These are Definitely Not Scully’s Breasts

Written by David Kushner, Wired

Saturday November 1st, 2003

Inside one man's crusade to save Gillian Anderson and the rest of the world from the plague of fake celebrity porn.

The moment he boots up case file 371, the detective gets that twisted feeling in his gut. Ed Lake – blue button-down shirt, gray hair, hangdog jowls – studies the evidence alone in the musty dining room of his tiny apartment in Racine, Wisconsin, a small town southeast of Milwaukee. It’s that blonde again. Elisha Cuthbert. He’s seen her. The daughter on the TV show 24. And here she is now. Frozen on his computer screen – the smoky eyes, the parted lips. But something’s wrong. The plunging neckline. The sheer black blouse. The exposed nipples. It’s her, but it’s not. It’s a sham.

Lake, a 66-year-old retired Air Force weather observer, is the self-described Fake Detective, defender of Hollywood babes. Every day in this cramped hovel, he scours the alt.celebrity newsgroups for doctored photos of starlets in various stages of undress. The hoaxsters behind these operations: a breed of hackers known as fakers who pride themselves not on their ability to crack code but on their skill at creating a new kind of postmodern art.

Fakers are DJs of the pixel, manipulating pictures with Photoshop the way Moby tweaks sounds with a sampler. Bad fakes are obvious – Britney Spears’ face clumsily grafted on a topless torso. The good ones seem sublimely genuine – a midstride shot of Ashley Judd sans panties at the Oscars, a doe-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow lying naked on a featherbed. If they’re particularly well-done, they rise from the underground newsgroups and onto the hard drives of people who take them for the real thing.

So what’s the harm in that? For the chivalrous Lake, it’s an affront to the actresses. On his site, he bills his mission: Protecting the innocent, defending the truth, and recovering the sullied reputations of beautiful damsels in distress since 1996. “My favorite actresses are being betrayed,” he says earnestly.

But for Lake, there’s more to it. Fakers undermine the hard work of collectors of legitimate celebrity photos, like Lake himself. To understand why, he tells me, you need to understand the mind of a collector.

One look around his pad makes it obvious that Lake collects to the point of obsession. Stashed inside his closets and beneath the fantasy art posters that adorn his walls is a hoard of objects that many people would call junk: 4,000 miniature liquor bottles; 2,000 jazz tapes; 3,000 books, including more than 400 on World War II. “Collecting can’t be explained,” he says almost wearily as he cracks open a Diet Coke. “It’s like a pack rat thing. I’ll collect anything.” Most of all, Lake collects photos of celebrities – a passion that dates back to his childhood and the double features he never missed at the local movie house.

Clearly, Lake has an appreciation for beautiful women, but he denies his motivations are prurient. He’s on a crusade. He doesn’t want anyone pulling the wool over the eyes of guys who are serious about their celeb collections.

Every self-appointed Batman needs a Joker, of course. And the Fake Detective has his. He goes by the name of Trillian.

“No good. The light’s all wrong. She’s looking in the wrong direction,” says Trillian, in heavily accented English. We’re standing in a bookshop in the red-light district of Amsterdam, flipping through a porno mag in search of shots suitable for faking. “This is better. See the hairline? See the angle? It’s dead-on,” he says, slapping the magazine with a grin. “This, this could be Sandra Bullock.”

Along the canals, wobbly tourists window-shop hookers. Macy Gray’s “Sexual Revolution” pulses from a Rastafarian café. The warm breeze smells like the inside of a bong. As we head out into the crowds, Trillian, a 37-year-old Hollander with a crooked nose, nicotine-stained teeth, and brainiac eyes, declares he’s had enough of the Amsterdam scene.

It was a long time coming. After growing up in a German border town, he moved here to live the wild life. But eight years in a small flat on the far side of town got to him – the dopey crowds, the pushy prostitutes, the neo-hippie vagabonds. Now he lives in an industrial burg outside the city and works as a computer engineer at a local high school.

Trillian’s not the most prolific of the few thousand online fakers, but many consider him the best. And for good reason. His necklines – the crease where a celebrity’s head is pasted to a model’s body – are imperceptible. His saturation and hue – the colorings that blend the skins of two different people – are subtle and convincing. He takes pride in his accomplishments but doesn’t want his identity revealed. “You end up being a perv to some people,” he says.

Fakes date back to the early days of bulletin-board systems, but they emerged as a distinct subculture in September 1996, when a Canadian computer engineer nicknamed Lux Lucre founded the alt.binaries

.pictures.nude.celebrities.fake newsgroup. As the group’s archivist, Lucre estimates there are roughly 300,000 fakes in existence, ranging from a black-light poster-style nude of Jennifer Aniston under a waterfall to a spread eagle of, yes, Bea Arthur.

