For close to a year, London-based illusionist, make-up artist, and drag performer Alexis Stone has popped the lid on society's perceptions of beauty.
This weekend, he did it again, revealing a four-months-long stunt, called "The Replicant," in response to a culture that demands constant validation. Stone's self-created transformations into celebrities and cult figures ranging from Kim Kardashian to Jocelyn Wildenstein have previously confronted the viewer with polarizing questions: Who gets to be considered beautiful? What does the constant reinforcement of those beauty standards say about the human race? And perhaps, at the more cellular level, How does our insatiable need for validation play into those ideas?
"The Replicant" began in March, when Stone produced a series of images of special-FX mannequins made up to look exactly like his now-iconic visage. Over the weekend, on July 27, Stone pulled back the curtain on his stunt to reveal the reason behind it. "Around 4 months ago I had the idea of creating a fake Alexis Stone for the sole purpose of wanting to take some time away from wearing makeup myself as I needed some Elliot time," he wrote on YouTube. "I didn't plan for the project to go on for as long as it has which has been almost 2 months online creating 16 images for social media with almost zero suspicion. The clues were there."
Stone's "The Replicant" illuminates a very modern issue: in the fast moving world of social media, where whole fates are determined by one wrong tweet or an image on a grid, who is really paying attention? If we can't decipher a replica from the real thing, what other bigger illusions can't we see through? Or, even more ominous, what are we missing altogether? The video unveiling the stunt showed an axe being taken to Stone's mannequin. "It wasn't until I showed the reveal and had my fake face smashed in before people got it," Stone tells PAPER. I very quickly was reminded that no one cares for your creativity anymore because everything is instant validation of clicking and swiping unless you tear your face off, have a brand, unless you have a scandal, or unless you smash your head in."
In January, Stone made headlines after showing himself made up to look like a victim of botched plastic surgery — a phenomenon in culture today that forces viewers to examine the lengths they might be willing to go to uphold socially constructed notions of external beauty. When the mask was peeled back, only the human behind the persona remained: Elliot Joseph Rentz. Subject to both harsh scrutiny ("kill yourself") and fevered adoration ("Most brilliant artist of our time, hands down") as a result, Stone dreamt up his next project between creating ongoing celeb transformations to give himself much-needed time offline. (It didn't help that his increased visibility put him in public disputes last winter with beauty influencer James Charles, and therefore subject to more furor from Charles' stans. Charles and Stone took shots at each other online before all that heated Tati Westbrook drama.)
Meanwhile, Stone has been enjoying some perks of being a controversial public figure, including developing a makeup collection, which he says is slated to be out September 13, and befriending RuPaul's Drag Race judge Michelle Visage, who encouraged him to consider competing on the show. Below, the artist breaks down how he convinced the world his lookalike was really him.
What moved you to pull off your latest reveal?
I'd love to say it was really elaborate. I'm a drag queen. I think any queen will tell you that the bane of doing drag is wearing makeup. And I think also six months of me tearing my face off and that sort of going up and coming down... I very quickly was reminded that no one cares for your creativity anymore because everything is instant validation of clicking and swiping unless you tear your face off, have a brand, unless you have a scandal, or unless you smash your head in. So I couldn't be asked to do my makeup. I wanted to remind the kids that the real creativity has really sort of gone with [the rise of] social media. We talk about the beauty community all the time and there's no major thought process that goes into it. I mean, a lot of these makeup artists, their idea of artistry simply is in doing their makeup. That's their idea of an inspiring makeup video, or talking about how much money they're throwing away on makeup products. I just thought, Let me do what I do best and come up with a crazy idea. I was just like, I want to make a mannequin that looks like me, paint it. No one obviously batted an eyelid. With social media, people don't look, they don't care unless you smash your head in or tear your face off.
You seem to have a perpetual dissatisfaction with social media, but you continue to play with it as an experiment. Why is that?
