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Why you need to ditch your boring name and use a better one

Pop stars and actors are always changing their name. Should you?

Why you need to ditch your boring name and use a better one
23 November 2017

His name, once upon a time, was Sean Combs. Then he changed it – to Puff Daddy. This morphed and became P Diddy. P Diddy lost the P and thus was Diddy. Diddy had its time in the sun before it regressed to Puff Daddy. In early November, weighed down by old names like a man clad in iron shackles, Puff Daddy declared his intention to swap his nom de plume once more: henceforth he would be known only as ‘Love – AKA Brother Love’. (Four days later he said this announcement was a joke.)

Have you ever felt like your name might be holding you back? Have you ever wanted to shed the Phil that your mum gave you, and live life as Bruce X Dredd? Ever felt as though your boss might actually remember you if you weren’t Tom Maxwell but Jack Jupiter? You wouldn’t be alone. Peter Gene Hernandez thought the same thing. He became Bruno Mars. “This name is doing absolutely nothing for me,” thought Mark Sinclair. “From now on the world shall know me as Vin Diesel.” Joaquin Phoenix had no choice, really. His name beforehand was Joaquin Bottom.

Like the clothes they wear, the people they date and the photos they post, the right name can make or break a performer’s career. Would Archibald Leach really have gone down as one of the most charming matinee idols in the history of cinema? Or did he make the right decision when he decided to be publicly known as Cary Grant? Roll them around the mouth. Cary Grant. ARCHIBALD LEACH.

“Names are important in the music industry because they are often the first contact that fans have with an artist,” says Sharron Elkabas, agency director at talent booking and record label service mn2s. “Pick right and you are immediately on the front foot. Pick wrong and you can turn people off before they’ve even heard a beat.” More than once, Elkabas has advised an act to change their name because it has been too bland (advice, he points out, that is somewhat invalidated by the rise of Sam Smith).


Research has lent credibility to the idea that a distinctive name can get you places. In a 2012 study subtitled ‘Why People Like Mr Smith More Than Mr Colquhoun’, researchers observed in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that having a name that was easier to remember meant that you tended to occupy a more senior position in your company. In a mock election, participants were also more likely to vote for people with simpler names.

This could be one of the reasons Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta decided to brand herself Lady Gaga and Edson Arantes do Nascimento thought history might remember him better as Pelé.

As well as making their name shorter, performers settling on a pseudonym have a tendency to toss in some of the edgier letters, the ones that sit at the back of the alphabet bus. See Jamie Foxx, Jay Z and Charli XCX. And names with a pleasing rhythm will stick in the head more easily than their comparatively clunky predecessors: you are more likely to remember Ozzy Osbourne than John Osbourne, and Chris Rock more than Christopher Rock III.

But is this fetishisation of distinctive names an outdated notion? Casting director Julie Harkin says that in the acting industry, the mood has shifted. “I think it’s a bit of an old-fashioned thing to do. It doesn’t matter what their name is any more.” She argues that perhaps our roots and identity are more important to us now than they used to be. She does, however, point out that when actors change their name, they often do so in a subtle manner: Michael A Fox changing his name to Michael J Fox, for example.


Though the acting profession may be beginning to kick the habit, adopting a stage name is still an attractive career move in other disciplines. “In music more so than other industries, artists like to assume a character,” says Elkabas. “They like to become someone they aren’t in everyday life. It can be a fantastical character, one from history or a conceptual character.” It is particularly important in rap and hip-hop, argues Sophie McCreddie, director of artist development agency Nova Music: “There’s more of an ‘act’ that goes with something like that, rather than someone just standing there playing the guitar.”

This was the case for rapper David Meads, who tells me what made him choose his moniker Scroobius Pip: “I stole it from an Edward Lear poem about a creature that doesn’t know what it is or where it fits, but then realises it is its own creature. At the time I was doing street art, photography, making short films, doing music and working in a record store. So it was a good fit for the multi-genred way I tend to work.”

But don’t feel that not being part of the entertainment industry should prevent you from adopting a fake name. Humans, after all, make most of their decisions about people within the first few seconds of meeting them. The right name can mean the difference between being unemployed and landing your ideal job. Simply popping a single initial in the middle of your name, for example, was proven by a 2014 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology to make people consider you more intelligent. Your name is important.

So, if you feel sure you were born with the wrong title, if you believe your name is preventing you from securing that all-important hello from your boss in the corridor, if you think that your life needs an injection of pure adrenaline, don’t be hamstrung by ‘rules’ or ‘norms’ or ‘any sensible definition of taste’. Take the advice of Bob Dylan. When asked why he no longer wanted to be called Robert Zimmerman, Dylan said that you can simply be born with the wrong name. “I mean, that happens,” he explained. “You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

Illustrations: Alexander Hahn/Main image: Rex