Lifestyle & Belief

Not just Elvis: famous celebrity impersonators the world over


Malaysian-born Mark Sylvester, better known as Asia's Tom Jones.


Emily Lodish

Because of an entirely improbable ricin scandal, Elvis impersonators have hit the news lately.

That's shedding a new spotlight on the curious subculture of professional imitators of The King.

Impersonators of the rock and roll icon are definitely the most prominent out there, cropping up everywhere from the metaphorical mecca of Graceland to no-account Australian towns.

But Elvis acolytes aren't the only famous celebrity impersonators out there. Here are some interesting examples of people who make a living — well, some of them do anyway — pretending to be other people.

1. Lil Wayne doesn't find that amusing

A 20-year-old Lil' Wayne impersonator in South Africa had a rather rude surprise when he encountered his inspiration in the flesh at a Johannesburg nightclub. The real Lil' Wayne is said to have "klapped" young Antonio "Young Nucho" Kalembe (local slang for "slapped.")

A good old-fashioned slapfight isn't quite in keeping with the tough image most rappers seek to cultivate, but it appears Lil' Wayne was provoked.

Upstart Young Nucho appears to have been occupying Lil' Wayne's VIP area and bogarting some of the attention meant for the actual celebrity — driving Lil' Wayne to an act of less-than-deadly violence.

As for Young Nucho, he released a video making it clear that he definitely isn't Lil' Wayne — a reality the production values probably made apparent.

2. Asia's Tom Jones

Malaysian-born Mark Sylvester doesn't want you to call him Mark. That's because he's lived as "Asia's Tom Jones" for more than three decades, belting out the Welsh singer’s greatest hits for crowds large and small in seven Asian countries.

GlobalPost Asia Editor Emily Lodish wrote about Sylvester back in 2007, when he was performing regularly at Phnom Penh's Cambodiana Hotel.

"Sylvester dresses for each show in too-tight leather pants, a blousy shirt and a large silver cross on a chain around his neck — all signatures of Jones — and has swiveled his hips in a small London club and crooned to hundreds at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas," Lodish wrote in the Cambodia Daily.


She then explained the impersonator's origin story:

"Sylvester started singing Jones’ songs in the basement of an air-conditioning company where he worked as a technician in the early 1970s. All day, he would listen to the piped-in tunes and sing along loud above the drone of the machines, subconsciously developing the booming voice quality characteristic of Jones.

"His boss told him he had a voice big enough for radio, and friends pointed him toward an upcoming talent competition in Kuala Lumpur. Sylvester practiced so much before the competition that he lost his voice. Panic-stricken, he thought, “It’s in the Lord’s hands.”

"The Lord smiled on Mark Sylvester. That night he won the equivalent of about $500 and a six-month contract to sing at the beer garden where the competition was held. One year later, he was making a living solely off of singing Tom Jones."

3. Transsexual teenage Katie Price impersonator robs bank. No, really.

In a crime that made headline writers everywhere shiver with glee, transsexual 18-year-old Katie Price impersonator Kerry Marshall used her marginal resemblance to the famous model to withdraw thousands of pounds from a Lincolnshire bank.

The impressively brazen Marshall, a self-proclaimed fan of the model also known as "Jordan," first tricked her way into Price's Sussex home to steal the star's bank details, then proceeded to relieve Price of 2,500 pounds from her HSBC bank account, according to the Daily Mail.

Her attempts to pass as Price apparantly consisted of little more than wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses while insisting that she was in fact a tabloid-beloved celebrity, a less-than-impressive ruse that neverthless worked on the bank.

Marshall admitted to six fraud charges, according to the Telegraph, and was given a two year community order and an 18 month mental health treatment requirement.

4. Reggie Brown, Obama specialist, and other presidential look-alikes

Turns out there's plenty of work out there for hopeful actors who bear a marked resemblance to the US president. That's what shot Chicago actor and comedian Reggie Brown to stardom when Barack Obama hit the political stage, scoring Brown regular work at major events and on HBO and Comedy Central TV shows.

Brown says he's worked extremely hard to perfect his Obama impression, his bio adding that the impersonator has "deservedly earned the moniker the “Comedian in Chief.'''

Here's video of Brown and the president meeting. We were expecting a bit more of a spit-take.

Then there's professional Obama impersonator Louis Ortiz (yeah, there's more than one), who hit the news when he publicly re-endorsed Obama for president.

"Never in a million years could I imagine I could look like not just someone famous, but THE someone. It's Obama. It's history. The first African American president of the United States — and I'm a part of it," Ortiz told the Huffington Post of his career choices. Who knew celebrity impersonation could be so touching?

5. Tina Fey takes on Sarah Palin

It was a fairy tale story. A brilliant and up and coming comedian is suddenly confronted with a gun-toting Canadian Vice Presidential candidate — and the comedian happened to look just like the overwhelmingly controversial Alaskan governor, to boot.

Fey captured Palin's curious Canadian syntax, big hair, and fondness for hunting wildlife with pitch-perfect elegance, creating a indelible comic image of the vice presidential hopeful that may just have helped shove the tense 2008 election in the direction of Barack Obama.

Although Sarah Palin may have largely retreated to her icy Alaskan lair, Tina Fey was persuaded to revive her famous impression of the Governor in March 2013. Er, "maverick at large."

Of course, Fey wasn't Saturday Night Live's only president-impersonating genius. Everyone who lived through the George W Bush administration keenly recalls Will Ferrell's excellent impersonations of Dubya — sometimes playing opposite Fey's Palin for a rather bizarre moment of meta.

6. Robin Williams wants you to knock that off

Robin Williams may seem affable enough, but he reacted with deadly seriousness when he discovered that Williams impersonator Michael Clayton had fooled a reporter and a charity event organizer into thinking Clayton was the real thing — a cardinal sin in the game of ethical impersonation.

Williams complained that Clayton went to "great lengths to dupe" both the Missouri fire department and other fundraisers, convincing them he was the real Williams — even giving an interview in character to the Minnesota Star Tribune, according to the BBC.

Fundraisers had to call off events once they found out about the scam and lost a considerable amount of money, while the Williams lawsuit demanded Clayton clearly identify himself as not actually Robin Williams during all his performances. The crimes of impersonation were stopped, and the world was safe once again.

There's no video of Robin Williams throwing down on Clayton, but here's Matt Damon getting an assist from Williams, which is almost as good.

7. Celebrity impersonation ... conventions

Here's an entire convention devoted to celebrity impersonators, which would probably be among the weirdest ways you could spend an afternoon. There are plenty of these across the United States — meaning there's likely a public venue available if you're desperate to pretend to be Richard Nixon in your free time — and hey, who isn't?