In 1999, A 'Star Trek' Actor Had To Write A Magazine To Prove He Wasn't Online
Today, if a celebrity hears about someone impersonating them online, all they have to do is hop on Twitter and say "Nope, not me." Everyone who's famous enough has to post those clarifications every so often, just in case there's anyone out there who seriously believes their favorite tennis player or Avengers actor is sliding into their DMs to ask to lend $200 bucks. But back when the internet was still in the process of catching on, this was considerably harder to do. Take the case of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Jonathan Frakes, who had to send a physical letter to a Star Trek magazine to alert fans that someone "on line" was pretending to be him:
Think about the effort involved: he had to find out someone was impersonating him despite having no access to the internet himself, write the letter, mail it to the magazine, wait for it to be printed and published, and then wait for his fans to reach that page weeks later while sitting on the toilet. It probably took several months for some fans to find out that the guy who wrote "YOUR GAY" at them 243 times on a bulletin board wasn't the real Frakes.
This story comes from 1999, when ... wait, Frakes didn't have an "internet account" in 1999? The Space Jam website was already three years old, some people were already streaming concerts or casual nudity to millions of viewers, and one of the stars of one of the most famous sci-fi shows ever still didn't get online? Presumably this was Frakes' response whenever someone came to offer him a free AOL trial:
Anyway, the '90s was also the time when anyone could sign an email with "Bill Gates" and people would go, "Holy crap, the real Bill Gates just wrote me to say my computer is gonna explode if I don't forward this to 400 people in 30 seconds!" In 1994, a specific hoax email spread so widely that, weeks later, Microsoft had to put out a public statement saying that no, they didn't buy the Catholic Church. It didn't help that Rush Limbaugh read the email on the air and a good number of his listeners ended up outraged that the Church would give Microsoft exclusive electronic rights to the Bible in exchange for some stock and a "Senior VP of Religious Software" title for Pope John Paul II.
Ironically, while the internet has made celebrity impersonation much more widespread (look at all those Twitter accounts sharing stolen jokes or self-help advice as "Bill Murray" or "Chris Rock") it's also much, much easier to debunk. Before, these scams could go on for decades -- like the case of the guy who spent 30 years pretending to be Buckwheat from Our Gang and ended up going on ABC News' 20/20 as him (the producer resigned over it).
Even after being found out, the guy insisted that, no, he was Buckwheat, and he didn't care what his co-stars of his own orphaned son had to say. A hoax like that would last about 30 minutes today. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have something to do: Neil Gaiman just offered to let us join his new cryptocurrency business venture through his secondary Instagram account with zero followers.
Top image: CBS Television Distribution