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When a celebrity resemblance is an affliction, not an attribute

Kim Rosen/The Globe and Mail

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You're pretty.

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Thank you.

Pretty ugly.

A conversation I had.

"Has anyone ever told you that you look like someone famous?"

Many of us have been asked this question. Many of us have responded by trying to shyly hide that wide smile that bubbles up and makes you want to squeal, "You think I'm pretty!"

Because that's what famous people are: pretty. Celebrities, especially female celebrities, are beautiful. Think of the most famous women in the world – Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian – each of them is strikingly beautiful.

So, for someone to say that you, a mere mortal, look like someone famous, is one of the highest compliments – in theory.

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Several times a year in the past 20 years, sometimes as often as a few times a month, I have been told I look like the same famous person. No matter if my hair is long short, brown or blond, and no matter how I'm dressed or made up, strangers and new acquaintances tell me I look like someone famous. It's always the same woman.

"You know, the lesbian on Roseanne. Madonna's friend. With the big lips? You know."

I know, but I never say. I never volunteer the name Sandra Bernhard.

The verbal exchange is so cutting. It's like someone has said to you: "You remind me of someone really pretty! Oh, wait, did I say pretty? I mean super-ugly. I get those two confused sometimes."

Google practically autofills "ugly" when you type in Bernhard's name. Her own autobiography is called Confessions of a Pretty Lady. Oh, the bitter irony.

Online, her Playboy cover is derided as one of the worst of all time. The Complex site says: "If you made a list of all the lesbians you'd like to see on Playboy, most sane people would not include Sandra Bernhard." Blackbook calls her a gap-toothed tranny with a lopsided chin. She is one of Zen College's "10 Celebs we wish hadn't posed naked."

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Complex, Blackbook, Zen College: Who has ever heard of these publications? No one, hopefully, because they are mercilessly mean. But I know of them because each time I am told I look like Sandra Bernhard, it sends me into a downward spiral of before-and-after rhinoplasty image searches and research into what Internet trolls think of my celebrity doppelganger's face.

I have to turn to the Internet because I can't turn to my husband and say: "Lots of people think your wife is ugly." It's an insult to him. My friends assure me I look nothing like her. That alone is confirmation that our resemblance is an affliction. Plus, the honesty of strangers is akin to the honesty of children, and I've been compared with her so many times that it cannot be a fluke.

One of the most recent people to call out my Sandra-ness is a local restaurateur. I gave him the stink-eye when he said it, but a few cocktails later, I had the dumb courage to ask him why he thought he could just slay me with an insult like that, why he thought that was okay to say to someone.

"What are you talking about? She's sexy," he said. "It's a compliment! She's so sexy!"

My first thought was: Ew, no, don't call ladies "sexy" either if you're hoping for return customers. But my second thought, for the very first time, was: Why do I even care any more?

I'm well past the age where being classically beautiful is priority No. 1. And because I could never get by on my looks, I've had to cultivate other ways of succeeding. I've had to be aggressive, funny, inventive and strategic to make things happen for me. And things have happened. I'm an accomplished, educated, happily married mother. If my celebrity look-a-like were Gwyneth Paltrow, would I have the things I have today? Or would I be lamenting the gradual loss of my main asset to the hands of time? Would I have worked so hard if I could get by on my looks? (Read: No, I wouldn't have. Because I'm not just ugly, I'm also lazy.)

I have realized that, sometimes, I was more hurt that people had the nerve to casually criticize my face right to my face. I can handle being not pretty. It's no surprise to hear I'm not Christie Brinkley. But it can be shocking as an adult to be nonchalantly insulted.

What's likely, or at least what I have now actually resolved as a way of coping, is that people don't mean it as an insult. People just blurt it out and think nothing of it.

There are other things I've learned in my online research on Sandra Bernhard: I've read she has an insurgent's energy to push boundaries, she's a smart provocateur and an artist, author, actor and singer whose successful career has spanned more than 30 years. She's on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest standup comedians of all time. She's strong and forthright. She's funny and honest. Why wouldn't I want to see someone like that in my mirror?

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