The most popular fakee? Gillian Anderson. She has all the ingredients: girl-next-door accessibility, sci-fi geek cred, and, most important, a symmetrical face that’s easy to manipulate. Britney Spears is not symmetrical, Trillian explains, making her difficult to flip. Sandra Bullock is almost perfect. Same for Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt. “Their heads glue on almost every body,” he says.

Many fakers are in it for the cheap thrills. “I’m not really trying to create art, just good masturbation material,” emails Yovo, an unemployed 38-year-old faker outside of Seattle. “It’s pretty obvious that mine are fake. Anna Kournikova isn’t known for doing double penetration shots, ya know.”

Trillian professes different motives. “There’s nothing erotic when you’re working at the level of pixels,” he says. He likes the simple nod to a task well-done – something missing from his daily life. “You can seek recognition at work, but you will be disappointed,” he says, as we catch a train to his house. “That’s part of faking: ‘Look at what I’ve done.’ You get cheers or boos. You get recognition.”

And there’s no greater recognition than the attention from one man: the Fake Detective. Trillian first caught wind of in late 2000, after hearing that some of his work had wound up on the site. He found two of his pieces – a Katie Holmes and a Sandra Bullock – along with Lake’s critiques. He couldn’t help but feel honored, yet stops short of giving Lake props. “His critiques were wrong. On Katie Holmes, he talked about this shadow under her neck like it was fake. But the problem was her skin tone – she was too purple,” he says, smiling. “Ed’s eyes are good, but not the eyes of a real faker.”

When he was a kid, Lake’s bedroom was plastered with headshots of Rhonda Fleming and Susan Hayward. His passion for celebrities has never waned. Between his Air Force service and a stint coding databases for the Sara Lee Bakery, he started painting barroom nudes for Milwaukee-area pubs. After a couple more tech jobs, he spent a year on the road playing blackjack at casinos before returning home to run a hydraulics company. In 1996, he retired – but couldn’t sit still. He revisited his childhood passion, this time with a new and powerful tool at his disposal: the Internet.

Online, Lake became one of the most active collectors in the thriving and earnest alt.celebrity newsgroups. There he found dozens of fellow old-school movie fans sucking down the kind of cheesy and glamorous stills that populated his youth. When the newsgroup began debating whether a recently uploaded picture of a nude Gillian Anderson was real, Lake took it as a call to arms. “She’s a serious actress,” he says defiantly. “I knew she wouldn’t do something like that.” So he set out to prove it.

After a few hours analyzing the photos and scouring AltaVista, Lake returned with the source of the doctored photo. In this tiny corner of the Net, Anderson’s reputation was saved. Within six months, collectors were forwarding other suspect images. Lake took to the challenge of exposing fakes with the same zeal he’s shown in hoarding miniature liquor bottles. He became the Fake Detective.

He taught himself how to use Corel PhotoPaint. He lurked in faker newsgroups. He studied the way fakers think and work. In mid-1997, Lake launched his Fake Detective site with a simple sleuthing methodology. He would break down fakes into component parts – a celebrity photo grafted onto a porn shot – and expose them for what they were.

Lake still has the discipline of a military man. Every morning at 8:45, he puts down his decaf on a stained mug warmer and surfs the newsgroups for “base shots,” or the originals. A good base shot has elements that can be sexed up: an open mouth, glistening lips, bedroom eyes. Lake has 900 potential base shots of Britney Spears alone, and an uncanny memory of 60,000 more in his collection – the hairstyles, the backgrounds, the tilt of the head. When he stumbles across a fake in a newsgroup or on a Web site, he downloads it, and the process begins – he opens the photo in one window and combs through his base shots for the matching head or body.

For every fake he exposes, Lake assigns a case file number – posting the nude next to the grafted celebrity shot and explaining how it was done. Some of the explanations are signed Dr. Caesar Backside, Idle Hands, or Honest John – Lake’s imaginary dream team of fellow detectives. It’s all part of an elaborate, cheeky fantasy. After years as a movie fan, Lake has become the star.

For all his rhetoric about saving damsels in distress, Lake clearly enjoys the titillation of his job. He frequently posts on his site that he can identify fakes because they don’t live up to his imagination. “In our dreams,” he once wrote, Brooke Shields’ breasts “are just the right size.” Despite the occasional transgression, he says he doesn’t get off on fakes. He’s in it for the intellectual challenge. “It’s like a big game of Concentration,” he explains. And he doesn’t think it’s weird. Some retirees do the New York Times crossword puzzle; he does this.

