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A stage name is a pseudonym used by performers and entertainers, such as actors, comedians, singers and musicians. Such titles are adopted for a wide variety of reasons and may be similar or nearly identical to an individual's birth name. In some situations, a performer will eventually adopt his or her title as a legal name, although this is often not the case.
Motivation to use a stage name
A performer will often take a stage name because his/her real name is considered unattractive, dull, or unintentionally amusing, is difficult to pronounce or spell, has been used by another notable individual, or projects an undesired image. Sometimes a performer adopts a name which is unusual or outlandish to attract attention. Other performers use a stage name in order to retain anonymity. The equivalent concept among writers is called a nom de plume or pen name. In radio, the term "radio name" or "air name" is used.
Some individuals who are related to a celebrity take a different last name so they are not perceived to have received undue advantage from their family connection. Examples of these include Joan Fontaine (real name Joan de Havilland, sister of Olivia de Havilland), Luka Bloom (real name Kevin Barry Moore, brother of Christy Moore), and Mike McGear (brother of Paul McCartney). Sisters Loretta, Peggy, and Brenda Webb adopted the names Loretta Lynn, Peggy Sue, and Crystal Gayle, respectively. Actor Nicolas Cage, born Nicolas Coppola, chose a new last name to avoid comparisons with his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola, who gave him his big break in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married.
Conversely, individuals who wish to receive benefit from their family connections may take that person's first or last name. For example, Lon Chaney Sr.’s son Creighton spent a number of years appearing in minor roles before renaming himself Lon Chaney, Jr. Actress Rebecca Isabelle Laemmle rechristened herself Carla Laemmle in reference to her uncle, Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle. Emilio Estevez and his sister Renee chose not to take their father Martin Sheen’s professional name and use their birth names; however, their brother Carlos chose to use their father's professional name, and took the name Charlie Sheen.
In some cases, the individual may adopt a stage name to avoid confusion with other family members who have similar names. Actor Mark Harmon (Thomas Mark Harmon) uses his middle name professionally to avoid confusion with his father Heisman Trophy winner and former broadcaster Tom Harmon (Thomas Dudley Harmon).
Guild and association rules
Guilds and associations that represent actors, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in the United States and British Actors' Equity Association in the United Kingdom, stipulate that no two members may have identical working names. An actor whose name has already been taken must choose a new name.
Notable examples include: David Tennant, born David McDonald, who said in an interview that he adopted the surname "Tennant" after seeing Neil Tennant in a copy of Smash Hits; Nathan Lane, whose birth name (Joseph Lane) was already in use; Stewart Granger, born James Stewart; and Michael Keaton, born Michael Douglas. (The rumor that Michael Keaton changed his surname because of an attraction to actress Diane Keaton is incorrect; He chose Keaton because of an affinity for the physical comedy of Buster Keaton.) Diane Keaton, whose birth name is Diane Hall, took her mother's maiden name as a stage name after learning that there was already a registered actress named Diane Hall in the Actors' Equity Association. Ugly Betty actress Vanessa Williams officially uses "Vanessa L. Williams" due to SAG guidelines, although the other actress with same first and last name (Vanessa A. Williams) is arguably less notable. Similarly, David Walliams changed one letter in his surname due to there being another "David Williams". Terry O'Quinn of Lost fame changed his surname from Quinn to O'Quinn as another registered actor already had the name Terrance Quinn. Long time writer for The Simpsons, David X. Cohen changed his middle initial from S to X because there was already a David S. Cohen registered with the Writer's Guild of America.
In other cases, a middle name may be adopted in preference to changing a name. Examples include comedian Hugh Dennis born Peter Hugh Dennis, actor-comedian Hugh Laurie born James Hugh Calum Laurie, and actor Timothy Carlton born Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch. In some cases, attaching a generational suffix is sufficient for guild rules; broadcaster David Lawrence is credited as David H. Lawrence XVII as a result of there being sixteen other David Lawrences in show business at the time he received his SAG card.
