“I knew I was never going to be able to walk on water, or raise the dead, but this is the next best thing,” says Tommy Windchuff, one of Britain’s top messiah impersonators. “When I step out there and hear the audience screaming with adulation, just for a moment, I reckon I know how Jesus must have felt at the Sermon on the Mount.” For the past three years Windchuff has been earning a living from making personal appearances in the guise of the Son of God. “It’s no different from tribute bands and Elvis impersonators,” he opines, as he prepares to bungee jump from a church tower to mark the opening of a fund-raising event. “When the original isn’t available, we’re the next best thing.” According to the twenty-six year old former shop assistant from Worcester, there is a surprising level of demand for his services. “It ranges from small stuff, like opening church fetes, marriage blessings and christenings, to really major stuff, like being the opening act at the Church of England’s General Synod,” he explains, buckling up his safety harness. “Mind you, it isn’t just religious stuff. I get hired for quite a bit of secular stuff, like club appearances, hen parties and opening shopping malls – apparently people feel more reassured about buying stuff there if it’s been endorsed by the messiah.” However, Windchuff draws the line at actually endorsing individual products whilst in character as Jesus. “I think we tribute messiahs have a responsibility not to do anything the real thing wouldn’t have done,” he says. “I just don’t think that Christ would have been happy advertising ‘Miracle Wipe’ toilet paper, for instance, a campaign I turned down last month. Even if a toilet paper that guarantees no skid marks does seem miraculous.” Nevertheless, some of the gigs that Windchuff has accepted have proven controversial. “I suppose I was a little naïve – the fact that the venue was in Brighton should have warned me,” he sighs, recalling the storm which erupted after he presided over a same sex civil ceremony. “But hey, Jesus loves everybody, doesn’t he? I’m sure that if they’d had gay weddings in Galilee, he would have blessed them, without necessarily implying moral approval, obviously.” Windchuff has also drawn criticism for some of the stunts he has performed during his personal appearances, with some religious commentators describing them as ‘undignified’ and ‘disrespectful’. “Look, it’s what the punters want. I mean, if I was an Elvis impersonator, say, I couldn’t very well make a public appearance without performing one of the King’s numbers, could I? It’s expected,” He says, peering over the tower’s parapet at the drop below. “So people expect ‘Jesus’ to do something miraculous, or, at the very least, death defying – like this bungee jump, for instance.”
Amongst Windchuff’s most celebrated stunts as Jesus have included water skiing on a reservoir, whilst throwing loaves and fishes to homeless people standing on the shore, as part of a ‘Feeding the Five Thousand’ event in Norfolk. “They wanted something really special to help get publicity, and that was the closest I could get to actually walking on water,” he says, fastening the chinstrap on his safety helmet. “Of course, it was really difficult to top that, but I felt I had to when I was booked to appear at the Good Friday procession and Passion play in Bracknell this Easter.” Windchuff’s consequent motorcycle jump over ten buses, whilst strapped to a crucifix, is still regarded with awe by those who witnessed it. “Because my arms were tied to the cross, I had to steer the bike using ropes tied to the handlebars, the other ends held between my teeth. It was bloody hairy,” he laughs. “I nearly didn’t make it – I clipped the side of the last bus as I came down and the bike flipped over as I came down the landing ramp.” Windchuff suffered a broken leg and several cracked ribs in the crash, but insisted on completing the engagement before seeking hospital treatment. “You can’t let the punters see Jesus getting injured, can you? It would destroy the illusion, wouldn’t it?” he reasons. “Anyway, it could have been worse, I could have been killed. So I suppose you could say it was a miracle, after all.” However, Windchuff’s career as a tribute messiah was nearly derailed after an appearance at a Christian rock festival resulted in lurid newspaper stories detailing sex, drink and drug parties. “It was a wild engagement – I opened the festival singing a duet with Sir Cliff Richard, for God’s sake – and things just got a bit out of hand,” he says. “But really, it was nowhere near as bad as the press made it out to be. Those Christian rock chicks were all on a virginity covenant and the booze was nothing stronger than communion wine.” Windchuff concedes that his attempts to defend himself at the time against the allegations didn’t help, with his claims that the alcohol he was photographed drinking had been water when had picked it up, being widely ridiculed. “That was pretty stupid,” he says. “But I really wasn’t fondling those groupies’ breasts in a sexual way. They were asking me to put my hands o them, as if I was healing them. It’s like those chicks who get celebrities to autograph their knockers – just a bit of innocent fun!”
Windchuff maintains that his act truly is a tribute to, rather than a parody of, Our Saviour, claiming that he is motivated by his love and admiration for his subject. “I suppose being Jesus has always been a bit of an obsession with me,” he muses. “I started young – I was the baby Jesus in my older sister’s nativity play when I was only six months old. When I was a kid I used to watch every Jesus film and TV series I could – King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth – he just became my idol. I mean, he’s just so cool! All those miracles! Standing up to the Pharisees and the Romans! Then dying and coming back to life! He was like a superhero!” Relatives recall how the pre-pubescent Windchuff would dress as his idol, complete with a ‘beard’ applied with permanent marker, loin cloth and sandals. “He was always wandering around the neighbourhood, doing good deeds, offering to heal people, that sort of thing,” recollects his Auntie Edna. “It was all quite harmless. Although there was that unpleasantness when he tried to cure Mrs Guffwell’s piles. He could at least have warmed his finger before he did that. Still, we all thought it was a phase he’d grow out of eventually.” However, as soon as he was old enough to grow his own beard, Windchuff began his career as a Jesus impersonator in earnest, securing the lead in a sixth form production of Jesus Christ, Superstar. “I was eventually spotted by this agency, which specialises in providing celebrity lookalikes for events,” he explains, stepping up to the edge of the tower, in preparation for his bungee jump. “I haven’t looked back since.” In the wake of Windchuff’s success, tribute messiahs have proliferated, although he doesn’t feel threatened by their presence. “They’re not really direct competitors,” he points out. “I play Jesus pretty straight, but most of them go for the novelty approach: there’s one who does Jesus as a stand up comedian, for instance. Then there’s ‘Christ the King’, he does his tribute in the style of Elvis, complete with quiff and guitar!” With that, Windchuff is given the signal to jump and is gone, disappearing over the edge of the tower, to the ecstatic cheers of the watching congregation. Just another day in the life of a tribute messiah.