What do you wear to a date with a Lady Gaga impersonator?
While getting ready to meet Renee Cole I contemplate whether it’s better to dress in homage to Gaga–maybe revisit my tiny hat obsession from last year–or whether I should try to be as invisible as possible. In the end I opt for comfort–flannel shirt, jeggings, mid-calf boots. Call it personal assistant chic. And really, any attempt to match would have fallen flat in the face of Cole’s Gaga.
Cole, 27, is an actor. She grew up in Maine and until recently, supplemented her acting income by selling lobster rolls for the Red Hook Lobster Pound. Now she makes a living impersonating Lady Gaga in and around New York City. She’s a skinny girl, and you have to be to sport Gaga’s fashion convincingly, with corn-blonde hair and a wide, toothy smile. During the day that I spent with Cole I watched a little girl in a hotel lobby break down in tears upon seeing her, screaming and running around telling everyone that Gaga was there.
Cole got into the impersonating business by accident. She entered a look-a-like contest on a whim to win tickets to a Gaga concert. She changed into her homemade costume in Central Park, and paparazzi nearby started snapping pictures and crowding her, thinking she was the real Gaga. They followed her to the contest, which she won. The pictures on Getty Images and the general media coverage of the event led to offers from agents, and now Cole books at least three events a week, often that many in a single day.
She does fewer gay events than you’d imagine, and gets a lot of love from the elderly. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Sweet Sixteens are her bread and butter.
Cole not only poses as Gaga, she performs as her too. She’s been singing since she was eight years old, and when she’s herself, she favors Broadway tunes over pop music. She copies moves from Gaga’s music videos and live performances, and enlists her dancer friends as backup. On her site, videos of her performances at a massive Ohio Bar Mitzvah could easily be mistaken for the real thing. Ultimately, her dream job is as a performer on Saturday Night Live.
I meet Cole in the elevator bay, of the hotel where her gig is. She’s working for Carrafina Bridal by Carrie Kerns–the designer has hired her to entertain buyers. We head to a suite filled with sample dresses and accessories and we’re both transfixed on a jeweled camouflage belt that we’re told is popular among Army brides. As buyers select dresses for their shops, Cole “Gaga Approves” their choices and poses for pictures.
Cole’s outfit is very “Bride of Gaga.” She has fishnet stockings clipped to her bra, and she’s cut a vintage dress into a sort of skirt that is pinned around her waist with a diamond brooch. She has on fingerless lace gloves, as many rings as she has fingers, a large black hat with a veil that goes down to her waist, all black except for the small tuft of white tulle at the top.
At 6pm, check in hand, we leave the hotel and head out in search of a bar, me carrying her bag to promote the Gaga illusion. As we walk through one of Manhattan’s omnipresent street fairs the whispers start. At first I think people are just noticing that she’s not really wearing pants, but then a group of boys starts shouting “Gaga! Yeah!” Still, no one actually comes up to us or starts interacting with her as if they believe she’s actually the pop star. We wonder if it’s because Halloween is so close, or if New Yorkers see so many people in outlandish outfits that it’s she’s not far enough outside the realm of normal.
Her boyfriend is hanging out at a Brooklyn bar near both our apartments, so we try a first for Cole–riding the subway in Gaga getup. Usually she changes in and out of her outfits before leaving a venue, able to sneak away unnoticed when minutes before she’d been mobbed.
With so many different looks to choose from, I wonder how Cole picks her Gaga outfits. “I wait to see how long she’s going to rock a style before I invest in things,” she said. “My outfits are ‘inspired by,’ mostly. I do have a few replicas, but you don’t want it to look like it’s a costume. I make most everything myself.”
Lest you think her gig is as glamorous as Gaga’s, it’s not like Cole is being chauffeured around in a limousine with all that that tulle and glitter. “I take the Long Island Railroad and I take the Metro North with my giant bag of costumes,” said Cole. “I schlep out for two or three hours, I go into the bathroom and Clark Kent.”
There are other challenges inherent to her line of work. “At Lincoln Center during Fashion Week I did an event and all the paparazzi were there,” Cole recalled. “There was a woman, it was her 70th birthday, she loves Gaga, and she came up to me in tears. I took pictures with them and I didn’t really say too much because I felt bad. If they straight out ask me if I’m Gaga I never say yes, there are legal issues with that.” Safety is also a concern. “If I’m out and there’s paparazzi it can turn into a mob scene. I can’t walk and they grab my arm asking for pictures. I have no security.”
As we descend the escalator into Grand Central Terminal, a man taking photos of his friend tries to casually angle his camera and take a few snaps of us unnoticed, but it’s obvious. We end up on the 4-5-6 platform with a group of tween tourists who all whisper. We get a seat on the train and the first person to call her Gaga is a street salesman toting home his unsold purses from the day. His friend turns around and when Cole says hello, he proclaims, “Oh that’s not Gaga, Gaga wouldn’t say hello!” When the train lets off at 14th Street a pretty boy leans close and murmurs, “You look uncannily like Lady Gaga” with a wink before departing.
Brooklyn is much the same as the Manhattan streets, silent stares. One parent says to her child once they pass, “Did you see Lady Gaga?!” People are more focused on getting in and out of Trader Joe’s quickly than on the maybe-celebrity in their midst. We settle into The Brazen Head with little fanfare.
Cole heads to the bathroom to change. When she re-emerges she seems demure, her natural hair short and pulled up. She’d do a better Tori Spelling sans costume, but when I tell her this she says Spelling isn’t in demand.
“For now I think I’ll stick with Gaga because she’s fun, and maybe transition into doing some Madonna,” Cole said.
Cole may soon be able to parlay her impersonation business into a full role. Lifetime is casting a Lady Gaga movie and she has auditioned for the part. “I guess one of the people I work with sent my photos to the producers,” she said, sipping her wine. “They’re casting young Gaga, NYU Gaga–from when she is starting out to Poker Face. I did my best, so fingers crossed.” If that fails, Cole muses that she could be Gaga’s stand-in on tour, a paparazzi distraction.
Before we part ways I ask Cole if there are any requests that she just won’t fulfill. Without hesitation she answers, the meat dress. “That’s the one thing people always ask me–where is your meat dress? I just don’t think she’d wear it out and about, but it’s sought after for parties,” she laughed.