His look isn’t always in fashion
In this most difficult week for Lakers fans, perhaps none has had it tougher than Michael Fanter.
I’m sitting with him by the tiny pool in his aging Hollywood apartment complex when another tenant slides open a window and shouts into the courtyard.
“Hey, Pau Gasol! You suck!”
I’m walking with him down a bright and busy swatch of Hollywood Boulevard when three young men follow him with jabs and jeers.
“Hey, gutless Gasol! I’ll dunk on you!”
Days earlier, Fanter was standing in the back of a nearby bar watching the Lakers get swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the NBA playoffs when people literally turned on him. Every time Gasol missed a shot, patrons would spin around from their drinks and fill his face with accusing fingers.
“Gasol, what are you doing?” they would shout.
What Michael Fanter is doing is attempting to make a living. He considers it but a temporary misfortune that his job is to look like the distinctive player who has been distinctly blamed for the Lakers’ collapse.
“When Pau Gasol is going bad, business is bad,” says Fanter, 26, grinning. “But when Pau Gasol is going good …"
Isn’t this always the Laker way? Even though the team’s chances for a third consecutive championship have abruptly expired, the surrounding sense of Hollywood and hope survive.
Only in this town, it seems, could a 6-foot-6 former clothing salesman from Lancaster find work looking like a 7-foot basketball star from Spain.
Fanter can’t dunk a ball and can barely palm one. He can’t speak a foreign language. He had never even heard of Gasol until the Lakers acquired their star forward three years ago in a trade.
Yet he slides two-inch lifts into his purple tennis shoes. He mixes brown dye in his reddish hair and beard. He curls his long locks so they’re just the right amount of messy.
“One good thing about being a look-alike for Pau Gasol is that you don’t really need a comb,” Fanter says.
He puts on sunglasses to hide the difference in their eyes. He adopts a pigeon-toed walk with short steps and leaning strides. He wears baggy shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt. He blows into his hands and fills his face with outrageous expressions of shock and pain.
Then Michael Fanter becomes a true im-Pau-sonator, and hanging with him this week while he walks around town wearing a Lakers jersey is an experience in celebrity chaos. Cars slow so that drivers can snap photos. Folks stick pens out their car windows for autographs. Fans twist their necks, drop their jaws, shout and clap.
“Sign my shoe,” shouts a woman whose friend has pulled his car to the side of the road.
“You know I’m not him,” he tells the woman quietly before signing, just as he tells everyone before every autograph.
“Sign it anyway,” the woman says.
Fanter signs his own name, but it’s messy enough that it could be Gasol’s. When he adds Gasol’s No. 16 to the signature, folks see what they want to see.
Dot Findlater, Fanter’s agent, explains the reaction to her client in terms of another icon.
“It really is like the first time you see Santa Claus in a department store,” she says. “You’re not sure where he came from, or how he got there, or even if he’s real. But you know he’s there right now with you, and you are thrilled.”
Findlater runs Mirror Images Co., a Hollywood agency that handles more than 1,000 look-alikes. Although there are a few star athletes among them, including doubles for Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi, the real Pau Gasol might be pleased to know which star is not on this team.
“I used to have a Kobe Bryant look-alike, but there wasn’t enough work for him, so he had to get a day job,” Findlater says.
The work for Fanter is sporadic and odd, with fees that begin around $600 a gig. Mostly, he goes to parties and poses for photos. Sometimes there is a basketball court at those parties. He is handed a ball, and he sighs, because he knows what’s coming next.
“Yeah, people line up to play one-on-one against me,” says Fanter, who hasn’t played organized basketball since his freshman year in high school. “And, yeah, most of the time I get beat.”
Fanter quit his duties as an apparel salesman in Palmdale to pursue this career a couple of years ago, after Gasol joined the Lakers and a revelation occurred.
“We just finished playing basketball, and we’re hanging around watching the Laker game at home, and Gasol comes on the screen, and one of my friends shouts, ‘Hey, Mike, that’s you!’ ” Fanter recalls.
To test their theory, Fanter attended a Lakers game wearing a $20 Lakers jersey and curled hair. He caused such a furor among staring fans, he was hooked. Fanter promptly sold his car, moved to Hollywood, and today shares a small apartment in the shadow of the freeway. His cellphone doesn’t always work, he needs transportation to some events, and he has had only about 15 gigs total.
The toughest times do not involve money or harassment, but something much more personal. It is that moment in every encounter when people realize they are not talking to Pau Gasol, but to Michael Fanter, a moment that can occasionally cut him deep.
“The hardest part of it is when I’m talking to a woman, and I tell her I’m not Pau, and she’s like, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” he says. “That’s pretty disheartening.”
Yet the next moment, he will be mobbed at a Lakers parade, or hugged by a weeping tourist from Spain, and it’s all good again.
“I know I’m not Pau Gasol,” he says. “But I’ve learned celebrity is a strange and powerful thing, and if I can entertain people by acting like him, if I can make them happy for a few moments, then it’s all worth it.”
You know who else knows that Michael Fanter is not Pau Gasol? Yeah, Pau Gasol.
They met once at a commercial shoot where Fanter was serving as a stand-in. They shook hands. They exchanged pleasantries. But not once did Gasol comment on Fanter’s appearance, and he later said he thought Fanter didn’t look anything like him.
“It was awkward for both of us,” Fanter says.
Soon after telling this story, Fanter is accosted on the street by a man who has jumped out of his car to take a photo.
“You know I’m not Pau,” Fanter says quietly as they pose together.
“I know, I know,” the man says, patting him on the back. “Better luck next season.”
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