I have my own issues with depression and you go through all the emotions of self-loathing and things like that. I've also been on social media for years, so I've heard it all, I've seen it all, I've been involved in all the scandals, I've watched them. I've had things that have happened over the years that really put a stick in my tail, whether it's from being torn a new asshole every week because I've done something wrong or offended someone, or having strangers tell me how I should and shouldn't act, having brands constantly tell you to filter yourself and dehumanize you because they want models, not actual influencers, or people who make sure that you throw your queerness because you're just trying to cash in on being this great source of diversity that brands want to be. For me, it isn't social media, which is the most antisocial thing in the world. So I play a little satire with it to shine a light on that. A lot of the narratives that I go with are created by other people, whether it's people saying I'm plastic or hollow or I'm never going to be able to do a stunt again. I'm like, Fuck you, bitch, watch me. Everything I do is just so I can mentally say "eat my shit" to the world. That's the honest truth.
What is one of the biggest things you've learned from your first stunt until now?
I think the high from New Year's Eve and what followed was truly life-changing. And it was the first time that I felt respected by my peers, respected by everyone that views it. A couple of months later, I have one banter, I said one thing off tone — ruined me. The brands left again, the followers went, the peers unfollowed me.
What did you say?
The thing with social media is that people don't care about the antagonizing, they care about the response. And when you have your own issues you're going through and you work from home so you're bored, so your only real social life at that time is social media and you really feel it's dictating your life from an outside kind of view and you respond in a way that is really inappropriate. I'm a drag queen. I grew up in the clubs. They don't teach you at school how to be a PhD Disney Princess. In England, we grew up watching shit like Catherine Tate in Little Britain, like dark humor, inappropriate stuff. So when I responded in the moment without thinking, with a lot of anger behind it, and pride, it backfired.
I think going from a high where I had people's respect and attention to it quickly dissipating again to now me smashing my head in and it all coming back. I'm so unbothered by all of that. The followers, the brands, what people have to say, I just don't care. And I think for the longest time I was so argumentative with them. That's not who I am. I am a cunt, I've been a cunt, [I was once a] 16-year-old idiot, you name it... But it doesn't mean I'm not a good person. So if I'm having one bad day a year which transfers to being online, I'm doing pretty well. So I think I've learned that if it goes up it comes down. It's just a part of life.
It's funny that you say that. The scandal that I had was with James Charles. We had never gravitated towards each other despite me paying homage to him by transforming into him. Which, I have to add, I transform into a lot of people I don't care for. I do it for the kick, it's entertainment. If people aren't intelligent enough to understand that I've transformed into 180 people — probably 50 of them I'd never heard of until I Googled them — they know now. So we had a private conversation behind closed doors, then it transferred online and I retaliated and posted a response regarding the whole James Charles catastrophe and scandal of him trying to fly boys over to LA. And people didn't listen to me when I said it in January. It was, You're a bully, you're nasty, you're making it up. It took someone much bigger to repeat what I said with a little bit more decorum [Tati Westbrook] and refinement than I did for people to believe it. So I just try and keep my opinions to myself these days because it never works in my favor.
The more visible you are online, the more you fear that saying the wrong thing can ruin your career or livelihood.
And it does. These influencers will sit online and be like, "I'm so busy, I'm so booked." They lose millions when they piss people off. Millions of dollars, millions of followers. That's the honest truth. I can sit here and be like, I'm untouchable. But if enough people scream "you're cancelled," then you're cancelled.
With this project, you said less than you might normally say and left it to people to make up their own minds. What is something that you hope people do get out of this?
I don't expect people to write essays and school reports to me every time, but I do think people really should pay attention to artists — those that are striving to better themselves, those that are open about their issues, those that are talking about beauty, challenging it as a whole, not challenging other people in argumentative or draggy ways. I just think everyone needs to pay a little more attention, because the world truly is becoming Black Mirror. We swipe, we swipe, we swipe; we see someone with a blue check, we follow them; we don't follow them if there's something we've heard or someone tweeted about them and that someone's got more followers. If you're not in the illuminati of the beauty community then you're not relevant. But it's just kind of fucking weird, I'm too old for that bit. I've got a platform, I've got the makeup products coming out, this isn't my be-all and end-all of life. I just want to log in and then log out and leave something at least a little bit inspiring.
