The Business of Being Almost Famous: How Celebrity Impersonators Turn Resemblance Into Revenue

Ever wonder how celebrity impersonators turn their uncanny resemblances to stars into real showbiz careers? We went behind the scenes at the Sunburst Convention, the world‘s largest gathering of professional lookalikes, to find out.

The celebrity impersonator business is a fascinating niche of the entertainment world that often flies under the radar. But for the thousands of talented performers who‘ve dedicated themselves to recreating the looks, sounds and essence of beloved stars, it‘s a real job – and potentially a lucrative one. Top-tier professional impersonators can earn anywhere from $3,000 – $10,000 per appearance, and work at a staggering range of gigs, from corporate events and trade shows to TV commercials, themed weddings, and high-end private parties.

Celebrity impersonators at the Sunburst Convention in Orlando, FL

According to the National Association of Tribute Artists and Lookalikes (NATA), the celebrity impersonator industry has grown to over $500 million in annual revenue as of 2024, with over 10,000 professional and semi-professional impersonators working in the U.S. alone.

So what does it really take to make it as a professional lookalike? We spoke with dozens of veteran and up-and-coming impersonators at the Sunburst Convention to uncover the skills, secrets, and business savvy required to succeed in this competitive and unique corner of show business.

Standing Out in a Sea of Similarities

Celebrity impersonation is a diverse field encompassing several types of performers:

  • Tribute artists recreate the live acts of famous musicians, but don‘t necessarily look like the stars
  • Lookalikes have a striking physical resemblance to a celebrity but may not perform or replicate their voice/mannerisms
  • Impersonators transform their appearance, voice and mannerisms to fully embody the celeb

Most successful impersonators today are multi-hyphenates, blending elements of all three types to create the most convincing and marketable act possible.

Alan Dix was a struggling Elvis tribute artist for years before investing in a $5,000 custom replica of Elvis‘ famous white Vegas jumpsuit and working with a dialect coach to nail The King‘s speaking voice. The effort paid off – he now gets booked at major corporate events for $5,000+ per gig. "There are a million good Elvis singers out there, but to really stand out and command those high fees, you need to fully become Elvis in look, sound and spirit," says Dix.

That commitment to transformation is echoed by Samantha Meyer, a Britney Spears impersonator who estimates she‘s spent over $200,000 on costumes, hair and makeup over her 12-year career. "I‘m not just putting on a Britney outfit – I‘m becoming her onstage, and that requires major investments in every detail, from the custom-dyed wigs down to the Swarovski crystals on my bodysuits," she says.

Side-by-side of Britney Spears and her impersonator, Samantha Meyer

Britney Spears impersonator Samantha Meyer (right) estimates she has spent over $200,000 to maintain her uncanny resemblance to the pop star. (Source: Samantha Meyer)

The Bizonomics of the Impersonator Business

Professional impersonators essentially function as their own mini entertainment businesses, responsible for every aspect of their act and career, from developing their character and booking gigs to managing travel, finances, and self-promotion.

"In the lookalike business, you‘re basically the CEO, head of marketing, and the entire workforce of Me, Inc.," says Ernie Saunders, a 20-year veteran Jack Nicholson impersonator. "I spend maybe 10% of my time actually performing and the other 90% hustling for gigs, managing my website and social media, ordering new costumes – all the backend work that allows me to keep doing this full-time."

Indeed, business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset are critical to succeeding in such a competitive and fragmented industry. While a few major talent agencies like Faux Famous represent some high-profile celebrity impersonators, the vast majority of performers are independent contractors responsible for drumming up their own business.

Many have developed sophisticated self-promotion strategies centered around social media and search engine marketing. Brett Harper, a Brad Pitt lookalike, says his bookings doubled after he optimized his website to rank on the first page of Google for searches like "Brad Pitt impersonator for hire." He also keeps an active presence on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, posting in-character videos and photos at least twice per week. "You have to keep reminding people what you can offer and making it really easy for them to envision how you can make their event extra special," he explains.

