Creating not just one but multiple identities is something artists have been doing for centuries. For many, it’s more than just a stage name. Remember when The Beatles wanted to get rid of their mop-top boy band image and start to be taken seriously? That’s when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band showed up out of nowhere.
It was all about industry pressure for other artists, like when Simon & Garfunkel were told that their names were too “ethnic-sounding,” so they became “Tom And Jerry” for a while. But not all alter egos worked or were taken seriously. Take Garth Brooks’ rock star persona, Chris Gaines. Yeah, exactly. So, let’s look at some of the best (and worst) alter egos in music history.
Hank Williams, AKA Luke the Drifter
Whereas some music artists use alter egos as an excuse to behave in bizarre ways, country legend Hank Williams chose the moralistic route when he created his alter ego, Luke the Drifter. Williams was looking to promote good deeds and dispense some real wisdom. After establishing himself as a bona fide star, the public expected all his music to have a uniform “Hank Williams sound.”
So, he decided to create a new persona. As Luke the Drifter, he felt free to sing about more serious subjects – like societal wrongs – without fearing any backlash. He wrote and performed “talking blues” songs with thoughtful narrations or “recitations.” Of all 150 Hank Williams songs, only 14 were credited to Luke the Drifter, and none of them made the charts.
Britney Spears, AKA Mona Lisa
Everyone knows Britney Spears, but not too many know about her alter ego Mona Lisa’s brief use. Back in 2004, she released the song Mona Lisa to debut her new identity. She would use the name during her tour that year when she felt like being “bad” and more radical on stage.
Spears has spoken before about her need to adopt an on-stage persona as a way of combating her shyness. “Performing is a boost to my confidence,” she once said. “I think it’s an escape, because honestly with how shy I really am, I don’t think it’s healthy.” She called it an “alter-ego type thing” in which “something clicks,” and she turns into a different person. “I think it’s kind of a gift to be able to do that.”
Jim Morrison AKA the Lizard King
Another name Morrison went by was the Lizard King. After The Doors’ first album, they went back into the studio and recorded Strange Days (both came out in 1967). Having been interested in Native American folklore and American deserts, Morrison started calling himself the “Lizard King.”
The song Celebration of the Lizard, for example, was in reference to his reptilian persona. An overnight celebrity, Morrison found it difficult to handle his newfound fame and all the vices it brought with it. The Lizard King wasn’t Jim Morrison’s only alter ego, although it was his first. The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek blamed Morrison’s alcohol intake on his other, later alter ego, Jimbo.
Jim Morrison AKA Jimbo
“It was Jimbo – the alter-ego of Jim Morrison, that dark, Irish drunk – who took himself to Paris,” Manzarek stated. He also said that it was “Jimbo” who killed his friend Jim Morrison. “And I hate that Jimbo.” While Manzarek hated Jimbo, he loved Jim Morrison. Over the years, he likened the singer to a rock ‘n’ roll shaman, a spiritual frontman who could induce his audience into a trance.
Manzarek explained in his autobiography, Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, that Jimbo didn’t exist when they started the band. Morrison’s darker urges showed up and took over about two-thirds of the way through the band’s four-year run. Jimbo reveled in the sycophantic world of the ‘60s. Jimbo could do anything he wanted, wherever he wanted, and with whomever he wanted. And according to Manzarek, that was what killed him: “Success destroyed him.”
Christina Aguilera AKA Xtina
Christina Aguilera went through a transformation of her own back in 2001 when her album Stripped came out. That was when she fully committed to her alter ego Xtina, which resulted in her tattooing the name across the back of her neck. Xtina went hand in hand with the album (her lyrics: “waited a long time for like, feels right now/allow me to introduce myself”).
Xtina replaced her bubblegum, pop persona in favor of a more empowered and bold woman. Xtina was the first of her alter egos, and she seemed to have immersed herself into a new character with each album. Baby Jane was another persona she created in 2006.
Neil Young AKA Bernard Shakey
The legendary musician was Neil Young on the stage, but behind the camera, he took on another form in Bernard Shakey’s name. You see, Young had an alter ego in the film industry who was responsible for directing the films Journey Through The Past (1974), Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and Greendale (2003).
Young first exposed his hobby of filmmaking to the world when he was at the peak of his commercial success, after the 1972 album Harvest. It was when he had enough influence to get Warner Bros. to release Journey Through the Past. Why “Bernard Shakey” you ask? Apparently, it’s a reference to hisperiodic bouts with epilepsy.
