The intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Los Angeles is basically the West Coast version of Times Square. It's a tourist trap featuring "museums" like Madame Tussauds and Ripley's Believe It or Not, overpriced chain restaurants, and vendors peddling tchotchkes including plastic Oscars that read "Best Mom." Throngs of travelers descend on this area every day to shop, to eat, and to gaze at the names immortalized on the coral pink stars on the sidewalk of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Because this is in the entertainment capital of the world, it also attracts a certain type of street performer — celebrity impersonators. On your average day, you'll find 30 or more people pretending to be stars as well as characters from film and TV ranging from Michael Jackson to Wonder Woman to SpongeBob SquarePants. While some of these costumed wannabes offer impressive outfits demonstrating a true commitment to their "craft," not all look like they just jumped off the silver screen. All three Spider-Men are woefully out of shape, with their costumes bearing a striking resemblance to Underoos. Were it not for a wispy mustache and tell-tale glasses, you might think "Captain Jack Sparrow" was simply "panhandling Johnny Depp." A layer of L.A. soot seems to cover Mickey Mouse. But despite their sometimes shabby appearance, these folks are among the prime attractions at the crossroads of Hollywood.
One Sunday in mid-October I decided to don my own costume and join these impersonators. Given my physical attributes — tall, skinny, weak chin, big nose — my outfit was a no-brainer: I went as Howard Stern. For years it was my go-to Halloween costume, with a wig and round sunglasses providing a cheap and easy transformation into the King of All Media.
I arrived at Hollywood Boulevard around 1 p.m., costume in a plastic grocery bag, not knowing what to expect. Like the anti-Superman, I threw on my outfit in an alleyway just out of sight. After a few moments of pointless preening, I emerged with flowing locks of jet-black plastic hair, tinted shades, and a microphone plugged into, well ... nothing. I was convinced it was just a matter of time until the tourist cash started rolling in. I was in it for the money, after all. I'd soon learn it wasn't that easy. I was instead embarking on an hours-long education in economics, improvisation, and human nature. These are the lessons I learned out there on the Walk of Fame, among the fake stars.
It's all about teamwork.
Soon after getting to the Hollywood-and-Highland intersection, I scout out a spot in front of the famed TCL Chinese Theatre (f.k.a. Grauman's Chinese Theatre, f.k.a. Mann's Chinese Theatre), figuring that the pedestrian traffic is highest there. I quickly sidle up to a woman dressed as Batgirl. She's a tall, slender African American woman wearing a pleather corset-skirt combo, thigh-high boots, elbow-length gloves, and a mask to shield her true identity (which she never reveals). The only thing identifying her as a superhero impersonator as opposed to a BDSM aficionado is the yellow bat logo on her chest.
As I'm not quite sure of the protocol of how costumed characters should address one another, the introduction is a bit awkward. After a couple of quiet minutes standing just feet apart, I break the ice.
"How long have you been doing this?" I ask, feeling about as uncomfortable as I did at my junior high dances.
"A week," Batgirl tells me. She explains that she often passed the cast of characters on Hollywood Boulevard while taking her children to school. She figured they made decent money. After recently losing her job, she decided to try it for herself.
"How's it going?" I inquire. I quickly realize that if she had this much time to talk to me, she might be having as hard a time as Alicia Silverstone did playing that same part.
"Eh," she says and shrugs her shoulders. Batgirl explains that going in costume to the busiest intersection in Hollywood can be pretty lucrative, but you've got to have the right character. "I hear that Green Lantern makes $200 a day. So I'm thinking I'll invest in an Elmo or Minnie Mouse costume," she says, noting those characters have no shortage of people posing with them. I'll soon find that her logic, while reasonable, shows she's really a beginner at this.
After a few more minutes of casing the crowd outside the Chinese Theatre, Batgirl finds a possible taker: a middle-aged Australian woman.
From a distance, it may seem these costumed folks are competing with each other. And there have certainly been some well-documented fights and turf battles among these characters in the past. But as I learn, there's a relatively solid code of cooperation. The mind-set is that while a tourist might consider a photo just with Batman, if you throw in Bane, you'll probably close the deal. It's like at a grocery store where the 2-for-1 deal on Pop-Tarts gets you to open your wallet.
Batgirl uses this approach to close the Aussies.
"Would you like Howard Stern in the picture, too?" she asks, unsure if people from the other side of the planet even know who I'm pretending to be. (I receive more than one "Ozzy!") She agrees.
I quickly tuck my windswept bangs behind my ear and smile. After a few camera-phone snaps, the woman unzips her purse and gives us $10 to share. I'm officially a semiprofessional celebrity impersonator. But I've got a long way to go and a lot to learn.
You need a gimmick. Or: Always listen to the man with the cleaver.
While a $5 tip is a nice start, I find I'm not getting the interest that others are garnering. People all but line up to take pictures with Bumblebee, the fifth-most-important Transformer. Catwoman (or at least I think she's Catwoman) is reeling them in with nothing more than a wink and some impressive cleavage. Heck, even the Scream guy is making some decent tips. But Howard Stern, the "King of All Media" and judge on the highly rated America's Got Talent, isn't getting much attention. This is when I learn very valuable advice from a man who describes himself as "Green Lantern Zombie," an obscure character that 99.9 percent of people don't even know existed, myself included.
From behind a mask that looks like melting skin resting atop a portly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle body, he tells me, "You need a gimmick."
"Like what?" I ask, confused that being Howard isn't enough.
"Like a chick sitting on your lap with a vibrator," he says, perhaps joking but perhaps not. Considering there's no shortage of police ensuring those in character adhere to a new law preventing them from aggressively pursuing tips, this is perhaps an even worse idea. But this man, who tells me his name is Omar, wields a plastic meat cleaver (not Green Lantern Zombie's actual weapon, I should note) and has no trouble getting people to pose with him. Maybe there's something to his answer.