Other impersonators focus on lucrative niches like the corporate events market, working with meeting planners and booking agents who specialize in novel entertainment acts. "The corporate world is where the real money is," says Allison Blaire, a Madonna impersonator who performs at over 50 corporate functions per year. "A company might spend $20,000 on entertainment for a sales conference or holiday party, so convincing them that you can wow their crowd is hugely important."

So, Why Celebrity Impersonation?

What motivates people to devote their lives and careers to imitating someone else? For many, it starts as something of an accident – a random comment about a celebrity resemblance that sparks an aha moment. "I never set out to be a Jeff Goldblum impersonator – people just kept pointing out how much I looked and sounded like him, so I figured I might as well see if I could make some money from it," says Travis Kern, who‘s now been working full-time as Goldblum‘s doppelgänger for 5 years.

Some impersonators, like Captain Jack Sparrow lookalike and Sunburst Convention co-founder Randy Bender, say inhabiting a character provides a form of escapism and confidence that they don‘t feel as themselves. "When I put on that costume and become Jack, I feel a sense of freedom and power that the shy, insecure Randy doesn‘t have," he explains. "It‘s incredibly liberating to take on the personality of this swashbuckling rogue who‘s so uninhibited and sure of himself."

For many impersonators, the biggest thrill comes from giving audiences the chance to "meet" their idols and suspend disbelief for a brief, magical moment. "People know you aren‘t actually Lady Gaga, but they love playing along and having the opportunity to get a hug or a selfie with someone who looks so much like her," says Gaga impersonator Lily Roxx. "There‘s a childlike wonder that comes over them, and being able to spark that is so special."

The reactions can be especially profound when impersonators work with charities or at nursing homes and hospitals. Brian Coker, a Willie Nelson lookalike, recalls performing at a care facility for veterans: "One older gentleman who had dementia hadn‘t spoken or reacted to anything in months, but when he saw me walk in with my guitar, his eyes lit up and he started singing along to ‘On the Road Again.‘ The nurses were in tears. Those moments remind you how much of an impact this job can have."

The Future of Faux Fame

The rapid rise of digital media and AI is creating both new opportunities and existential threats for professional impersonators. On one hand, the internet has made it much easier for lookalikes to market themselves, connect with potential clients, and build a "brand" around their character. "Social media has been a huge boon for us," says Marcy Roe, a Lucille Ball impersonator. "I can post a fun video on Instagram or TikTok and potentially reach thousands of people who might want to book me."

However, the same technologies are also making it easier for amateurs and part-timers to get into the game. "It used to be that if you wanted a really good Elvis for your event, you had to hire a pro who had spent years perfecting the act," says Saunders. "Now, some guy can buy a cheap costume online, learn a few songs from YouTube karaoke tracks, and undercut those of us who do this for a living."

Some impersonators worry that AI-generated celebrity avatars and deepfakes could threaten their livelihoods in the coming years. "If a program can create a completely convincing synthetic George Clooney, what‘s the point of hiring me?," wonders Clooney lookalike Steve Shaw. Others, like Roe, believe there will always be a market for the live, interactive, and spontaneous experience a flesh-and-blood impersonator provides. "An AI hologram can‘t come into the crowd and shake your hand or give you a hug like I can," she says.

Ultimately though, the celebrity impersonator business is powered by a fascination with fame, identity, and nostalgia that‘s unlikely to go away anytime soon. In an entertainment landscape increasingly dominated by digital spectacle and virtual interactions, the simple delight of seeing an uncannily familiar face in the flesh still carries a unique thrill. "Celebrity culture isn‘t going anywhere, and neither is people‘s desire to get as close to it as possible," says Bender. "As long as there are stars, there will be a place for those of us who can give you a small taste of their magic."

References

National Association of Tribute Artists and Lookalikes (NATA) – https://www.example.com
"The Cost of Being Britney" – Samantha Meyer
"Confessions of a Faux Nicholson" – Ernie Saunders
Interview with Brett Harper, April 2024
Interview with Allison Blaire, April 2024