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KAI RYSSDAL: In case, somehow, you missed the wall-to-wall coverage online and on the air today, Tiger Woods said he is sorry this morning. Why, you might ask, is that business news? Well, for one the golf business would certainly like to see Tiger back on the course and back in the public’s good graces. There is, though, another industry that would love to see Tiger’s star back on the rise, too. A business that depends on celebrities being, well, celebrated.
Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano explains.
Rico Gagliano: It’s a beautiful day in Studio City, Calif. And on a golf course, a guy named Canh Oxelson practices his short game.
Canh Oxelson: You drive for show, you putt for dough, so we’re gonna putt a little bit today. We got about a twelve-footer here and I got three shots at it. We’ll see if I can get ’em in there.
Someone watching from afar might wonder why Canh — and me — act so surprised when he sinks the very first shot.
Sound of a golf ball dropping in a hole
Galgiano: Nice. Hole in one.
Oxelson: Yeah, I guess that’s all the practice I needed!
That’s because, from afar, Canh looks like Tiger Woods. I mean a lot like Tiger Woods. So much so, that he gets paid to look like Tiger Woods.
Oxelson: Well, in the beginning it was kind of chump change; it was, y’know, $100 here, $200 there. But it’s turned into this thing where I can make anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per event, depending on what I’m doing.
Canh’s appeared at corporate events around the country as Tiger Woods. In two American Express commercials, Canh was Tiger’s stand-in. In fact, he’s earned enough being Tiger to pay for his graduate degree in education.
Gagliano: Which was at?
Oxelson: It was at Harvard.
But then, a few months ago, things changed. Tiger Woods, the real one, started having, shall we say, personal problems — and looking like him suddenly became a lot less profitable.
Oxelson: I’m still getting some gigs, but not nearly as much as I was getting before. I mean, I had several contracts on the table, and companies just decided, “We can’t really be associated with Tiger or anybody who even looks Tiger.” So yeah, there was a lot of money left on the table, actually.
In the world of lookalikes, career slumps like these are, yes, par for the course.
Kevin Weiler is president and owner of Talent Plan, an agency that represents lookalikes. He says demand for fake celebrities depends on public attitudes towards the actual celebrities. Talent Plan’s Tiger lookalike also hasn’t been booked for months. And while George W. Bush and Bill Clinton doppelgangers get lots of work…
Kevin Weiler: Uh, Barack’s having a little bit of a harder time.
Weiler: I think people are just sort of on the fence about him. You have to be able to make fun of the person and George W. was a really easy target for that.
Gagliano: But with Barack, people don’t know whether to make fun of him or respect him, is that the idea?
Weiler: Exactly, they’re just not sure. So I’m not getting the calls for Barack that I expected to get this year.
You can see how this business gets a little weird. Sometimes, when Weiler says “Barack,” he’s talking about our nation’s president; sometimes, he’s referring to an actor. The line between celebrity and lookalike gets constantly blurred. So Weiler says for some performers, the job’s not just a financial roller coaster — it’s a psychological one.
Weiler: They dedicate their whole lives to it and what does it do to them? I don’t know. I think some people came out here to be actors in their own right. I have a Cher impersonator who’s a dynamite actress and has a career as Cher, and has breakdowns here and there because it’s just too strange.
That might be one reason every person I spoke with for this story has another career. Canh Oxelson is dean of students at a private school. Weiler invests in real estate. And the most successful lookalikes have something else in common: perseverance.
Case in point? A guy named Antonio McKay. At an ultra-posh Bat Mitzvah in a Beverly Hills Hotel, I watch him suit up as his celebrity twin.
Antonio McKay: Michael Jackson.
McKay’s been a Jackson doppelganger for 15 years. And though it’s hard to remember now, not so long ago, no one really cared about the King of Pop.
McKay: Yeah, things kind of dried up.
Gagliano: And how is it now?
McKay: Like a total reversal. From having nobody calling you, to every day somebody calling you. The day after he died, it was almost kind of macabre. They were canceling Elvises and canceling all the Marilyns, just to have Michael Jackson.
McKay says he went from making a few hundred bucks a few times a year to playing tribute concerts in places like Australia and Hong Kong, with a live band and backup dancers, for up to $6,000 bucks a night.
McKay: All the people who wouldn’t have him for Bat Mitzvahs, they want him now.
DJ at Bat Mitzvah: I’m-a introduce the man, the legend, Michael Jacksooooooon!
McKay pulls out a sequined glove, trots out to the dance floor and moonwalks for a crowd of squealing teenagers. Michael Jackson is back. For now.
In Los Angeles, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.
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