“Did you see that?” barks Lee Chapman as he jogs away from a thumping Leicester nightclub, blue football socks riding down his shins. “Some bloke just pinned me against a wall and said ‘fuck you!’. He said ‘fuck you for being a stalker!’ Can you believe that?”
After the night we’ve just had: yes. Yes I can. But the thing is, I didn't sign up for this. When I decided to visit the country’s foremost Jamie Vardy lookalike, all I expected was a friendly natter and a couple of ‘gram-worthy selfies.
I did not expect to become a brother-in-arms with Leicester's most hated man.
On 3rd May, local postman and Jamie Vardy lookalike Lee Chapman became a viral video star. During Leicester City’s title-winning parade, he was spotted in the crowd by manager Claudio Ranieri and yanked aboard the coach. Cameras caught the moment that Chapman came face-to-face with his free-scoring doppelganger for the first time. Vardy, surrounded by roaring laughter and red-blinking smart phones, pulled Lee in for a photo and called him a "full-kit wanker". 29 year-old Chapman describes it as one of the best moments of his life.
One month later, and things aren’t looking so rosy. Lee’s decision to pursue a lookalike career has angered Vardy, who blocked Chapman and his various social media accounts. Vardy's new wife, Rebekah, then accused Lee of being a “stalker” on Twitter, alleging that the former postman had been tagging himself in her family pictures. The online tabloids picked the story up, and it trended for three consecutive days. Chapman's reputation was effectively in tatters.
But while Rebekah Vardy’s comments have garnered column inches, Lee’s denials have fallen on deaf ears. I decide to meet up with the Leicester native and get his side of the story.
I email Lee’s agent, James, and tell him my plan: to go on a night out and have it large with his most sought-after and divisive client. “Have you got a budget?” he asks. No, I reply. “What, not even £75, or £100?” Sensing that I wasn’t exactly dealing with a Herb Cohen-like master of negotiation here, I offer £50. He accepts.
Once sufficiently financially incentivised, James suggests I travel up early Saturday afternoon, to shadow Lee as he makes a couple of scheduled public appearances. I immediately book a Megabus to Leicester. Arriving on time, I take a taxi to the local church where @#VardyLookalike (his Twitter handle) is showing off his famous face at a children's charity fun-day.
I spot him in the car-park, carrying a multicoloured bouquet of McDonald’s-branded balloons. We say a brief hello before he wanders off to fulfill his duties: standing in the corner of the room with a chipped plastic Premier League trophy and smiling statically at superfluous camera flashes.
The agent soon drags him away for his next appearance, a charity raffle in a Loughborough Tesco superstore. As we wave goodbye to the kids and start to leave, Lee double-taps my arm. “Do you think I look like Jamie Vardy?” He stares expectantly, a smile wobbling over his pointed chin. I take a moment to think about what I'm saying and impulsively pat his arm.
“Yeah. Yeah I do.”
The words are genuine, he really does have Jamie Vardy's face on his face. As if on cue, his public appearance at the Tesco raffle conjures up a small crowd of middle-aged women excitedly lining up to get picture after picture with Lee. Most of them are adamant that he’s the real deal.
“You know I’m not actually Jamie Vardy, right?” he says to one woman, who’s snapping a photo for her son. “I don’t care. You’re better looking than the real one anyway.” She cackles and exits the store as another iPhone-wielding patron takes her place.
It’s a question he asks fairly often. Of the teenage girl who wants him to sign her phone in permanent marker (“Yeah, I know. Just do it”) to the security guard who insists it doesn’t matter, because his kids won’t know the difference anyway (he signed his own name, so I suspect they will, but I bite my tongue).
Tesco manager Vinod, 50, reached out to the lookalike over Twitter only a few days before. “We’re very thankful to him for coming down." He grins, looking over at Lee as he signs a packet of Walkers with a biro. "It’s for diabetes, so it’s a worthy cause.”
“Some people go too far,” says Lee, as he hands out Mr. Men puzzle packs to the raffle winners. “At the trophy celebrations [when Leicester won the league], one gentleman stole my bag and made me chase after him, just so I would take photos with his mates. I did it, but I didn’t look happy.”
He insists that, apart from the inevitable “haters”, the majority of people are fully behind his eccentric career change. On the basis of today, I’m prepared to believe it.
