Nobody really liked high school. Even the plastics and 17ft hair-gelled jocks it’s purpose-built for don’t make it out of your average teen comedy without a few tears.
The impression it leaves is so significant, it stays with us for the rest of our lives. No matter how much weight you lose, how far you move away or how many zeroes you add to your bank balance, you’re still the same chubby kid, in the same class, surrounded by the same people. And we continue to care what these people think of us. We want them to track us as we move through life, to see our achievements, to be impressed by us. It’s the only reason people maintain a Facebook page these days – to keep an eye from a comfortable distance.
But what if those big plans you had to impress all your old peers hav'en’t quite worked out? And you find yourself returning to the place you left behind. How would you announce yourself back on the scene?
Stephen didn’t have a great time in high school. He felt invisible. Jazz band was his coping mechanism, so much so that he went on to study jazz at college.
While living as a struggling musician in Baltimore, there was always something hanging over Stephen: the family dental practice in the small town of Columbia, Maryland, and his dad’s dream that he would one day take it over. So, he studied dentistry as a post-grad. But with his dad approaching retirement, Stephen still hadn’t decided whether he should move home and take the plunge. Then came an email that brought it all to a head: an invitation to his ten-year high school reunion.
Stephen doesn’t want all his old school peers to think he failed in his quest to become a musician. And if he follows in his dad’s footsteps, he’ll be the potential dentist of former crushes, bullies and friends – so he’ll need to make a great impression.
Luckily, he spotted an advert online.
For Oobah, my “app”, which enables you to order a lookalike of yourself.
Stephen sent off the following request:
I want to send a hotter, more successful lookalike to my 10-year high school reunion.
Last time, I helped a husband who was terrified of heights make his wife’s dream of skydiving with him come true, by sending a lookalike to jump out of a plane with her. That worked. But this is different: we don’t have a flight suit and a 10,000-foot drop to mask any mistake.
ARRIVING IN COLUMBIA
When the idealistic architect James Rouse – incidentally, the grandfather of Hollywood actor Edward Norton – conceived Columbia as the model harmonious, self-sustaining American community in the 1960s, a resident feeling estranged enough from their hometown to do something like this probably wasn’t what he envisaged.
When we meet on the morning of the reunion, Stephen is understandably agitated. The first people he wants to tell are his parents.
Bizarrely, they’re not that shocked.
“I want somebody who has travelled the world as a musician. Had a lot of neat experiences,” says Stephen, painting his idealised self. “Somebody more charismatic.”
“But Stephen, you’re very charming, you’re very charismatic - you shouldn’t put yourself down!” his mum interrupts.
“Just relax – OK, mom?”
As we settle on Stephen’s ideal characteristics, we discover a moment from his past that haunts him. Around 12 years ago, he was playing in the band at the school dance. It was his big moment to blow everybody away with his lead sax solo. To be noticed!
Stephen took his sax, strolled to the front of the stage and turned his back to the crowd, revealing the message “CHICKS DIG ME”. The crowd went wild for him! Or so he thought…
They were actually in hysterics about his wedgie. This humiliation is etched in his mind. He’d love a do-over.
“Why do you not want to go to the reunion, Stephen?” I ask. He exhales and looks out towards the rain.
“I think a lot of people have already established themselves and are out of school. They have careers and family, and are really getting settled into their lives.” He stops. “I’ve had a bit of a different experience. Starting with the music and going into the dentistry, originally thinking I could be anywhere and now settling myself into this area.” Stephen swallows. “I’m not quite where I want to be yet.”
“Do you think the people at high school will remember you?”
“I don’t think the majority of them will.”
THE NEW AND IMPROVED STEPHEN
This is Aaron. A Hollywood actor who has tattoos, an electric guitar and will tonight be playing Stephen. These are his objectives.
1. TO CONVINCE EVERYBODY THAT HE IS STEPHEN, A COOL, SUCCESSFUL MUSICIAN.
I’ve conceived a secret weapon to get this one over the line: subliminal messaging. For the past few days, I’ve been hanging up gig posters around town for Stephen’s fictional band.
I’ve also named the band The Right Guy, so when his old classmates meet him on the night, they’ll see his face and think, ‘The Right Guy’.
Even though that’s precisely what he isn’t.
