While on the road last year filming his latest independent movie, director Ludi Boeken and his relatively unknown cast decided to stop at Hooters for lunch. It would have been no big deal except that one of his stars looks almost identical to Britney Spears. And, of course, he (yes, he) was dressed in character as the pop icon.
“We were so used to seeing Robert as Britney, we didn’t think anything of it,” Boeken recalled. “All of a sudden we had like 800 people looking at us. He fled, and they chased him. From then on, we just brought food to him.”
“When I used to watch ‘The Mickey Mouse Club,’ people used to say Britney could be my little sister.” – Robert Stephens, a.k.a. Angel Benton
Robert is Robert Stephens, a.k.a. transvestite Angel Benton, a massive Spears fanatic and a Britney impersonator on the Southern California drag queen circuit.
Boeken’s latest film, “Britney Baby – One More Time,” is a comedy loosely based on a true story about a television news crew that mistook Benton for the real singer. The movie, which stars real-life filmmakers Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank (of “American Movie” fame) as the reporters, will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Sunday.
For Benton, who wisely ditched her Baby Spice act to become Spears just a few years ago, the movie marks another strange turn in what has been an adventurous run as a drag queen.
“When the Spice Girls started losing their popularity, I wanted to think of a new act so I could still perform,” Benton said in his Spears-like voice. “When I used to watch ‘The Mickey Mouse Club,’ people used to say Britney could be my little sister. She was 11 and I was 18, so we couldn’t pass as twins. But when… Baby One More Time came out, I was like, ‘Holy sh-. This girl is now my twin sister. This is my ticket out of the Spice Girls.’ ”
Benton’s striking resemblance to Spears also proved to be his ticket to meeting his idol when he beat out 30 contestants – all girls – in a Britney Spears look-alike contest. After a limousine dropped him off at a Spears concert in Los Angeles, he was waiting backstage to meet the singer when a reporter grabbed who he thought was Spears for an interview.
“I’m dressed up as Britney because that’s like every transy’s dream, to get a picture with whoever she impersonates,” Benton said. “I was supposed to speak to ‘Extra.’ That’s who I thought it was. I had no idea it was E! and they thought I was Britney.”
When one of Spears’ publicists spotted Benton being interviewed, she kicked him out from backstage. This incited Benton to send a letter titled “Britney Spears’ publicist is a bitch” to all the press outlets he could find. Eventually, his story garnered enough sympathy that a New Orleans radio station flew Benton there to meet the singer, which brought him even more press coverage. Within weeks, Benton had a production company offering to buy the story for a movie.
“It’s funny because at my very first meeting, they said whoever bought the movie might want a name in the lead, like Joey Lawrence,” Benton said. “I laughed in their face. ‘Yeah, right. Like America’s going to buy that Joey Lawrence is a Britney look-alike.’ So I put it in the contract that I had to play Britney.”
Benton did just that when the cameras started rolling last winter in Borchardt’s and Schank’s hometown of Milwaukee. When Boeken signed on to the film, the producers had yet to cast the odd duo as the leading male roles. But after another cast member suggested it, Boeken rented “American Movie” and saw a perfect fit.
“The idea became one of trying to see these two worlds together,” Boeken said. “One is this young gay dancer with his dream and terrible disappointment and lack of respect that he encountered, and the other is these guys from Wisconsin who don’t know who Britney Spears is or who Robert Stephens is. Get them on the road together in the same RV. It was an idea to make a fun movie, but at the same time, talk about sexual confusion and music and celebrity and all that.”
In “Britney Baby – One More Time,” Borchardt plays Dude Schmitz, a struggling filmmaker (could he be anything else?) who has a chance to make enough money to pay his crew for his last film by interviewing Spears for a local news station. His interview gets cut short, however, and he is doomed – that is, until he meets Stephens at a local diner.
The two cut a deal, and in exchange for Stephens pretending to be Spears in a series of exclusive interviews, Dude promises to introduce him to the singer at an upcoming concert in New Orleans. During their voyage to the Big Easy, Dude shoots “Britney” in touching scenarios like meeting gravely ill children at a hospital, until he realizes he can make more money secretly capturing her provocative side.
Borchardt, Schank and Benton are such amusingly distinct people, some of Boeken’s best footage was entirely improvised, he said.
“After spending a few days with them, we started to adapt the script,” the director said. “It was easy for me. All I had to do was shape things. We used documentary-style filmmaking, and I had Mark interview Robert. And Robert did the choreography for the dancing, so they all took part.”
“The only thing I had to keep reminding Robert of was to keep his knees together when he was sitting down,” Boeken said, laughing.
In a twist of fate, Boeken shot his scenes in New Orleans at the same time the real Spears was shooting her scenes for the upcoming “Crossroads” in nearby Kentwood, Louisiana. In fact, some of the same local crewmembers and extras worked on both movies.
Boeken never asked for permission from Spears to do his movie, but he did buy the rights to two of her songs and said she probably knows about it. (A Spears spokesperson did not return calls for comment.)
“I’m sure she’ll love it,” Boeken said. “Maybe not everything, but I know she has a sense of humor. I’ve seen her on ‘Saturday Night Live’ making fun of the same things we are making fun of.”
Added Benton, “She shouldn’t be upset. The whole movie is a valentine to her. But, I guess, as I’ve learned, you never know what is going to anger people.”