Seeing double: Stylist visits the world’s largest festival dedicated entirely to twins

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The Stylist web team
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Every year, thousands of twins descend on a small town in middle America to take part in a festival dedicated to life as the mirror image of someone else. Lizzie Pook and her identical twin, Rose (pictured above, centre), pack matching outfits and join the crowds

Photography: Naomi Harris

It’s 35 degrees in the shade and sweat is beginning to pool around the seams of my silver camisole top. I have glitter in my eye, adhesive gold stars clinging to the ends of my hair and my metallic bronze sandals are raising angry blisters between my toes. I’d probably be in a pretty bad mood were it not for the thousands of sets of twins striding alongside me in such ebullient spirits.

My twin sister, Rose, and I are walking, somewhat self-consciously, in the annual Twins Days Festival fancy dress parade – a procession of twins down the tree-lined streets of Twinsburg, Ohio (the name came first; the festival followed). And for as far as the eye can see there are two of everything: two tiny mirror-image astronauts plodding clumsily in front of us; two identically hirsute Thors powering past with polystyrene hammers held aloft; two blonde-haired ‘sexy aliens’ drawing wolf whistles from the crowd and two tiny sci-fi Tutankhamuns who, with their elaborate papier maché headpieces, look to be suffering from the heat even more than we are.

This parade is the centrepiece of the festival – which began in 1976 and is now the world’s largest gathering of twins – drawing as many as 5,000 twins, multiples and their families from across the globe every year. The two-day event, which spills across the grassy acres surrounding a local high school, involves talent shows, twins contests (with categories such as ‘most alike twins’ and ‘oldest twins’), countless sporting tournaments from volleyball to golf, and the chance to partake in some cutting-edge scientific research such as voice recognition tests and nasal swabbing (yes, it hurts like hell) – courtesy of the many scientists who flock here to make the most of the copycat genes on offer. That’s not to mention the beer-fuelled pool parties and hedonistic karaoke sessions that take place outside the timetabled events. This year, the theme for the festival is space (“Twinfinity and beyond” to be precise…) and frankly every other set of twins in attendance is putting our hastily assembled ‘sparkly’ outfits to shame.

“I was in the middle of a college exam when my whole arm went numb,” says Mandy, a bob-haired New Yorker whose twin sister, Jenny, nods eagerly at her shoulder. “I had no idea Jenny was in emergency surgery 200 miles away, but when I found out, it just made sense.” I’m huddled with a group of fellow twins waiting to have their taste buds analysed by visiting scientists, and we’re discussing ‘referred pain’ – the weird phenomenon that occurs when one twin experiences physical pain and the other suffers it too.

For another set of twins in the group, it happened when one of them was kidnapped while hitchhiking and the other felt an overwhelming sense of dread in the pit of her stomach. “Ours came with pregnancy,” add Sylvia and Cynthia from Baltimore. “For nine months, I felt her morning sickness, even though I wasn’t pregnant,” laughs Sylvia. “And when it came to her labour, that was just excruciating for me! I was in the room with her and seemed to feel every single contraction.”

Being a twin, in Twinsburg, during the Twins Days Festival is a serious business. It’s intense stuff. T-shirts are printed, twins are separated into ‘A twin’ and ‘B twin’ (depending on who was born first), lifetime friendships (and even marriages) are formed, and festival kings and queens are crowned with ceremonial pomp. But it’s not hard to see why some people save for years in order to make a pilgrimage to the event. As it turns out, in Twinsburg, if you are accompanied by somebody who looks just like you, then you will be treated like an absolute rock star. Throughout the weekend, everywhere Rose and I turn, there’s someone asking to take our picture. Supermarket cashiers flash us knowing grins. FBI scientists pay to take 3D images of our faces. The festival is completely awash with stars and stripes imagery, candy floss stalls, ‘wiener roasts’ and an overwhelming sense of heady American pageantry. It’s totally kitsch, over-the-top and completely Louis Theroux-esque, but I’ve never felt more welcome anywhere in my whole life.

However, it’s not just voyeurism we’re here for. The festival also offers Rose and me a rare chance to swap experiences with our fellow twins.

This is just one of the subjects I discuss with twins at the festival that, in my experience, ‘non-twins’ find very difficult to get their heads around, despite frequently quizzing me about it (Rose and I don’t feel each other’s physical pain, but we are acutely aware if the other is in mental anguish). Denise and Diane, a pair of 60-something twins, were quick to tell me that the love they feel for each other is far stronger than the love they feel for their spouses. ‘Mirror twins’ Jeff and Steve from Ohio explain that they simply wouldn’t be willing to go on living if the other wasn’t around. As for me? Well, I can relate to both of those things.

In fact, as outrageous and as oddball as this festival is, it’s also extremely comforting. Not least because it reminds me that there are millions of people around the world (roughly 3% of the population are twins) who experience life in a similar way to my sister and I. “We come here to feel normal,” one set of Brazilian female twins tells me as we wait in line for ‘twin popsicles’ in the stifling heat. “We’re so used to standing out, to people staring at us or asking us questions constantly. It’s nice to feel like the ‘normal’ ones, even if it’s only for a couple of days.”

So, with Rose in tow, I headed off into the Twinsburg crowds to find out other twins’ experiences of life in double.

Lizzie and Rose, 30, London

L Having a twin is not like having a sister, or a best friend, or even a husband. The bond between us is way more profound than what you might describe as normal ‘love’. It might seem weird to non-twins, but we do actually feel like two halves of a whole. Like we share a soul or something. If she wasn’t there it would be like part of me had been physically hacked away. Some people might see that as sad or weird, but genuinely, it’s the best.