A person hoping to become successful as an entertainer who has a name identical to a name already familiar to the public (in any field of endeavor) may change his/her name in order to avoid having his/her name evoke the other person with the same name. For example, the actor/writer/director Albert Brooks was born Albert Einstein and changed his surname so his name would not be a distraction which would evoke the renowned physicist with the same name. Singer Katy Perry, born Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, released her self-titled album under the name Katy Hudson, but later used her mother's maiden name to avoid confusion with actress Kate Hudson. Singer-songwriter John Weldon Cale adopted JJ Cale to avoid confusion with John Cale of the Velvet Underground. Singer David Bowie, was born David Robert Jones, and changed his surname to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees. Singer Ray Charles, born Ray Robinson, changed his name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Involuntary name changes
A performer may also have had their stage name chosen for them by their agent – such was the case with Barbara Eden, born Barbara Jean Huffman[contradictory] – or, in the heyday of the Hollywood studios, by a movie studio. Joan Rivers (born Joan Alexandra Molinsky) went one step further and named herself after a former agent, Tony Rivers, after he told her to change her name. In the non English-speaking world, an example is the Taiwanese Mandopop girl group S.H.E (composed of Selina Jen, Hebe Tian, and Ella Chen), whose members' English names were chosen by their manager after taking personality tests.
Former child star Patty Duke (whose real name is Anna Marie Duke) had her stage name chosen for her by her first managers. Their choice of the name "Patty" was inspired by another child actress named Patty McCormack (Patty Duke later entitled her autobiography Call Me Anna (ISBN 0-553-27205-5).
Cary Grant (born Archibald Leach) had his name selected for him by Paramount Pictures. He had been using the name "Cary Lockwood", but the studio decided against it, deeming it too similar to another actor working at the time. Cary and the studio eventually settled on "Cary Grant" (Grant thought the letters "C" and "G" to be lucky: they had brought previous success for both Clark Gable and Gary Cooper). Joan Crawford, born Lucille Fay LeSueur, had her name changed as a result of a magazine poll organised by her studio, MGM.
In the past, a stage name was often used when a performer's real name was considered to denote a specific ethnicity that faced potential discrimination. In other cases, actors have reinvented themselves with a more ethnic identity, when that gave them an advantage in playing "ethnic" roles.
An example of this type of name change was Freddie Mercury of the British rock band Queen, who was born Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi parents; his name change was partly intended to conceal his heritage. Italian-American actress Bernadette Peters, who was born Bernadette Lazzara, changed her last name to avoid being typecast as women who were Italian or of Italian heritage. Likewise, heavy metalist Ronnie James Dio, also of Italian descent, changed his name from Ronald James Padavona, after the mobster, Johnny Dio (whose name was also changed from Giovanni Ignazio Dioguard). Similarly, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith changed his name from Stephen Victor Tallarico "for more promotional appeal". The actor Kal Penn changed his name from Kalpen Modi for professional purposes; after changing his name, call-backs increased by 50%.
Historically, Jews in Hollywood were encouraged to anglicize their names to avoid possible discrimination. Examples of name changes of this form includes Danny Kaye and Mel Brooks, both of whom were born with the surname Kaminsky, and Woody Allen (born Allen Konigsberg). This still happens to a degree (Jason Alexander, Brad Garrett, Jonah Hill, Frank Oz, and Winona Ryder for instance), but the growing acceptance of ethnic performers in the performing arts has made this occurrence less frequent. Jon Stewart, contrary to popular belief, didn't anglicize his name for his career but instead because of his estranged relationship with his father. Israeli-American Natalie Portman changed her name to protect her privacy.
Ramón Estévez changed his name to Martin Sheen as he felt it affected his job prospects due to racial discrimination and bias, although he maintains his birth name for legal documents such as his passport; his sons made divergent choices: Carlos Irwin Estévez is now Charlie Sheen, while Emilio Estevez left his name unchanged. German-born actor Hans Gudegast adopted the non-German stage name of Eric Braeden. Cherilyn Sarkisian, of Armenian descent, is now known to the world by the single name Cher. Likewise, Giánnis Chrysomállis, of Greek descent, simplified and changed his stage name to the more easily pronounceable mononym, Yanni.
Legendary actors Anthony Quinn and Anne Bancroft were also advised to anglicize their names because 'Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca' and 'Anna Maria Louisa Italiano', respectively, were considered too 'ethnic' for Hollywood and Broadway at the time. Eydie Gorme (born Edith Garmezano), Sophia Loren (born Sofia Villani Scicolone), Charles Bronson (born Charles Dennis Buchinsky), and Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino), are four more well known examples of this trend. Similarly, retired veteran broadcaster Dave Roberts was born David T. Boreanaz but is known professionally as Dave Thomas and later Dave Roberts as ethnic surnames were discouraged when he first began his career during the 1950s; however, his son actor David Boreanaz chose not to adopt a stage name.
