x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Seeing double: a Dubai expat's hunt for her doppelganger

Take our poll: Sophie Robehmed, a Lebanese-British expatriate, is on a quest to find her exact double, which has led to a global project, writes Mitya Underwood.

Journalist Sophie Robehmed, who is using the power of social media to help her scour the world for her doppelganger, reflects on her task on Dubai Marina's JBR. Photo illustration by Chris Pike / The National
Journalist Sophie Robehmed, who is using the power of social media to help her scour the world for her doppelganger, reflects on her task on Dubai Marina's JBR. Photo illustration by Chris Pike / The National

Sophie Robehmed is a woman on a rather unusual mission.

The Lebanese-British expatriate wants to find her doppelganger, and is prepared to travel the world to do so. The 27-year-old, 5-foot-9 brunette has already received responses to her quest from as far afield as Russia, South America and Australia.

"When I decided to start it, I saw it more as a social experiment than anything else really," she says. "Is it possible to find this person, this doppelganger?

"My main concerns have always been that I don't want people thinking it's a vanity project, or that I love myself. That's not what it's about, or what I'm about."

When she first came up with the idea in late 2011, she started a blog, calling it Doyoulooklikeme. For a few years the momentum was slow, but this year she plans to intensify her efforts and travel wherever the search takes her.

"I think I will find someone. I'm not going to give up, I think she's out there," she says. "You find people that look like your mum, your partner or your best friend, and people will have heard 'oh I saw someone that looked just like you' or 'I swear it was you'. So this suggests that we all do have a doppelganger. It's just finding them that's the hard part."

She set up Twitter and Facebook accounts under the same Doyoulooklikeme header, and, thanks to her persistent nature, received interest from some famous Twitterati who have retweeted her messages.

Caitlin Moran, a British broadcaster, journalist and novelist, and Dom Joly, an award-winning comedian and journalist, both helped publicise her hunt.

She has also been invited onto various radio stations across the world to talk about her project.

"I think people are interested in the notion that there is someone out there that could look like them and have very similar traits," she says.

"I had so many people saying 'I've found them for you', and I was left really disappointed because they looked nothing like me at all.

"I was really excited when I was at a friend's house party where a girl mistook me for someone else; she said I looked just like her. Sadly we couldn't get hold of her in the end. I sometimes wonder if she could be my doppelganger, wherever she is."

When it comes to celebrity lookalikes for Robehmed, the results have been somewhat varied. Facebook yielded the tip of stunning Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor, while Twitter turned up British actress Helena Bonham Carter and Hollywood favourite Natalie Portman - none of whom look much like her at all.

The varied suggestions have forced her to consider the subjective nature of a doppelganger - we rarely see ourselves, and others, in exactly the same way as other people.

"For some people it's not just about the face; some people think a real doppelganger is someone who you share interests with.

"Looking at pictures I've put online, I can see I look different in different pictures, like a lot of people do. I almost have to establish what I'm looking for, what is my definition of a doppelganger? It's subjective."

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the German word doppelganger is 'an apparition or double of a living person'. It was reportedly first used in the English language in the early 1850s, where it appeared in mythical tales and folkloric stories.

"In some traditions it's supposed to mean bad luck if you come face to face with yours, it can be an omen of death," says Robehmed. "It has strong roots in gothic literature.

"But today it's more about 'who is your celebrity lookalike?' with countless [phone] apps. And Facebook introduced a Doppelganger Week in 2010 in the first week of February, encouraging users to change their profile picture to the celebrity that most resemble them."

For someone who admits to being very easy-going when it comes to her appearance, how did she pluck up the courage to put herself out there for the world to see?

"I know what people are like online and I thought I'd get a mixed response. But it was great, and a lot of people saw it for what it was. It's funny how many people actually asked me to find theirs, they think I'm some kind of expert."

With more than seven billion people in the world, the closest thing to an expert doppelganger spotter would logically be a biometric recognition programme. A computer, in theory, should be able to analyse someone's face in a much more accurate way without any of the subjective thinking that humans introduce to the process.

Last year Robehmed, whose Lebanese father met her British mother when they were both living in Abu Dhabi, visited the facial recognition centre Aurora in the UK, which has installed software and hardware in some of the country's major airports and police stations.

James Ward, who runs Clarati, the Dubai-based arm of Aurora, said facial recognition is all about numbers and measurements, and is not a subjective way of looking at someone.

"Human beings do facial recognition very well," he says. "If I saw a face, I would be able to pick out that person in a crowd the next time I saw them. We are naturally good at retaining that level of detail.

"When a machine does it, you have to give it boundaries. When you look at somebody, you are not just seeing their face; you see their hair, their clothes and their mood in terms of the way that's expressed facially."

Biometric facial recognition works by pinpointing the eyes on a face, then using these as the basis to create a sort of grid, which includes measurement, light and shade, and contours of the features.

"In a very simplistic way, if I was to take a photograph of a face, we would take the photograph and normalise it, make it one standard size and take out all the colour and make it black and white.

"That's where the comparison is done. Once we take the photograph, we effectively throw it away, because we don't need it."

So surely a piece of facial recognition software could be used to help Robehmed find who she's looking for? It seems not, as two people who don't look the same to the human eye may come up as a match in the software.

"It's just that the particular way that the image has been captured and compared puts them very close in that number range," Ward says "But if you look at the individual, you might say 'they don't look the same'."

Two of the most promising matches in the search came via the Doyoulooklikeme Facebook page, the first coming just a week into the project.

Lauren, from the UK, was introduced on the social networking site by a former colleague. Like Robehmed, she is creative, working as a filmmaker in the UK and a similar age.

The second potential match, Roya, got in touch herself after her mother saw a BBC story about the search. She has a similar mixed heritage and a September birthday.

"Flicking through her pictures there was one in particular where I really saw myself in her, especially around the eyes. But, like with Lauren, there are other pictures where we don't look so alike.

"I'm looking forward to meeting them both to find out if either could be the closest thing to a doppelganger that I am potentially ever going to find."

munderwood@thenational.ae

Do you look like Sophie or know someone who does? Get in touch with her at www.facebook.com/doyoulooklikeme or on Twitter at @doyoulooklikeme.

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