In showbiz, personality goes a long way. Personalities go even further. Artists throughout history have used alter egos as a means of stepping outside of themselves and communicating ideas they otherwise cannot. It can be cathartic and creatively liberating—and it’s a great marketing gimmick. Below, we celebrate 11 performers who’ve given us strange alter egos.
In the 1990s, nobody sold more records than Garth Brooks. So it was a little surprising when, in 1999, the country mega-star ditched the hat, grew a soul patch, and reinvented himself as fictional Australian rocker Chris Gaines. Brooks was developing a movie about Gaines called The Lamb that never came to pass. He did, however, release a Gaines album, Greatest Hits, and promote the CD in character on Saturday Night Live. He even appeared as Gaines in a faux episode of the VH1 series Behind the Music. The Gaines era is generally considered a giant fiasco, but Greatest Hits still went double platinum. The public may get another chance to decide, as Brooks announced in March 2021 that he’s bringing Gaines back for a new album.
Beyoncé has always seemed supremely confident and in control. But for a little while in the late 2000s, she required an alter ego, Sasha Fierce, to express the sexier and more aggressive sides of her personality. As Bey told Oprah, she would transform into Sasha Fierce right before she went on stage, when she needed to become the boldest version of herself possible. But by 2010—two years after releasing the album I Am…Sasha Fierce—Beyoncé had outgrown the character. “Sasha Fierce is done. I killed her,” Beyoncé told Allure. “I don’t need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I’ve grown and now I’m able to merge the two.”
Although David Bowie only played Ziggy Stardust for a short while, from 1972 to 1973, the character will forever be synonymous with the legendary musician. Maybe it’s because Ziggy—an androgynous alien with a red mullet sent to Earth to warn humankind of an impending apocalypse—embodies much of what people love about Bowie. The outlandish and messianic Ziggy was apparently inspired by everything from Japanese Kabuki theater to early British rocker Vince Taylor. In the end, playing the character became suffocating, and Bowie famously retired Ziggy onstage at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973.
Donald Glover got his start writing for 30 Rock and later appeared on the ensemble comedy Community. He’s a sharp, insightful comedian who’s similarly skilled at music, and in 2011, the singer-rapper began recording as Childish Gambino, a name he got from the Wu-Tang Name Generator. Gambino scored a No. 1 hit with 2018’s “This Is America,” a complex look at racism and other issues facing the country. While he’s never been shy about challenging his audiences, he’s also not afraid to have a little fun; in 2019, Gambino appeared on Australia’s Triple J radio and performed a version of “Lost In You” by—get this—Chris Gaines.
Lady Gaga does pop music as performance art. She’s into provoking audiences to make larger points, and that’s what she did in 2010, when she created the male alter ego Jo Calderone, a potty-mouthed Italian American greaser-type from New Jersey. Gaga first portrayed the character in a 2010 fashion shoot for Vogue Hommes Japan. Even though fans were wise to the ruse, she reprised the role in the 2011 music video for her song “You and I.” Less than two weeks after the clip premiered, Gaga embraced her inner Andy Kaufman and attended the 2011 MTV VMAs in character as Calderone. Gaga-as-Calderone delivered a monologue that left Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and other attendees puzzled, to say the least. She then performed “You and I” with some help from Queen guitarist Brian May.
An unholy trinity of personalities comprise the rapper Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady. It breaks down like this: Marshall is the real person, Eminem is the quick-spitting master lyricist, and Shady is the outlet for all of the artist’s angriest, most violent impulses. When parents and politicians would get mad at Eminem in the ’90s and early ’00s, it was Shady they really had beef with. “Slim, Em, and Marshall are always in the mix when I’m writing now,” the rapper wrote in his 2008 memoir. “I’ve found a way to morph the styles so that it’s sort of all me.”
Prince thrived at the intersection of masculinity and femininity. Never was this duality more explicit than when he started electronically pitching up his vocals in order to portray Camille, the feminine alter ego he created in the mid-’80s. Prince planned on releasing a full-length Camille album that made it as far as the test-pressing stage. Alas, Warner Bros. shelved the record shortly before it was set to arrive in 1986, and Prince recycled much of the material for other releases, including his 1987 landmark Sign O’ the Times. Some Prince scholars believe the Camille character was based on Herculine Barbin, a 19th century intersex individual from France who was raised as a girl but used the name Camille later in life, while living as a man.
In some ways, Madonna’s whole career has been about alter egos. Part of the fun is seeing how she’s going to look and move with each album cycle. But for her 14th studio LP, Madonna took the extra step of actually naming a character, Madame X, a secret agent who travels the world fighting for truth and justice. “Madame X is a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore, and a spy in the house of love,” she says in a teaser video. “I am Madame X.” The move was pure Madonna: Even her alter ego has alter egos.
On the American leg of U2’s 1992 Zooropa Tour, Bono portrayed a character called Mirror Ball Man. He was a glitzy, greedy cross between a used-car salesman, a televangelist, and a game show host, and he was supposed to represent the devil for Yankee audiences. When the tour went to Europe later that year, Bono mothballed the shiny suit and cowboy hat and came up with a new bad-guy alter ego: MacPhisto, Satan reimagined as an aging rock star. Complete with gold lamé jacket, red lipstick, platform shoes, and horns, MacPhisto was meant to conjure up old-world European decadence. Throughout the tour, while playing the character, Bono would phone up various politicians and use MacPhisto’s approval of their policies to make a point. “When you’re dressed as the devil, your conversation is immediately loaded, so if you tell somebody you really like what they’re doing, you know it’s not a compliment,” Bono said.
Very much a disciple of Prince—with whom she was good friends—Janelle Monáe spent the first decade of her career playing Cindi Mayweather, a funky android fighting to save mankind from a secret society called The Great Divide. The complex story plays out over the genre-bending artist’s first two albums, The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013). These conceptual works allowed Monáe to obliquely address issues of gender and sexuality that she wasn’t ready to write about directly. With 2018’s Dirty Computer, Monáe powered down the Cindi character and focused on the real star attraction: herself.
With comedian Andy Kaufman, it was never clear where the joke began and ended. He was a master of messing with audiences, and in that respect, his Tony Clifton character might have been his ultimate achievement. As played by Kaufman in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Clifton was an ornery Vegas lounge singer and comic always seen in dark shades and a gaudy tux. In interviews, Clifton would deny allegations that he was Kaufman and accuse Andy of profiting off his name. To really sell the gag, Kaufman would sometimes enlist other people to play Clifton, thereby making it possible for him and his alter ego to be in the same place at the same time. Clifton has continued to perform since Kaufman’s death in 1984. He even went on tour in 2008, though just who was playing Clifton is part of the character’s unending mystery.