “When she and Zayn Malik broke up I took it pretty badly because I feel I ‘am’ her,” the imposter continues. It’s that easy, when you’re living inside your idol’s virtual head, for fandom to slip into obsession and the barriers of identity to break down. One minute you’re sniping about bad reviews in the guise of your chosen superstar, the next you’re announcing false pregnancies, rehabs and affairs on Strictly. Even if, with the last, the odds are in your favour.
Inevitably, then, the art of online impersonation began to break down. Too many stans turned stalker, some prick started harassing women online pretending to be Chris Pratt and Twitter and other sites clamped down on imposter accounts with verification ticks and emojis. The fakers were forced to openly declare their fakeness and go pro, creating some of the best Twitter profiles on the site. God, the entire royal family, Obama and Nick Nolte have cracking parody accounts, while @BPGlobalPR described the massive oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico as “a bit of a whoopsie daisy” and @fakechucknorris posts a torrent of action hero statements like “I frequently donate blood to the Red Cross. Just never my own” and “In a fight between Batman and Darth Vader, I would win”. Someone’s even mangling Kardashian drivel into philosophical quotes as @KimKierkegaard.
It’s all spelt the end of the days of the innocent pop star faker though, and into the space they leave have rushed the scamsters. Everyone from Mark Zuckerburg to Robert Downey Jr have reported scammers approaching fans for money in their name, taking advantage of people that might not find it suspicious that the billionaire owner of Facebook, or even Iron Man, might want to be their friend if they can front them some dosh ‘til Tuesday. But let those selfless faux-Cheryls and nearly-Biebers of 2011 know this – you were better than the real thing. Fake it ‘til you make it, babies.