Armed with Instagram, a lookalike and a face-swapping app, I managed to swindle free pizza, clothes and even a hotel suite.
Did I mention The Shed? That thing I did? ICYMI, I fooled the world by making the shed I live in the top rated "restaurant" on TripAdvisor with a load of bullshit reviews.
Bizarrely, it's changed my life. Over the past few months, thousands of new followers have flocked to my social media accounts; dozens of drunk men have requested photos with me in south London pubs; and I can barely walk through the village I grew up in without family acquaintances waving at me. But how long will this last? I'm no real celebrity, just a moon-faced con-man from Redditch.
For ideas on how to prolong this new life, I browse some famous people's profiles. Among the self-promotion and pound shop motivational quotes, I see photos of new trainers, tickets to special events, delicious meals, high class hotels and bespoke clothing, always accompanied with captions like "thanks @nandos!" or "big up @nike you absolute legends". It seems that one way to maintain the high-life is to use your status to request nice stuff, publicly thank the brand for sending you that nice stuff, then be left with both nice stuff and a sense among your followers that you're someone worthy of receiving free stuff. It's ridiculous, and gluttonous, and I want in.
To do that, though, I need to make myself more brand-friendly. I need an endorsement, a friendship with someone whose fame far eclipses my own. I rack my brain for ideas and a prophet appears: Mr Brand himself – Russell, star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Trews and those prank calls on Andrew Sachs' answering machine. Unfortunately, I don't know how you go about making friends with Russell Brand, so have to find another way to convince brands and followers that I am.
How do I do that? It's actually quite simple.
SETTING UP A PLAYDATE WITH RUSSELL
I find Ryan by asking friends if they know anybody who looks like Russell Brand. And Ryan does, sort of, doesn't he? That's all I need: the bare minimum. That, and Photoshop, and a few photos of the real Russell. Then, what's to stop me from taking a selfie with Ryan, doing a quick face-swap and posting the photo to Instagram?
I contact Ryan and he's up for it. The wheels are in motion.
But even with my fake Brand in tow, I can't just post photos from an All Bar One, can I? I need to be in the kind of hangout you'd expect to see a celebrity in. The Groucho, say, or one of those terrible upmarket Mayfair clubs where Rihanna and Bieber and Drake drink bottles of champagne worth more than a first class transatlantic flight. How do I access one of those? Easy: by inventing a Russell Brand PA to arrange things.
I jump onto GoDaddy, gobble up the available www.russellbrand.co, and create an email for Russell's brand new member of staff, Ben Mather. I fire out a slew of emails, and sure enough: perfection.
I find a hotel that touts itself as popular with celebrities, therefore making it "cool", according to its website. After some back-and-forth, we have ourselves a £400 to £500 suite to hang out in this Wednesday.
THE BIG DAY
Arriving in west London, my day begins like so many influencers' does.
A grateful coffee with a dash of humble brag.
Before long, I unleash my first post:
Quick disclaimer: the photo above isn't the one I actually uploaded, because we had to go back and buy licensed images of Russell Brand to be able to include them in this piece without getting sued for copyright infringement – but it's close enough!
Of course, before the rendering magician Chris Bethell got his hands on it, it looked a little different.
Importantly: are people going to buy it? I only get one shot at this. Are my followers going to think that I'm a man who could actually be hanging out with the Russell Brand for a day? Or that I'm a man sad enough to pretend that I am? A dangerous toss-up.
I post the photo. Two minutes of silence follow, then vibrations.
My Insta DMs are full of messages from people buying it, but they haven’t seen anything yet.
Sure, I can trick people into believing that Ryan is Russell with the protective guise of the internet, but how do I fool a hotel that Russell Brand is in the house? I tell Ryan, who's nearby, to lay low in his sunglasses.
I enter the lobby and am accosted by a busy lady. "Is it Oobah?" The hotel representative introduces herself. "I've been speaking with Ben. Do you know Ben?" I almost forget, before my brain clicks into gear: the PA.
I nod. She asks me what time Russell will be around and I answer vaguely, so she hands over the room key. I thank her, turning to disappear.
"I'll follow you boys' antics on Instagram!" she says. "It looks like you've already been with him?" She stares at my story, my world falling apart as she analyses the photo. "Very cool!" She disappears and I get into the lift, heart thumping.
Next, I get to the room and see:
They've gone all out, buying Brand – who, famously, is a fan of sexual intercourse – a range of sex toys; just what you need during an interview scenario. I almost feel bad, but then remember this has all been laid on free of charge for someone in the 1 percent of people globally who could actually afford this suite.
Insta must see where we're at.
I dump myself onto the presumably very expensive bed, disappearing into its vastness like a chihuahua in a jacuzzi.
This room seems to have legitimised our day and attracted another type of onlooker.
This attention is good, but I yearn for more.
It's now that I remember something I've forgotten: Ryan! I sprint down to the street to fetch him. With a voice forged far from Essex, I must keep Ryan silent and at a distance from hotel staff. We pace through the lobby without breaking a stride.
My social media followers are really going for this, but that's not enough. I want to be clothed and cobbled; wined and dined. I need a post which invites brands to come forth for just that. But it must be flawless, so I pick a Russell face and try to recreate the precise angles.
We post another picture on Instagram.
I wait silently, staring at my phone and praying for a DM to appear. After a little while... bingo. I exchange addresses with the company and a present arrives.
Novelty Street Fighter socks from the kind people at Stance. This is perfect. But I don't just want to be the envy of the internet; I want to be a fun fella, too. So I tell Ryan to hand over the socks...
And slip into something a little more comfortable.
Which, of course, becomes...
All full up on fun, I'm now hungry.
I call around the press offices of various fast food companies, requesting that they send some food to our suite. While Pizza Hut, Itsu and KFC have a bit of a nibble, there's one winner. One for sheer volume. One for the big occasion.
Doms. Offering a £120 order in exchange for "a cheeky post of you and Russell enjoying your Dominos"? Sounds like a joke, but within 30 minutes...
We have a feast! Now for the crucial cheeky post…
Does it matter that a quick google of Russell Brand would tell you he's vegan? Or that he's missing his very visible right arm tattoos in the post?
Nine slices of pizza and a cookie down, I'm filled and satisfied. Time to hit the town. I run upstairs, grab Ryan, and we disappear into the night. Looking for somewhere to have fun, I fire out messages left, right and centre, to Wembley, the O2 and places that are usually too dear for me to afford.
I spot two men standing outside of a pub, drinking, and I head over, holding my phone. "I'm Facetiming with my friend Russell Brand!" I tell them, apropos of nothing. They look amazed.
"Wave to Russell!" I say, showing them the faceswapped video of Ryan waving.
"Is that for real?" one asks, waving back to the screen. "You're mates with Russell Brand?" I quickly put the phone away. "Yeah, I wind him up, making him wave at people in the street when we're on calls together."
"That’s mad!" they respond.
I feel validated.
I'd previously made the decision to keep all posts exclusive to Instagram to avoid too many replies, but after that encounter, I fear nothing. So I fire off a tweet.
The likes rack up from colleagues, peers and industry people. This is the kind of company I want to keep. And if that wasn't enough, an email has hit my inbox that clinches it. A VIP invitation to a party that only the likes of Russell Brand could grace.
VIP tickets to Elbow at the O2. The mark of both a true influencer and a friend of Russell Brand.
Heading back from the O2 Arena, reading messages from friends and colleagues asking what I'm doing with Russell Brand, I'm astounded. Whether the fake PA, the tailored photos, the completely off-Brand selection of cheese pizzas, beers and socks we enjoyed, or the simple fact that a google search would have told you Russell Brand has a gig in Hull this very night, there have been so many opportunities for people to call bullshit on this story. But they didn't. Evidently, the power of celebrity is strong.
Now, there's nothing from stopping me from getting free socks and going to see Elbow every night of the year! Nothing! Apart from...
THE CEASE & DESIST
I wake up to a mobile pressed into my temple, vibrating. "Is this Ben?" says the stern voice on the other end. "How long have you been working for Russell, because I’ve been working with him for ten years."
I bumble and she cuts me off: turns out that the VIP Stereophonics tickets I requested may have given the game away. "You've registered the domain name russellbrand.co?" I stay silent. "I'd recommend that you stop whatever it is you're doing. And if you continue to send messages as his PA, you can expect legal action from Russell's agent. Goodbye."
Before publishing, I try to go to Brand for a comment on the whole ruse, but receive only a message telling me I can't use his image to get free stuff – which is tricky, because I've already done it.
Unfortunately, I can't comment any further on this matter.
Thanks to Liam Clemson for help with photo retouching.
DISCLAIMER: We do not recommend that you try to replicate this tactic. If anything, it takes way too long to convincingly Photoshop pictures of celebrities' faces onto pre-existing photographs, and nobody has time for that.