Her pseudomajestyJeannette Charles

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Born in London, England, Charles tried out to be an actress, except one thing got in the way: she closely resembled Princess Elizabeth (from age 25, Queen Elizabeth II), who was 18 months older than she was, and rarely could be cast in any production. When she was, “my looks counted against me,” she lamented. “No matter what role I took on, I’d hear comments from the audience, and sometimes even laughter.” She gave up and took a job as an au pair in Texas, and later worked as a secretary before marrying another Brit ex-pat and returning to England.

Charles posing with the Brit band Queen in 1977. She admitted she was a bit shorter than Queen Elizabeth.

In 1972, Charles commissioned a painting of herself as a birthday gift for her husband. Artist Jane Thornhill was so proud of the result she showed the portrait at the Royal Academy of Arts, but it was disqualified for a prize because it was assumed the subject was the queen, and proctors had checked and discovered Thornhill had not been granted a sitting with the queen. The resulting press coverage thrust Charles into the limelight, and she realized she could turn the resemblance into her advantage as a royal impersonator, and agreed to pose for advertisements. “I’ve always been a staunch royalist and respect the Queen,” she said in a 2022 interview. “I would never do anything that reflected badly on the monarch or myself, [and] insisted I should never be introduced as the Queen when making appearances. I don’t think anyone else had earned a living by resembling someone famous before — now there’s a whole industry.

Mrs. Charles as the Queen in the classic Naked Gun film with Leslie Nielsen.

Print advertisements soon led to other appearances, including a 1974 publicity photograph with the British band Queen. As her fame grew, so did the offers: she appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1977, was a regular on Spike Milligan’s Q… comedy show and, in film, appeared in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985), and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). Perhaps most famously, her appearance in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) was a smash hit, if for no other reason than one scene’s outrageously funny climax. Police Squad’s Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), mistakenly thinking that the Queen is about to be assassinated, runs to pull her to safety and ends up on top of her, sliding down the entire length of a banquet table as press photographers capture the moment. The next morning, Drebin’s captain (George Kennedy) screams, “What is journalism coming to? You’re laying on top of the Queen with her legs wrapped around you, and they call that news?!” (Scene included below.)

Live from New York! Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Jeanette Charles in the ‘Save Great Britain Telethon’ skit on SNL’s April 23, 1977 episode.

“I appeared on TV chatshows, opened supermarkets, assisted magicians and shot adverts all over the world. Bands wanted me for music videos, and I handed out gifts with Liberace and presented a silver disc to the band Queen. The only time Ken” — her husband — “was impressed was when he got to meet Muhammad Ali, who had requested a photograph with me.” Films were particularly fun, she said. “Mike Myers was lovely to me when I worked on ‘Austin Powers’, even after I mistook him for a member of the crew. Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley were charming when making ‘Naked Gun’.” But “O.J. Simpson was rude,” she said, as “some actors didn’t realize how hard I worked. I’d spent hours perfecting the Queen’s voice and mannerisms.” She retired in 2014 as arthritis made it difficult to work.

Charles was reluctant to take one gig, at an event organized by a charity supported by the Queen Mother. The host checked with the Queen Mother’s office and got the reply, “Mrs. Charles is a delightful lady and we have never had cause to pass judgment on the way she conducts herself.” That was a relief to Charles. “To me,” she said, “it felt like a royal accolade.” Of course, the question now is, did she ever meet Elizabeth II in person? No, but the queen once drove by her, waving at admirers from her car. Charles said the queen “froze, staring, hand immobile in the air as our eyes met from a distance of a couple of feet. When you see your doppelganger, the effect is cataclysmic. If the sighting affected her as it affected me, she must have felt shattered.” Jeannette Dorothea Louise Charles died on June 2. She was 96 — ironically the same age as the Queen when she died in 2022.

From This is True for 9 June 2024