40 Personalities and One Wedding: The Life of Imposter Frederic Bourdin
During the many years of his career fraudster Frederic ‘The Chameleon’ Bourdin has never tried to steal money. Why would he pretend to be other people then?
In October 1997, American Carrie Gibson flew to Spain to take her half-brother home — 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing in San Antonio, Texas, three years prior. Darker hair, different eye color, and the French accent of the teenager did not make his family members less happy to see him. They were convincing each other that it was normal for the boy who was tortured and forced to be a prostitute on another continent.
In five months, they would find out that the person who came to them from Europe under the name of Nicholas was professional imposter 23-year-old Frederic Bourdin. His stories about what he went through were all made up.
It is only an illusion that impostors have to be greedy and want power. Indeed, it was for money and power that Frank Abagnale, Jr., who inspired the movie Catch Me If You Can, pretended he was a Pan American pilot, lawyer, or doctor. It was for those things that Jeremy Wilson, who was convicted in early 2016, stole his cousin’s documents and his girlfriend’s money and used 27 false names. Bourdin, however, was motivated by something else.
The out-of-wedlock son of a French woman and an Algerian immigrant, he grew up without a father and did not receive much of his mother’s attention. He carried out his first deceit at the age of five. To have more respect at school and explain why he had no father, Bourdin told his classmates his father is a British secret agent. He would later explain his tricks with the wish to receive love and warmth that he didn’t get enough of as a child.
He has been at the care home for juvenile offenders since the age of 12, and on the run since he was 16. That was when he started using other people’s names. One day, he would approach a French policeman, tell him he was a British tourist and got lost. The deceit would be uncovered several minutes after at the police station, when the ‘lost boy’ wouldn’t be able to speak two words of English. Bourdin would learn from this and prepare his tricks more carefully in the future.
Spain, Germany, Belgium, England, Ireland, Italy, France, US — in 15 years, the fraudster changed 15 countries, over 40 false identities and learned to decently speak five languages. His best impersonations were orphan teenagers, and he continued pretending to be young boys even after the age of 30, when his hairline started receding.
Every time yet another deceit was uncovered, Bourdin always spoke the truth, sometimes he even was the first to confess. In 1995, he would even appear on French TV on the show called Everything Is Possible. Telling his story, he would again explain his actions with the need for love and attention. Touched, the producers would offer him a job, but he would escape it soon, too.
In 1998, after a widely publicized unmasking of Bourdin who assumed the personality of a missing Texas teenager, he was sentenced to six years in jail. Long before that, the unconditional acceptance from all family members made him suspicious: “I’m a good imposter, but I’m not that good.” He started being more and more confident that the mother and the elder brother of the real Nicholas knew what had happened to him. The detectives would never find evidence to support his version, nor would they find the teenager’s body. Bourdin would apologize in court, and then continue to play an imposter upon release and deportation to France.
He would pretend to be 14-year-old Léo Balley in 2003, orphan Ruben Sanchez Espinoza in 2004, and in 2005 he would be placed in a youth shelter at French Pau as 15-year-old Francisco Hernandez Fernandez. For a month, Bourdin would attend college under this name, go ice skating and play videogames with his new friends.
The deceit would come to an end when a representative of the college administration would see a TV show about “one of the world’s most infamous imposters” and recognize ‘Francisco’. He would be fined for forging documents and served a six-month-long conditional term.
However, the publicity that almost cost Bourdin his freedom, would also bring him the main luck of his life. Isabelle would see him on TV — and be so touched with his desperate quest for life that she’d decide to find the imposter. A year after they first met, the couple would marry.
Frederic’s mother and grandfather did not show up to the wedding — they did not believe it was really happening. Talking with a journalist from The New Yorker in 2008, Bourdin’s mother said he was a “liar and will never change,” and made predictions he would soon leave his wife and newborn daughter. In the summer of 2015, Bourdin wrote on Facebook:
“I’m a dad of 5 now… I miss my old life, my freedom, hell I don’t even have a criminal record left in France… But nothing in this world could make me abandon my wife, kids and pets… I wish you could have followed my childhood and my past life through your very eyes instead of getting glimpses of it through the lying eyes of those who see themselves as a reporter.”.