An old post of mine about the 80s pop band Milli Vanilli has suddenly gotten some unexpected traffic. I can only guess that this has something to do with Mariah Carey’s meltdown performance on New Year’s Eve in which pre-recorded high notes were a prominent feature.

Eight years ago I wrote a book called Schadenfreude, Baby! Schadenfreude is joy in the misfortune of others. I have to admit to enjoying the fiasco, but not quite in the “Schadenfreude” way.

It brought me back to the humiliating moment four years ago when I was contacted out of the blue by a booking agent for an NPR affiliate asking if I would be a guest on a regional program to talk about one of my old books. I wrote that book ten years ago now, and even then I did not have all of the facts at my immediate recall. I told the booking agent that my instinct was not to do the show, because it had been a long time, but he reassured me that it would be easy and sent me a list of some of the topics from the old book that the show planned to cover so I could cram. Unfortunately, I didn’t re-learn it all in time and the announcer did not stick to those subjects anyway. It was horrible. As I wrote at the time, “half way through the 1 hour interview, I fell silent after a question and had to admit I had no memory at all of the historical episode the host was asking me about.”

What I didn’t mention in the blog post about the interview was that there was another guest on the show in the studio. During the commercial the announcer, I assume not knowing that I could hear their conversation, complained to the other guest about my ignorance, and as I was trying to shake that off we came out of the commercial, the announcer cut back to me with yet another question about my own book which I could not answer. I got a fresh knot in the pit of my stomach for weeks whenever I thought about the interview. I still don’t like to contemplate it.

So when I saw everything falling apart for Mariah Carey I had a different species of Schadenfreude. It was not that I felt glee that she had been taken down a peg. I felt relief, “Well, it could have been worse. I could have been live on one of the most viewed five minutes of television the whole year.” The word that is the subject of this post, if my high school German has served me, (there is a good chance it hasn’t, as I have demonstrated, my memory of things decades old is sometimes questionable) should translate to “reassurance in the misfortunes of others.” It’s OK. Pop stars are screw ups too. Isn’t that just a little bit nice to know?


David Bowie


“We can be heroes just for one day.”-David Bowie

When I was describing the art I wanted to my book cover designer, I said I wanted a rock star, but not any rock star.  He had to embody theatricality and glamour. I wanted a figure who played with his identity, who created a persona that inspired imagination and fantasy in his audiences. Someone whose public self was as much a work of art as was his music. The early draft came back with a long-haired, Woodstock-esque figure.

“Like David Bowie.” I explained.

The designer then understood exactly what I meant.


Pretending to Be Who You Really Are

51RBE9yVNAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I started reading an interesting book called “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was” by Wendy Doniger. “Many cultures have myths about self-imitation,” says the blurb on the back, “stories about people who pretend to be someone else pretending to be them, in effect masquerading as themselves. This great theme in literature and in life, tells us that people put on masks to discover who they really are under  the masks they usually wears, so that the mask reveals rather than conceals the self beneath the self.”

As themes of rock stars and people impersonating themselves filled my head I suddenly remembered a video that I once watched over and over on a betamax tape. The 20 minute version of David Bowie’s “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean.” It is a wonderful, humorous short film in which Bowie parodies his own rock star image. He plays two characters, a nerdy nobody who wants to impress a girl by pretending to be friends with a glamorous rock star who goes by the stage name Screaming Lord Byron. So you have one of the biggest rock stars of the day pretending to be a nobody pretending to know a rock star to get in to see a rock star played by the same rock star. Screaming Lord Byron, behind the scenes is also nothing like his on stage persona. Back stage he’s a nervous, sickly wreck. The video ends by breaking the third wall. A nice pop music example of the genre of self-imitation.

My favorite scene is the one where nerd Bowie tries to convince the woman at the door that he is on the guest list. My brother and I still sometimes use “Woosh Oliander” as a catchphrase. Enjoy.

Identity Theft: 15 Real Life Rock Star Impostors

Who wouldn’t want to be treated like a rock star? People are thrilled to see you, they ask for autographs, they buy you beer or more. The lure of rock stardom is so great that many people try to skip the whole tedious learning music part and aim straight for the top of the charts by borrowing the identity of someone already famous. Here are some real life pop star pretenders. Some are funny, some are sad, and a couple are downright creepy.

1. Faux Bono Poses for Selfies with Dreamforce Attendees

It was a beautiful day for the up-and-comers at the 2013 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco when one of the world’s most famous rock stars, Bono of U2, stopped to greet passers by and pose for pictures.  “He was INCREDIBLY nice,” wrote Scott Anderson whose picture you can see by following the link. “Asked him if I could take a photo. He smiles and takes my phone from me and takes two selfies of us together. One was even cool and arty and he took time with it. Then complimented my shirt … What a guy.” He was a cool dude. He just wasn’t Bono. The conference goers who wanted pictures with a rock star still haven’t found what they were looking for.

