Nothing Personal: Alter Egos in Art and Music

When it comes to celebrity and creativity, we are all familiar with the idea of an alter ego. This secondary personality allows the artist to express their creativity to its fullest. But what happens when the alter ego takes over or lines between the two get blurred?

“As fragile and inauthentic as our identities are, Bowie let us (and still lets us) believe that we can reinvent ourselves. In fact, we can reinvent ourselves because our identities are so fragile and inauthentic.” This ode to the late singer David Bowie penned by Simon Critchely encapsulates the possibility of abandoning an old self in favour of a new one. The coexistence of these identities has structured the art world, its adjacent escapism being enabled by an artist’s ability to shed one skin and slip into another.

From Ziggy Stardust to Sasha Fierce to the online age of social media and DIY celebrity, the fashioning of alter-egos has shifted. It has been stripped of pathological connotations and appropriated to a form of self-empowerment or even political stance. Think taking Clark Kent’s heroic metamorphosis and re-shaping it to accommodate symbols of the burden of constructed femininity, or gender bending alternate personas becoming a version of living art.

Beyonce as Sasha Fierce

The recent manufacturing of celebrity and its sense of unmovable confidence has been accompanied by an increase in second skins – amplified versions of the self that are ready to do anything for their message or their art. But what happens when the lines are blurred, when the coordinates their coexistence is based on are lost and the second self takes control of the original?

An alter ego blossoms as a response to the desire to un-brand yourself and explore uncharted territories of your personality. As an artist, it masks transitions and even enables marketing possibilities, with the initial promise of preserving the initial, unaltered self intact. The way Beyoncé graciously parted with Sasha Fierce after she incorporated the sexual overture that fictional self channeled, or how Ariana Grande filtered her artistic maturation from the traditional ‘good girl’ to a new perspective of womanhood through Super Bunny, exemplifies how an alter ego becomes a beneficial vehicle to fuel forms of expressive fulfillment.

This type of reinvention is linked to different forms of exposure and when projected in the realm of fame it comes to blur the boundaries between art and celebrity. This more conscious version of this very conflict is crystallized in the embodiment of Leah Schrager’s Ona, the central alter ego to her celebrity-as-art project. This elastic self is further advanced by the amount of thought that goes into curating a social media account, which raises the question whether the entirety of self-made supermodels and celebrities are a sort of well-studied alter egos responding to social desires.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

This exploration of the self through a fictional character has been associated with the art world for years and years. A more traditional form of these alternate personas is revisited by June Calypso’s Joyce, who is the center of a series of photographs dissecting constructed femininity in a series of faceless pastel portraits, loosely comparable to a modern version of Marcel Duchamp’s transition to Rrose Sélavy, an alter ego that is, at the same time, a testament of his artistic manifesto. This form of alternate identity has functioned as an enabler of paths less traveled in aesthetic, masquerading as a woman proving to be both a form of liberation and inspiration.

Aside from the obvious potential for self-empowerment and exploration, there is the case when alter egos feed on the inability to consciously digest and accept the contexts of the artistic process. By slowly starting to treat the second skin as an object or separate entity, it can lead to a conviction that negative tendencies of its personality are beyond any control. It becomes a way to excuse substance abuse or sexual promiscuity by aligning it to the alternate self. David Bowie remembers the Thin White Duke, his substance-fueled ‘amoral zombie’, Nazi-sympathizer version, as ‘singularly the darkest days of his life’, attributing the controversial impulses of this era to him being overpowered by this canvas for self-expression.

The blurring of the line extends into an imbalance of agency, when the self and the alter ego bleed into each other, or, worse, the latter overpowers the first. This is seen frequently on lower scales as well, when the substance-induced state of creation needs to get mediated by a distancing from the self, and thus an alter ego mingles the creative with the need to distance from potential toxic sources of inspiration. Coping is made easier when filtered through this changeling, this external being ready to take the blame when necessary, absolving the consciousness from various degrees of remorse.

Ariana Grande’s explanation of her Super Bunny persona

Artists are illusionists, alternating between different aspects of a fragmented self in order to find whatever profound truth they seek. This capacity for reinvention and metamorphosis, in its most realistic form, accommodates features of oneself that need enhancing. It provides insight into self-image and the image we have on display and the one we would like to – whether favourable or not. The separation is sometimes comforting and other times destructive, but above all, as artist Zoe Leonard would describe say, “not real, but […]true.”