Twins Who Only Date Twins

Marie Claire, Nov 2013

Welcome to Twinsburg, where the world’s largest twin convention takes place. Some come to find love, while others compete for prizes or donate DNA for genetic research.

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 Photos by Eli Meir Kaplan

For the twins, Rachel and Rhoda Jackson, this whole weekend is about one thing: Finding a husband. In fact, make that two husbands, identical ones please.

“Only twins can understand the way that we are,” explains Rhoda, 37, a hairstylist from Philadelphia. “In the past we’ve dated guys who just try to tear us apart – they get jealous. They don’t understand our unconditional bond. You see, being twins, we’re already married to each other.”

That’s why for the last 11 years, on the first weekend of August, they’ve driven six and a half hours to the small town of Twinsburg, Ohio, about twenty miles south of Cleveland, to take part in the Twins Days festival, the biggest of its kind in the world. When it started in 1976, there were 30+ sets – this year, it will attract approximately 2000.

It’s a fairy tale theme this year – “Twice Upon A Time” – so the Jacksons are wearing matching gold gowns, glitter, nails, shoes and broomstick. “Glenda, the Good Witch,” they say together, sharing a carton of fries in the sunshine. But their lives are even more entwined than they look – the Jacksons work together, running a hair salon, and a line of beauty products, and they live in the same house where Rhoda cooks and Rachel does the laundry.

“So everything is ready to go,” says Rhoda. I mean, Rachel, the one with the tiny birthmark above her lip. “She has her wing, I have mine. All we need now is our twin husbands to move in with us!”

And as she reaches for more fries, it looks, just for a second, that they are even chewing in unison.

There are other twin festivals on the calendar – notably one in Las Vegas in September, and another in Budapest – but none make for quite the spectacle of Twins Days.
It’s not just the sheer number of twins, a tally that’s announced at regular intervals over the festival Tannoy: “1999 registered sets!” Other twins festivals scarcely reach half that size. It’s the focus on identical twins above all. While fraternal twins and families are welcome, but there’s an obsession with sameness at Twins Days that dates back to the origins of the town, Twinsburg in the 19th century. It was founded by an identical set and their matching profiles now serve as the town’s logo.

The statistics bear our just how remarkable this gathering is. It’s well known that twinning rates have shot up in recent decades thanks to the advent of in vitro fertilization in 1978 and also to a trend for older mothers who are more prone to multiple ovulation. But these factors boost fraternal twinning (multiple egg cells), not identical (one egg cell splitting). So while 1 in 80 people is a fraternal twin, only in 1 in 250 is an identical twin. And Twins Days is dominated by identicals. It’s like a gathering of white tiger – a rare and stunning sight.

The weekend is organized like any outdoor town fair, with a parade and rides and junk food. Local businesses are out selling their wares. There are talent contests and raffles. But it’s also a bizarre clone netherworld – everyone walks around in identical pairs, their sameness accentuated to the max, from the hairdos down to the shoes. They come in every shape, size and age group, from as far as Australia and Hong Kong. They eat the same lunch, they finish each other’s sentences. Their names all but match, they are inseparable. And for two days, they wander the twin-themed stalls and booths, all the child-rearing books and parental support groups, they volunteer for twin-specific scientific tests in the research quarter, and they enter into the various talent contests, especially the coveted Most Identical Prize.

But mostly it’s about hanging out with other twins. Hanging out and taking pictures. Over the course of the weekend, most twins will have stopped to either take or pose for hundreds of snaps. Even as Rachel and Rhoda are trying to get a bite to eat, a line has formed, cameras at the ready – a pair of teenage Tinkerbells, some Oompah Loompah toddlers, a couple of middle aged Prince Charmings, and on and on. Twins are fascinated by other twins.

“It’s hard to explain,” says Rachel. “Because of our unique bond, I don’t know, twins just have a different energy.”

The Jacksons have reason to be hopeful. It’s not uncommon for close identical sets to struggle with relationships, and to come to Twins Days in search of a matching pair. The closer twins are, the more they’re attracted to other twins, not least because they share the same taste in partners, as in everything else. The Baker brothers and the McGee sisters from Nashville, for instance met at last year’s festival.

“It’s just perfect because there’s no jealousy,” says Andy Baker, 36. “If me and Chad talk like 15 times a day, they don’t get jealous because they talk 20 times a day!”

His other half Amy pipes up: “I like to text my sister good night every night, and my ex actually took my phone and threw it, it made him so mad. But Andy doesn’t mind, because he’s texting Chad!”

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This bond can also be a burden, though. Not all identicals relish being mistaken for each other, and for every set that delights in their sameness, there’s another that has struggled with it.

“It was hard at high school,” says Kara, the younger sister to Dana by a few minutes. “We were in the same class, so people just treated us as one person: ‘oh it’s the Hazens.’ We’d only get one gift to share at birthdays. We didn’t have our own identities.”

After school they made sure to go to embark on separate lives – separate colleges, separate subjects, separate cities. They look like perfect clones today, and frequently place in the medals at the Most Alike contest, but it’s an exception they make for Twins Days. Now, they live hundreds of miles apart – Kara’s a business analyst, and Dana works in public health. Both are married to non-twins, or “singletons” as they’re known here.

