Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I was once hired to be a stand-in and photo double for WWE’s Stephanie McMahon on a soft drink commercial. Due to a confidentiality clause, I wasn’t even told who the principal actress was until I arrived on set that day. Aside from our skin tone and matching brown wavy hair, I nervously realized I may not have been the best choice.
This became further apparent when the shoot ran long and she had to leave, which meant that I had to appear in the final over-the-shoulder camera setups. The wardrobe department stuffed the shoulder of my dress with more tissues than I used in my bra in middle school to make it appear like I had a deltoid and trapezius (first time I even knew I HAD a trapezius) remotely comparable to hers.
Most of us on set traded looks and suppressed our laughter while the director kept asking the camera operator to change the focus and the wardrobe assistants to adjust the cluster of tissues so my fake muscle would look “real;” at one point, they resorted to trying crumpled notebook paper. And like I always did, I thought about whether my younger self would have been disappointed by the lack of glamour, or fascinated by my weird, mostly behind-the-scenes role.
All those years ago, I really wanted to be an actress. It even says so in my 8th grade yearbook caption, under an unfortunate picture of me in a bizarre, homemade-looking (not in a good way) vest and a perm for which Elle Woods would have said I didn’t have the bone structure. But back then when I auditioned for every possible drama club or musical, it had never been born out of a genuine love of performing, but the relief of disappearing into being someone else, even for a brief time. I lacked so much self-confidence during those years and was so often made to feel inferior by the so-called popular kids that the opportunity to escape into a character is what kept me going. I could be among the other misfit oddballs who didn’t quite fit into the superficial social order. They wanted to be someone else for accolades and applause, while I just wanted to be someone else.
I found my way back to those feelings in my late 20s after getting laid off from a corporate job (by an inappropriate and sexist boss) after steadily building a career as a sales executive. It seemed fitting that when my confidence had again taken a brutal hit, I’d somehow ended up back in the same kind of place that would allow me to hide in plain sight. Except this time, as a stand-in, I had all of the ideal aspects of disappearing without any of the risks of actually performing.
Before I became a full-time stand-in for actresses in television and film, I was initially hired as a photo double, or what most people would call a body double. I would arrive on set, have my nails painted to match a particular actress’, sometimes be put in a wig, and always don the designer clothes that had been worn in the pieces of the scenes that we were recreating. Every body double or photo double is used in a different way, but my purpose was primarily to save time and money for what’s called insert shots. Often after the principal photography of a television episode has been completed and in the editing phase, it’s decided if tight close-up shots of an object or action are warranted for instances like a character picking up and examining a business card, or writing a letter, or even sexily playing footsie under a table. Instead of tasking the actors with this, they could pay doubles who match their skin tone a far smaller amount of money — except in the case of nudity — to assist in completing these scenes while principal photography for the new episode can simultaneously be in full swing. It’s often employed as the most efficient way to avoid losing time or money.
I was comforted by this routine that required little more of me than that I arrive on time. The hair and makeup department did my hair, approved my nails, and gave me lotion for my arms or legs. The wardrobe department would explain which piece was for which scene. The props department would supply me with any items I’d need.
Maybe I was briskly walking down a hallway in Gucci heels, or reaching for a file at the conference table in an Escada blazer, or hugging another double who, like me, was outfitted in a sleek Armani suit. Every time I worked, I’d find my assigned dressing room morphed into a paradise of Jason Wu, Narciso Rodriguez, Derek Lam. The sweaters were Donna Karan, not marked-down DKNY; the suits were Elie Tahari, not Century 21 Tahari. Sometimes my job consisted of answering a phone, or reaching for a door knob, or slamming a file down on a conference table. Often it was as simple as a tight close-up of me wearing a guest star’s impeccable Antonio Berardi or Michael Kors suit while holding a photograph that was important for viewers to see. Other times I was nothing more than a glimpse of a naked back in an indie film, or a shoulder and wisp of Katie Holmes’ hair, or Brooke Shields’ hand on a La-Z-Boy couch.
It was intoxicating: the decadence of the fashion I could never afford, the prices I would Google and gasp at on the sly so I didn’t seem like such a novice. Even a head-to-toe H&M outfit was a thrill, considering it was economical to wear when I’d be doused in corn syrup while pretending to lie dead in a park under the Queensboro Bridge. I slipped into each piece hungrily, gratefully embracing these characters and their beautiful hammered silk blouses or impeccably draped suits, desperate to avoid my unfamiliar chaotic life that felt unstable without a standard 9-to-5 office job.
Because once again I was that awkward kid counting the minutes in math class before the final bell rang and I could sprint down the hallway for play rehearsal, away from people who preyed on my insecurities and toward the place that felt welcoming. But this time, my future was uncertain and somewhat aimless. A stand-in/body double position was paying my bills and affording me health insurance, but unlike my corporate job, I initially couldn’t see a clear path for how to elevate to a higher position, or even what that career might look like. It was a standalone job tied to the reality that a show can always be canceled and a film, at some point, will always wrap.
It would be here, in this industry that had become my hiding place, that I would draw parallels to these characters from my own life. I’d admire the strong characteristics of these people whose clothes I inhabited for a brief period of time and wish that I could embody their self-assuredness (as well as their impressive wardrobes). I’d gradually accept that in all the time I had devoted to working in sales, I had never truly enjoyed it, and that while the film industry had at first been little more than a safe haven in which to dust myself off, I’d come to love being behind the scenes.
But as seasons went by on one show where I was a regular stand-in (you may have heard of it), I realized the most common question I got was about what I was going to do when the series finally ended. It was never posed as if my options were endless, but rather “Who will you stand in for next?” or “Will one of these actresses take you onto another project?” It occurred to me that staying in this job for so long sent the message that I didn’t want to move on to anything greater than this type of role. I was dutifully showing up and doing my job with a smile every day, so they all drew the only logical conclusion.
This job had trained me to be attuned to everyone else’s needs. I was there for the actors, the camera operator and director of photography who relied on my precision and attention to detail, the sound department who needed to know exactly when a line of dialogue would be spoken. Every aspect of what I did on a daily basis was a small contribution in the collaborative process of making a television show, and I understood the parameters of my role. But I finally wanted more than to exist as someone’s shadow. Actors had the satisfaction of watching themselves give a great performance on screen, but so much standing still had made me anxious to figure out how to move forward. Instead of mimicking someone else’s abilities, I wanted to discover my own. I wanted to do something that challenged me, made me work hard, and feel more accomplished than posting a cute selfie wearing Alexander McQueen or Proenza Schouler. I wanted to map out a future.
So I began studying the scripts more closely and paying attention to how shots were set up. I took notes and applied them to story ideas I had. I built my writing résumé by writing pitches during lunch breaks and, when accepted, fleshing them out on the train ride home, sometimes after 13 hours of shooting. I was exhausted all the time but I felt motivated, inspired and proud of my work, and like I was creating a plan with forward momentum for myself, instead of waiting idly by for my circumstances to change.
On the last day that I worked as a double, I changed in and out of countless beautiful outfits as usual. I waited for the familiar rush of putting on someone’s else’s clothes and discarding my own life for a little while. The pencil skirts still hugged my hips the right way, I loved the zippered blazers with their structured clean lines, I slipped on the Gucci heels that had always been a half-size too big. But for the first time, it didn’t bother me that they didn’t quite fit. Because it was the first time in a long time that I didn’t want to be someone else.