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      A Day in the Life of a James Dean Impersonator

      February 12, 2016

      The road to Fairmount, Indiana, is straight and flanked by corn and power supply lines. This town of 3,000 is where actor and icon James Dean was raised, and it still carries a torch for him, 60 years after Dean's untimely death in a freak car accident at the age of 24.

      Fairmount, which is also the home of lazy cartoon cat Garfield, celebrates Dean's life and legacy at the annual James Dean Festival and car show. What drew me to the town again (I've been to the festival before in 2009) was the lookalike contest, but I couldn't find any Jimmy impersonators all day. When I was about to give up and settle in one of the two local bars called Giant (a reference to the last Dean film), I saw the signature red jacket and the neatly coiffed hair that could only mean one thing.

      Scott Brimigion, an actor, writer, car salesman, and professional James Dean impersonator, came all the way from California to be part of the contest. He's been at this a long while, and has won this contest before. He was also eager to show me a thick album with hundreds of photos of himself as Dean in New York in the rain, in cars, on motorcycles, wearing leather, in a field, you name it. One night about five years ago, he woke up after a vivid dream and typed it all up. Eventually it turned into a novel called 8 Crosses on 4 Corners about the haunted intersection where James Dean died. He believes to this day that it was Dean himself who instilled the dream in him.

      He had been hanging out with Dean's cousin all day and was now getting ready for the contest, which was about to take place in the town square. When we got there, a rock band called James and Dean was playing, featuring two guys named James Elvis and Dean Presley. The whole town was there; someone said this was the busiest the place ever gets. The contest brought out about ten impersonators, though none channeled the distinct mannerisms of Dean like Scott did. At one point, he sat down in a golf cart away from the other contestants and got really quiet. Afterward, he told me he was praying to his recently deceased mother to help him channel Jimmy.

      The whole time I spent with Scott, he rarely broke character. It's as if the red jacket and rimmed glasses were magical devices that had imbued him with Dean's spirit. Together, we went to the house where the actor grew up, where the plan was to ask if they'd let us into the great man's old bedroom. I stayed back and let Scott do the talking. He came back a little sad and said we just missed the man of the house. Maybe another time. So we hung out on the farm and took some photos. Scott was wearing the outfit Dean was wearing in Giant. Other fans showed up and Scott posed for a few snaps. A camera crew also arrived—they were making a documentary about Dean and his fans, nicknamed "Deaners."

      The contest didn't go as expected. Some guy from Detroit or somewhere won. As Scott went up to the stage I heard people complain that he was too serious. The townsfolk wanted entertainment. Other contestants brought their babies on stage or threw candy in the audience. One guy tried sitting on the judges' laps. Some were simply dressed up as tomboys from the 50s. The guy with the baby won and Scott decided we should go get some beers. He was disappointed and complained that the town was "too political"—one of the judges was apparently an old rival whom he beat in the contest years ago. That didn't help.

      His next destination was the place where Dean died on September 30, 1955, an intersection in Cholame, California. He still had his red jacket on when I watched him walk to his car, slightly slouched, with cigarette smoke trailing after him.

      All photographs by Reto Sterchi. You can follow his work here.

      Topics: photography, small town, James Dean, Giant, Reto Sterchi, Deaners, fan culture, Scott Brimigion, Fairmount, Indiana, actor, deceased