Alter egos: from Bowie and Beyoncé to Marcel Duchamp

Artists across the decades have used alter egos to bring their art to life from Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp to Grayson Perry’s Claire

In 1972 David Bowie introduced the world to Ziggy Stardust – the alter ego he would perform as for the next nine months. Ziggy was a fully formed character in Bowie’s mind. He told William S. Burroughs in an interview in 1974 that: ‘Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman,” which is the first news of hope that the people have heard […] Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman.’ Spurred on by the success of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie went on to create Aladdin Sane less than a year later.

Credit: Getty

An alter ego is the perfect tool for reinvention. When The Beatles wanted to shed their smart and suited image they created the album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. At the time, The Beatles had conquered the world but their popularity had taken a slight hit after Lennon’s remark that they were ‘More popular than Jesus.’ After a bit of a break (three months was indeed deemed a ‘break’ for the prolific band) they emerged not as mop heads but as moustachioed men in multicolour military regalia. Everyone applauded their return and praised their new experimental music. The name ‘Sgt. Pepper’ has several theories surrounding its origin: Paul McCartney said it came from a conversation around the dinner table playing with the words salt and pepper. Others subscribe to the fictionalised characterisation of the band: that it is an Edwardian military band-meets-a contemporary American music group, and the songs on the album are those that they would write and perform. There is a delightful irony to the album’s title: why would those with lonely hearts form a club and have a band? And isn’t a ‘lonely hearts club’ something of a paradox?

It is not always so straightforward to identify an alter ego. Would it be misleading to call Lady Gaga an alter ego? Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, she is impossible to define succinctly. Her music corresponds with her playful characterisations and her personal style crosses boundaries we didn’t know existed (who could forget the ensemble made of meat?). Although she did supply us with an alter ego of her own: when she presented Britney Spears with an award at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2011, she appeared as Jo Calderone and said: “So we’re just a good old-fashioned American man and a good old-fashioned American girl.” Pop stars’ alter egos will often be a transient identity. Beyonce once identified as Sasha Fierce: ‘The fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I’m working and when I’m on the stage.’ She has since rid herself of this persona, saying that she has taken the influence of Sasha and combined her personality with her own.

Lady Gaga, Credit: Getty

A difficulty with differentiating oneself from one’s creative output affects visual art too. French artist ORLAN has taken drastic steps to become someone new in the name of art. In the 1990s she started undergoing significant plastic surgeries as her alter ego Sainte-ORLAN in order to epitomise female beauty as imagined by Western male artists. The series of ‘performance surgeries’ would see her attain a chin like Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Psyche and the forehead of the Mona Lisa. Less extreme but no less effective, photographer Cindy Sherman explores the malleability of the self in her images. Posing as different characters in their imagined scenes, her alter egos range from generic female roles in films (famously known as her ‘Film Stills’) to smiling as an old man in black and white.

Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego was captured by Man Ray. Duchamp transformed himself into Rrose Sélavy – note the wordplay in her name (her last name sounds like C’est La Vie). Rrose is an enigma whose intentions are clouded in mystery and speculation. Duchamp said in an interview that he simply ‘wanted to change my identity.’ He may have been inspired by a female character in the Charlie Chaplin film A Woman.

Portrait of Rrose Sélavy – Duchamp’s alter ego

Charlie Chaplin himself looked to family for inspiration for his alter ego. He said of his famous ‘Tramp’ character: ‘It was really my father’s alter ego, the little boy who never grew up: ragged, cold, hungry, but still thumbing his nose at the world.’ Alter egos serve well as independent art forms. Grayson Perry’s alter ego is his fame: his character Claire appears in a ‘Little Bo Peep’ get up which he calls ‘a classic look.’ Tove Jansson explained that her creation Moomintroll is her alter ego. Dadaist painter Max Ernst created a birdlike figure ‘Loplop’, his alter ego who would often appear in his prints.

Grayson Perry

Similarly immortalised, Vita Sackville West’s male alter ego was used as the inspiration for the eponymous ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf. So crucial was her influence on the book’s conception that Woolf dedicated it to her. In the first editions there are photographs of Vita and her family. Sackville West would often cross-dress as a man called Julian and take women on dates. Although she was married to diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, she had frequent affairs with women, including Woolf herself.

Alter egos allow us to escape from ourselves so we can be seen in a new way. They offer the opportunity to display the three dimensional talents of their creators with their uncanny representations of new characters, or brilliant departures from already successful grounds. There is always room for change, even if it’s just for a little while.


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