The use of stage names for ethnic purposes may vary widely depending on the media market the personality is representing. For example, in Buffalo, New York, a city with a large Polish-American population, Polish-American media personalities typically work freely using their birth names (WIVB-TV has Mike Cejka as a longtime meteorologist and WKBW-TV employs a meteorologist named Aaron Mentkowski). However, when such personalities work in markets outside Western New York, they will often switch to less ethnic sounding stage names (Mentkowski, for example, uses the pseudonym "Aaron Lawrence" when forecasting for other areas of the United States). Irv Weinstein used the pseudonym "Mark Roberts" when working in West Virginia but switched back to his birth name when he returned to Western New York (abbreviating the original "Irwin" because he felt "Irv" was catchier), and he credited using his real name with helping him connect with the population of Western New York.
Sicilian-American actor Espera Oscar de Corti, who built his film career portraying Native Americans, reinvented himself as Iron Eyes Cody. He not only took his stage name as his legal name, but eventually began insisting that he actually was Native American.
Chloe Bennet had used her birth name, Chloe Wang, for her singing career in China. She started using the surname Bennet, after her father's first name, when she failed to be welcomed by Hollywood agents.
Ease of use
Another consideration in choosing a stage name is ease of use. The Actors' Equity Association (AEA) advises performers to select a name that is easy for others to pronounce, spell, and remember. Some performers while paying great attention to their skills and abilities give little thought to the difference that a well-thought-out name can make to their career. Often, it is only after the realization that a poorly chosen name results in an undesired impression that a person or group decides on a different name.
Actor Michael Caine was born Maurice Micklewhite and chose the name Michael because he preferred the sound of it to the less glamorous-sounding "Maurice". He chose the name Caine reputedly because at the precise instant he needed to decide upon his new stage name, he saw a cinema marquee for the then-current movie The Caine Mutiny and thought that it would make a good last name in conjunction with Michael. ("Had I looked the other direction," he would later quip, "I'd be known as Michael The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.") Similarly, actor Pete Postlethwaite was advised to adopt a different surname by peers who quipped that his "would never be put up in lights outside theaters because they couldn't afford the electricity" (Postlethwaite rejected the advice). Conversely, Doris Kappelhoff heeded the suggestion of a bandleader who said that her name would never fit on the marquee; since "Day By Day" had become a signature song for her she became known to the public as Doris Day.
Relevance to image
Commonly in the music world, and especially those of heavy metal, punk rock, industrial, and hip hop, musicians will rename themselves with names more menacing or striking than their birth names. Rock music examples include Deuce, Davey Havok, Slash, Sting, Darby Crash, Alice Cooper, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Zakk Wylde, Nikki Sixx, Spider One, Count Grishnackh, Necrobutcher, Blasphemer, Nivek Ogre, Rob Zombie, Dimebag Darrell, Trey Azagthoth, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein. Every member of the punk band Ramones took the pseudonymous "Ramone" surname as part of their collective stage persona. Being that those genres pride themselves on a larger-than-life quality, larger-than-life names are desirable. Both Marilyn Manson and Machine Gun Kelly used the names of notorious criminals in their stage names. Members of New Zealand art-rock band Split Enz all took their middle names as stage names, so as to keep their private image separate from their public personae.
That being said, there are other performers who go in the opposite direction; they seek to project images that are anything but larger-than-life. As adults, they may assume stage names as a means of distancing themselves from publicly known childhood names that could be considered professionally embarrassing, outlandish, or otherwise inappropriate. Film director Duncan Jones (son of singer David Bowie) was known publicly as a child as Zowie Bowie.
Pop musicians seeking to utilize catchy, marketable names include Madonna, Lady Gaga, Prince, Keith Sweat, Pink, as well as R&B musicians Jamie Foxx and Alicia Keys, though both Madonna and Prince were given those names at birth; Lady Gaga named herself after the song "Radio Ga Ga" by the band Queen.