2. Will You See Rod Stewart on a Downtown Train?

FAKE ROD STEWARTProbably not, but you might see this guy. He is the impostor known as Rockaway Rod who gets free drinks and dinners from people who love the song “Maggie May.” Or then again, maybe it’s not. The man who claims to be the New York fixture says this is not him and that the guy in the picture is an impostor impostor.

Incidentally, have you seen the clip of the Mike Meyers comedy where a bagpipe player at a Scottish wedding does a version of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

3. Is that Lady Gaga or Just a Simulation?

Amy EvansA security firm claimed it was not trying to trick anyone into thinking Gaga was shopping in a Miami mall in 2011 when it sent in look-alike mega church singer Amy Evans surrounded by a team of bodyguards. “If you’ve got a team of guys standing around someone, obviously someone is going to think that they are somebody (famous),” a representative for the security firm told the Miami New Times. “Are we directly trying to achieve a crowd response to what we do? No. But if a crowd does happen to appear, then that’s great. That’s what these students have to be aware of when they become bodyguards.”

4. One of My 30 Aliases is a Member of Creed

eckenrod and tremontiCareer criminal and con man Kevin Eckenrod (pictured left) decided he might find it easier to run a bar tab as Mark Tremonti of Creed than as an alcoholic drifter with a long rap sheet. Indeed it was, and he charged $160 in drinks to a hotel room he did not occupy. He also received medical care in a hospital as Tremonti and was invited into the home of a fan and helped himself to her credit card. He was arrested and sentenced to 25 months in jail for his rock star act.

5. You Can’t Be Everywhere At Once, Unless You’re MF Doom

MF-Doom-2009-03-25-300x300If it worked for Milli Vanilli. Oh, wait.  The masked rapper MF Doom apparently figured no one would notice if he sent actors to lip sync at performances in his place. When disgruntled fans called him out on it he explained to Rolling Stone that it was really their problem if they didn’t understand conceptual art. “Everything that we do is villain style,” he said.  “Everybody has the right to get it or not get it..I tell you one thing: when you come to a Doom show, come expecting to hear music, don’t come expecting to see.” Egotripland compiled a series of videos that they believe are DOOM impostors.

6. It’s Easier to Fake Someone Who’s Never Shown His Face

Drummer Peter Criss (the one who was painted up like a cat) had left Kiss in 1980 before the band took off their trademark makeup (and then put it back on again). So few people could spot a fake Kiss Criss. A decade later the tabloid The Star reported that he was homeless panhandler living underneath a pier in Los Angeles. The down-and-out figure in the tabloid story was actually a homeless man named Chris Dickenson who’d been claiming to be Criss for years. The Star had paid him $500 for his story. The real Peter Criss, not Chris, sued the Star and appeared on The Phil Donahue Show to set the record straight.

7. Frankie Comes from Alabama

A few years ago the 80s pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, known for their banned-by-the-BBC hit “Relax” made a comeback and with a slightly altered line up toured the U.S. under the name The New Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The slight alterations to the lineup included putting together an entirely new group of Alabama musicians with no connection to the original artists whatsoever.  Details. Details.

8. Do Pop Stars Get Free Medical?

Apparently, as this is the second story in our list featuring an anonymous person who posed as a famous musician for the health plan. John Reutcke in 1992 plead guilty to theft after obtaining $18,000 worth of medical care at an Oxnard, California hospital by saying he was pop singer Christopher Cross.

9. The Most Disturbing Case on This List

One of these guys is Harry Styles of One Dimension. The other is a creepy pedophile who wanted to get teenaged girls to send him pornographic photos and videos online by pretending to be Harry Styles.







10. If You’re Ever Arrested, Just Say You’re a Rock Star

I can’t blame the Oakland, Ontario police for thinking this guy was David Lee Roth. david for not realOntario-born David Kuntz described as a “failed musician” and “scam artist” does bear a striking resemblance to the Van Halen frontman. When Kuntz was pulled over for driving recklessly he explained to the officer on duty that he was suffering from a nut allergy, and by the way he was a rock star. He was taken to the hospital, met some nurses there, and invited them to a club where he performed a Van Halen song with a local band. The police eventually did discover their mistake and, oh yeah, that Kuntz had been involved in a murder investigation in the past.

11. If You’re Ever Arrested, Just Say You’re a Rock Star Part II

Jason Michael Hurley had played in a Stone Temple Pilots cover band. (Apparently there is such a thing.) So when he was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and shoplifting razors he did some quick thinking and claimed to be Scott Weiland, lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots. The Beverly Hills police sent out a press release announcing a “celebrity arrest.” When the real Weiland read about his supposed incarceration he contacted the media to deny the story. The police initially denied they’d made an error. They said they had done a “physical check” and it was “definitely” him. They continued to hold this position until they actually finger printed the guy in the cell.  “Where ya going with that mask I found?”

