Photo by Alexandre Guirkinger
See that guy in the picture above? He doesn't look like a 17-year-old, blond, blue-eyed American boy, does he? Because, apparently, that's exactly what he managed to convince a lot of people, including the boy's family, that he was. Forgive me if I'm being too confusing, I'll take it from the start:
On June 13, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay, who was last seen playing basketball with a bunch of his friends, failed to return to his family home in San Antonio, Texas. Nobody heard from him for the next four years, until 1997, when his family (who are suspected to have had something to do with Nicholas' disappearance in the first place) received a phone call from the US embassy in Spain by a guy claiming to be their lost son who had just escaped a prostitution ring. That man was the then 23-year-old French-Algerian Frédéric Bourdin. He is also the guy in the ugly shirt you can see right up there ^.
Bourdin went on to stay with the Barclays for a good five months, before private investigator Charlie Parker, who was assisting a TV crew with filming the family's story, grew suspicious. The whole story ended with Bourdin spending the next six years in an American prison for passport fraud and perjury. It also recently just became a film called The Imposter, which premiered at Sundance back in January and in UK cinemas just last week. Right after its UK release, I noticed that Bourdin had begun tweeting about disliking the director Bart Layton, even though it didn't seem like he had seen the film. So I decided to get in touch.
VICE: Hi, Frédéric, did I get you at the right time? I can call back later if you want?
Frédéric Bourdin: Yeah, I'm going to bed very late and I'm very tired, but we can talk now still. Geniuses have great minds. We can think even when we haven't had any sleep.
Alright, cool. So, I see you've been posting your opinions about The Imposter and the people who made it on Twitter and YouTube. Take me back to how this all started.
I was approached by a reporter who told me that he’d heard about my life story and wanted to hear my side of it so he could eventually make a documentary about the whole thing. I've always wanted people to understand me, because I don't like to be pictured as something I'm not, so I agreed to meet with him in London to talk about everything. The reporter quickly disappeared, and I was left with Bart Layton.
The director of the film?
Yes. He, and the guy he was with, said that they also wanted to tell my story. I didn't want them to portray me as a nut, so we sat and talked, and I agreed to tell them my whole story. I opened my heart to them and every word I spoke was the truth. I did that because I wanted people to see the real me and understand why I did the things I did. I worked with them for four years, gave them permission to get all the documents of mine they needed, shaved how they wanted me to shave, dressed the way they wanted me to dress – I loaned them that kind of blue tiger shirt that I'm wearing in the New Yorker article.
The camouflage-y kind of shirt?
Yeah, exactly. So, everything was going well, then they started speaking less and less to me. I didn't really care, but when the movie came out at the Trinidad Film Festival, I found out that Bart had showed the movie to the family and was saying stuff to reporters like, "I always felt like Frédéric was conning me when I was speaking to him" and that kind of thing. And Charlie Parker, the private investigator who caught me, was telling everyone that I'm an evil person. It broke my heart. I'm a 38-year-old husband and father now. I changed my life years ago and the film is all about something that happened 15 years ago. I trusted them and they treated me like a worthless piece of shit.
Why do you think that was?
I'm not sure, but they definitely tried their hardest to make people hate me. It didn't work, though. If you look at my Twitter or YouTube accounts, you'll see a lot of people have left me very kind messages saying they understand me. Some guys from Secret Cinema asked me to come to London and talk to them, but I stupidly asked Bart what Secret Cinema was, because I didn't know, then I heard from them again saying, all of a sudden, that we couldn't do the interview any more.
That's a bit suspicious.
Well, yeah. I later found out that they had got Charlie Parker to come and do the interview with them, so you can probably imagine how that all came to being. The worst thing for me is that they seem to be mocking everyone involved. I didn't want the family to be humiliated and end up looking like fools because of the movie. What I did was wrong, I committed a crime, but I don't want that to keep affecting this family. Their poor little boy is out there somewhere, his body lying on the ground, or in the water, or whatever, and they're making a joke out of that. They sensationalise everything and shit all over me.
Going back a bit, you said that Layton and the film crew dressed you up and made you shave in certain ways. Did you feel like they were trying to create a new character for you? The irony being that that is exactly what you used to do.
Yeah, I basically became what they wanted me to be. With hours of makeup and editing, they can turn you into whoever they want. They didn't tell me they were going to do that though, of course. They just told me to look at the camera and tell them my story, they didn't say, "Frédéric, we're going to turn you into a super freak."
To me, it sounds like you put a lot of yourself and ideas of who you are into this. Away from the film, did it take you a long time to cultivate that, considering you regularly took on different identities and never lived as your own identity?
I've never had problems knowing who I am, but I've had problems being loved for who I am. My father was Algerian and my grandfather was a racist – I was an outcast from being a baby the whole way to the age of 16, so I knew who I was. I knew too well who I was. The problem was that I didn't want to be that person, because I wanted to be loved. I didn't want people who would hurt me, spit at me, sexually abuse me – I wanted people who would care for me. I took more than 500 identities over the span of five years, invented the name, date of birth, place of birth – everything – but I never invented the pain and suffering in my soul. I took Nicholas Barclay's identity out of despair. It was either that or prison. It turned out to be both in the end, but I didn't know that at the time.
