I never knew you used to be married to Howard Stern,” says my friend.
Howard Stern? The American shock jock who specialises in really offensive comments? The man who dressed as “Fartman” for the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards in a $10,000, gold superhero costume with cut-outs to bare his buttocks? The man who said that the theme of his daughter’s batmitzvah would be “We hate Jews?” I can hardly think of a less likely ex-husband. Not, by the way, that I have an ex-husband, having been married to the same perfectly delightful man for the last 23 years.
“Errr…what are you talking about?”
“Well, I don’t usually look at those things on the internet, you know, those list things. The clickbait ones about celebrities.”
“Hmm,” I say. “Of course you don’t. Why do you mention it?”
“It’s just that I saw you on one.”
“Me? Are you sure?”
“Well, not really you. Your picture. But it said you were the ex-wife of Howard Stern.”
“It’s definitely your picture.”
And so, just like that, I acquired an alter ego. On a list entitled, “From 50 golden years of bliss to 50 gray weeks of gloom, celebrity wives then and now” a picture of me is identified as Alison Berns, Stern’s ex, above a story telling how they met as students — “Stern approached Alison by asking her to appear in a movie about transcendental meditation that he was making for a class. She was his first girlfriend.” It covered their marriage, at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Massachusetts, and their joint projects, three children and three films entitled (slightly worryingly) Negligee and Underpants, US Open Sores and Private Parts.
A quick google, and I discover that my picture is also labelled as Alison Berns elsewhere. On one website, my picture accompanies a borderline illiterate report on the couple’s divorce: “They had to go through tough times and get their relationship down in the pit.” On another, my picture appears above an Alison Berns fact-file, giving her age as 63 (nearly a decade older than me) and her net worth as $20m dollars (if only I came close).
I’m there as her on another site offering my picture as wallpaper — though for actual walls or for a computer, I am not sure. My picture is headed “Alison Berns: The Best Hairstyle” (why, thank you, ridiculous website), and underneath is a caption identifying me by my real name, adding a star rating of four out of five.
My first reaction to all this was panic and horror. Howard Stern? This is the man who taunted fans of a dead singer, and asked why the killers who shot students at Columbine High School didn’t try and rape some “good-looking girls” first. I didn’t want to be associated with him in any way. How could I get my picture removed?
I left a few outraged comments on some of the site forums. And then — about five minutes later — I relaxed about the whole thing. After all, it was completely hilarious.
Although Stern wasn’t my sort of guy, at least he put my husband’s occasional tactless moments into perspective. And Berns herself, an actress turned psychoanalyst, seems lovely.
I stalked her on Facebook. Anti-Trump, pro-Clinton, proud mum — so far, so similar. What’s more we both have curly hair (“The Best Hairstyle”) and, I like to think, a certain youthful aura, unlike her haggard former husband.
I messaged her on Facebook. “Hello! I’m an author and journalist from London and, very weirdly, my pictures has been used instead of yours on several celebrity websites.”
She hasn’t replied, but surely it can only be a matter of time.
She’s into transcendental meditation (I’m not) but has never lost her Jewish identity. Her oldest daughter, Emily, an artist and actress, has become Orthodox, telling the New York Post in 2015 that she dresses modestly and keeps Shabbat.
“Everyone in my family is evolving — no one has that resentment toward Judaism,” she said, mentioning her supportive mom, my alter ego, who keeps a set of kosher dishes for her daughter’s visits.
Lucky me that Berns (or Alison, as I like to think of her) leads a quiet and uncontroversial life. But what if I were desperate to uncouple our identities? I asked a lawyer, Mark Lubbock, a partner at Ashurst, who specialises in intellectual property.
The news was bad: “The first step is to establish that you own the copyright — which you are unlikely to unless you obtained an assignment from the photographer. This would entitle you to pursue take down notices via the various web hosts.
”Trying to get the image taken could prove a long and frustrating job. Privacy law could help, with its right to correct inaccurate data. The good news is that rights to rectification and erasure are strengthened in the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation, but unfortunately that doesn’t enter into law until spring 2018.”
In fact, I’m almost certain that I don’t own the copyright to the image. My purloined picture was taken way back in 2008, when my daughter and I decided to do one of those free studio shoots for a laugh. We went along with various outfits, had our hair and make-up done, and had dozens of pictures taken, which were then heavily photo-shopped. She looked beautiful in every one, I looked ridiculous (I don’t pose well) in all but this one. We were quoted crazy prices, bought two and then, a few years later, I paid £30 for the entire set. As I embarked on a new career as an author, it was useful to have professionally taken pictures. I paid for another set by another photographer, and I think I own the copyright for those, but this one is my standard head-and-shoulders shot.
It’s accompanied blog posts and newspaper articles, it’s been on posters and in brochures. “Is that you, Miss… in younger times?” asked one schoolgirl, glancing between Real Me and the poster on the school library wall. Time to brave a new photo shoot, perhaps.
In the meantime, I’d love to suggest to Alison Berns that we swap lives for the occasional weekend. She’ll try the simple life in London. I’d meditate in New York State (assuming that the mansion that I've found online is really hers. She may well live, like me, in a London terrace), and help myself to her alleged $20 million.
It’s safe — after all, she’s not married to Fartman any more.