By Michelle Konstantinovsky
Naomi Kutin is technically the central subject of the new Independent Lens documentary Supergirl. But as the film unfolds, viewers learn fairly quickly that there are actually two equally important protagonists: Kutin and her all-powerful alter ego, “Supergirl.”
At first glance, the story might seem specific to Kutin, but the New Jersey pre-teen is representative of men and women, adults and children, all over, who have an alter ego of some sort.
For instance, San Francisco yoga teacher Gillian Confair wasn’t always Gillian Confair. Sure, that’s the name printed on her birth certificate, but for a few years in the early 2000s, Confair lived a double life.
“I had a complete alter ego all throughout high school,” says the San Francisco-based yoga instructor. “I was a giant dork in high school and I didn’t get along with other kids and didn’t fit in. I found this fandom community for a random TV show that I absolutely loved called Farscape.” Soon, Confair was posting on Farscape message boards, dialing into weekly group calls, and attending conventions — but not before reinventing herself.
“When I first signed up for the message boards, I had to decide on a username; I’d spent years correcting people on my name and not liking my name, and so I came up with Talia,” she says. “That became the very cool version of me that I could use in this big, geeky group of people — there are still people out there who call me Tal.”
Confair’s not alone, of course. Perhaps you’ve heard of Sasha Fierce (a.k.a. Beyoncé)? “I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I‘m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.” Queen B once said in a statement. “Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I‘m working and when I‘m on the stage.”
Other artists have toyed with alternate identities too: Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty-era was defined by the chaps-wearing Xtina, Garth Brooks released an album as Chris Gaines, and Eminem famously declared himself “Slim Shady.” But alter egos aren’t just reserved for the rich and famous. Case in point: Kutin, the nine-year-old powerlifter, is a shy, self-declared awkward pre-teen raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, but when she starts dabbling in the sport of powerlifting, she finds her talent knows no bounds when channeled through the filter of “Supergirl.”
“Adopting alter egos is a popular form of imaginative play for children,” says San Francisco psychologist Juli Fraga. “Also called ‘pretend play,’ kids often imagine they’re dragons, stormtroopers, or princesses.”
In Kutin’s case, adopting the identity of Supergirl allows her psychologically (and physically) to perform seemingly impossible feats — like lifting more than twice her weight. “When I’m lifting, I’m a very different person than when I’m just living life normally,” she says. “When I put on my workout gear, then I just become Supergirl.”
“When adults adopt these ‘alter-egos,’ they may be able to access other parts of the self that allow them to complete difficult tasks, like running a marathon, lifting weights, or handling a difficult conflict,” Fraga explains. “Recent research shows talking to one’s self in the third-person can distill negative emotions and ‘alter-egos’ may provide this same type of interpersonal distance.”
She adds, “Perhaps one feels conflicted or insecure about their behavior but if they believe ‘someone else’ is in charge, they feel less ashamed and perhaps more empowered to engage in the chosen act (i.e. powerlifting, competing in extreme sports).”
Alyssa Mass, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, says Kutin’s alter ego is just one element that makes her powerlifting success possible. “What stands out to me, and feels so touching, is that her father and brother are powerlifters and that her mother says girls in Orthodoxy don’t partake in sports,” Mass says. “What I see is a young girl who saw her father and brother doing something and had a desire to join them, combined with supportive parents who allowed for that desire and joining to happen. It’s a beautiful thing to watch parents support a child’s curiosity and passion, despite it not necessarily aligning with their way of life.”
Just as the support of Kutin’s family empowered her to live vicariously through “Supergirl,” Confair’s newfound group of fellow Farscape fans allowed her to access aspects of her personality she’d kept hidden. “I lived in a small town where everyone grew up together — a couple of people I knew since I was five — so there was no escaping Gillian,” she says. “Gillian was laughed at and bullied — but when I was Talia, nobody knew that person; the slate was completely wiped clean, I was free to be as loud and quippy as I wanted, as weird and obscure and funny as I wanted in a group of people who got all my references and didn’t call me ‘weird’ like I’d been called all throughout school. I was bolder, full-on confident in myself in a way I don’t think I’d ever let myself be. It was like a dream.”
Confair’s secondary life as Talia continued until she left home for college and found the fresh start she was looking for. “I didn’t have to be two separate people; I could just be me,” she says. “But there was something freeing in creating a persona from scratch with people who’d never seen me or met me or had a preconceived notion of who I was. I was this funny, sharp, cool kid, and if they believed that was me, then it was me.
While Confair no longer channels Talia, she did tap into the power of another alter ego when deciding to become a full-time yoga teacher. “It was a huge leap for me,” she says. “I created my website, and I still have this name to this day: The Average Yogi. It’s what I represented, it was my mission statement.” The tagline on Confair’s homepage reads, “Find the Extraordinary Within,” and it seems Talia helped her in this self-discovery. “Being able to be Talia for four years or more while being that cool version of myself in a space where there was cachet to being a geek and being the giant nerd that I am,” she says. “It empowered me to realize that part of myself wasn’t a part to keep hidden, but to be celebrated and carried with me and I live in that way now.”
In Kutin and Confair’s cases, their alter egos have provided positive results. But can an alter ego ever lead to trouble? “Alter ego adoption can be harmful if it blurs the line between fantasy and reality,” Fraga says. “Just as a child may blame spilled milk on an imaginary friend, adults who can’t take responsibility and chalk up all their success or troubles to their ‘alter-egos’ may have interpersonal difficulties that aren’t being addressed.”
In Mass’s experience, however, the positive aspects of alter egos typically outweigh the negatives. “Whether a client develops an alter ego to cope with trauma or a businessman develops an alter ego to tap into a well of confidence before a big meeting, examples of this abound throughout our society and culture,” Mass says.
“Real-life examples include Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce or the Real Housewives’ Erika Girardi/Erika Jayne, as well as fictional examples like Superman/Clark Kent or Jem/Jerrica [see gif below] — sometimes we want to express and explore ourselves more than our community may comfortably allow. Clinically speaking, in these cases, I would help my client to understand why and when this alter ego exists. What does it help them with? Does it hurt anything or get in the way of anything? While these answers will probably change over time and within different circumstances, if the answer to the latter is no…it ain’t broke so, don’t fix it.”
Confair doesn’t believe her situation needs fixing at all. “One of the best compliments I’ve gotten from different people is that I dress like a superhero,” she says. “And every time I say, ‘yeah — dress for the job you want.’”
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist/marketing specialist/ghostwriter and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Seventeen, Slate, SPIN, Entrepreneur, xoJane, SF Weekly, 7×7 Magazine, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, WebMD, and a whole lot more. She’s also a contributing editor and social media director at California Home + Design. She is an avid admirer of shiny objects and preteen entertainment.