2. ESTABLISH HIMSELF AS ONE OF THE ‘COOL KIDS’ BY BEFRIENDING JESSE, THE MOST POPULAR GUY IN SCHOOL.
3. TO CHARM STEPHEN’S HIGH SCHOOL CRUSH, KATIE.
Although we’ve been informed she can no longer make the reunion, so it’s just those first two we need to nail.
Now, for the Aaron to Stephen makeover. The first thing we need to deal with—
—is his hair—
—with some state-of-the-art engineering. Next,
We need to transform his eyes from blue to brown.
And here we go.
THE HIGH SCHOOL REUNION
It’s a cold November night in Columbia, and busy in the city’s resident “English pub”, Union Jack’s.
We’re over the road, undercover, in the back of a van. To allow us to be silent spectators to conversations about work, old rivalries and heartbreak, we’ve bugged the joint (with a full camera crew, there under another pretence).
Stephen 2.0 arrives. Poised, we hear him enter.
Aaron grabs a name badge, a drink, and hovers on the edges of conversations – before diving in.
“Do you remember me?” he asks. The former classmate takes a minute, staring at his face.
“I remember your name.” Her eyes narrow, suspiciously, before – all of a sudden – the music cuts out. A man jumps up on to a table.
Jesse, the most popular guy in school, launches into a rousing speech. As it wraps up with a Budweiser cheers, Aaron realises this is his shot, so takes a deep breath.
Jesse stops. His eyes drift to the name badge, and then back up.
“Stephen Fasteau! I knew it. Good to see you!” They embrace.
“You’re looking good these days!” Jesse says, as they trade success stories. It’s happening: Stephen has been accepted as one of the popular guys!
Next, it’s one of his rivals from band complimenting his new look.
As a woman laps up Aaron’s story about touring in Old Kyoto, we realise Stephen 2.0 is exactly the kind of dude you thought was cool in high school. For a moment, Stephen is winning.
Then, something changes.
“You’re not Stephen Fasteau.”
Contrary to what we’d been told, Katie – Stephen’s high school crush – has turned up, and she doesn’t buy a word of it.
Katie loudly quizzes Aaron on their time together.
Soon, a flock of her friends surround and interrogate Aaron. The rumour of what’s going on is spreading around the room, and quickly. “Just like high school,” Stephen says to himself sombrely.
With things on the turn, we need to finish this and get out of here. I immediately put on a chef’s outfit and enter the premises.
I hand Aaron a slice of edible paper and disappear towards the kitchen as he eats it. On the paper are three words: CHICKS DIG ME.
Aaron now has the opportunity to put right what once went so wrong. So he determinedly takes the guitar we planted and yells for the music to be cut out.
“Y’all knew me as a saxophone player. But here’s something you’ve never seen before!”
Aaron launches into a face melting guitar solo as the room falls into silence.
Then, an audible gasp. Aaron’s shirt hits the ground. Bare-chested, he spins around.
Revealing this henna tattoo. If at all possible, I’ve managed to make the most embarrassing moment of Stephen’s high school career even worse. Twelve years on, it’s not inspiring laughs or schadenfreude among classmates, but anger. Sat beside me, Stephen looks depleted. I ask if he’s OK.
“I don’t know. I’ve not seen these people in ten years. Is this whole thing going to shit on my career? Being a dentist in the area. But, you know, I signed up for it.”
Then, from among the raised voices, we hear something.
“Where is the real Stephen?”
“This is a bummer; I’d love to see him.”
It’s then that it dawns on us: The people in the room aren’t angry about the trick. They’re angry because they wanted to see Stephen. They’ve missed him. Maybe Stephen wasn’t as invisible as he thought he was at high school?
In a moment of defiance, Stephen tears off his wire, tosses down his baseball cap and bursts through the van’s doors. He’s going in!
As he walks across the car park, people drunkenly yell his name. He barrels through the door.
And is welcomed with warmth and cheers. People who he thought wouldn’t recognise him defy his enduring interpretation of high school. A girl who used to work with Stephen’s dad at his dental practice explains how his father had inspired her and changed her life. She’s blown away by the idea Stephen could become that same person for somebody else.
With every tipsy conversation and embrace of a former classmate, the “inadequate” Stephen dies. There was never any need for him to want to be anything other than himself - he was always good enough.
Without the help of a lookalike, Stephen manages to do something the younger him hadn’t for the whole of high school: ask the very girl who rumbled him, his crush Katie, out on a date.
“You know where to find me.”
We do. In Columbia, Maryland.
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