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— by Vinnie Vox

Today's pop stars say they're all about being real — except for the ones who would like us to believe they're really somebody else.

Alter egos are spreading like a silly flu virus. Mariah Carey is the latest to be infected; she says she's actually somebody called Mimi — in which case, who's this "Mariah" person we've been dealing with all these years? This isn't the first time there's been an outbreak of alterego-itis, though. David Bowie was perhaps the most out-there with his androgynous space-alien-rocker persona, Ziggy Stardust. Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean tried (and failed) to launch a strange rock alter ego called Johnny No Name a while back. And the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, of course, was a virtual alter-ego assembly line, cranking out such colorful monikers as Big Baby Jesus, Osirus and Dirt McGirt. (Who doesn't still think of him as ODB, though?)

But what are we supposed to think of these other people?

Britney Spears said recently that from now on, she's going to discuss her private life "solely through art." Once the deafening chorus of "yeah, right" dies down, you might be inclined to wonder, whose art would that be? Probably somebody else's, we suspect — maybe that of her alter ego, a character called "Mona Lisa." That is also the title of one of her new songs, a rough mix of which Britney unveiled on KIIS FM in Los Angeles. It's about an "unforgettable" and "unpredictable" icon who "suddenly fell." Hmm. "Mona Lisa" also gets a co-directing credit for her current video, "Do Somethin'."

What she says: "Whenever I feel like being mean or possibly bossing people around to get stuff right, it's kinda easier to be called 'Mona Lisa' instead of Britney," is how she explained it on "TRL."

What we say: Has Britney read Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code"? The book floats the theory that the Mona Lisa is Leonardo's self-portrait in drag — that Mona is in fact a guy. Britney, are you telling us you have a pair?

Mariah Carey's album catalog is a celebration of girliness: Charmbracelet, Rainbow, Butterfly, uh, Glitter. But the title of her new album, due out April 12, shows a flash of rebellion: The Emancipation of Mimi. And there's more in the classically rhymed lyric of "It's Like That," her current single: "It's a special occasion/ Mimi's emancipation/ A cause for celebration." Does anybody have a clue here?

What she says: "It's not like Mimi is some alter ego or character, but really more the true person as opposed to the celebrity," she explained in a recent MTV News interview. "It's a very personal nickname. Only people who are really close to me use it."

What we say: Noted ... Mariah. But the origin of this "nickname" is suspect — it doesn't really shorten "Mariah," but doubles a diva's worst tendencies: "Me-me."

Madonna's no makeover virgin — and she's occasionally adopted personas with cool names like "Dita" (for "Erotica") and "Veronica Electronica" (for "Frozen"). But ... Esther? It's a kabbalah thing, of course.

What she says: "I was named after my mother. My mother died when she was very young, of cancer. And in the metaphysical world, I wanted to attach myself to another name," she explained on ABC's "20/20" last summer. "And this is in no way a negation of who my mother is. So I read about all the women in the Old Testament. And I loved the story of Queen Esther."

What we say: Well, in the Bible, Esther did save the Jews from annihilation, so ... yeah, it is a cool name, right? But Madonna knows better than to risk career annihilation by legally adopting it, even though it does mean "star."

"Damita Jo" is actually Janet's middle name — a tribute to the early-'60s R&B singer Damita Jo DeBlanc, who charted with answer songs to a pair of huge pop hits, "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "Stand by Me." Janet's mother was obviously a fan of that original Damita Jo, but we wonder what she makes of her daughter's new — and lustier — alter ego. Janet's last album was called Damita Jo, and it featured songs with titles like "Warmth," "Moist" and "Sexhibition."

What she says: "My sexuality has been an ongoing discovery and theme," Janet told Upscale magazine upon the album's release last spring. "With 'Damita Jo,' I push the envelope a little further. As an artist, that's not only my passion, it's my obligation."

What we say: Janet was sweet, but it's Damita Jo if you're nasty. And 38 is rather an advanced age to still be discovering your sexuality.

Eminem is the man himself, really — Marshall Mathers. And Slim Shady is the alter ego, the thug, the evil side. Or something. It's a little confusing.

What he says: "As an artist, you wanna keep a certain mystique," Em explained to MTV News. "I don't ever want everybody to know everything that I'm joking about and serious about. That's the fun with creating and doing music — leaving that mystique for people's imaginations so they can get what they wanna get out of it. I guess."

What we say: Best not to take sides.

Gwen Stefani coos on her frenetic "Bubble Pop Electric" for "Johnny" to come over and join her in the backseat, but her gentleman caller is really Andre 3000 — who already gave us multiple versions of himself in the video for "Hey Ya!" In that clip, he plays the guitarist ("Johnny Vulture"), the frontman ("Ice Cold"), the nerdy keyboardist ("Benjamin Andre"), the bassist ("Possum Jenkins"), the drummer ("Dookie Blasingame") and the backup singers ("The Love Haters").

What he says: "[Johnny Vulture] left the Love Below band because he and Andre 3000 don't really get along and he wants to start his own band. So more power to him. And I hope he does well. So look out for the Vultures album."

What we say: Sounds a little schizophrenic to us. But don't wrap him in a straitjacket just yet — the Outkast member's also got a half-hour Johnny Vulture animated series about to debut on Cartoon Network.

An alter-ego disaster, and warning to all other moniker-switching pop stars. The character of Chris Gaines was cooked up as a fictional Australian pop star whose first album, released in 1999, was said to be a "greatest hits." Problem was, practically nobody bought it.

What he says: "This is hard," Brooks/Gaines explained to the Los Angeles Times. "The other stuff, the Garth stuff, it just happens, it's fun. This is work."

What we say: Not anymore.

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Photo: BMG International/MTV News

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"Do Somethin'"
Greatest Hits: My Prerogative

"Die Another Day"
American Life
(Warner Bros.)

Ray of Light
(Warner Bros.)

"I Want You"
Damita Jo

"My Name Is"
The Slim Shady LP
(Aftermath/ Interscope)

"Hey Ya!"
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below