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Posted at 10:43 AM ET, 11/ 8/2007

Doubletake: Celebrity Clones as Art

By Liz Kelly

A Bush-a-like takes on the Rubik's Cube. (TASCHEN)

Artist Alison Jackon's work gives one pause, to put it mildly. The British artist's work -- both on film and in still images -- centers on interjecting celebrity lookalikes into jaw-dropping scenarios. There's the peek inside a nightmarish Scientology-approved delivery room as Katie Holmes delivers Suri, playful shots of Princes William and Harry cavorting in Nazi regalia and peeks at a very domesticated Paris Hilton behind bars.

Casual observers, though, can easily mistake Jackson's fantastical, elaborate recreations as the real thing. Maybe because we suspect they mirror reality.

Jackson describes herself as an interpreter of public fantasies, an artist giving concrete form to our wild speculations and shrewdly tapping into the insatiable appetite for celebrity dirt.

"It's really about an obsession with celebrity and how we think we know celebrities intimately, but we don't really know them for real," said Jackson. "We only know them through photographs and media imagery and that is not necessarily a medium that tells the whole truth -- or even part of the truth."

Her video work has conjured Queen Elizabeth's grooming routine in BBC specials and Bush family dynamics for "Saturday Night Live." Her stills, which will be on display starting in December at Los Angeles's M&B gallery, alternately poke fun at and skewer celebs ranging from Madonna to Elton John to Eminem to George W. Bush and Bill Gates.

Recently, I talked to Jackson about her inspiration, her new coffee table book, "Confidential" (some images not safe for work), which real star she once mistook for a lookalike and the celebrity-worshipping culture of which we here in Celebritology are marginally aware.

Read the full interview after the jump...

cHow long have you been doing this? I looked at your Web site and saw several BBC specials where you work using the same construct.

Alison Jackson. (Photo courtesy artist)

Alison Jackson: My primary position is as an artist; I show in galleries and museums throughout the world and I try to reach a wider audience because it's a very accessible era of the celebrity fast read. So I do specials with the BBC and with Channel 4. I'm just about to do another TV series here in England and hope to do one in the U.S. fairly shortly as well.

And this is my second book. I love the photographs as well as the moving picture clips. But it's really about an obsession with celebrity and how we think we know celebrities intimately, but we don't really know them for real. We only know them through photographs and media imagery and that is not necessarily a medium that tells the whole truth -- or even part of the truth.

And it's sorted through by editors and reporters with their own subjective views so the myths and stories about a particular celebrity can be tailored or made up if a celebrity is trying to sell something, so it's not the real story. Although we as a public feel that it's better than the real story. We like the highs and the lows and I find that a fascinating phenomenon with the bombardment of imagery now.

For me, I started to look at this when I was a student at the Royal College of Art and Princess Diana died and the country came to a standstill. People mourned her death as if she was closer to them than one of their intimate, real relatives. And yet they hadn't met her. And I thought that gap is fascinating. Why would somebody cry over somebody they've never met before moreso than over their real family?

So, I just wondered -- I just obviously thought Diana was a construct of photography. She wouldn't have existed at all but for this construct and the stories surrounding the photographs -- that if I took someone who looked like Diana, put her in a photograph or a film, would people really care whether it was her for real or not? Would it matter if it was her as long as it looked like her? And I think that's the case. And now when I'm walking around with lookalikes people go mad. They start screaming and shouting and want to sleep with the lookalikes and chase them, whatever. I keep saying "It's not the real person, it's a lookalike." And they don't care.

So it's the glamour of the ideal of that person?

Jackson: It's the image that's so important. Even if it's a bad replica.

A lot of the photos in the book, they put stars in some -- not only compromising, but some disturbing positions. I'm thinking of the photograph of Michael Jackson with kind of a bloodied hole where his nose was or inside the delivery room with Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Those are some pretty disturbing images.

Jackson: They are images that have existed in the public mind. I'm not doing anything that hasn't already been visited out in the public mind. So that's what I'm fascinated with. My work's not about the real celebrity; it's about how the stories and the myths get told around that celebrity.

As far as I can remember, it was a huge story -- the birth of Katie Holmes's child. How was she going to have a silent birth? All sorts of imagery was conjured up in my mind.

So what you're doing is giving us an image of what we were already imagining was happening behind closed doors?

Jackson: Well, I think that what imagery does do -- media imagery, any kind of photography. Because the real person is not in the image you're just left with a piece of paper and an imprint, it leaves you as the viewer to fantasize about the person. It give you a real power over the real person that you don't have to deal with someone for real or confront them with their feelings. All you've got is a piece of paper so you can really play as a member of the public with your imagination. Which we've never been able to do quite so fully before, because we've never been bombarded by imagery before in this way.

