Interview: Alison Jackson, the Artist Behind the Fake Photo of Kanye and North West, Talks the Cult of Celebrity

Interview: Alison Jackson, the Artist Behind the Fake Photo of Kanye and North West, Talks the Cult of CelebrityKanye West and North West / Image via Alison Jackson

Alison Jackson's staged photographs of celebrity lookalikes are so real that they've caused media scandals. Her seductive images of private moments between stars have been mistaken for real paparazzi shots...and maybe that's the point. But there's more.

Exploring "the cult of celebrity" as she calls it, Jackson's work mimics trashy tabloid spreads to question why we are so obsessed with people who we have no hope of ever knowing. From Kate Middleton to Kanye West, Jackson explores our relationship with private celebrity images. Like pornography, they seem illicit something we're not supposed to be viewing, but this feeling of trespassing makes it impossible to look away.

When we posted Jackson's image of fake Kanye West with baby North last week, a print we first saw on The Outsiders gallery's website, the photo received a ton of attention (both positive and negative) online. It's these impassioned reactions that Jackson hopes to incite with her art. We spoke to Jackson about working with lookalikes, the influence of Andy Warhol, and the rise of selfies. She also told us that she's looking for a Miley Cyrus lookalike, especially one that knows how to twerk.

Katy Perry and Rihanna / Photo by Alison Jackson

It's like a new folk religion. Certainly here in Britain, more people read celebrity magazines than they go to church.

Why you were initially drawn to what you call the “cult of celebrity”? Did you begin approaching this theme through your photography?
I’m fascinated by how people get so emotional and so involved in celebrities when they haven’t ever met them. There’s no close relationship, it’s purely a mediated one, and it runs as an industry. The publicists run it, they make money out of it, the celebrities get a fantastic lifestyle from being famous, the magazines and the TV shows make a lot of money from it, and everyone aspires to it.

It's like a new folk religion. Certainly here in Britain, more people read celebrity magazines than they go to church. The celebrities are like little saints, but they represent different things. Angelina Jolie represents a great mother, fantastic actress, and a political motivator. Kate Middleton represents rags-to-riches—a fairy tale princess story. Each one represents something different that we as the public can look up to and aspire to.

To make your images, you obviously have to be somewhat clued into celebrity culture yourself. Do you see your work as partially embracing this culture or only making a parody of it?
I suppose photography creates a desire. You can’t ever reach the person that a photograph shows you, because you’re just looking at a piece of paper. It just makes you want to get to the real person even more. It acts as a catalyst to make you want to know the celebrities, when in fact there's no chance you’re going to meet George Clooney or Brad Pitt. You’re only going to get to them by imagery.

When I take the lookalikes out and about, the public mob them. They are always asking me, "Is that the real Brad Pitt or Jolie or Aniston or Clooney?" and before I’ve had a chance to answer, they’re already kissing them. They just don’t care that it's not the real person. They don’t want an answer if it is or isn’t. They just want to kiss or fuck the lookalike, and of course the lookalike loves it, because on that basis alone, it’s a fantastic job. On the other hand, the real celebrity 100 percent does not want all of that, because it can tarnish their career.

Kate Middleton and Prince William / Photo by Alison Jackson 

We're used to seeing celebrities as two-dimensional images on the Internet, in magazines, or on television, so when the public sees the photograph, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the real person or not. The celebrity can be replaced.

When your lookalikes are out, and people are treating them like true celebrities, do they respond by assuming and acting the part?
They’re taking on the role of celebrity in terms of being an image. We're used to seeing celebrities as two-dimensional images on the Internet, in magazines, or on television, so when the public sees the photograph, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the real person or not. The celebrity can be replaced, and I suppose that’s what I am doing with my photography and film. I am trying to say that you can replace celebrities, because we don’t know them. You just get an image of somebody that looks like somebody else, and they’re replaceable.

Do you ever feel like you’re taking on the role of a paparazzi photographer as opposed to that of an artist?
I’m trying to reference the paparazzi. Everything I do is constructed, in studio or location—carefully chosen locations. I’m filming what we all have in our minds. I’m trying to depict what exists in the public mind, and it’s all constructed, so I’m not doing what the paparazzi does. I’m not like Ron Galella, who chases after people and has to have a restraining order. I’m not going to wait outside clubs and wait for a glimpse of the celebrity. I’m actually hidden away in an artis studio creating sets and ideas of what celebrities might be doing at home.


Marilyn Monroe and JFK / Photo by Alison Jackson

Both paparazzi images and your images have monetary value...
I think the paparazzi and newspapers have tried to copy my work, and they’re trying to subsume it. Here in England, for example, when Prince Harry was found naked in Vegas, most of the press emailed me directly saying, "Please can we have your naked Harry photographs?" I didn’t want to admit they weren’t mine, but eventually I had to.