R For me the hardest part of being a twin is that you shoulder their emotions as well as your own. If she is devastated, or crazily angry, those emotions will seep into me too and I feel them really strongly, even if she’s not around. We don’t talk about certain things – like horrific global events or loss in the family (we struggle to talk about the death of our father a decade ago) – as sharing our feelings would be combining them and would magnify the emotion into something completely unbearable. Instead emotions are unspoken. We know we both witnessed it and we both know how we feel about it. We will always share the same view and the same morals.

L It’s probably why I’ve never, ever believed in the idea of finding a ‘soulmate’ – because I already have that sort of bond with Rose.

R For most things, Liz is the only person I can talk to. She understands every micro-emotion that goes through my brain because she experiences them too. If an advert annoys me for a trivial detail, it will annoy Liz too. If I misinterpret song lyrics, Liz’ll be singing along incorrectly with me. Our identical brains process information in identical ways.

L The thing I’ve found most non-twins can’t get their heads around is that we feel like we can never truly ‘experience’ something unless the other has witnessed it too. I have seen some amazing sights in the world, but until Rose has seen them too, the memory and achievement is incomplete.

R I read that divorce rates are higher in parents of twins. In a way I can understand that. It must be hard – you don’t expect a fully formed ‘gang’ as your offspring, but with twins, that’s what you get.

Annette and Jeanette, 53, Detroit

A We’ve always been close. We live 15 minutes away from each other and when it comes to our personalities, we’re night and day, yet the same. I’m more conservative and laid-back, whereas Jeanette can be a bit highly strung…

J But our twin connection is incredibly strong. We can lose each other in a huge store and if we stand still and concentrate, we can sense where the other twin is and head in that direction.

A We felt each other’s morning sickness and labour pains, too. Jeanette was in Georgia, I was in Detroit and she called me and said, “Hey, are you expecting? I’m feeling a bit nauseous.” I told her “no”, but the next week I took a test and found out that I was pregnant. The best thing about being a twin is that we know each other inside out. The downside of being a twin is that I know Jeanette won’t be with me forever. Whether she moves away, or just isn’t here, it will be incredibly hard to cope. We were inseparable growing up. We wore the same clothes. We were kidnapped from our parents and hidden for almost a year. It’s meant we’ve grown up relying on each other for emotional support. We know we are going to have to separate at some point, even if it’s at the age of 53. And that’s sad.

J Actually, if I wasn’t a twin I think I’d definitely be tougher, and more independent.

A I’m not sure I agree. I think the reason we have been able to overcome adversity in our lives is because we have each other. We haven’t had to go through anything on our own. Even if we are in different places, we can call each other and talk it through. That’s a really special thing. Actually, I kind of feel bad for all the folks in the world who aren’t twins. They don’t have that closeness or support.

Connor and Taylor, 23, Indiana

C The only thing that is different between us is the fact that we studied different things at college. Other than that, everything’s identical. We often put on the same clothes in the morning without realising, we like the same music, we do the exact same weights at the gym. We like the same sports, have the same hobbies, the same interests. Everything. We’re almost the same person.

T We love the fact that we look so similar. We have way too much fun with it, pretending to be one another and freaking people out.

C The best thing about being a twin is that you don’t have to go out and find a best friend. He was literally born with you. You’re never considered weird, because there’s always someone who thinks the exact same way that you do. In fact, it’s quite hard to feel lonely as a twin. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that emotion. There’s always someone there, even if they’re not physically present.

T The worst thing about being a twin is people forcing you to be competitive. Growing up, sports teachers always liked to pit us against each other to see what would happen, but it’s emotionally quite hard to compete with your twin; you don’t want them to fail and you don’t want to be the one who has made them feel like a failure. We would much rather be on a team together, fighting it out against other people.

Vanessa and Elisa, 18, New York City

E When we were younger, people used to say we had a special way of talking to each other that no-one else could understand. We still do it now – talking in really low voices. It annoys everyone!

V We’ve just completed our first year of college, in separate cities, and we’ve kind of drifted apart. We’ve made new friends and built different interests, whereas before, we were in the same classes, had the same schedules and did everything together.

E We realised it was inevitable that eventually we would have to live independently so it was important for us to try and live separate lives for a bit. It was an unexpected change though; it took some getting used to.

V I think our ability to be apart actually helped us to get closer because we now cherish our time together more and try to make time to hang out together.

E It’s also fun to get together and trick people now. One day, in our first month of college, we dressed alike and travelled to each other’s college to try and ‘swap’ friends to see if they noticed. Funnily enough, her friends noticed right away but mine completely fell for it. There is a downside though. People tend to just see us as ‘The Twins’, it’s a struggle to be seen as your own person. That can be frustrating.

V Definitely. What makes us unique also makes us seem like one person. It’s hard when you’re constantly fighting to be individual.

Ned and Fred, 66, South Carolina

N We used to work together on nuclear submarines and served together in Vietnam. When we joined the military they tried to separate us, but we pulled strings to ensure that for the whole three years, we were always together.

F When we were fighting abroad, it was easier because we were twins. It meant there was always someone who 100% had your back in battle. Because out there you just don’t know who to trust. We did everything together and stuck together on all our missions. Being a twin was as safe as you could be on the battlefield.

N We’re still incredibly close now. We’re next door neighbours, we drive the same car and wear the same clothes every day. Usually a suit of some kind. We don’t like sweatpants. Growing up, our bond was so tight and we looked so similar, people would say that if one of us ate an orange, the other one would spit out the seeds.

F Oh yes. We’re very similar, but I am the smarter one.

N Well, then I’m the better-looking twin! But seriously, we’re not competitive, and never get jealous of one another. I’ve been married twice, though, and both times it broke down because they were jealous of my bond with Fred. Even though the second time I made it clear that he would always come first.

F Anyone can get between a marriage, but nobody can get between twins.