Madonna AKA Esther/ Madame X
2004 was a strange year for Madonna (although she’s had many). The singer with decades of success (and perhaps boredom) began to promote her “new” religion Cabala, at the same time as she adopted an alter ego named Esther, in honor of the Jewish Queen from the Bible. But Esther didn’t hang around for too long.
Her most recent reinvention came in the form of Madame X, who was unveiled prior to the release of her single Medellin in 2019. Madonna is no stranger to reinvention and bringing something new to the party. But after a series of flaky personas, Madame X seems to be another fully-fledged alter ego – an updated and stronger version of her Erotica ego, Mistress Dita.
Paul McCartney AKA Percy Thrillington
After making the album Ram in 1971, Paul McCartney went ahead and produced a big-band instrumental version of the album, released in 1977. But the thing is, he released it under a mysterious moniker: Percy Thrillington. McCartney and his wife Linda invented the fictitious character and even took out ads in U.K. music papers announcing Percy Thrillington’s events.
They went so far as to fabricate a detailed backstory for Thrillington. McCartney stayed hush-hush about Thrillington’s identity until he finally let the cat out of the bag at a press conference in 1989. McCartney tended to use pseudonyms for his experimental side projects, including his electronica project with producer Youth (Martin Glover), which was credited to The Firemen.
Beyoncé, AKA Sasha Fierce
You would think that Beyonce is powerful enough that she wouldn’t need to create another persona. But this was back in 2008, which was after she already soared to new heights of pop greatness. With Sasha Fierce it allowed the singer an outlet for her “fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken” and “more glamorous side.”
Sasha Fierce made her debut on the double album aptly named I am… Sasha Fierce. Over the next few years, her alias empowered her singing, songwriting, and dancing, up until she ditched the alter ego in 2010 when she became a full-on feminist champion. (Who run the world? Girls.)
Eminem AKA Slim Shady
According to Eminem himself, Slim Shady says the things he can’t. He created his rapper alter ego to vent all of his frustrations as Marshall Mathers (his real name). He unleashed his anger, rapping about his family, fans, or even himself, and if anyone got upset, he could blame it on “Slim Shady.”
In the late ‘90s, Slim Shady stirred a lot of censorship controversy. Fans of the rapper can differentiate between Eminem songs (I’m Not Afraid and Rap God) and Slim Shady’s (My Name Is and Insane). The alter ego was ditched for a number of years, but he brought Shady back after his hiatus, although he wasn’t as edgy as the first time around.
Mariah Carey, AKA Bianca
Even Mariah Carey (who seemed unlikely to create an alter ego) dabbled with her own alias at one point in her career. No, this wasn’t The Emancipation of Mimi. There was a time when Carey referred to herself as Bianca. Carey’s arch-nemesis persona made her debut in 1999 with the Heartbreaker music video.
“We wanted to do me as the evil, you know, like the bad version of me,” Carey later explained. In 2016, to the surprise of her fans, Bianca made a comeback when she tweeted a photo of herself dressed up as the man-stealer persona from way back.
David Bowie AKA Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust in the early ‘70s, and whether he knew it would become a legend of its own isn’t clear. To this day, fans still flesh out Ziggy Stardust mythology through clues planted in the album of the same name. Ziggy’s first appearance was on the concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars.
It only makes sense that Bowie created the persona since he used the glam rock album to explore social taboos and sexual awakening. After all, at the center was a bisexual, alien rock star named Ziggy Stardust. The alias was the embodiment of Bowie’s androgynous look, rebellious instinct, and flamboyant fashion sense.
The Inspiration Behind Ziggy Stardust
Ziggy Stardust was a mix of different inspirations: the British singer Vince Taylor, who met Bowie after having suffered a breakdown when he believed he was a cross between an alien and a god. Bowie was also influenced by the godfather of punk Iggy Pop, the cult musician Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and Bowie’s personal costume designer Kansai Yamamoto.
Bowie was so invested in his alter ego that the line between his off-stage and on-stage personality became blurry after many performances. Bowie admitted that he began to doubt his sanity. Of all his alter egos, it seems as though Ziggy was the most formative and influential in Bowie’s life.
David Bowie AKA Aladdin Sane/ Thin White Duke/ Major Tom
Bowie created some other aliases throughout his career, including Arnold Corns, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, and the White Duke. Bowie might just have created and performed under more alter egos than anyone else in the music scene. After the literal insanity of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie swapped his alien persona for Aladdin Sane, a nastier side of himself that was apparently inspired by the dark decadence of America.
Then Bowie debuted his third persona, the one he called The Thin White Duke, who was a mad aristocrat who looked a lot like Bowie’s character Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Duke, however, brought along some controversy with him thanks to his controversial statements.