Talk is cheap. Sidewalk decapitations are not.
After a few minutes of watching Omar pretend to slaughter every tourist who walks by, we continue to chat. He abandons his character's gravelly voice, which sounds like the unholy spawn of Grover and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. It's then that Omar tells me that for years he dressed up as the lovable Shrek. But he changed recently in favor of his new outfit.
"But why?" I ask him, confused that someone would give up a character that's perfect for attracting kids for one that looks like he wants to eat them.
"It wasn't economical," he says. Omar explains that children wanted to spend too much time talking to Shrek. With his new outfit, whatever it is, he tells me, "This way they're in, they're out."
Omar returns to "decapitating" seemingly everyone. Moments later, he comes back to tell me he scored a $20 tip, and he didn't even have to talk to any children to do it.
Learn to flirt.
Standing in front of the Hard Rock Cafe, where the Virgin Megastore used to be, is Sylvia. She's doing her best Marilyn Monroe circa The Seven Year Itch, wearing the famed white dress with a plunging neckline, white two-inch heels, and bright red lipstick that she frequently reapplies for maximum effect. She's slighter of build than Marilyn was, but that doesn't seem to affect interest. The only thing she's missing is a subway grate to blow her skirt up. With Mötley Crüe's "Girls Girls Girls" pumping out of the restaurant, she has a built-in soundtrack as she tastefully gyrates for the masses.
As Marilyn, Sylvia is an unabashed flirt. If you're male, whether you're 7 or 70, she'll call you over to take a picture. And once they get a look at Sylvia, it's hard to turn her down. I watch as she pretends to smooch a young boy on the cheek. He's somewhere between nervous and embarrassed, but his parents seem to get a kick out of it. They take some pictures, give Sylvia a few dollars, and go on their way, satisfied. Somewhat surprisingly, the Monroe-alike has little difficulty getting women to pose with her, too. They'll stand next to her and blow kisses at the camera, offer their best "come hither" look or pose like members of a chorus line. It's their moment of "girl power."
Give them an experience.
Sylvia is a regular out here, and she knows I'm not. During a brief lull in the afternoon pedestrian traffic, we talk. Not surprisingly, she takes the initiative to introduce herself. We immediately discuss business, or in my case, the lack thereof.
"You need to be more outgoing. Have some fun with it," she says with a slightly perceptible Spanish accent. Sylvia explains that people aren't just interested in having their picture taken with a faux celeb. What they really want is an experience. And considering there's at least one other "Marilyn" for her to compete with, Sylvia knows that the experience better be a good one.
I point out perhaps I'm hamstrung by my costume. "Do people just not want to have their pictures taken with Howard Stern?" I ask.
Sylvia explains that I really need to become my character. She points toward the microphone I've brought with me but have just been carrying around to help sell the costume.
"Use it," she tells me. "It's a great prop to start talking to people. Interview them."
As if out of nowhere, a wall of people head in our direction from the Chinese Theater. It appears that the 1:45 p.m. showing of Gravity has let out. Sylvia touches up her lipstick and wishes me good luck. She's got work to do.
And now, so do I.
The most valuable lesson.
Armed with new advice, I muster up some courage and decide I'll really give it a go. I will not simply stand by and wait seemingly in vain for people to come to me. I must pursue them. Like a Howard Stern–size salmon swimming upstream, I head right into the crowd, determined to practice what I've learned. It starts off rough. Very rough.
After targeting a person who looks like she would know who Stern is, I hold up the microphone and offer a family-friendly version of the famed DJ. "Welcome to Hollywood Bouleva—" The woman waives me off. I remain undeterred and psych myself up to try again.
I catch the eye of a balding gentleman who seems to know the part I'm playing. As I walk over to him, I wonder if this could be the breakthrough I'm hoping for.
"Howard Stern," I say, answering the question he was just about to ask.
"I knew it!" he says, almost congratulating himself in front of his pals. "Howard Stern."
Looking to close the deal, I extend the microphone and begin to conduct the mock interview Sylvia had suggested. Unfortunately he pulls his cell phone from his pocket at the same time. It's a duel I will not win.
"Sorry, I've gotta make a call," he says, turning his shoulder away.
While this effort didn't result in any financial wins, it caught the eye of Omar, my cleaver-wielding acquaintance. He remarks how impressed he was with my progress.
"That's it," he says with his normal voice. "That microphone is a great idea. Now you're getting the hang of it."
Just then, a younger couple walks by. They seem to be a few sheets to the wind. As if by reflex, Omar gently swats them with his plastic blade. The combination of the two of us causes them to drunkenly giggle and stop. The teamwork approach seems to be working.
"Welcome to Hollywood. What do you have to say to Howard Stern?" I ask them, using my microphone to draw them further in. Omar holds up his side of the partnership by gurgling something unintelligible and taking another swipe with the cleaver.
This does the trick. Well, sort of: Instead of asking to pose with me, the woman hands me her camera and asks that I take a picture of her, her boyfriend, and Green Lantern Zombie. After snapping a few shots, I give them back their camera. I'm feeling a bit defeated. Then they hand us each some cash.
And I learn the most important lesson of all for a celebrity impersonator:
Money is money.
At the end of my stint, I leave Hollywood and Highland with a newfound respect for my costumed comrades. It takes more than just a fancy outfit or an uncanny resemblance to succeed on this stage. Whatever it is they have — creativity, personality, or just plain endurance — they certainly make the most of it. I, on the other hand, realize I’m not cut out to be an impersonator ... except maybe at Halloween parties.
David Eckstein is a writer living in Los Angeles. During his five hours dressed as Howard Stern, he made $12. His costume cost $13.