And I think that that is the point that I'm sort of depicting what exists in the public mind and as a public fantasy. I'm not depicting news stories or anything. But when you hear that Katie Holmes is giving silent birth you wonder what would a silent birth mean and how would that be. And, of course, I'm sure she wasn't depicted in the way that I displayed her. But it's an image that could be [seen as] true because everyone is using their imagination to tell stories about celebrities and given a picture to look at because the real person's not there to defend themselves.

Speaking of the real person, have you had any reaction from some of the celebrities that are depicted in your videos and pictures?

Jackson: Yes I have, and the thing is that the pictures are not about the celebrity, it's about my view as a member of the public about the stories that are told or implied or our suspicions about the celebrity through media imagery. Which is of course not true. It's just a set of imagery -- there might be an element of truth, but not the whole truth. And I can't answer for any celebrities, but I'm sure they understand that more than any of us.

So no one has threatened you with any legal action over the photos?

Jackson: No. I'm an artist. I'm raising questions about this peculiar life we lead through imagery. We are an incredibly voyeuristic society and we want to know more and more about people's private lives -- what you can't have in a photograph, the real thing, you're constantly trying to get to. What you can't have, you want more than anything else because the unattainable is always more attractive.

Victoria Beckham -- I believe somebody told me when she looked at one of my photographs depicting her and David Beckham together she looked at it and said she couldn't remember posing for that photograph. So, I don't know whether she was joking or not. She's got a sense of humor and that's a very witty comment.

So of course people may be pissed off, but you know, as an artist aren't you meant to push the envelope in terms of raising questions about the way we live?

One thing I was surprised that I didn't see in the book was any depiction of Anna Nicole Smith. Was that a place you consciously chose not to visit because of what happened to her?

Jackson: Ya, I'm not going to picture Princess Diana dying in the back of a car. It's not about personally prying into people's lives. It's about our fantasies about that person. It's depicting the remnants of the way we think and feel and imagine celebrities are. It's not designed to upset anyone. And of course that's a balance.

I would argue that some of the pictures are disturbing and could be essentially upsetting.

Jackson: Well they have to be in order to make the point.

Are there any particular subjects you consider a favorite, that you keep coming back to again and again? The Queen seems to be somebody who you revisit often.

Jackson: Well I love the royal family because we know nothing about them really and even if you did know something about them it's very hard for anyone to grasp when they're not really from the same place the rest of us are. They're royal. It's a different set of breeding and principles and it's a different place. So it's fascinating for me as a British person. I'm a huge fan of the royal family.

I'm also particularly interested in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt because they're like the U.S. version of the royal family and I think she's great and very political and a powerful woman.

And Brad not quite so powerful?

Jackson: I think he's totally gorgeous, but I'm a woman and I sort of relate to Angelina Jolie. I think she's amazing with what she stands for and she's a fantastic actress. She does some very important things that are political and interesting.

She definitely inspires a lot of debate over here. People seem to love her or hate her -- mainly because of the perception that she stole Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston.

Jackson: That's just what I'm talking about. I mean, who cares? I'm sure Jennifer Aniston doesn't care -- after three years she's moved on. It's just an old news story that just keeps getting regurgitated unnecessarily. And you have to ask "why is that story getting regurgitated?"

And that's the power of photography and TV. You can buy the magazine with your favorite star on the front and you can rip up the photo. You can switch on the TV when you want to be nice to the celebrity and switch it off when you're sick of them. So once the public has a power over these successful celebrities and I think they're like little things -- or big things in England. Celebrities operate as our new folk religion so that if you admire Posh -- whatever you may think about her -- she's a very good business woman and uses style to create an amazing celebrity business for her and the creation of her husband celebrity-wise. You feel you want to wake up one morning and aspire to that, you have people who have done that.

You've got, I don't know, who is a sex goddess who you can identify with. You have another who is classed as a demon. Here we have Camilla Parker Bowles who everyone hates and thinks a witch. So there's a love/hate relationship that allows people to identify with celebrities as their new mini-gods.

Let me ask you this. Over the past few years, at least in the States, there's been a proliferation of the 24/7 news cycle. These stars are constantly being followed and chronicled and, in a way, we're seeing these images with the real people in them. We're seeing Britney Spears shave her head, we're seeing her crotch -- so how does that inform your art?