Three hours of selfies and cheek-aching smiles later, he’s ready to pack up. That is, until a teenager rushes towards him and skids to a halt: “Why has Jamie Vardy blocked you on Twitter?” It’s the first time today that the scandal has been mentioned. Lee squirms, and waves a cast-clad arm in dismissal. “Don’t believe everything that you read.”
“The scandal has definitely affected people’s reactions to me, which is really disappointing,” Lee moans as we sit down for lunch in a local Pizza Hut. His agent quickly cuts in: “Before Becky called him a stalker – which is a libellous thing to say – the worst he ever got was “You don’t look like Jamie Vardy.” But now he’s getting death threats, rape threats, and people are constantly calling him a paedophile. We get up to 200 tweets a day from trolls. We just ignore and block.”
Lee nods. “I’m not a millionaire. I can’t take them [the Vardy family] on. If you Google the word stalker, I’m on the front page. That’s not right. Maybe they’re doing it to turn people against me? I don’t know. I've been having a great time, but this has put a bit of a stink on it.”
At this point you might be thinking: if it bothers you so much, why not just ditch the kit and return to normality? According to Lee, it’s not that simple: He’s been granted six months' leave by the Post Office to pursue a career as a lookalike. His partner is a mobile hairdresser, who now has to stay at home to look after their 3 year-old son. Lee is the household's only source of income.
“The way I see it is, my Leicester kit is my work uniform. People forget that I don’t just look like Jamie Vardy, but I’m also the same age, weight and height. Not many people get this kind of opportunity, so why shouldn’t I grasp it?”
And so far, it's going just about how you'd expect. His agent informs me that there are talks to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. That Lee is planning a charity remix of ‘Chat Shit, Get Banged’ with a “big name producer,” and in a few days, he’s being flown over to the European Championships by a betting company to shoot a series of prank videos.
Is he worried about Vardy disgracing himself at the Euros à la Becks 98, and putting his lookalike career in danger? “No, not really. Any publicity is good publicity”. I suggest the same could be said for his very own ‘stalker’ dilemma. He struggles to tear a cheesy-bite from his margherita and furrows his brow. “I guess I’m going back on myself there. I’m in the papers. I’m on the Internet. Good or bad, I’m still noticeable. A lot of celebrities have made a living like that.”
But even if the cyber-bullying is worth it, public abuse is a much scarier proposition. I start to worry about our upcoming night out in Leicester – especially after checking my Twitter feed.
News had broken earlier that Premier League runners-up Arsenal were triggering Jamie Vardy’s £20 million release clause. While that seemed like pure speculation, it now looked like the deal was progressing at an alarming rate. By the end of the night, it was more than possible that Vardy would no longer be a Leicester City player. How would the city react to him then?
Around 8pm, we pay our bill (just drinks, the pizzas were on the house) and bid farewell to the waving diners. Jumping into our taxi, we set sights for a hot spot befitting Lee's newfound celebrity status: Yates's in Leicester city centre.
We’ve barely begun to trudge through the booze-drenched carpet when Lee is grabbed by a man with biceps the size of gammon joints. “It’s Jamie fucking Vardy!” he roars, showing off his big catch to a table of uniformly-polo shirted mates.
This alerts the whole bar to his presence. A 20-strong hen-do soon corner him on the dance floor, demanding endless selfies and piercing the air with dick straws like horny tribal hunters. “Look, I’m shaking. I’m going yellow,” he says, holding out his hand as more and more people clamber for attention. “I’m so excited.”
I head to the bar to order a drink, and eavesdrop on a huddle of guys standing nearby. “He doesn’t even look like Jamie Vardy,” one of them mutters into their pint, as they all glare at the growing crowd of women beyond.
The drink has barely touched my lips when the agent declares that we’re leaving. Apparently, the muscle-bound shouty man from earlier has just confronted him in a rage, yelling that his client was an embarrassment to the city of Leicester. That he should be ashamed of his constant kit-wearing and career. Wary of the trouble he could cause, he considers it best that we move on.
But if he thought that was bad, he hadn’t seen anything yet.
As we walk through Leicester city centre, between the blaring clubs and pubs advertising retro drink deals, it becomes clear that the mood has well and truly turned against Chapman.