Janet Jackson AKA Damita Jo
Janet Jackson created an alter ego of her own that she unleashed in the mid-‘00s. Damita Jo popped up in 2004 in time for her eighth studio album. She chose the moniker because it’s actually her middle name, and she said that the album explored her alternate personalities.
“A songwriter is like a novelist,” Jackson said. “You invent characters. Because they’re born out of your brain, they reflect you. But good characters are independent of you and live lives of their own.” At least back then, she explained that Damita Jo “is definitely who I am today, in all her schizophrenic personalities.” (Not sure if she actually meant schizophrenic, but she used it.)
The Beatles AKA Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
After they decided to stop touring in 1966, the Beatles ditched their cookie-cutter suits and escaped the constraints of Beatlemania. They were looking to explore the endless potential that studio recording would and did offer. The result was the marching-band, uniform-wearing band alter ego, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In their new persona, the band produced what is often considered to be the most important album in rock ‘n’ roll history. The 1967 album of the same name came to symbolize an unrestrained counterculture that freely experimented with a new and fresh direction, not only for the band but for music in general. According to Paul McCartney, it allowed each of them to disregard any expectations and thus freed them to create something entirely original.
Jennifer Lopez, AKA Lola
Jennifer Lopez made a name for herself in the music world long before she became Jenny from the Block in the early ‘00s, but as the decade rolled on, she struggled to stay relevant and barely made the charts. Then, in 2009, she released the single Fresh Out the Oven, featuring Pit Bull, to give a teaser for her upcoming 2011 album Love?
Fresh Out the Oven was credited to Lola – an “artist” who came complete with her own website and even a Twitter account. But fans weren’t fooled seeing that J. Lo failed to make Lola sound any different from the Jennifer Lopez we knew. Despite the album flop, J. Lo has maintained her diva status over the years.
Prince AKA Camille
Prince spent his career challenging and evading socially enforced restrictions through his lyrics as well as his gender identity, which insisted on a combination of male and female signs for the better part of the ‘90s. His fans were (kind of) forced to call him the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
That’s the Prince most of us remember. But, before all that, Prince made an album in 1986 under Camille’s alter ego. Camille was said to have been inspired by the 19th-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin. The album in its entirety was never released, but the tracks, featuring Prince’s sped-up voice on tape, went public through other albums that only the most devoted fans can find.
Garth Brooks, AKA Chris Gaines
Garth Brooks, believe it or not, has now sold more records than any other solo artist. He dominated the ‘90s with his unique fusion of country and stadium rock. Brooks could do no wrong. Or so it seemed. But all artists make bad decisions from time to time.
There came a point in his career, in the late ‘90s, when he adopted an alter ego by the name of Chris Gaines. He was a dark-haired pop star who wore soul patches on his jean jacket. He only intended to introduce Gaines to his fans as a character he was planning to play in an upcoming movie.
The Mysterious, Moody Rock Star Version of Himself
The film was going to be called The Lamb (written by Jeb Stuart, the writer of Die Hard and The Fugitive). But… it was never released. Instead, what happened was this new Chris Gaines and the 1999 album, In the Life of Chris Gaines, just baffled his fans.
It also led to a series of generic pop songs that won only a slight portion of his fans’ hearts and ears. And so, the country sensation created his first flop. But it’s okay, Brooks, it happens to the best of us (and by “us,” I really mean famous people).
An Australian Accent, a Wig, and Eyeliner
Chris Gaines was pretty much the worst received alter ego on this list. The character was the lovechild of the ‘90s grunge and Brook’s desire to break new ground. Since the star was already ridiculously successful and wanted to experiment with rock ‘n’ roll, he felt the need to create a mysterious, moody rock star version of himself.
Brooks was so committed to this role that he developed an Australian accent, wore a wig and a soul patch, and even eyeliner to complement his dark wardrobe. And with that, he tossed out his classic cowboy look. He even performed on SNL in character.
Lady Gaga AKA Jo Calderone
Lady Gaga is basically an alter ego of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta’s (her real name), but as an alter ego within another alter ego, there was Jo Calderone. Gaga created Calderone for her track You And I, which opened the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards.
Gaga was committed to the alias, even talking to the press as Jo. Gaga later told V Magazine: “As I began to reckon with Jo, I found it important to excavate what he didn’t like about me, or rather, what I struggle with liking about myself.” She said she needed to imagine what the public expected of her and how she “might destroy this expectation in a variety of ways.”
