For the last 17 years, Bernard Golden has been living with a secret identity. By night he may be an unassuming security guard at Netflix’s office in Los Angeles but by day crowds of shy children and laughing adults gather around him on Hollywood Boulevard to pose for photos and exchange a few high-pitched words. All it takes is for Bernard to pull on his bright yellow costume and he’s transformed.
He is no longer Bernard Golden. He’s SpongeBob SquarePants.
He’s not alone. Take a stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on any given day and you’ll see a whole host of impersonators dressed as superheroes, villains, monsters and cartoon characters. In front of the Hollywood & Highland mall, where the Oscars are held, you might spot Chewbacca chatting to Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Meanwhile, around a corner away from the main drag, Superman keeps watch as Spiderman pulls up his mask and counts the fistful of fives and dollar bills he’s collected that morning. It’s all part of what makes Hollywood Hollywood, a cracked reflection of the silver screen, but working only for the tips they receive from photos makes life as an impersonator a precarious existence.
For Bernard, it all started in 2002. At the time he was borrowing money from a man named Don Hopper who suggested that becoming an impersonator was a good way to earn some quick cash. Don even claimed that he’d personally made the equivalent of union wages by dressing as SpongeBob or Elmo from Sesame Street. Bernard was unconvinced. “I said to him: ‘You lyin’!’” he recalls. “‘You guys are out here bummin!’ You’re just pan-handling. You ain’t making no kind of money like that.’”
Still, Bernard was running short of options. He agreed to go out dressed as Elmo and soon he was making better money than his mentor. Don demanded they switch costumes, and for the first time Bernard became SpongeBob. “I didn’t know anything about the critter,” he says. “I’d never watched his show. I just made up a voice to fit the character and without realizing it, I sounded exactly like him! It was the kids who wanted pictures who told me what to say. They told me about ‘Bikini Bottom’ and ‘Krabby Patties’. They would teach me how to say these phrases, then I’d add on more words of my own.”
"I’d never watched his show. I just made up a voice to fit the character."
Bernard gleefully admits that one of the things he likes about the job is being able to “say things you couldn’t say in person without getting knocked the hell out,” but this attitude has occasionally gotten him into trouble. In 2011 he was involved in a fight with two women which ended up being broadcast on TMZ. “I was joking on them so they wanted to beat me up, kick me and tear up my costume,” he says. “That was a bad experience, but there have been good ones too. I got to be on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show, and I’ve been in a lot of music videos. I have a great time.”
A little further along Hollywood Boulevard I spot the terrifying figure of Freddy Krueger beckoning me towards him with his razor-tipped fingers. In conversation, however, he couldn’t be more charming, although he declines to tell me his real name. “Can I keep it as Freddy?” he asks. “Freddy is connected to good things. My other name, it’s a different life. I’d rather be Freddy.”
"He always scared me when I was little, so now it’s like I’ve become my fears."
While the majority of impersonators portray “good guys”, there are a handful of villains and monsters as well. “He always scared me when I was little, so now it’s like I’ve become my fears,” Freddy tells me. “It's like entering a different world. When I walk around normally nobody talks to me but when I do this I'm connected with everyone.”
For Freddy, this is a full-time gig, and he says he’s been working eight hour days for the last 10 years. “If it’s busy and I’m getting some money then I’ll do more,” he says. “I used to say I make minimum wage, but the minimum wage has gone up! It’s around that. I make a normal living.”
In front of the famous Chinese Theatre I meet two more impersonators who are working together, a lightsaber-wielding Jedi named Master Yeo and a Black Panther whose real name is Jeffrey. “We became friends here,” Yeo tells me with a broad smile. “When you have superpowers you have to create an alliance.”
"We make movies come to life."
Despite representing characters from two of the world’s biggest movie franchises, Yeo says they’ve never had to worry about claims of copyright infringement from the studios. None of the impersonators I speak to have. “I think they come here and see that we’re great representatives,” says Yeo. Jeffrey adds that he thinks this is because they take their responsibility to the fans seriously. “We make movies come to life,” he says. “It’s very delicate how kids are out here. They’ve seen the movie and then they see you for the first time in real life. You have to give them a good time. The best moments are when you see the kid come out of a grown man.”
That sense of giving yourself a walk-on role in the Hollywood dream still attracts new impersonators to the Boulevard. Elisabeth Turner moved to Los Angeles this summer, and when I meet her it’s just her third day as Ariel from The Little Mermaid. “I trained as an actor and a singer, so I want to work in films,” she says. “I came here because I’m doing a petition to Disney: ‘Elisabeth for Ariel.’”
"When you come out here people don't see what’s in your brain."
There are noticeably more male impersonators than female ones, and given Elisabeth’s experiences in the short time she’s been here it’s easy to see why. “Someone called me fat and ugly,” she says. “They said that I'm fatter and uglier than the actual Little Mermaid. As a girl I think it's easier to get laughed at than it is for the men. I'm a reader and I went to school, but when you come out here people don't see what’s in your brain.”
Despite these bad experiences Elisabeth says she won’t be discouraged. Like all the other characters out here on Hollywood Boulevard she’s going to keep playing the part she’s cast herself in. Next week she plans to return with a speaker so her voice can he heard too. “I’m going to sing ‘Part Of Your World’ [from The Little Mermaid] and some other Disney songs,” she says. “I do lots of songs about dreams and becoming part of something bigger than yourself.”