Heckles fly from every smoking area we pass. “Fuck off to London, you full-kit wanker”; “Vardy’s leaving because of you, you cunt”; “Where’s your fucking Arsenal kit, stalker?” It feels like we're the out-of-town boxers who won't even make it to the ring.
As the jibes rain down, it feels inevitable that someone will break rank and pounce on Leicester’s most famous pretender. One swaying passerby moves to head-butt Lee, before reeling off into a side road.
The agent reaches for his phone and swipes past the abusive notifications that fall like Jenga blocks on his screen. Twitter tells us that Jamie Vardy’s Arsenal medical is scheduled for tomorrow morning.
If the move goes through, will Lee be able to show his face in Leicester again? Burly blokes jeer as we pass, and Lee is stopped every few seconds. It’s like walking though a Pokémon cave packed with Superdry-sponsored Machokes. Every pat on the back seems destined to end with a punch on the nose, and regret is etched on Lee’s face.
There are still fans and well-wishers, but they’re few and far between. Lee quickens his pace to a light jog as we turn off the main strip and away from the madding crowds. “I’ll tell you what,” he croaks, looking back at the noise. “I am not enjoying being in this kit right now.”
Disturbed by the insults and hostility, James, his ever-loyal agent pulls us both into a nearby McDonald’s to hide, where he makes a flustered phone call to his business partner. Directly outside, a man is (inexplicably) punching himself in the face, while a sobbing girl pleads with him to “leave it.” It’s 9pm and I’m shitting myself.
Three cheeseburgers and one pep talk later, we exit the golden arches and make our way down the road. I begin to write some notes down on my phone and look back, only to find that Lee has somehow gathered backup.
Three girls on a work night out have bolstered our squad, and it seems to have the required effect. The temper of the night begins to dissipate. We duck into a pub, and move to buy a much-needed drink.
Two guys approach Lee and request a picture. After he complies, I ask if they think he looks like Jamie Vardy. “No. Not at all” they reply. Regardless, they join our entourage. Safety in numbers, after all.
We soon emerge onto the streets (Chapman wanted to leave after Watch Me Whip/Nae Nae came on) and set course for our final destination: clubRepublic. We had planned to go and see R&B superstar Nelly at another venue, but they’d refused us free entry on the basis that they didn’t really need a Jamie Vardy lookalike on that particular night. Fair is fair.
In any case, clubRepublic has promised us the full VIP treatment, as well as special dispensation for Lee to get his full Leicester kit past the bouncers, Astroturfs and all. It's an offer we simply can't refuse.
Smoke pumps into the air and around the room as we navigate our way to the VIP area. We’re led upstairs, and enter a room decked out in wall-to-wall white leather. If the Milky Bar Kid grew up to become a pimp, this would be his bedroom. Trays upon trays of Vardy bombs (Jagermeister in WKD) are placed on our table. We’ve finally made it.
And before I know it, Lee’s disappeared. Lost to the labrynthian club beneath, ready to take on the world that he hid away from just hours ago.
I consider going to search for him, but worry that I’ll never make it back upstairs without the Vardy party by my side. Soon enough, James calls for me to follow him downstairs and into the medical room, where Lee is sprawled out across the portable couch.
They’ve decided to jump on the news of Vardy’s Arsenal medical. I appreciate their dedication to the cause but wince at the thought of how Twitter will react.
Once the club photographer is finished, we emerge from the building into the still-warm Leicester morning. I walk on, leaving Chapman (still in full Leicester kit) to chat with a few kebab-slurping fans outside the door. Suddenly the aforementioned 'fuck you' guy pins him against a wall. Lee somehow makes an escape and relays the experience to me, beaming, post-booze adrenaline flowing through his veins. It's an odd and slightly terrifying situation to be in but, despite Chapman's earlier nerves, it's clear that he's starting to relish these confrontations.
I leave to catch my 3am Megabus back to London, and start to wonder what’s next for Lee. It’s hard to imagine that another lookalike has ever caused this sort of division and controversy - but in a world where Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins hog our timelines, isn’t that just the easiest route to fame?
Lee’s not a stalker. He’s not a bad guy, either. He’s just a man who went from being a nobody to a somebody in the course of one unpredictable Premier League campaign. A man who has big decisions to make, but isn’t sure what to do next. A man who’s relied upon by his family to pull on a Leicester strip, and do everything in his power to make headlines. If anybody in the world can relate to that, it’s Jamie Vardy.