At a party I attended several years ago, someone told me I looked like Drew Barrymore. I thanked her, instinctively, despite it being a mere statement instead of a forthright compliment. As the night went on and she drank more, she kept telling everyone else how much I looked like Drew Barrymore, and people would look at me, cock their heads, squint, and agree or disagree. The party eventually dwindled down to five people surrounding the kitchen sink, gulping water out of plastic cups, talking about ways in which I looked like Drew Barrymore. I was being studied by these strangers, who were talking about the size of my eyes and the shape of my upper lip, in this sort of detached but warmly appraising way. Is it terrible to say I loved it?
Since then I’ve been told I resemble various others, all of whom look so different from one another that the comparisons become void. What I realized somewhere between Jeanne Tripplehorn and Kirsten Dunst was that it didn’t matter who the comparison was; I was being complimented. I took an inordinate pleasure in being told I looked like these women, even if I didn't agree--it meant someone was taking notice of how I looked and drawing an association with someone more familiar, if less intimate, to them. Actresses and the like have been given a sort of official stamp of cultural approval: Nicole Kidman may not be your cup of tea, but she’s certainly someone’s; ergo, to be told you resemble Nicole Kidman is an endorsement of your looks, a way of saying that you’ve been sanctioned as pretty, without the speaker having to risk saying something inappropriate. It can be awkward to tell a woman straight-up that she’s beautiful--if you’re a man, it’s assumed you’re hitting on them (which you might be, but you might not be); if you’re a woman, there’s this unspoken sort of question left hanging in the air (“you’re lovely, now what about me?”), an awkwardness resulting from having testified to someone else’s beauty.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been with a group of people and someone will point out someone else’s resemblance to a celebrity, and suddenly the room is taken over by Julia Roberts and Bridget Fonda look-alikes. To report to others whom you’ve been compared to is a chance to talk about our striking features without appearing as though we’re bragging; hey, I didn’t come up with this comparison myself, you came up with it (or a stranger on the street, or a woman at a party, or a lookalike generator program), so it’s not like I’m saying I’m all that, right? To say forthrightly, I am beautiful is taboo. But remove it a bit—Yes, as a matter of fact, I have been told I resemble Charlize Theron—and you’re just stating a bare fact, reporting an incident, most likely with a mildly self-deprecating eye roll. Best yet, there’s a safety involved: If someone retorts that no, you do not indeed look like Charlize Theron, you’ve risked nothing. You laugh it off, saying you didn’t think so either. You haven’t risked actually saying, You know, lots of people think I’m beautiful; you’ve said something smaller, more innocuous.
It’s notable that this happens to women much more often than it happens to men. Men might be told that they look like a celebrity if they genuinely do (one sharp-featured man I know was eminently thankful when the Pulp Fiction era passed so that he wouldn’t have to hear anymore how much he looked like Quentin Tarantino), but a quick survey of some male friends told me that most of them had been told one or two celebrity look-alikes, if any, and only rarely.
The biggest, and most obvious reason, for this is that we’re all simply more used to assessing women’s looks. But another reason comes to mind, one involving a man: Several years ago, I was walking with a white man in a predominantly black neighborhood. We passed a black man a bit older than us who turned to my companion and said, “Hey, it’s Ben Affleck!” We didn’t get that he was talking to us and kept walking. He shouted it louder this time: “Hey, Ben Affleck! Check it out! It’s Ben Affleck!” he called out to nobody in particular. Now, my companion looked like Ben Affleck only in the most cursory sense: a lean-jawed white man with dark hair. He didn’t look like Ben Affleck; he looked like a generic white guy who was momentarily in this fellow’s consciousness, a stand-in for every lean-jawed white man with dark hair on the planet. In other words, he was a type.
I don’t actually look much like Drew Barrymore, but I do give off a candid warmth. I’ve heard Jeanne Tripplehorn--rather, “the other chick from Basic Instinct”--twice now from strangers while wearing a red trench coat; it’s not my face, it’s the femme fatale signifier. A cynical, wisecracking, bespectacled friend of mine used to be told she looked like Daria, as in Daria the cartoon character. It’s not about what we actually look like; it’s about what we stand for, what vibe we put out into the world--or rather, what vibe is received from the viewer. There was an edge to the stranger’s voice as he walked alongside us, urging other passersby to come check out “Ben Affleck.” In a country as racially divided as America, it’s not hard to imagine that my companion became, for a moment, the embodiment of the establishment that kept this neighborhood in poverty; by singling out the only white man on the street as being one of the most successful people in Hollywood, a division between the haves and the have-nots was clearly drawn.
Of course, since I don’t actually have a striking resemblance to any celebrity in particular*, it’s easier for me to pick up on the meta-message being sent by these comparisons. I wonder what it’s like to actually resemble someone--my best friend from high school actually is a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman, and has been compared to her ever since Days of Thunder, even winning a local lookalike contest as an adult. We’re not in touch anymore, but I wonder: Does she take this in and feel good (“Hey, I’m constantly compared with a woman who’s been on People’s Most Beautiful list eight times!”) or resentful (“Can anyone ever just tell me I look good and be done with it, without this Australian chick coming into the picture?”)? Does it ever backfire--does she wonder on off-days if there’s a constant …except not as pretty lurking in the air, given the much-recorded beauty of her famous counterpart? Or is her self-image intact enough to simply take it for what it is: a statement of fact, a reportage from others—you have red hair, you have fine features, you are tall and slender—and not much else?
*Except for Laura Kightlinger, whose brief reign on taxi-topper ads for The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman assured that for a period of four months I was told biweekly, by strangers, that I resembled “that comedian who’s on the taxis,” only to have disappeared from the public eye, ending my single bona fide celebrity resemblance.