This article was originally published on VICE Mexico
"I'm looking for boys who look like Niall, Liam, Harry and Louis," read the ad that was posted with a photo of One Direction on Facebook, three years ago. That was the beginning of Imitators Top – a Mexican agency representing impersonators of some of the biggest pop stars of our time: Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Five Seconds of Summer and, of course, 1D.
Israel Carreño, 23, and his girlfriend Karla Magaña founded the company in 2012. They first came up with the idea of putting together a 1D tribute band after watching one of the group's music videos. "We realised no one else was offering that kind of service in Mexico. I had some savings that I wanted to invest in something, so we decided to put together a 1D wardrobe," recalled Israel, when I met the group at the centre of Mexico City a couple of weeks ago.
In addition to running the company, Israel impersonates Zayn Malik, who left the band in 2015. "Following orders was never my thing, so I decided to become my own boss. But in order to be a boss, you have to be the best at your job. I had to learn to be a good impersonator, so I could show others how to do it," he went on.
After going through hundreds of Facebook profiles of friends and acquaintances, Israel and Karla found four guys they felt could become the Mexican 1D. The next step was filming a video in Mexico City's Bellas Artes, in an attempt to raise their profile.
A mum will hire us without telling her daughter and we'll just show up at the party as a surprise. People laugh because they know us from the memes and then they have a good time. They call us Juan Direcshon.
But according to Israel, they did it all wrong: "The video sucks. We bought a bunch of hipster clothes – like bow ties, suspenders, shirts, jackets – without even knowing how they actually dressed. Later, we realised they would probably never be seen in that kind of thing. People seemed to hate it too."
It wasn't until almost six months after the video was released, that Imitators Top received their first booking requests: "I had taken a risk and invested my money but months went by and I didn't see any income. There came a point where I thought I should quit."
Israel's first break came when a dance academy booked the group to perform at Expo 15 – an annual trade show showcasing the work of companies that cater to Quinceañera [sweet 15] parties for teenage girls. "We booked 40 shows after that," Israel remembered.
Getting booked for shows, however, didn't mean the group was ready for them: "We prepared this choreography for a party we played in the suburbs and we looked ridiculous. No one at the party was paying attention to us and nobody clapped when we finished. It was the worst show ever," Israel said. "I was ashamed of asking for my check."
It was around that time that a good part of the original group left the band. "One of them was an alcoholic, another one was always trying to hook up with fangirls and a third one just got tired of the fact we never really booked any shows."
The natural next step for the group was to improve their performance skills. Israel began looking for new members, who were committed and had better stage presence. He forgot all about choreographies and focused on improving their outfits and each boy's resemblance to the original members. "We would study the videos relentlessly. We watched the movie, like, 12 times. And each of us just focused on copying our characters – from their moves on stage to the way they engage with each other."
The quality of the shows improved and with that came more bookings. Another breaking point came when a girl celebrating her quinceañera asked for a photo with the boys in front of the Independence Column at the centre of Mexico City. The photo went viral and soon became a meme. Despite all the mockery they received on social media, people began to recognise them – "or at least began to know we existed," laughed Israel.
But a few weeks ago, a local entertainment magazine hired the band to perform at their booth at Expo 15 (where they put their first show ever) and things went out of control. In just a few days, their Facebook page grew organically from 8,000 to 11,000 likes, while memes concerning the band took over the social network.
According to the boys, the jokes were "really mean and discouraging" but that didn't stall their success: Their rates now range from 5,000 to 14,000 mxn ($280 to $790) per show – which, for the local impersonator industry, is pretty good. "The line of business also changed. For instance, a mum will hire us without telling her daughter and we'll just show up at the party as a surprise. People laugh because they know us from the memes and then they have a good time. They call us Juan Direcshon," said Israel.
The most rewarding part of the job to them, however, is to see the birthday girls happy. "We freak out when a birthday girl starts crying because we don't know if those are tears of joy or sadness or if they are crying with laughter," added Bernardo Méndez, who impersonates Niall Horan.
The group currently consists of 18-year-old Dylan de Joussineau (Liam Payne); 17-year-old Brandon Gonzalez (Louis Tomlinson); 17-year-old Bernardo Méndez (Niall Horan); 23-year-old Israel Carreño (Zayn Malik) and 20-year-old Rudy Jaramillo (Harry Styles), who we didn't meet because he was sick. "We all have our lives and our own personalities. But when we put on our costumes, everything changes. We become 1D because that's our job. But we don't dress or act like the on a daily basis," Dylan explained.
Dylan was born in France. He used to work at a car impound there, saved money and bought a ticket to Mexico. "I spent most of the day hanging out with my girlfriend, studying to be a video editor or skating," he said. Apparently, his girlfriend is not jealous of the fans because she also works as an impersonator – she acts as Ariana Grande for Imitators Top – and she knows that it's just a part of the job. "The downside to this job is that there will always be trolls who criticise our work, no matter what. But I love my job. It's always fun to forget who you are and become someone else for a while."
Bernardo, who acts as Niall Horan, "used to hate One Direction." He mostly likes listening to rap, bachata and rock music. "But after listening to 1D for so long, their stuff kind of grew on me."
Bernardo is in high school and loves doing push ups: "I used to be pretty muscly but had to tone down for this gig." He also works as a make-up salesman, while the part he enjoys most about the 1D job is having fans: "I never thought we would have such a big fan base just for being impersonators. When I feel sad, I read the fans' messages and they cheer me up. I feel motivated because now I'm a role model to some people." I asked him if he's ever made out with a fan: "Well, if I have to be honest.. Yes, I have," he replied.
Brandon is the youngest member of the band. Before joining the band, he used to work as a waiter but he finds this job way more amusing. What he enjoys about it is the fact that, more than being a band, they are all now close friends: "We all get along well. It's really cool and we have a lot of fun, but of course sometimes the hate and the trolling become a little hard to stomach."
Imitators Top plan to expand further in the quinceaneras industry. Israel said they'll keep offering a full range of pop star impersonators, but that they will also set up two dance academies to train their talents as chambelanes for 15th birthday parties. "We are looking for more artists to sign with us. Imitators Top is never going to die because we're the only ones who offer this kind of service in Mexico – especially when it comes to One Direction impersonators. If you google 'One Direction impersonators Mexico', you'll find 20 ads and all of them are ours. There is simply no competition."
According to all of them, Imitators Top is reinventing the impersonators industry. "We all agree on it," Israel concluded. "The industry has become rather stagnant. I'm not saying Elvis, Michael Jackson or Juan Gabriel impersonators are bad at what they do – it's just that there should be more modern options to choose from. The world has enough Elvises. The market is worn-out. Mexico needs new stuff. People have to innovate and that's exactly what we're doing."