Thursday, March 4, 2010

STAR POWER: WHAT'S IN A STAGE NAME?


“At least in South Africa we can count on stars like Francois van Coke, Inge Beckmann, Chris Chameleon and Mandoza. Oh wait…”

Imagine a world where Bono went by the name Paul David Hewson - just when you think Tom Cruise can't get any weirder, you find out his real name’s Thomas Mapother IV. That got me thinking, could The Big Bopper have got the party started as Jiles Perry Richardson? Would Elvis Costello sound as sweet as Declan MacManus? And more importantly, would anyone want to party with Iggy Pop if you had to call him James Newell Osterberg Jr. all night?

Born Clinton Eastwood Jr. in 1930, Clint Eastwood's 100% legit. Fellow outlaw John Wayne, however, wasn’t as forthcoming. His real name was Marion. Marion Mitchell Morrison.

Sometimes the change is an obvious one. John Graham Mellor wants something with a bit more zing, so he changes his name to Joe Strummer. Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg the ballet dancer wants people to stop laughing and take him seriously, so he invents Jean Claude Van Damme the action superstar. David Howell Evans wants something with a bit more mystique, so he dubs himself The Edge. And Charles Holley decides that Peggy Sue will take him seriously if he changes his name to Buddy.

Chasing that household name that sticks, aspiring stars often invent stage names to tone down their “ethnicity.” Would be icons like Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury), Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (George Michael), Frederick Austerlitz (Fred Astaire), Allen Konigsberg (Woody Allen) and Carlos Ray (Chuck Norris). Even Herschel Krustofski, aka Krusty the Clown, knows the deal: your stage name's gotta pop.

Suggesting that, perhaps, there might be something to the notion of a catchy, more “American” sounding stage name, Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez changed his name to Martin Sheen. Son Carlos Irwin Estévez liked the idea and became Charlie Sheen. Sheen Sr.’s other children, Emilio, Ramón and Renée, and his brother Joe kept the family name. And when was the last time any of them got any work?



Sometimes the reality’s heartbreaking. Like finding out that Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman. That Billy Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan.
That Joey Ramone’s real name was Jeffry Hyman. Or that Stevie’s real surname isn’t Wonder. His first name isn't even Stevie. Mr. Wonder was born Stevland Judkins (later changed to Stevland Morris).

Often the name change is a simple case of upgrading. Switching a clumsy, nerd-in-high-school name for something with a bit more star power. A bit more zing. That’s what Israeli-born KISS bassist Chaim Witz must have thought when he changed his name to Gene Simmons. What about Elton John? Reginald Dwight was never going to be the Rocket Man, was he? Nobody was going to feed Vincent Furnier’s Frankenstein until he changed his name to Alice Cooper. And Sting was never going to walk on the moon as Gordon Sumner.

With rock stars like Slash (Saul Hudson), Sid Vicious (Simon John Ritchie) and David Bowie (David Jones), you just don’t get it. You can’t imagine anyone ever calling these larger-than-life characters anything but the names they’ve gone down in history under. They've become their stage names. And surely even Ian Fraser Kilmister’s mum called him Lemmy? Imagine if Eric Boucher had never changed his name to Jello Biafra. What if Harry Houdini had stuck with Erik Weisz? Would the world be the same? “What do you mean Robert Zombie’s real surname is Cummings?”



As far as profile-boosting name changes go, the most tragic case is obviously Norma Jeane Mortenson. Desperate to make an impact, she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and, ultimately, sold her soul to the Devil. You see, in Hollywood, not even Michael J. Fox’s "J" is real. His real middle name's Andrew. "J" just had more of a ring to it, I guess – now that’s attention to detail. Even Henry Rollins, born Henry Garfield, isn’t being totally straight with us.

Surprising fakers: Edward Louis Severson III (Eddie Vedder); Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas); Winona Horowitz (Winona Ryder). Surprising non-fakers: Prince Rogers Nelson (Prince);
Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel (Seal), Keith John Moon; Björk Guðmundsdóttir; Elvis Aaron Presley. Honourable mention: Stanley Kirk Burrell (MC Hammer); Robert Van Winkle (Vanilla Ice).

It’s a strange idea to get your head around. Actors and rock stars pretending to be other people pretending to be other people. Distancing themselves from their “normal” lives. At least in South Africa we can count on stars like Francois van Coke, Inge Beckmann, Chris Chameleon and Mandoza. Oh wait…

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