What was it that made you switch from making up characters to actually taking identities?
I was in Spain, where I'd already been deported from before, and was in trouble with the law there again. The judge told me that, if I didn't prove who I was in the next 24 hours, she was going to fingerprint me, then they would have found out who I was and put me in jail, so I took a real identity. When she told me that Nicholas' sister was on the plane to come and get me, I felt horrible, because that's not what I wanted. It's like someone driving away from the police and running someone else over; it's horrific. But, overall, it was to escape prison.
It was desperation, I guess?
Exactly, it was desperation. Obviously, prison eventually caught up with me, and I've said in the past that prison would have maybe been a better option than all these people telling me that I'm a monster. I just didn't know what to do at the time.
What was your time inside like? Did you lay low or adopt a new character? Or was it just a case of doing your time and getting out?
Well, I speak Spanish as well as French, so I ended up getting adopted by a Mexican gang. They were nice people. not the kind of people you'd want to cross, obviously, but they treated me well. It's funny, but I made some of my best friends in prison, so I suppose the years I did in the US jail were some of the best of my life.
Wow. Did the Mexican gang think that you were Mexican, then?
They knew I was French, but every other prisoner over there thought I was Mexican because I was speaking, like them, with a Mexican accent, and I had the tattoos.
After you came out of prison, in 2005, you were 31 but you managed to pass yourself off as Francisco, a 15-year-old Spanish orphan. That's quite something.
I could do it, yeah. If I shaved and dressed in a certain way and used the right slang, or whatever, I could appear to be a child. I'm a child in my heart, which must have something to do with my horrific childhood. To tell you the truth, I do miss that time a bit, always being someone else and constantly travelling across the world.
Is that why you became Francisco? Because you wanted to move around freely?
Yeah, I've been doing it since 1990, so that's more than 500 identities in pretty much every European country. I saw something on the internet saying that I'd used 49 identities, which made laugh, because how could I be doing it for that long and only have 49 characters, you know? But yeah, I'd always pretend I was 14 or 15 years old so that I'd be put into foster care or a foster family, where I'd have a mum, a dad, brothers and sisters and feel fully secure and loved. All I cared about was being a part of something.
Then, in 2005, you said you’d never do it again. What was it that made you make that decision?
As weird as it sounds, it's because I adopted a cat. It was an indoors cat – it never went outside – so it meant that I couldn't travel around if I had him living with me. That's actually when I met my wife, too. She had seen me on TV when she was younger, when she was at a low point in her life, and to see my crying on television over love made her believe in love again. She'd been trying to keep track of me since she saw me, then she got in contact and we ended up getting married and having kids. So yeah, I guess the cat saved my life.
Wow. What do you do now, by the way?
Most of the year I sell things at the market. I occasionally go and work in the city, but yeah, mostly at the market.
Have you ever considered acting or writing? The fact that you’ve embodied so many people and you’ve come up with so many different people and back stories makes me think you might be quite good at writing.
No, but I wish I could. Maybe one day, when people stop thinking I'm crazy, I'll get a chance. I'd love to do it, but I think people probably need to realise that I'm not a complete psychopath before they start to trust me with that kind of thing. An American writer wanted to write my story with me a few years ago, but it was going to cost a lot so I didn't do it. Maybe one day.
Just one more thing. I saw on Twitter that you were speaking to someone about Nicholas Barclay and his family. Are you under any impression that his family might have had something to do with his death?
I think if people want to know what happened to Nicholas, they need to make his mother tell them what she really knows, because I'm sure she knows more than what she's said. I know that Nicholas was beaten by his mother and brother, so there's definitely something there.
How do you know that?
While I was in prison, after I got arrested, I was talking to a friend of Beverly [Nicholas' mother] which I had met a few times before when I was Nicholas, she said to me, very clearly, that Nicholas went to see her the day he disappeared, and that he was covered in bruises. She asked him if he'd like her to drive him home, but he declined saying he was going to call his mum. But then she decided to follow him and what she saw was him first walking into a phone booth, and then she saw his brother taking him in the car. That was the last time she saw him. She asked me not to tell anyone because she didn’t want any problems with Beverly. They were best friends for a while.
When you were Nicholas, did they ever come across to you as the sort of people who could do something like that?
They are not criminal geniuses, but they would never admit they actually knew anything. That would undermine their credibility, I know they don't have much, but still.
It’s still a little strange that they agreed to do a film about this in the first place. Anyway, I’ll let you go Frederick, is there anything else you want to add?
I didn’t con you. I didn’t lie to you, I didn’t manipulate you, I didn’t do to you what I supposedly did to every other person I came in contact with. I’m 38 years old, I’m a dad, I’ve mended my life. I’ve explained my reasons very well so, if you don’t believe me, talk to that guy who wrote the New Yorker article, talk to Terry Whitcraft who’s the producer at Twenty Twenty, New York. I have absolutely nothing to gain by lying to you.
More attempts to resolve identity crises: