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Olu Shola had never thought about becoming an R. Kelly tribute act, until Michael Jackson talked him into the idea – well, sort of. One evening back in 2015 Shola had sung You Are Not Alone with Navi, a Michael Jackson tribute act who was regularly performing at the Concorde Club in Southampton. Navi told Shola: “My bookings are through the roof. If you can find the right act, venues are just lapping it up.”
Shola had briefly signed with Virgin Records in 1992 and becoming a tribute artist felt like he was giving up on his dreams. “It was in an era where I had become a dad; I needed to guarantee that I was bringing in money,” he says. And it worked: though R. Kelly accounted for only 20 per cent of his bookings, he was able to charge more as the soul singer.
At 55, Shola is only two years older than Kelly, and they’re both Black – but that’s where the similarities stop. By his own admission, he doesn’t look much like R. Kelly either, but, he says: “I pretty much knew that I could procure the look: R. Kelly with sunglasses on or R. Kelly with a hat on.” And so, a few months after Navi’s suggestion, Shola was on stage in Abu Dhabi performing his act, that he titled Re-Kelly, wearing a hat and/or sunglasses.
That first performance was four years before the release of, Surviving R. Kelly, a documentary series that includes the visceral testimony of women who claim to have been controlled and abused by Kelly, often when they were teenagers. Two weeks after the programme aired Kelly was dropped by his label and his tour dates were cancelled.
Celebrities famous enough to have a lookalike will be equipped to weather an attempted cancellation. But what about the lookalike themselves? They have hitched themselves to a celebrity hoping that a little stardust rubs off. They get a dose of vicarious fame; do they also deserve a vicarious dose of criticism when that celebrity is cancelled?
After watching Surviving R. Kelly, Shola went back to performing under his own name. Shola had been told that getting R.Kelly work was becoming a “hard sell” and since retiring from his impersonations of the musician there hasn’t been a single enquiry. He wouldn’t take the booking anyway, not unless Kelly was unequivocally cleared. He says: “It was just too convincing; way too convincing for me that he'd been up to no good, and I couldn't support that.”
However, the earliest record of Kelly's alleged crimes was in 1996, almost two decades before Olu Shola’s first tribute – Tiffany Hawkins sued R. Kelly for the "personal injuries and emotional distress" she suffered during a three-year relationship with the star that she claims began when she was 15 and he was 24. R. Kelly has denied all of the allegations, describing them as: "“stupid”, “not true”, and “not fair”, and the case was settled on payment of compensation in 1998.
Shola was aware but was initially unconcerned by the reports. “I must say, I did not overlook [them]… I just thought it would be a rumour that would just hover around for a certain amount of time, and that the music wouldn't necessarily be affected.” If anything, the controversy may have helped. “I thought that it had become, almost part of the package – the bad boy image with R Kelly – and for some people that was appealing. I know it's a dodgy area because, obviously, it sort of borders on paedophilia.”
At the time, apathy towards Kelly’s alleged victims was widespread. In January 1998, Kelly settled a case brought by Tiffany Hawkins after her deposition detailing her alleged abuse. Next month Kelly won three Grammys. In 1994 it was revealed that Kelly had married the singer Aaliyah when she was fifteen. A year later he appeared on the soundtrack to the children’s film, Space Jam. Whilst awaiting a trial for charges related to child pornography, he was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and released an album that went straight to number one.
“There were no problems for the first year.” Shola says. People were still buying R. Kelly’s records and throwing knickers on stage while Shola performed his tribute act, but then things changed. “The noise started to get louder, until around 2017, when I couldn't ignore the clamour… It was becoming obvious that I needed to seriously consider where I stood on [the accusations].”
That year, 2017, was the year that Jerhonda Pace broke her non-disclosure agreement to allege physical abuse and underage sex against R. Kelly. She would likely have become another forgotten accuser, if not for what else happened in 2017. On October 5, The New York Times reported allegations of sexual harassment perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein; and with that #MeToo (created by Tarana Burke in 2006) became a movement and a reckoning.
Joshua Rosen, who is a comedian, Woody Allen impersonator and part time Uber driver, says: “It’s unfortunate that cancel culture has created a situation where people can just accuse someone of something, even without evidence.” There have been numerous attempts to cancel Allen after allegations that he sexually abused his daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven – allegations Allen has always denied. This year a US publishing house pulped Allen’s upcoming memoir after staff staged a walkout; and in 2018 Amazon severed ties with Allen. However, Rosen hasn’t distanced himself from the film director. “I just don't care about people's opinions,” he says, “to me, there's enough evidence out there that, you know, people can make up their own minds”
Rosen wouldn’t perform as Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein and he thinks it’s right that R. Kelly has been cancelled, but that Woody Allen bears no resemblances to those cases. “I think that if people really love someone, or their artwork, they're willing to suspend their judgement when they hear accusations or suspicions,” he says. But he’s confident that he isn’t doing that with Allen. “I'm not making a tonne of money off my Woody Allen impression. I don't really have much to lose if he were to be guilty.” He pauses, then adds, “I would possibly feel differently if it was my livelihood.”
The opprobrium directed at Woody Allen has trickled down to Rosen who has had “nasty things” directed at him online. He says that he hasn’t lost gigs because of his work as an Allen impersonator, and even if he did, he wouldn't stop. For now, Allen’s cancellation has been good for Rosen’s YouTube channel because, “People are more willing to watch me doing an impression if they feel strongly, one way or the other”
Denise Bella Vlasis started off her career as a Madonna impersonator in 1995, and soon after established Tribute Productions, a lookalike agency in Los Angeles. She explains that no one is too toxic to be on the books. “If there's a hated celebrity, somebody will be calling to satire that person. There may still be work for them because they're hated.”
