Getting along famously


NAMESAKES:Mary Harney welcomes the attention, but Graham Norton is very annoyed. People who share their names with celebrities have mixed experiences, writes MARK O'CONNELL

MAY BE the world’s most promiscuous stalker. In the last couple of days, I’ve left a rambling but scrupulously polite voicemail on Naomi Campbell’s phone, sent a Facebook message to Bertie Ahern and emailed Mohammed Ali (all to no avail). I’ve also chatted with Colin Farrell and Mary Harney, had a slightly stilted conversation with an unexpectedly reserved Graham Norton and - I think most impressively of all - a pleasant and informative talk with Michael Jackson. The latter, it turns out, is alive and well and running a successful pottery business just outside Kilkenny. It’s amazing the people you can track down if you’ve got a phone book, an internet connection and too much time on your hands.

Admittedly, none of these people are themselves famous, but their names certainly are. They are members of a small and, many would say, ill-fated group of regular people who happen to have the same name as a celebrity. It is, when you think about it, among the most quietly absurd things that can happen to a person. You are going through life with a perfectly unremarkable name, minding your own business when, out of nowhere, someone who happens to share that perfectly unremarkable name becomes a major celebrity, thereby casting an inescapable shadow over you and your identity. You can no longer be introduced to people at parties without being subjected to any number of reactions, from the wary to the amused to the outright incredulous. Never again will you be able to call up your bank or your internet service provider without having to clarify that, no, you are not in fact that Jim Corr or that Hillary Clinton. Your name is no longer your own.

Last month, several different women named Kate Middleton, none of whom is engaged to a future king of England, had their Facebook profiles deactivated on account of the social networking site’s policy against people using fake identities, and its apparent inability to accept that more than one person might share the same fairly ordinary name. One of the Kates has even set up a Facebook group for wrongfully-accused Middleton impostors.

It’s easy to imagine the plight of these ordinary people as a kind of Kafkaesque farce, a grim comedy of confounded identities and self-alienation. But when I actually pick up the phone in order to pry directly into some of these strangers’ experiences with their famous names, most of them seem to take it with varying degrees of good humour. The aforementioned Mary Harney runs, of all things, a health and safety consultancy firm in Cork. Unexpectedly, she sees it as a blessing that she shares her name with the almost universally unpopular former health minister.

She is, in fact, a huge admirer, and has even met her a couple of times and had her photograph taken with her. “I’m proud to have the name,” she says. “As another woman in business, I do admire her, and it is always a pleasure to meet her, because she has a great way about her. She’s so well informed and she’s so capable of delivering a presentation without any handouts or anything like that.” As for any negative connotations the Harney name might carry with it, especially for someone working as a consultant in the health and safety area, she is completely unconcerned. What matters, she says, is that it’s a name people are unlikely to forget. “It’s an icebreaker, and people tend to take your call and listen to what you have to say, because she commands a lot of respect in this country, no matter what.”

Could it be that the country’s only remaining admirer of the former leader of the defunct Progressive Democrat party is someone who happens to share her name? I start to wonder whether this could be some previously undocumented variant of Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon whereby people in hostage situations experience feelings of trust and affection for their captors. She’s stuck with the name, after all: she might as well make a virtue of necessity.

Not everyone, though, is quite so upbeat about their predicament. Colin Farrell, who runs a Dublin-based digital imagery and photograph restoration service, has found it to be something of a burden. “At one point,” he tells me, “around the time Farrell was filming Alexanderin Dublin, I used to get calls from girls giggling down the phone at me, screaming, and stuff like that. That went on for quite a while. I also got a phone call once from an actor looking for tips – career advice, that sort of thing. I played along for a while, letting him think I was the Colin Farrell, but then I just started getting annoyed because he was being so fawning or whatever, and I told him he had the wrong guy. He wouldn’t believe me, and the angrier I got the more I cursed. And then, of course, the more I cursed the more he was certain I was him.” For a long time, Farrell was getting on average a call a week from someone thinking they had found one of the world’s most famous film actors in the phonebook. Unsurprisingly, he has since gone ex-directory. He started a twitter account recently; this, he admits, was a similarly dispiriting episode.

Does he ever succumb to frustration and resentment, I ask him? Is he ever tempted, for instance, to sue the star of Miami Viceand In Brugesfor condemning him to a life of compromised personal identity and lame jokes? “I never really get too irritated about it, to be honest. Sometimes it gets awkward when, say, a friend of yours is introducing you to one of their friends. When he’s saying: ‘this is Colin Farrell’, he’ll always make a joke. That gets a little tedious.” Worse still, he admits, is the compulsion he feels to make the same insipid quips over and over again himself: “ ‘I wish I had his money - that’s one I often find myself saying. Or ‘I wish I was as good with the ladies as he is’. That sort of thing. Usually I don’t say my full name if I can avoid it,” he says. “Usually I’ll just say Colin. You know you’re going to get the usual comments and jokes if you say your full name, so often I’ll just leave it at Colin.”