Bono AKA the Fly / MacPhisto / Mirrorball Man
As the frontman of U2, Bono found himself in the realm of extreme fame. Adored for lyrics and vocals as well as for his human rights work, Bono is less remembered for his experimental days with alter egos. One was adopted during U2’s early ‘90s Zoo TV Tour. Of the three aliases he developed – the Fly, Mirrorball Man, and Mister MacPhisto – Mister MacPhisto was definitely the most outlandish.
The aging glam-rock devil, complete with red horns, a gold suit, and white makeup, raised more eyebrows than the Fly. The Fly was Bono’s stereotypical image of rock star, in which he draped himself in leather and wore his wrap-around glasses while parading around the stage like a narcissistic superstar. Then there was Mirrorball Man, a Texan televangelist in a silver suit and cowboy hat.
Tupac AKA Makaveli
What started out as a temporary alias transformed into one of the most notorious conspiracy theories in music history. Tupac was said to have become captivated by the 16th-century Florentine philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli when he read his prison work. He eventually took on the persona himself.
Makaveli debuted on the album All Eyez On Me and later came to life in 1996’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which was released posthumously after Tupac was shot and killed in Las Vegas. The album fueled rumors in following decades, suggesting that the rapper somehow survived the shooting and faked his own death – something Machiavelli claimed to do so in his political treatise The Prince.
Damon Albarn, AKA Murdoc
Damon Albarn made a name for himself as the Britpop band Blur’s frontman in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then, in 1998, he and his roommate/ comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett developed the most popular “virtual band” ever, the Gorillaz. Albarn created an alter ego called Murdoc – a zombie ape with an aging rock star’s body – the frontman of the Gorillaz.
The band is completely animated as the sole visual component of all their album covers, music videos, and concerts. What started out as a cartoon side project exploded into a chart-topping band. Their breakout single, Clint Eastwood, came out in 2001.
Miley Cyrus, AKA Hannah Montana
Today’s generation might not know that the now notoriously outlandish Miley Cyrus came to fame with the extremely wholesome Disney show Hannah Montana (2006 to ‘11). Cyrus starred as a teen pop sensation, making the show so successful that Disney amassed soundtracks and tours to capitalize on the fame.
Cyrus seemed to have done it backward while most alter egos develop after a star’s initial stardom. She used her alias Hannah Montana to earn the fan base and eventually came out as herself and simultaneously shocked both her fans and non-fans alike, leaving them in awe. In 2013, she went so far as to say on SNL that Hannah Montana had been “murdered.”
David Johansen AKA Buster Poindexter
David Johansen has been credited as partially responsible for creating the heavy metal look and the punk rock sound. He went from being the New York Dolls’ cross-dressing frontman to a latter-day Catskills lounge singer.
After the Dolls disbanded, Johansen abandoned the makeup and fishnet stockings in favor of a tuxedo to become lounge singer Buster Poindexter. In this way, he reinvented his career, which proved to be successful thanks to his cover of Hot Hot Hot, and the other records that followed. By 2004, however, Johansen got tired of the character and reunited with the New York Dolls.
Nicki Minaj AKA Roman Zolanski
Nicki Minaj has shown herself as a true chameleon in the hip-hop arena, wearing wig after wig and embodying multiple alter egos – each with its own backstory. There’s even a Wikipedia page to track them all. The most famous of them all (and Minaj’s personal favorite) is Roman Zolanski.
This particular alias of hers is a British, fast-talking, flamboyant gay man. After Zolanski appeared on Trey Songz’s hit Bottoms Up, the alter ego showed up on other singles, like Roman’s Revenge, Roman Holiday and Roman Reloaded. Minaj even created another alter ego – Martha Zolanski – Roman’s mother.
Kevin Barnes AKA Georgie Fruit
Kevin Barnes’s band, Of Montreal, has gone from folk to a psychedelic funk-pop fusion over the years, which is partly due to a character named George Fruit – the 40-something, Black transgender man who transitioned from man to woman and back to man and led a ’70s funk band named Arousal.
Barnes’s alter ego made his debut on the band’s most personal album of theirs called Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer (2007). Barnes explained that even though George was so different, he was still able to connect with his arrogant and less-compassionate alter ego. It allowed him to be more liberal on stage (like performing in only makeup and riding on the back of a white stallion on stage).
George Clinton AKA Starchild/ Dr. Funkenstein/ Mr. Wiggles
George Clinton didn’t just create alter egos – he made a whole universe with his P-Funk mythology that paved the way for “Afrofuturism.” Both of Clinton’s original bands, Funkadelic and Parliament, included galactic-themed dancers, costumes, and a spaceship on stage.