12. All About the Bass (No Henley)
The moral of Lewis Peter Morgan’s story is: you can get away with impersonating a rock star longer if you pretend to be the bass player. Morgan enjoyed the attention and drinks he got when he regaled people with behind the scenes stories of recording “Hotel California.” For a while he claimed to be Don Henley, but Henley was just a bit too recognizable, especially after he launched a solo career. So Morgan claimed the identity of Randy Meisner, a bass player who had left The Eagles in 1977. As Meisner he got comped at casinos and was given free musical instruments. As Morgan, he was arrested for fraud in 1998.

13. Nobody Knows Who R.E.O. Speedwagon’s Guitarist Is

A man who claimed to be R.E.O. Speegwagon guitarist Rob Valenti conned a pair of real estate agents and some friends they met at a restaurant out of dinner at a restaurant, an expensive hotel and $300. It was only the next day, when they could not reach their supposed client, that the agents decided to Google R.E.O. Speedwagon and realized that the band didn’t have a member named Rob Valenti. The impostor? He was under the gun so he took it on the run.

 14. Auditioning for a Career as a Full Time Psy Impersonator

psy-1-762x428Dennis Carre (left) made international headlines after he dressed up as the South Korean pop star Psy (right) and rubbed elbows with real life movie stars at the Cannes film festival. He was not trying to get people to buy him drinks or dinner. He just wanted headlines, he told GQ. It was all a marketing ploy. Now Carre works as a full-time Psy impersonator.

15. The Most Adorable Reason to Pretend to be in a Boy Band
Yes this one is a bit of a cheat, but I wanted to end on something uplifting. In the video below an Australian guy named Dean confesses to his American girlfriend Lauren that he has a secret identity as a member of a boy band called Fancy. You can see Fancy’s hit song “Abacus” at around the 1:30 mark in this video. Yes, it is a boy band wedding proposal and not only that, “Fancy” uploaded their track to ITunes and sold the recording to raise a bit of cash for the wedding.

If you have enjoyed this list of people who pretended to be rock stars, perhaps you would enjoy the novel Identity Theft, a fictional account of a pop impostor. One Amazon reviewer described Identity Theft this way:

“We know the dangers posed by people we “meet” on the Internet–they are lurking with the sole intent of siphoning off our life savings. But these threats all focus on what we could lose by trusting strangers. What happens when that unknown gives back something so wonderful it becomes someone’s whole life–and is based on fraud? This is the story of Candi Tavris. She’s bright, educated, attractive, and embarrassed by her own life. She’s deeply aware that she “should” be doing more with herself than living in a trailer park, working as a minor cog in a large company, and wallowing in debt. So when she believes that the rock star she idolizes has responded personally to her fan message, she thinks she has finally found something good in life. Unfortunately for Candi, her correspondence is not with the famous Blast but with a minor employee in his home office–an employee who allows the deception to continue because, ironically, he has come to appreciate all of Candi’s best qualities, despite the fact that their interactions are strictly electronic.”

Why an 80s Pop Star?

80s CollageThe novel Identity Theft is the story of a woman who is infatuated with an 80s pop star who goes by the stage name Blast. She believes her favorite celebrity is corresponding with her in e-mail and online chats when, in reality, she is writing to a college drop out who works in the star’s office.

Blast, whose real name is Ollie, is now in his 50s and past his period of greatest fame. Candi, the fan, is a 29 year-old office worker who discovered Blast through Youtube videos on an older friend’s Facebook timeline.

So why, you may wonder, did I write about a pop star from the 80s?

The 80s were a particular cultural moment for music. Thanks to MTV, which premiered in the 1980s, most young people for the first time were introduced to new music via television. With the exception of occasional appearances on Band Stand music stars of the 1950s and 1960s were more heard than seen. Rock stars images became increasingly important in the 1960s and 70s, but it was not until the 1980s that it became a central part of how bands marketed themselves. With MTV the visual image and the music became inseparable. For people who came of age in the 80s, MTV was the future (much as it is now retro, representing the past). Thus it was the perfect period for a pop star whose well-crafted media image is far removed from who he is when the stage makeup is off.

Milli Vanilli, Make Believe and Authenticity (also those braids)

Quick trivia question: What was the highest-selling album to be permanently deleted from a record label’s catalog? Answer: “Girl You Know it’s True” by Milli Vanilli.

Thank you to Mixed Tape Masterpiece for reminding me of Milli Vanilli today.