Actor Marion Morrison adopted the stage name John Wayne because "Marion" had come to be more common as a female name and he felt it was at odds with the masculine cowboy characters he portrayed. Similarly, Norma Jeane Baker changed her name to the far more glamorous-sounding Marilyn Monroe.
Hip-hop artists are known to use stage names, such as Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter), 50 Cent (born Curtis Jackson), Diddy (born Sean Combs), Ludacris (born Chris Bridges), Lil Wayne (born Dwayne Carter Jr.), and Soulja Boy (born DeAndre Way). At times, these artists will use their real names to make promoted material seem more authentic or personal. Eminem has used his real name, Marshall Mathers, in various public events and as an alter ego as his real name gained recognition following the release of his multi-platinum album, The Marshall Mathers LP. Similarly, LL Cool J released the albums Mr. Smith and Todd Smith in 1995 and 2006, respectively, under his real name Todd Smith. Rapper-singer-actress Queen Latifah released The Dana Owens Album under her own given name, Dana Owens, after changing her musical focus from hip-hop to vocal jazz. Rapper and sometime actor Xzibit has been credited by his real name Alvin Joiner in several television shows.
Ching Lau Lauro (flourished 1827–1839) used a Chinese stage name to represent his stage image as a contortionist in Chinese costume. He was probably the first magician to dress in Chinese costume on stage.
Euphony and ease of remembrance
Some performers and artists may choose to simplify their name to make it easier to spell and pronounce, and easier for others to remember. For instance, Fall Out Boy vocalist and guitarist Patrick Stump removed the "h" from his original name, Stumph. It was still pronounced "stump," but the change ensured his audience wouldn't think to pronounce it "stumf." Singer Jason Derulo uses the phonetic spelling of his given name, Jason Desrouleaux.
Andy Warhol dropped an "a" from his original name, Warhola, while couturier Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent dropped the first of his two surnames. Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi adopted the stage name Rudolph Valentino in part because American casting directors found his original surname difficult to pronounce. Singer George Michael (the son of a Greek Cypriot restaurateur in North London) was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.
Some surnames may carry unfortunate connotations. Hal Linden, born Harold Lipshitz, adopted his stage name for fear that the embedded obscenity in his original surname could cost him work. Ralph Lauren's brother (who was his guardian) changed their family name from Lifshitz for a similar reason: fear of mockery. Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, born Nicholas James Bates, changed his name to escape childhood ridicule (as a child, children would often tease him by calling him "Master Bates"; he adopted the surname "Rhodes" after a brand of keyboard). Diana Dors was born Diana Fluck (one letter away from a profanity); this prompted her to change her name to a more benign one in order to avoid an accidental obscenity (which could have been exacerbated by her status as a sex symbol).
Some types of music are more associated with stage names than others. For example, hip hop and EDM artists almost always use stage names, whereas "classical" composers and performers virtually never do. Classical violinist Amadéus Leopold (born in South Korea as Yoo Hanbin) and opera singers Beverly Sills (born Belle Miriam Silverman) and Nellie Melba (born Helen Porter Mitchell) are rare exceptions.
Some performers take a series of different stage names. The British pop singer successful in the 1970s as Alvin Stardust previously went by the stage name of Shane Fenton in the 1960s. He had been born Bernard William Jewry. Some performers will use different names in different settings. Charles Thompson, singer-songwriter for the alternative band the Pixies, was known in that band as Black Francis. He was called Frank Black as a solo performer, and again called Black Francis in a reunited Pixies.
Many performers refer to their stage name as their "professional name". In some cases, performers subsequently adopt their stage name as their legal name. For instance, the former Robert Allen Zimmerman's legal name has been Robert Dylan (Bob Dylan) since he changed it in New York City Supreme Court in August 1962. Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight but changed his name by deed poll, making Elton Hercules John his real name. When he was knighted, he became Sir Elton Hercules John rather than Sir Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Elvis Costello (born Declan MacManus), who had adopted his professional name as a legal name, changed it back to his birth name in 1986. Another example is Marvin Lee Aday, known by his stage name, Meat Loaf. In a similar way, actress and singer Miley Cyrus was born Destiny Hope Cyrus, but found "Miley" more comfortable, making it her legal name.
- Alter ego
- Bardic name
- List of stage names
- Nom de guerre
- Notname for historical artists
- Passing (racial identity)
- Pen name
- Ring name
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