His obsession with science fiction manifested into the characters of Starchild (inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Doctor Funkenstein (inspired by his fascination with cloning). Other alter egos included Mr. Wiggles, the rapping underwater DJ, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, Lollipop Man, and many others.
Snoop Dogg, AKA Snoop Lion
Snoop Dogg came a long way from his early days as Snoop Doggy Dogg. To this day, he’s one of the most successful living rappers to have come out of the ’90s. Then, in 2013, Snoop had people scratching their heads in wonder when they were introduced to his new persona: Snoop Lion.
Snoop Lion showed up on the release of Snoop’s 12th album, Reincarnated. Why? “I wanted to make songs about the life I’m living now as a father and as a 41-year-old man, as opposed to always talking about my childhood and upbringing… the gangstas, the drug dealers,” Snoop told The Guardian.
Katy Perry AKA Kathy Beth Terry
Katy Perry has a big enough personality on her own, but she’s yet another pop star who felt the need to create a different persona to resonate with her fans. Back in 2011, with her hit Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), the world got to set its eyes on Kathy Beth Terry.
This alter ego was a lot younger than her. The 13-year-old 8th-grader was a fan of Skip It and wears clothes from the ’80s, including headgear. Katy Perry introduced her alias Kathy to her fans on Facebook, posting, “Sasha Fierce is to Beyonce as @kathybethterry is to me. Yes, my alter ego has been born.”
Justin Bieber, AKA Shawty Mane
Whether you’re a Belieber or not, Justin Bieber manages to find a way to stay in the headlines. But as of late, we see him in the media more because of his relationships and less because of his actual music. In the early 2010s, Bieber was in the news thanks to his then-budding rap career as rapper Shawty Mane.
After he debuted a video of himself rapping over the Cam’Ron and Vado song Speaking in Tongues, Bieber landed verses on Chris Brown and Asher Roth singles. “I just do it for fun, but nothing serious. I don’t think people would take me seriously if I came out with, like, a rap album,” he admitted to XXL in 2011.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley: Buckshot La Funke
In 1957, alto saxophone player Buckshot La Funke appeared on a recording by Blue Note, but he had the unmistakable sound of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who was legally signed to Mercury Records at the time. Cannonball went on to inspire another alter-ego: the hip-hop jazz group Buckshot LeFonque (by musician Branford Marsalis).
Adderley was by no means alone. Others include Charlie Parker as Charlie Chan, Trumpeter Fats Navarro appearing as Slim Romero, Eric Dolphy creating George Lane, Antonio Carlos Jobim as Tony Brazil, and many others.
Brian Warner AKA Marilyn Manson
Marilyn Manson seems to never be out of character. He’s been a Goth rocker to the public for so long that probably he himself doesn’t know who he is anymore. It’s too easy to forget that beneath all the strangeness, there’s a real person underneath.
His real name is Brian Warner, and he started the whole gig when he formed the band Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids in 1989. The name was meant to portray a juxtaposition between two ’60s icons: Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson. He explained to Rolling Stone in 1997: “There are two things that Marilyn Manson has been designed to do… to speak to the people who understand it and to scare the people who don’t.”
T.I. AKA T.I.P.
Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr. (his real name) didn’t think too much outside of the box when he came up with the name for his alter ego. But regardless, his mildly successful alias showed up and moved more than 1.5 million units. The reviews were mixed, though.
The rapper told MTV: “Sometimes people might see me act a certain way one time and another way one other time. They might not believe the same cat you see dressed so sharp and winning awards and speaking eloquently is the same cat you see fist-fighting with hoodlums outside a nightclub. This album will be an explanation of all of this.”
An Age-Old Practice
Artists have been creating identities for centuries. Take 19th-century composer Robert Schumann, for example. He knew that his personality had manic tendencies. In his early 20s, he created two characters for his inner dialogue. The first was Florestan, the passionate, rebellious, and wildly energetic one.
The second was Eusebius, the orderly, quiet, and introspective one. Schumann wrote about how the two characters inspired different moments in his music. There were also 20th-century jazz musicians whose record contracts tended to bury exclusivity clauses in the fine print. If a musician wanted to work a gig elsewhere, he or she had to do it under a pseudonym.
From Genre to Genre
A common use for alter egos is for artists to introduce their fans to a dramatically different musical style, attitude, and appearance. We mostly see it pop music, where artists reinvent themselves, usually from album to album.
Something fascinating about these alter egos is that they appear in every style of music. Even metal bands like Gwar and Slipknot have built their careers around masked characters and dramatic, even gruesome costumes, with the lyrics and interview footage to match. Sometimes, these alter egos are ways to expose who they truly are, as in the case of Miley Cyrus.