At first glance, it looked like a completely ordinary wedding. The bride wore a white dress with a long train and bows on the lace sleeves, her hair done up in a mock beehive. Her bridesmaids each held a bouquet that matched their differently colored lace dresses. The bride and groom took pictures on the beach, and a small reception of friends and family took place in a low-ceilinged room afterward. The guests drank and danced under banners and balloons reading “Just Married.”
But this wasn’t quite an ordinary wedding, because in the groom’s place was a painting — specifically, a painting resembling one of Johnny Depp’s most famous characters: Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In July 2016, Amanda Sparrow Large Teague, 44, gathered her friends and her four children onto a boat and sailed 12 miles off the coast of Belfast in Northern Ireland. There she was married at sea to Jack Sparrow’s spirit by a local legal registrar and officiant. His presence at the wedding was symbolized by a candle, the portrait of Captain Sparrow, and a ring on a pirate’s sword. The wedding cake topper read “Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow” inside of an intricate heart.
Amanda Sparrow Large Teague with a portrait of Jack Sparrow on their wedding day (left), and their wedding cake with a customized cake topper (right).
Courtesy of Amanda Sparrow Large Teague
“I declare myself as married on forms and such, and this has not been challenged so far,” Amanda told me in an interview close to the date of their first anniversary. “But of course, he doesn’t receive any benefits because he’s a spirit.”
The Jack Sparrow universe isn’t only still thriving; it’s expanding.
Amanda is a former Jack Sparrow impersonator, which she says was part of her journey on the way to meeting Jack. In 2015 she made headlines for the commitment and expense she put into making her costume as accurate as possible, complete with gold teeth, that character’s tattoos, and a legal change of her name to Sparrow. Amanda puts as much thought into her house as she does in her own appearance, covering it in a collection of nautical antiques, with one room decorated like the Black Pearl, the ghost ship from Pirates of the Caribbean.
While Amanda’s case is unique, she is not alone in loving Captain Jack Sparrow. When the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out 2003, he was a character the likes of which a generation of young viewers had never seen before. He wasn't a bland, flaxen-haired Disney hero, and he certainly wasn't the golden boy Orlando Bloom, his foil in Pirates. As Depp himself has said in many interviews, the character was The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards combined with cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew — a macho but effeminate drunk clown, with rock star sex appeal, but a cartoonish quality and enough androgyny to be unthreatening. He tapped into, as Catherine Lacey puts it in her book The Answers, the “odd moment before adulthood [when you are] biologically old enough to know desire, but young enough to believe in magic.”
Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003, (left) and Keith Richards in 2008 (right).
Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection; Jon Furniss / WireImage
I was one of these young people swept up by Sparrowmania in the mid-2000s. But before I recently spent days Googling, emailing, DMing, and calling up strangers involved in the Sparrow universe, I — and most of the former Sparrow lovers I know — thought the character had long since lost his appeal. That all the movies after the first one were nothing but soulless grabs at blockbuster cash, and that Depp, now 54, had put the nail in the coffin of his androgynous bad boy/heartthrob status with his Trump impersonation, allegations of abuse by his ex-wife Amber Heard, lawsuits against his managers, and rumors of potential financial ruin due to irresponsible spending — including buying an entire French village, multiple islands, and $30,000 worth of wine a month.
But we were wrong. The Jack Sparrow universe isn’t only still thriving; it’s expanding. The popularity of the character pervades — and Depp knows this. He has started appearing as the character in public to surprise his fans, at Disney Land and at children's hospitals, perhaps attempting a resurrection of his career. Meanwhile, he’s inspired imitators the world over. One Sparrow “lookalike” near London makes his entire living impersonating Depp’s character. He and other Jack Sparrow admirers provide pirate entertainment at events or make and sell Jack Sparrow costume accessories, scarves, buttons, and wigs. Others have adopted a Jack Sparrow–influenced “pirate philosophy” by which they live their lives. One pirate couple in Michigan is even raising their 2-year-old daughter in the spirit of pirate life.
Some Sparrow fans, however, have dealt with the decline of Depp the person’s reputation by insisting that Sparrow is now a separate entity from the actor who created him.The world of modern pirates has many factions — some are into kitschy Renaissance fair piracy, some the steampunk pirate community, and others only participate in historically accurate pirate cosplay. But the ideas of freedom, rebelliousness, and living outside the norm are pervasive throughout all strata, including Sparrow’s. Nearly every Pirates fan and Sparrow impersonator I talked to spoke of the “freedom” of being Jack Sparrow and the liberty he provides to “be yourself.”
But is the character powerful enough to save Depp? Or, alternatively, to survive without him?
Depp and Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection
When Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (the first one) came out in 2003, Johnny Depp was just entering his forties. He had already gone from TV heartthrob with 21 Jump Street, to ’90s indie darling and Hollywood rebel (when he was arrested for causing nearly $10,000 worth of damage to a hotel room while in a “fight” with then-girlfriend Kate Moss), to having a critically acclaimed but “uneasy” relationship with the film industry, as Vanity Fair put it in 2004. But with the release of Pirates and ensuing kid-friendly films like Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp gave press the impression that he was finally settling down and retiring his old ways. He often brought up his then-partner, singer Vanessa Paradis and their two young children in interviews, citing them as influences upon his choice of films. And with this “settling” came financial and career security, repeatedly landing him on Forbes’ list of highest paid actors (and recently, most overpaid actor).