Michael Jackson, the Kilkenny pottery-maker behind the Stoneware Jackson company, has endured three decades of similarly predictable quips. He is resigned, he says, to never again being able to approach passport control without being asked to moonwalk through. “The gardaí are the same,” he says with stoic forbearance. “If I’m stopped for anything at all – just a tax and insurance spot check or whatever – someone’s nearly guaranteed to make a joke. I don’t know why, but they never went in for the moonwalking stuff. For some reason they always brought up Bubbles the monkey. Bubbles must have been on a Garda Siochána calendar or something,” he ventures.

Of all the people I speak to, graphic designer Graham Norton seems to have the least patience with his name-based predicament. He was living and working in London during a period that happened to coincide with the rise to UK fame of Bandon’s campest son. “I’d often have trouble getting people on the phone, especially with having an Irish accent,” he says, clearly not especially relishing the memory. He remembers one particular occasion when, after finally getting someone to take his call, he was greeted with the curt inquiry: “Are you taking the piss or what, mate?”

There is an edge of exasperation to Norton’s tone. Palpably, this is a topic he would rather not have to keep revisiting, but it is one that he realises he is stuck with. His identity is tethered, trivially but inescapably, to that of a man who has become hugely famous for showing elaborate sex toys to ageing Hollywood actresses. The Norton on the other end of the phone, in contrast, seems like a serious man, a man who takes no pleasure in his incidental association with such low culture high-jinks. What really irks him, though, is the sheer randomness of the thing. The worst of it, he tells me, is that Graham Norton is not the other Graham Norton’s real name. “His real name is actually Graham Walker. And it has always bugged me as to why he would choose a fairly mundane name like Norton for a stage-name, given his colourful persona. I’d have thought he’d have gone for something a bit more wacky.” Another major drawback is that, as a graphic designer who does freelance work, he is as close to ungoogleable as makes no difference. On the whole, it’s pretty obvious that the man would like his name back.

Colm Tobin, who is one letter and two fadas short of one of our most celebrated novelists, is far more cheerful about his situation. As one of the co-creators of the satirical RTÉ animation show, Tobin is alive to the comic absurdity of his predicament. It seems an inexhaustible source of amusement to him how frequently he is confused with the author of Brooklynand The Master. “I used to constantly get calls from people in the Arts Council thinking I was Colm Tóibín. They were obviously working off some kind of database that we were both on, so I lost track of the amount of times I had to tell them I wasn’t him. At one point I got an invitation to a conference on creativity and the Irish language in Donegal. I’d just finished a short comic film which had a lot of sean nós stuff in it, so initially I thought they were actually asking me to come up and speak. But no, they were really looking for Tóibín,” he laughs. “The funny thing was, after mistakenly inviting me they actually took a look at my stuff and said why didn’t I come up anyway. So I did, and I was briefly introduced to Tóibín. He was really nice, but it was strange. I mean, what do you say? ‘Oh, hi! You’ve got a similar name to me’?”

Tobin is a prolific tweeter, and he gets a lot of people following him in the mistaken belief that he is Tóibín. Even though he has put a picture of himself up on his account, (and even though his profile information includes the line ‘I am not a gay novelist, but thanks for asking’) he still gets constant Tóibín-related comments. When it was announced recently that the author would be succeeding Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, Colm received an avalanche of congratulatory tweets on his new high-prestige appointment.

Later that same week, when a tweet he sent in to TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne(about how the party leaders should all be forced to face Browne in pre-election interviews) was read out on air, he was highly amused by Browne’s response: “Colm Tóibín said that?” When the presenter was informed that the tweet was not sent by his famous former colleague at Magillmagazine but by a guy called Colm Tobin, he was visibly deflated.

“Poor Browne was clearly crestfallen,” chuckles Tobin. He admits, when I ask him, that he has thought about making a short film about his life as a celebrity near-namesake. “Being Colm Tóibín,” he suggests, “or Not Being Colm Tóibín”. Thinking aloud, he also raises the possibility of moving into prose fiction to take advantage of the possibility of publishers misreading his name and publishing everything he writes. Why not? If a woman named Mary Harney can turn her name into an asset, there’s no reason why a man named Colm Tobin can’t do the same thing.