What’s in a name: some thoughts on alter egos

Written by Amy Do, a student at UBC and an assistant junior researcher on the Terry Podcast. She was inspired by the theme of rebranding.

Since the Internet, creating a different name or identity for oneself has become so easy, common and useful. They’re often an experiment by artists to explore themselves in a different genre or theme. Some of the experiments on alter egos have helped artists gain fame, and many have been less successful than expected. Here are some of my favourite alter egos.

1. Slim Shady/Eminem/Marshal Mathers

Hardly anyone knew of Eminem in 1996 when he released his debut album “Infinite, but when Slim Shady rapped about screwing the world and killing his wife in 1999, he sky-rocketed to instant fame. His violent, misogynistic and homophobic alter ego was so successful that even Eminem had to admit it in his 2002 single “Without Me”: “I’ve created a monster, ’cause nobody wants to see Marshall no more they want Shady, I’m chopped liver.” With “The Slim Shady LP”, Eminem introduced to the world a white rapper and made mainstream the rap genre “horrorcore”, landing himself a Grammy nomination and the 273th spot on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”  Slim Shady is the angry voice of a poverty-stricken and bullied Mathers, and arguably the voice of many bullied teenagers out there resenting their parents and the system, and of the many people resenting their own lives.

2. Chris Gaines/Garth Brooks

Garth Brooks also chose an alter ego, rock and roller Chris Gaines, for reasons complete dissimilar to the Wu-Tang Clan. Despite having one of the most successful careers in popular music, Brooks departed from his well-known country music career to explore a very different genre. Perhaps Garth Brooks wanted to be a completely new person to prove that his popularity is based on his real talents. To promote his image as Chris Gaines, he appeared in the mockumentary for the series “Behind the Music” and appeared as a guest on Saturday Night Live. The album “In the Life of Chris Gaines” debuted on number 2 on the US pop chart, but was much less successful than Garth Brooks’ albums at the time. Therefore, the Chris Gaines project ended in 2001 and slowly faded to obscurity.

3. Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling

JK Rowling  wanted to go “undercover” for her new detective novel, and create a work that would be enjoyed on its own merit rather than using her fame to promote it. Starting from the bottom up, as the anonymous Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling book sold a decent 8500 copies before Rowling was revealed in the third week of July.

Quickly afterwards, book sales shot up to over 17 000 in late July. How dismaying for Rowling to be revealed. Chapters had to put up a sign next to their display of “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, reminding shoppers that genius J. K. Rowling wrote the book

4. George Eliot/Mary Anne Evans

Or maybe a fake name can lend you credibility. Mary Anne Evans probably chose a man’s name to avoid sexist backlash. The Brontë sisters did the same, going by the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell—literature was still considered a man’s business. Evans created the masterpiece Middlemarch under the penname, George Eliot. Middlemarch has been hailed as one of the best English novels (Grossman, Lev (15 January 2007). “The 10 Greatest Books of All Time”. Time. Retrieved 5 October 2013), achieving great popularity upon its release and remains one of the most critically-acclaimed English-language novels years later (“BBC – The Big Read”. BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 5 October 2013),

In the end, “what’s in a name?” Some have fake names to gain fame, hide from fame or simply a means of avoiding cultural prejudice. Whatever the reason, alter egos and fake names have been employed throughout history, with success and failure. Perhaps we will never grow out of that childhood hobby of playing dress up, revelling in taking on personality other than the one we claim for ourselves.


To hear some other perspectives on identity and reinvention, check out the Terry Podcast # 24: Rebranding. 

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