I’ve always had a certain fascination for the lip-synching 80s pop duo. I was not particularly a fan back in the day, although I did buy one Milli Vanilli 45. “Girl, I’m Gonna Miss You.” (It was popular during a summer when I had known a guy who I subsequently missed. It reminded me of him.)

Milli Vanilli really captured my imagination only after it was revealed that the beautiful young men in the videos had not sung on the records attributed to them. Their tale brought up many of the same questions of fame, impersonation and identity that I wrote about in my novel Identity Theft.

For those of you too young to have experienced this episode, here is the story as I recounted it in my book Schadenfreude, Baby!

I believe what gave people such a sense of Schadenfreude when their musical hoax as exposed was their washboard abs, spandex trousers and quotes like “Musically, we are more talented than Bob Dylan. Musically, we are more talented than Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger, his lines are not clear. He don’t know how he should produce a sound. I’m the new modern rock n’ roll. I’m the new Elvis.” That quote was from the more outspoken Milli, Rob Pilatus who was one of the two front men of Milli Vanilli. (The other was Fabrice “Fab” Morvan.)

Milli Vanilli’s radio-friendly pop sold seven million copies, but it was their “exotically sexy” look, as the New York Times put it, that got them heavy rotation on MTV. Looking at their model-handsome faces, teenaged girls completely overlooked the fact that the guys had German accents when they spoke and urban American accents when they sang. Right from the start the Millis were criticized for their arrogance and were called a triumph of image over substance.

Pilatus told Ebony magazine that such criticism was “depressing and sad. Maybe some are afraid a bit because we have crossover. Other people get jealous.”

Their hit single “Girl You Know It’s True” won the European singers a “Best New Artist” Grammy. Pilatus and Morvan were secretly hoping they would not win because it might shine a light on the fact that they hadn’t sung a note of the music on their hit album.

Rumors were already flying that the boys might not be the most musically ept. A Washington Post review of a Milli Vanilli concert called it a “triumph of technology and imagemaking over talent and originality… while not everything they sang sounded entirely canned, there were moments when the only voices in the hall that didn’t appear to be lip-synched or electronically enhanced came from the squealing, mostly teenage crowd.”

During a “live” performance a few months later, a recording of that very song began to skip and repeated the line “Girl you know it’s…” over and over again. This may have been the last straw. Frank Farian, the German rock producer who had put the look and sound of Milli Vanilli together in a lab, told all. The guys with the faces on MTV took the brunt of the outrage and the jokes.

Milli Vanilli’s five Top Five singles–including three Number Ones—were hastily dropped from radio playlists and are rarely heard on oldies stations today. The album was deleted from Arista’s catalog. A class action suit in the U.S. allowed the consumers of the album to apply for a rebate.

What fascinated me about the whole situation was that people returned the records. Presumably the kids who bought them had liked the music when they heard it. Nothing about the music had changed. The only thing that was different was that the fans now knew that the people who had recorded the music did not look like models. It was the image that was fraudulent, so the fans should really have kept the records and sent back the sleeves. Milli Vanilli provided a rare opportunity to separate out the various aspects of rock stardom, was it the music or the image that meant the most to the fans? Arguably, Milli Vanilli proved it was the image. Without the image, the beautiful boys, the braids, the dancing– the records were deemed worthless.

After the secret was exposed, the two sides of Milli Vanilli, the image and the voices, each recorded their own albums. The vocalists released an album as “The Real Milli Vanilli” and the faces recorded an album under the name Rob and Fab. Neither record was a hit. “The Real Milli Vanilli” lacked the sex appeal and palpable charisma of Rob and Fab. And Rob and Fab? It turns out they were decent enough singers, Fab Morvan in particular has remained determined to have a music career. (He also does not age.) But without the rock star budget and material provided by a big time music producer the Rob and Fab album was doomed to fail.

More important, I think, the public was not ready to forgive the duo for destroying the fantasy and exposing their own unrealistic expectations as an audience. The version of Milli Vanilli that the fans had loved was a powerful fantasy of beauty, perfectly crafted pop music, dancing and celebration. It was a theatrical production created by a team, the way a television team had once created The Monkees by auditioning musicians and actors. That production raised the same types of questions about authenticity. When it was revealed that the TV band had not played the instruments on its first albums it was a minor scandal and the two musicians of the team in particular were determined to record an album that was entirely their own. “Headquarters” was the only record The Monkees made in this fashion, much to the disappointment of Monkee Peter Tork. The fans, it turns out, didn’t care all that much. Modern boy bands aren’t expected to play their own instruments or write the songs. They often record with the help of digital vocal correction and perform concerts using backing tracks.

Pop music has always been about image, fantasy and manufactured identities. But even in this world of make believe it seems there are lines of fact and fiction we do not want crossed or blurred. Milli Vanilli crossed them.