Are you at a point now where you can empower or hire people to help you with your platform so you can be less engaged?
Yeah. I'm in a position now where I don't have to work as much. The only hassle with me back to social media is my creativity. For me, it's not work unless I'm traveling and I've got to actually leave my house. It's me being creative. The moment I wake up, there's projects all around us, there's heads, mannequins, there's sculptures, collections, hair — what you see is the reality of my life. It's a literal satire on social media. You won't hear the media talking about what I believe to be really inspiring and helpful information to other people. I believe most people just don't care. They want to see money; they want to watch the live performance of the fantasy –– the unrelatable goal. And this is the issue with a lot of these young influencers, is they reach these millions of dollars. They get these campaigns, these makeup products, and they should be in their head thinking, That's enough. As a queer artist working in a not so queer industry, I cashed in, I left a really good impression, I go back home, I never have to work again. But they start hanging out with the Kardashians and they get a little taste of that Kardashian money and security waiting outside their studio and outside their house and they're like, Oh my god, I want that. And then when their videos go viral they get stuck in trying to be famous, which breeds a whole world of narcissism and "yes" people.
What if you got invited into that world? At some point soon, that kind of attention might be part of your daily reality. Have you thought about that?
I get glimpses of that life occasionally, whether it's first-class flights to LA or stays in five-star hotels. But I live what I consider to be a very humble life. I don't come from money. I moved to Manchester because I had no fucking money. So I don't think everything I've worked for, to piss off to LA, to be surrounded by a bunch of people who don't care about anything other than the current situation. I'm too British for that nonsense. If I can buy a house and say I did it doing drag, that's a pretty fabulous life for me. I don't need millions. I don't pay for makeup, I don't pay for wigs, I don't need that much money. I don't need to buy a Lamborghini and get it custom done and tell everyone that's my car and exclusively surround myself with paid models.
Where does the magic of visibility live for you, then?
When you set a certain level and people think you've peaked... I transform myself into the most beautiful looking women right now. People don't care. People don't care that I've got shaving rash, they don't care that I'm gluing my eyebrows down, they forget that I'm a man. They completely forget that. There's really no true appreciation for that artistry, so I'm constantly having to push myself for validation. The real art of makeup, for me, is about magic. I don't want to see another influencer showing us how to do a sunset smokey eye.
What do you think it would take to transform the beauty industry so that more people are paying attention to what matters?
Social media is not getting any easier; mine included is not getting any easier and the last six months for me, it's gotten worse. I just think people don't care so much about beauty. Social media is the modern-day tabloids. People want to see what James Charles said on YouTube and what Jeffree Star wrote on Twitter. It's less so about talent, which people don't particularly find attractive now. People care more about that instant gratification. It's entertainment. Beauty has become entertainment, which is why I smash my head in. I've created really beautiful looks inspired by some of the most amazing artists around the world, but people don't consider you unless you pull a major stunt. So you've got to really push it and all of these big influencers are coming out and doing videos saying, "I'm running out of ideas." Because they've done it all now. Their idea of doing something creative is painting like a Bob Ross mural on their fucking heads, like that's their most creative idea.
What's your message now?
I don't know. It's not so much that I don't ever want to convey a message, it's only when I'm asked the question that I really ask myself. I'm in a state of mind lately where I don't want to live and I don't want to die. I just want to do something to feel something. So as an artist, I push myself to the point of breaking. I put myself in positions that are unhealthy. I do that because I have to. There's no message. If it inspires people, it inspires people. I just don't want people to think it's done out of malice or me trying to be calculating. For me, it's second nature. I'm a prankster, I jump at my friends all the time, it's just what I do. It's fun. I'm just glad it's appreciated. This wasn't about me trying to outdo myself on the last project. I just made it up as a solution to me wanting time off. But I guess it casts a light on certain things in the world. Maybe that's intentional, maybe not. People make of it what they want. Either way, it's pleasurable to watch the response.
Photos courtesy of Alexis Stone