Lake’s personal quest hasn’t brought him any closer to the actresses he adores. He doesn’t get any thank-you notes from fakees. But he’s also managed to mostly avoid dustups with notoriously litigious celebrities. Nancy Kerrigan, Barbie (or, rather, her “people”), and even Dustin Hoffman have been embroiled in multimillion-dollar lawsuits over digitally altered images. Alyssa Milano’s mother started a celeb-rights activist group called CyberTrackers when her son found illicit images of his sister online. But the only time a celebrity contacted Lake was when CyberTrackers client Kathy Ireland threatened to sue over a photo on his site. “They didn’t care what I was trying to do,” he says, “they just wanted it off my site.”

Lake’s hobby has drawn some unlikely attention, however. For three years, an Australian magazine has devoted a weekly feature to his work that has generated hundreds of emails. Once, a group of Malaysians asked him to resolve a national scandal. Nude photos of the country’s hottest pop star couple were consuming the Malaysian press. The government – insisting that the photographs didn’t represent the actions of proper Muslims – said the pictures were fakes. Lake took on the case, only to declare that the images were real. “They weren’t too pleased,” Lake says with a satisfied laugh.

Such recognition has given Lake a certain swagger. There was no fake he couldn’t bust. Until he came across an impeccable Bullock bearing a one-name signature: Trillian.

Back in his office, Lake opens case file 362. It’s a picture of Nicole Kidman at the 2002 Academy Awards with a nipple peeking over her dress; in faker terms, a “nip slip.” Lake knew it was a fake, but he couldn’t crack it. He reluctantly asked Trillian for help. The response came in the form of a catty lesson on how the master faker had melded two background shots from the red carpet event and pasted Kidman’s head on the body of a random model. Lake had met his match. “It’s mind-boggling what he can do,” Lake says, a mix of admiration and contempt in his voice.

Lake loads an Elisha Cuthbert fake, Trillian’s latest, and adjusts his glasses. The last thing he wants is to be taunted again. He searches his files for the base shot and, within minutes, he has it. But it looks nothing like the fake. “Just wait,” Lake says.

He shrinks the head. Flips it. Adjusts the hue, the saturation. With a flick of the mouse, he floats a transparency of the original over the fake. “Now what do you think?” he says. It’s perfect. But there’s a problem. Lake can’t complete the case file until he can post all the ingredients, including the body shot. And for the life of him, he can’t find it. The thought of asking Trillian for the photo briefly crosses his mind, then he dismisses it. “The last thing I want to do is encourage him,” Lake says.

Inside a town house cluttered with empty Heinekens and dog-eared Arthur C. Clarke novels, Trillian gets busy showing me how he did the fake. He slides his mouse, pasting Cuthbert’s head over the body shot. “I found this on a Web site for some party,” he says. “All the women were in see-through dresses. I sure wish I was there.”

Aside from his brief display of wistfulness, the process comes off as purely mechanical. After almost five years of faking, Trillian is losing his fascination with his work. He’s been featured so many times on the Fake Detective’s site that it no longer satisfies him. He doesn’t care about fooling Lake into thinking a fake is real. And his brief stab at profiting from his hobby by charging a subscription fee proved fruitless. Just as he was about to begin making money from his site, his Web host caught wind and pulled the plug.

Today, Trillian is down to a few fakes a month, and often he doesn’t even bother with newsgroups, instead sticking to message boards. “The longer you fake, the less eager you are to distribute them,” he says, rolling a cigarette. “It might sound cocky, but I don’t make bad fakes anymore. When

I started faking, I was just seeking acknowledgment. But you change as you get older; it’s not my primary goal to know what other people think.”

After hearing that the Fake Detective was wrestling to crack his Cuthbert, Trillian cut to the chase, emailing Lake the headshot and the body, explaining how it was done. Sacrificing his queen. Case file 371: closed.

A thick fog rolls over the waters near Racine, and Ed Lake doesn’t need his meteorological skills to know it’s going to be a gray day. We’re having lunch by the docks, far from the computers, the fakes, the unsolved cases. I ask how he feels about getting Trillian’s help with the Cuthbert case. He plays it cool. “I couldn’t have found that picture on my own,” he says, digging into his tuna salad. “Anyway, it’s just a game, really.”

But I suspect there’s something deeper at work: the thrill of the pursuit in a life that’s slowing down. Without fakers like Trillian, there would be no chase. Without a chase, there would be no Fake Detective. Ed Lake would just be an old guy in a small apartment. Surfing the Internet. Alone.