In the early 2000s while filming a French television commercial for Vittel bottled water, David Bowie walked through a Paris mansion that was haunted by his alter egos. The icon, sporting in a camel sweater and black trousers, played only himself, but was also surrounded by himself: in one room, there's Ziggy Stardust blow-drying his hair, looking as though he's been rudely interrupted; in another, Aladdin Sane peers over the stairs with a dirty look; finally, there's the Thin White Duke, helping himself to toast in the kitchen.
"Vittel," chimed the voiceover. "Chaque jour une vie nouvelle."
To make this TV spot, Bowie didn't clone himself. Instead, he enlisted an impersonator named David Brighton, the man who'd been dubbed by "Young Americans" producer Harry Maslin as the only person who could "actually step in for David Bowie if he were unavailable." Earl Slick, Bowie's guitarist for four decades, raved that Brighton "has studied Bowie like Bowie studied Elvis." His press materials are peppered with similar testimonials from Bowie's band, his lighting guy, and the icon's digital universe, BowieNet. But still, says Brighton, meeting him for the first time on set "was a slightly terrifying, surreal honor."
"His talent just seemed relentlessly without end", Brighton recalls. "And I'm just there in my Ziggy Stardust costume, you know, with a gun to my head," he laughs, humbled.
When the cameras stopped rolling, Brighton recalls, Bowie never stopped performing, endlessly churning out micro-performances—comedy bits with American accents, impromptu mime, dance moves no one on set had ever seen.
Bowie, a master of mime, challenged Brighton to disembody his head from his neck and wiggle it from side to side, à la Pierrot, the blue clown from "Ashes to Ashes." Brighton couldn't quite master it, so they used CGI to create the effect, and adjust a jawline here and there. The finished product was "about half and half" of each man, he says.
As it turned out, the pair would never meet again. Bowie's passing, some 15 years later, was among the first in a year that would come to be defined by lost icons, sparking widespread, largely accurate predictions that the year was a write-off from the start. But for Brighton's tribute show "The Space Oddity: The Ultimate David Bowie Experience," it was a banner year.
On the morning of January 10, 2016, Brighton was in his home office in Los Angeles preparing for a morning of "Space Oddity" admin—organizing saxophone parts, costing flights—when he opened his laptop to hundreds of emails. As he began to mourn the news of Bowie's passing, the phone was ringing off the hook.
"It was mind numbing," Brighton tells me over Skype from LA. "For weeks, I was doing 18 hour days just trying to chip away at this flood of phone calls, text messages, emails…" Strangers were calling to book the band. Fans were seeking comfort and commiseration for what felt like an immeasurable loss. Overnight, Brighton became a vessel for collective grief at a time of overwhelming demand.
"We did a show that weekend. That was when all the emotions really hit," he says. Fans, many also in full Bowie costume, cried their eyes out while "The Space Oddity," as is their raison d'etre, presented a show that was "a close as humanly possible to the real thing… knowing we'll never actually be that." It's a clarification Brighton makes often, careful to emphasize the fundamental humility of being an impersonator.
Prior to Bowie's death, the band had been playing a few shows a month at Vegas casinos and Legends in Concert variety shows, a bizarre world where one might walk backstage to find versions of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bowie, and the Beatles, all alive and well.
But in 2016, "there were times when we were cracking under the pressure. Particularly me," so often were they summoned for birthday parties of wealthy baby boomers, or gigs in Mexico, where Brighton alarmed border guards with his selection of Bowie wigs. Corporations have swooped in looking to buy the act wholesale (they haven't sold). Reluctantly, they turned down Glastonbury.
The surge in interest has puzzled Brighton somewhat. "A horribly sad thing about humanity is when we lose something we want it all the more" he says. "It would be nice if we appreciated things while we have them, but it doesn't seem to be in our makeup." For Brighton's part, he still refers to Bowie in the present tense: "I don't ever say he 'was.' I'm not there yet."
Brighton's commitment to Bowie goes well beyond a mere appreciation, but it came about somewhat by accident. A career guitarist, Brighton has played on bills with Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Little Richard. But shopping his own music around in the 80s, "record companies would listen to my demos and they would say 'that sounds too much like Bowie' or 'that sounds like someone trying too hard not to sound like Bowie'", he says. So he embraced it. By the mid-90s, Brighton was developing his Bowie act while simultaneously performing in Vegas six nights a week as George Harrison in "Beatlemania."
To master his craft Brighton watched videos in his living room, studying hip cocks and shoulder shimmies. He forensically examined photographs of Bowie's face to find where he might, with a sweep or blush or a bit of contouring, perfect what is a striking but not exact resemblance to the icon. His face is longer than Bowie's, but his mouth and nose are similar enough. Incidentally, so is his name. Six years later in 2000 the band, made up of musicians who've played with everyone from the Doors to Frank Zappa and Sly Stone, played their first show at a small club in LA. Deliberately, Brighton avoided promoting it too heavily: "You have the risk of making a total jackass of yourself" Brighton laughs.
The night of their first show, "fear gripped me as it never had before" he says. But as he shoved himself onto the stage in full "Rebel Rebel" regalia and saw the audience, "the faces were glassy-eyed and grinning and you could tell they were going back in time."
Eventually the group gained the attention of Bowie's web guy, and a sort of exchange began. Bowie's camp started posting the occasional video and show dates on their official site. They invited Brighton to do the Vittel commercial. When Brighton's seasoned band stumbled over the labyrinthine arrangements on "Aladdin Sane," Bowie's legendary keys player Mike Garson unearthed handwritten charts, and gave them to "The Space Oddity."
Costumes proved more elusive. A room in Brighton's home in the San Fernando Valley is dedicated to housing over a dozen Bowie looks—all custom-made affairs that cost many thousands to create. Some have never seen the stage; others are badly in need of repair. With the help of a friend who did wardrobe for the Planet of the Apes movies, Brighton has tackled a persistent problem of sourcing 70s glam-rock materials decades past their time. "You're not going to find any of those fabrics anywhere on the planet anymore, unless you manufacture them yourself" he says. So they did, taking one shiny black synthetic and hand-painting stripes on it to recreate Bowie's iconic Kansai Yamamoto jumpsuit.
"The Space Oddity" show spans three to five Bowie eras across four decades, each requiring a "challenging potpourri of performance skills." In two hours, Brighton's Bowie morphs from the otherworldly Ziggy Stardust to the dance-centric Thin White Duke, and into the "less mysterious and more personable" Modern Love era.
While Brighton describes his process as "obsessive," some concessions must be made to cope with reality. "The costume that he wore for the Rebel Rebel era? I wear it for the whole Ziggy era sometimes. He didn't wear that when he sang "Suffragette City," but my attitude is, 'so what?' It's of that era"—prompting complaints from some less flexible fans.
But sometimes, things are more perfect than Brighton ever dared hope. A few years ago he got a package in the mail—it contained a perfect clay mould of David Bowie's face. It was from a friend who'd worked on a film with the singer. "It looked like a dead body. The eyes were closed," he says. He pressed the mould onto his own face ("the eeriest, most bizarre feeling in the world"), and promptly copied it into a white mask for his Thin White Duke rendition. Morphing eras, he painted a lightning bolt over it. "It's really Bowie's face on a stick. It's a little added bonus."
Annalies Winny thinks everyone is kind of a David Bowie impersonator when you think about it. Follow her on Twitter.