It’s an interesting circle. When I first started, Princess Diana had just died. I made a picture depicting an image that existed in the public mind, which was Diana and Dodi [Fayed] and their imaginary mixed-race child. Was Diana in love with Dodi? Was she engaged? Was she going to marry him? Was she pregnant? Was she murdered because she was pregnant? It raised all those questions. We’re a very racially prejudiced country, in Britain. We certainly didn’t want an Arab baby joining the blue-blooded royal family. It would’ve been outrageous. Then it was considered a crappy photograph, and the way the press dealt with it was, "Alison Jackson is a disgusting, tasteless artist. How dare she go to the Royal College and do this terrible photograph.”

It gave them license to publish it absolutely everywhere, which I found very interesting; I was being severely criticized by the press, but at the same time they were putting [my photograph] in the press. Recently they put a photograph of Kate, Will, and little baby George on the front cover of the Daily Mail, which is our biggest selling newspaper in England.

Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed / Photo by Alison Jackson

I like that your website is modeled after the Daily Mail. 
Thank you. You could say, "If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em," but the thing is, I have to comment on the media—they’re commenting on me. It's very difficult. It’s a very interesting situation.

Kim Kardashian is nothing other than an image. She makes a fortune out of her image.

You were talking about how different celebrities represent different things. Do you think Kanye and Kim Kardashian represent a certain ideal?
Kim Kardashian is about an image, because she doesn’t do anything. She’s not a talent, like Angelina Jolie, who has a job and is an A-list actress. Kim Kardashian doesn’t do a job. She just talks about herself on television, and she’s got a reality TV show, so she’s exactly what I’m talking about. She is not only a two-dimensional image, that's all she is in reality, as well.

It's very interesting that we have to have a little saint or goddess representing that you, too, can be a famous image just by revealing your home life. As Andy Warhol said, "Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." He was absolutely right. It’s good enough for some people to be famous for not even 15 minutes but 15 seconds. Anyone can be famous with the Internet.

Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and North West / Photo by Alison Jackson

Definitely, have you seen the music video for "Bound 2" with Kim Kardashian?
Oh my, yes I have...on the bike.

What did you think of it? I think she’s very much just an image there.
She is an image. She’s very clever at knowing what she is, and she plays to that. Kim Kardashian is nothing other than an image. She makes a fortune out of her image. She’s really hit the spot in terms of what we're about now, which is just images.

We’re a world gone crazy. We’re prepared to fuck lookalikes just because they look like a celebrity, just because their images have gone all over the world. It’s nuts, and you could say we’ve gone nuts.

Do you always choose topical characters to photograph?
No not all the time, but I’m getting more and more excited by topical characters, because I’m interested in the construction of images and what that does to us. These topical celebrities come and go very quickly, and I’m very excited by that, because you can have surges of followers in a second, very quickly. I don’t know if you have the Nigella and Charles story in America...Whats your celebrity news in the States right now?

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
They know how to use their image 100 percent perfectly. I don’t want to use the word "manipulate"—that makes it sound like they’re doing something devious, which they’re not. We’re obsessed with image-making, and they’re creating images.

Lady Gaga / Photo by Alison Jackson

Can you talk about any other artists whose work has influenced what you do?
Andy Warhol, obviously, because he constructed images. The Marilyn Monroe painting was constructed from a publicity still. It wasn’t an original painting, and in my mind celebrities now create publicity stills. Lady Gaga takes her own selfies with no makeup on, for example. James Franco also does with plastic surgery bandages. Everyone creates their own publicity. Andy Warhol hadn’t got there—that was the '60s—we hadn’t got to this point. He had to take from an old-fashioned PR image.

Degas shot the most amazing photos in 1850 of private moments. We’ve always been interested in private moments, along with [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and Cindy Sherman’s film stills, which were incredibly voyeuristic. Merry Alpern shot all those fantastic series of photographs she took on the long lens—photographs looking into the window of a room used as a brothel. There are all these photos of women being screwed by guys shot through this window, but they’re very beautifully composed. 

We’re obsessed with people's private lives, but as Degas showed back in 1850 we’ve always been.

A lot of people have been interested in voyeurism, which has million-folded since pre-television in Degas’ time and TV in Warhol’s time, which is Cindy Sherman and Merry Alpern. Now we are crazed with voyeurism. We’re a world gone crazy. We’re prepared to fuck lookalikes just because they look like a celebrity, just because their images have gone all over the world. It’s nuts, and you could say we’ve gone nuts. Kim Kardashian is the biggest-selling celebrity, and she doesn’t even do anything interesting! Why is the celebrity so important to us, built up through voyeuristic imaging? We’re obsessed with people's private lives, but as Degas showed us back in 1850, we’ve always been.

President Obama / Photo by Alison Jackson

You can find more work from Alison Jackson on Facebook and Twitter.

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