The first Pirates movie was a surprise hit. Based on a rickety old Disney ride, the idea was risky, as Disney’s first PG-13 movie. Depp’s acting choices were bold and creative — so bold in fact that, if Depp is to be believed, he was almost fired from the first film for acting too “drunk” and “gay.” But, of course, he carried the film through to commercial, critical, and cult success beyond what Disney could have hoped for, even earning himself his first Oscar nomination.
Thirteen years later, Depp’s career and life looks very different. He separated from Paradis in 2012, started frequently appearing dysfunctionally drunk in public, and got engaged to Amber Heard, who was 28 years old at the time. Now almost exclusively playing wacky, half-crazed characters in elaborate costumes, Depp’s performances became increasingly soulless and the films started bombing, prompting headlines such as “Has America fallen out of love with Johnny Depp?” and “Why Are All of Johnny Depp’s Movies Bombing at the Box Office?” Tim Burton’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), sequel to Alice in Wonderland (2010), actually set the record for the biggest difference in earnings between two installments of a movie franchise ever.
In May 2016, Heard filed for a divorce from Depp. A few days later, she filed charges against him for domestic violence. She claimed he was an alcoholic and that he verbally and physically abused her throughout their relationship. In court she described him punching her, pulling her hair, and often making her fear for her life. Selfies of Heard with a black eye and split lip were published, she was photographed leaving court with a bruised face, and later a video she took of him pouring a massive glass of wine in the morning and violently slamming cabinets was leaked. A judge ordered a temporary restraining order against Depp, but Heard retracted her charges before the case could go to trial, a move that was part of a $7 million divorce settlement to be donated to both a charity to help victims of domestic abuse and a children’s hospital.
As is often the case in Hollywood, the charges against Depp do not seem to have affected his career, and overall it does not seem to have affected his popularity among his fans. A month after Heard’s accusations, Disney CEO Bob Iger told the Hollywood Reporter that he was “not worried” about the effect the accusations would have on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, merchandise, and Disney theme park rides because “We have Jack Sparrow.” In other words, Iger believes the draw of Depp’s character is powerful enough to outweigh the allegations against the actor. And it seems he is right.
While Alice Through the Looking Glass may have been a box office dud, the latest Pirates earned a whopping near $800 million, triggering talk of sixth installment of the franchise, again starring Depp.
Gig Salad, a website that connects people planning events to performers, photographers, caterers, etc., told me that Johnny Depp is the seventh most popular impersonator request in the US, behind Elvis, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Prince, and Trump, making him the second most popular one still living. Requests for Sparrow impersonators didn’t decrease as his scandals emerged; rather, they rose around the release of Alice Through the Looking Glass and again in May of this year, with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
One of the full-time professional Sparrow impersonators I spoke to, Simon Newton, said that in the past year he’s received some comments about Depp’s alleged abuse on the websites of events he’s been booked for, and he has occasionally been hassled about it in the street when in costume, but infrequently and only by men. Mostly it’s been more or less the same, he said. Depp’s personal scandals haven’t interfered with Simon’s work enough to stop him from traveling to jobs in costume.
Manuel Vazquez for BuzzFeed News
“Life kind of gets switched upside down doing this,” Simon told me over the phone from his house in Crawley, West Sussex, where he lives with his dog. “Normal and weird get topsy-turvy.” Simon speaks with a drawling English accent, and you can occasionally hear hints of Sparrow’s voice and mannerisms poking through his speech.
Simon gets so much work as Sparrow that, when outside his home, he is more often in costume than out. Bizarre interactions with drunken strangers is the norm for him. People saying odd, inappropriate things in his ear, or yelling at him from across the road, is just how he lives his life. “If I walked down the street [in costume] for example, and no one stopped me, it’d be quite weird,” Simon said.
It’s the everyday, normal, human things that have become strange to him. “If I haven’t had time to get changed and I have to pop into my local grocery store, that’s more quite weird, just walking around,” he said. “And people get confused and don’t quite know what’s going on, because I’m not there to perform — I’m there to pick up bread or milk or something.”
Simon, who recently turned 38, has been a professional, full-time lookalike (British for impersonator) for 11 years. Work brings him everywhere from the US to India for birthday parties, weddings, pirate-themed work events and conferences, and promotional stunts for the films or video games. He was even hired as a hand double for Johnny Depp in one of the Pirates movies, but says he was so good the directors ended up asking him to do full-body double work as well.
Many in Simon's hometown are used to seeing him around in full costume.
Manuel Vazquez for BuzzFeed News
When I raised my clearly ignorant and patently false assumption that general interest in Sparrow waned over the 14 years since the first movie, Simon was quick to shoot me down.
“No, no it’s quite the opposite,” Simon said. “There are a hundred times more lookalikes now than there were when I started.” While there’s no scientifically accurate way to gauge fan interest over time, the box office hit of the newest film combined with the apparent demand for these many lookalikes can give you a pretty good idea. Plus, there are the new fans who come across the first movie on Netflix and get as hooked as those of us who saw it in 2003. A number of the fans I found on Tumblr were only 1 or 2 years old when the first movie came out.
“Jack Sparrow is so attractive to people. He’s such a sex symbol. Guys like him, girls like him. You can go from being a plain guy who never gets a second look on the street to having everyone interested in you.”