It’s good to finally be the king

Professional impersonators of Britain’s new monarch gain popularity after years of struggling

By Jenny Gross

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Ian Lieber, left, and Charles Haslett in London . Both impersonate King Charles III and have seen increased interest in their services. (Hayley Benoit/The New York Times)
Ian Lieber, left, and Charles Haslett in London . Both impersonate King Charles III and have seen increased interest in their services. (Hayley Benoit/The New York Times)

Published: Thu 30 Mar 2023, 4:27 PM

In the days after Queen Elizabeth II’s death last year, Charles Haslett, 66, along with many other Britons, was overcome with sadness. But he didn’t have much time to linger on those feelings.

“I felt a weight of responsibility,” Haslett said. “The time has come.”

Haslett, a longtime impersonator of the queen’s eldest son, Charles, spent more than £5,000 (about $6,200) “getting myself to be more kinglike than I was,” he said. That involved buying a made-to-order toupee of gray hair, as well as two double-breasted suits and a gold signet ring in the same style as the one worn by the new monarch, King Charles III. Haslett also ordered modelling clay to make his ears stick out just like the king’s.

As the king, 74, is settling into his new role, so are those who bear a strong resemblance to His Majesty and impersonate him at fundraising events, raffles, coronation celebrations and corporate parties. After years of struggling to get bookings, Charles look-alikes said they were loving their newfound limelight.

Guy Ingle, 62, another longtime Charles impersonator, said he used to play second fiddle to Queen Elizabeth look-alikes, standing in the background at events. “None of these queens had any talent,” he said. “It was very frustrating.”

To make matters worse, he added, imitators of Charles’ son Prince William and his wife, Catherine, always had a lot more work than Charles doubles.

These days, however, Ingle said he has been overwhelmed by the number of people who want to hire him. “I was surprised I had so much work coming in so soon after Her Majesty passed away,” he said, as he walked into the Queen’s Head, a pub in Ampthill, his hometown, about 50 miles northwest of London. “The dilemma is which ones do you do?”

Ingle has 12 bookings this spring and said his rates have doubled since Charles ascended the throne in September. (He declined to discuss how much he makes but said he once earned about £800 for an appearance at a party celebrating the opening of a new terminal at Heathrow Airport.)

Another Charles look-alike, Ian Lieber, a retired interior designer, recently signed up with an agent. After decades of being approached by strangers who mistook him for Charles, Lieber, 81, said he thought he might as well go professional. “It’s just lifting you into a world of fantasy, really,” he said, noting that he has one booking for an appearance at a corporate luncheon, and some other potential opportunities, including an appearance at a bar mitzvah.

In past years, even as requests rolled in for impersonators of other royals, there was little demand for Charles doubles, said Susan Scott, an agent for look-alikes. “They had a long wait,” she said.

Haslett chalked up the low demand to Charles not being “as squeaky clean” as his mother, a reference to his turbulent marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, and his infidelity. More recently, a report found that one of his charities had accepted a donation of £1 million from the family of Osama bin Laden.

Charles, who was first in line to the throne for longer than anyone in the history of the British monarchy, has not achieved the same popularity as the beloved queen. Just over half of the British public has a favourable opinion of Charles, who is less popular than his sister, Princess Anne, and his son and daughter-in-law William and Catherine, according to a January poll of 1,000 British adults by Ipsos. (The king’s disgraced younger brother, Prince Andrew, his younger son, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, were the least popular members of the royal family according to the survey, which was conducted after the publication of Harry’s tell-all memoir, “Spare.”)

Scott, the look-alike agent, said the negative publicity surrounding Harry could actually benefit Charles, and therefore Charles look-alikes. “When you look at the rest of them, he could be the best bet.”

Charles’ coronation will take place at Westminster Abbey on May 6, the start of a long holiday weekend in Britain. Just like during the queen’s coronation 70 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to throng to the streets of London. The event in 1953 was “a spectacle, breathtaking in its magnitude and brilliance,” according to a front-page dispatch in The New York Times. Before the coronation, transport officials set up a special bus service that gave royal fans a tour of the decorations around town for a shilling and six pence, or 21 cents at the time.

As Charles and Charles look-alikes prepare for the coronation, queen imitators are realising that the demand for them may be over — in contrast to the seemingly everlasting demand for Elvis Presley impersonators, who are still performing long after the singer’s death.

One queen look-alike, Jeanette Vane, was still open to working, said Scott, her agent. “She misses it terribly,” Scott said.

Another queen look-alike, Mary Reynolds, is retiring out of respect for the queen, after 50 years of impersonating her. (Her last event was in Zurich just a few weeks before the queen died.) Reynolds, 89, said she turned down a booking at Fortnum & Mason, the storied London tea emporium, a few months after the queen’s death. The store booked Ingle as Charles instead.

Reynolds said she has instead focused on helping with the royal transition, giving wardrobe tips to a woman who impersonates Camilla, Charles’ wife. “Even with the look-alikes, it’s sort of like a family,” Reynolds said.

Simon Watkinson, a William impersonator, said that as soon as he heard the news about the queen, he called Reynolds to share condolences. “We’re quite close, the royal look-alike family, because we do so many jobs together,” he said.

Watkinson, an engineer from Australia, said he became a professional imitator after people constantly stopped him on the streets of London thinking he was William.

One of the potentially awkward parts of being a look-alike is running into the real thing. For Haslett, this happened 24 years ago, at an event at a London theater for Charles’ 50th birthday. Haslett was hired to be a Charles double in the audience while Charles made a surprise appearance onstage.

Backstage after the show, Haslett approached the real prince, who said, “‘You’re just here to get information for your act, aren’t you?’” Haslett replied, “Yes sir, exactly.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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