If controversy is helpful, then Dawn Lutrell, a comedian who also impersonates Ellen DeGeneres, has a windfall coming her way. Last month DeGeneres publicly apologised after staff complained about a toxic working environment, “dominated by fear” where racism was commonplace. It seemed that the self-styled Be Kind Lady wasn’t so kind after all. DeGeneres was cancelled.
Lutrell gets stopped in the supermarket, in coffee shops and more recently, asked about it on Zoom calls. She looks exactly like DeGeneres, stands and moves her arms like her, but it’s more than that. “It's everything, minus the fame and fortune… Even down to the morals and the integrity,” she says. Lutrell hadn’t done much work as an Ellen DeGeneres impersonator when, what she calls, “the show thing” happened. ” I had somebody call me and say, you do realise you're on The Ellen Show right now? And I'm like, what are you talking about?”
Lutrell’s agent had shared an audition tape of Lutrell as Ellen with a producer on the show. For 90 or so toe-curling seconds DeGeneres mocked Lutrell’s audition to her audience of four million. Lutrell ended up in therapy and describes the event as, “very, very bullying, very mean spirited.” Lookalikes panic when they see their celebrity’s name trending on Twitter. Oh God, what have they done? If the celebrity had been accused of bullying their mind might jump to worries over cancelled bookings and potential loss of earnings. Dawn Lutrell just felt relieved. “Newsflash!” she thought, “Ellen's kind of mean-spirited and a bully”. Now everyone else knew.
Lutrell was “heartbroken” after the woman she proudly looked like laughed at her. Still, she worried that she had taken it too personally, until she heard the revelations this summer. She felt not quite vindicated, but not justified either. “I just kind of felt like I can move on now. Ellen got her deal. And, apparently, I'm just a little more intuitive than the rest.” Lutrell turned down much more work than she accepted as an Ellen impersonator. She thought that one day Ellen would invite her on and say, “You're not making this a cash cow. Like, I respect that.”
But after, the show thing, she thought. “'I’ve always wanted Ellen to see what I've done and respect it. Now that's gone? Show me the money! Show me the money. It has nothing to do with her anymore.” For a long time, Lutrell enjoyed the Ellen DeGeneres comparison, but looking like DeGeneres tipped over from being interesting to being defining. “Even my own mother says, the only reason I watch Ellen is because I feel like I'm spending an hour with you,”she adds.
Lutrell hasn’t ever attempted to distance herself from DeGeneres, principally because she doesn’t think she can. “It doesn't matter what I do, I bring Ellen.” Lutrell and DeGeneres go everywhere together. So, despite the show thing and despite the recent allegations made against DeGeneres and her show, Lutrell has decided that she can’t live with someone she doesn’t like.
Lutrell is still open for bookings. “In my personal opinion [Ellen] is an icon in the gay community. She has been very, very generous and she's done a lot of good things. If I show up tomorrow as Ellen, that’s the Ellen I bring,” she explains. After mass criticism, the show has made the “necessary changes”, according to DeGeneres. It would appear that The Ellen Show was cancelled into action. And it’s easy to think of cancel culture as a social good when obvious wrongs are being righted. But what about when the mob switch their pitchforks for hashtags and go after the wrong person?
On August 14 2014, the police raided the home of Cliff Richard in relation to claims of sexual abuse dating back to 1985. In the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal the mantra of the day was, You Will Be Believed. So, when the BBC televised the raid, Sir Cliff Richard was, by today’s standards, cancelled.
“Let me just challenge that gently,” says Chris Wright, who performs in a Cliff Richard tribute band. “I think that within his fan base, they were probably so loyal that there wasn't a backlash.” Perhaps within his fanbase, but the public condemned him? Again, Wright isn’t so sure, “I think he had the benefit of widespread public sympathy, not just in the fan base. I think a lot of people were outraged that the man found out about these accusations by seeing his home raided on BBC TV.”
Chris Wright is perhaps too charitable. “I think the public said no, he's innocent until proven guilty,” he says. Sir Cliff was never arrested nor charged, and later won an apology and a £2 million settlement from the BBC. Wright adds: “[Cliff’s] been touring again and playing to packed audiences. So, I'm not sure that he was a victim of the cancelled culture and we sure never experienced it.”
But two years after the televised raid, Sir Cliff told MPs that he’s “forever tainted”. Cliff Richard became cancel culture’s cautionary tale. Eventually, Sir Cliff’s reputation did recover, but only because he had the profile and, importantly, the resources to litigate.
Cancel culture is entering the mainstream and the worry is that the list of infractions that qualify for cancellation seem only to be getting longer. Yes, Bill Cosby was cancelled for sexual assault, but then again, Jodie Comer was cancelled for dating a Republican.
Lookalikes of cancelled celebrities have experienced cancellation by proxy and have shuddered at its affects. Dawn Lutrell has watched the cancellation of Ellen DeGeneres and thought: “Wow, I'm glad I'm just a girl at home in Oregon.” Because who really could be sure they don’t have cause to be cancelled? “If I got famous tomorrow you could write an article on some crappy things I’ve done” says Lutrell. “And I just want to come out right now that I did, in fact, call my neighbour an asshole the other day.”