Jackson: I think celebs are trying to burst their own bubble. So here we have Kate Moss snorting coke and it goes on the front cover. You've got Britney trying to disrupt the viewer's opinion of her -- that she isn't this idol; she is a normal person. Those particular celebrities really are surrounded by the press all the time. The paparazzi are 10 deep with Britney.

It's not like that for Keanu Reeves and so some celebrities can't get away from the press and the more controversial they are, the press follow them. With the Aniston story -- that's an old old story, yet there are about five celebrities that go on the cover of these magazines over the past five years: Brangelina, Aniston, Britney, Lindsay Lohan and Paris. They just keep recurring and recurring and it's a vicious circle, isn't it? Because they recur the press are more interested in them and the more they react in different ways. Britney's just doing things to sicken the audience.

Who knows? I make photographs that exist in the public imagination born from the press, from media imagery and photography and it goes back into the press. So the whole thing is very difficult to divide up easily because it's all connected. If we weren't buying so many magazines, Britney wouldn't be chased.

How do you actually find your lookalikes?

Jackson: Every agency in the world [has them on their rolls] -- and I have two, one in L.A. and one in London who has an eye that's almost better than mine. Often the lookalikes have a similarity, but when you do a photograph it's gotta be as right as possible. I chase people down the street. I go up to people in restaurants -- often the real celebrity thinking they're a lookalike. It's ridiculous isn't it?

I went up to someone who looked like Nicolas Cage and said he'd be a great lookalike and would he be in one of my photographs and he was really rude to me. And I thought "that's not very nice." And I happened to bump into him again later on (we were on a small island) and he came up to me and apologized for being so rude and I was rude to him because by that time I was so mad. And suddenly I realized it was Nicolas Cage.

Europeans aren't used to celebrities wandering around on their own. And in L.A. they do. You feel royal and grand. You don't have to dye your own hair or get your own driver's license. There's someone to do that for you here.

And that's what Diana railed against, right? She wanted to be a normal person and have the freedom to do her own thing if she chose.

Jackson: The Diana story's another story and I think we'll hear more with all of the inquiries that are going on now.

You don't think we've heard the final word on Diana's death?

Jackson: No. I just think there's a story that hasn't been told.

Which photographs in the book are your favorites?

Jackson: I particularly like the George Bush Rubik Cube. As simple as it may seem, I just like the photograph. I try to create an accessible layer so you can flip through the book quickly, or if you like you can study the photograph a bit more and work out why I'm doing it in the first place.

And I love the Angelina Jolie picture with Brad Pitt very delicately shaving her legs. It's an intimate scene. I love the Queen photographs.

Do you know if the Queen has seen any of your work?

Jackson: No, but I hear Camilla Parker Bowles -- the future queen -- bought a lot of my books.

I was looking at the videos on your site and enjoyed the one of the Queen having her legs waxed.

Jackson: That's very funny, isn't it?

Yes. Just wondered since that's aired on the BBC and in the past year there has been a focus on the Queen with the Helen Mirren movie and someone else presenting her persona to the world. Obviously she had to swallow a few lumps with that portrayal as well.

Jackson: I think she's swallowed lumps all the way and hasn't ever caught up with the media circus. It all happened so fast. She's an old woman. She's 80. I think she's fabulous. She's a blank canvas, she's a woman, she does her job extremely well and I think that is great. She doesn't moan to the press -- just keeps slogging through it as all these bombs keep going off around her -- metaphorically speaking. And I think it's admirable.

In an essay at the back of your book, Charles Glass writes "Alison is not mocking celebrities, she's ridiculing us."

Jackson: That's a little harsh. I love his essay, but I'm not trying to ridicule anyone. I'm just trying to raise questions about our fixation with celebrities through the medium of photography and media imagery. We don't know them, but think we do. Living our lives this way makes us extremely voyeuristic and I question that.

Carrying that to a logical -- or an illogical -- conclusion. Do you think we're going to reach a saturation point? Will interest crest?

Jackson: No, I think we're going through a point now where celebrities are trying to burst their own bubbles and some celebrities can't get away from the press whatever they do, so the images come out of Britney and Kate Moss. And it makes it difficult for me because I've got to keep up with the rudeness of the celebrities -- they're ruder than I could ever be.

I think things will change. I don't think this will stop, us viewing them as demons or idols. Celebrities are here to stay. I just think with our really fast ADD type lifestyles, we're just going to have more celebrities who come and go faster.


By Liz Kelly  | November 8, 2007; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Catching Up With..., Celebrities, Extreme Fans  
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