“Being independent definitely made it easier to have a relationship,” says Dana. “It’s hard for singletons to take on two people you know? But also growing up as a twin got us used to sharing things, which helps in a relationship. We don’t think twice about it. I didn’t realize that until I married an only child, who doesn’t share anything!

For the Hazens, coming to Twins Days is like a return to childhood, the time when they were most indivisible. Now that they see each other only two or three times a year, “it’s like our own girls weekend,” says Dana. “We do the stuff we did growing up – sharing a room, the same clothes, helping each other with make-up…”

So who picked the outfits for Twins Days?

“I did,” says Dana. “I guess I’m just more into my appearance – not vain, but I spend more time with hair and makeup. She’s more ‘roll out of bed’…”

“No, you’re more into fashion,” Dana corrects her. “That’s the better way of saying it. You’re making me sound sloppy – I’m not sloppy.”

To see twins bicker like this is perhaps the rarest sight of all at Twins Days, almost as rare as triplets. According to Nancy Segal, an expert in twin psychology, a professor at California State University, twins just negotiate better. “One of my earliest studies, was with young twins working on puzzles together,” she says, “and I found that identicals work much better together than fraternals.”

Segal’s work highlights the significance of genes in our lives. In Born Together, Reared Apart, her book of last year, she argues that genetic similarities are why twins who are raised apart by different parents still lead uncannily parallel lives – the same careers, the same dress sense, even the same cars.  “Twins are attracted to similar things in their environment, so they make similar choices,” she says. “It doesn’t matter so much how their parents treat them.”

Segal is one of many scientists involved in twin studies, a booming area of research, these days. And the scientific quarter of Twins Days is heaving. All weekend, sets crowd the tents filling out questionnaires and giving saliva samples for all manner of projects –retinal disease, skin disease, and even the ability to spot a liar. They’re typically paid nominal sums from $5 up to $20 – though one year, you could make $150 for a fecal sample, which led to lines of clones waiting outside the portapotties, trying to muster up a payday.

In every case, the object is to discover whether genetics are the root cause of a trait or health effect, or whether it’s the environment – a classic, nature vs nurture test lab. And identical twins are perfect for this. Fraternals share roughly 50% of their DNA, but identical twins share almost 100%, so they present a unique opportunity for research. And twin studies may yet save us all.

Tim Spector of Kings College London, is at the helm of probably the most exciting area of research at present – the field of epigenetics, in which, as Spector says, “we can turn certain genes on and off using chemical switches.” Apparently twins very seldom die of the same disease, or even at the same age. “If one twin has rheumatoid arthiritis, the other has only a 12% chance of getting it. How’s that possible if they’re genetically identical? And similarly with cancer, the chance is 1 in 3 that their twin will get it.”

So Spector’s team seeks out twins who are identical in every way but one – if one has diabetes say, but the other doesn’t – and then looks for the small differences in the chemical switches. “It tells us a lot about the disease and what might be causing it, not just for twins but for all of us. I’ve got an experiment going with 30 sets of twins, in which one has breast cancer and the other hasn’t, and we’ve identified some little markers in one that the other didn’t have, some of them five years before diagnosis. So it’s very promising.”

There are of course other scientific mysteries surrounding twins. Not bogus mysteries like the hearsay about telepathy and ESP, where one twin feels another’s pain, for example (which, for the record, science cannot verify). But questions like: why is twinning three times more common in Africa than in Europe, and three times less common in Asia? And the ultimate question: why do eggs split? It’s a startling thought for all these identical sets at Twins Days, we have no idea whether they came about by accident or design.

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“You need twins for research, we’ve got ‘em,” says Lisa Ganz, a brassy New Yorker in a big blue hat. Her twin Debbie chimes in: “We’re Twins Talent.com – we cast twins, triplets and quads for commercial, documentary and research.”

“Scripted and non-scripted,” says Lisa.

“Around the world,” says Debbie.

“We have access to over 100,000 multiples all over the world, and our motto is –“

And they say it together: “You can only make a first impression once. But we make it twice.”

With husky 20-a-day voices, they’re like the Patty and Selma of Twinsburg, only the New York, fast-talking agent version. A rude blast of the big city in this otherwise polite, Midwestern setting.

“Seriously honey, we’re the It twins,” says Lisa. “That’s why I love to come out here to Bumfuck Iowa. No seriously. I’m fat in New York, but here, I’m Miss America!”

The Ganz sisters are well known here. Many sets have them to thank for being hired for commercials, like Doublemint, say. There’s an exhibitionist vein to many of the Twinsdays twins, who talk proudly of the time they appeared on Oprah, or when this or that magazine featured their picture. While it might feel rude to stare at identical sets elsewhere, it’s positively encouraged here.

The pinnacle of this is the Malm family from Idaho – two twin sets who proposed at Twins Days in 1991 and then got married at the festival the following year, in what other twins privately describe as a “total media circus.” But even now, the Malms will talk your ear off given half the chance. Apparently both couples live in the same house now, and naturally, from time to time, things get a bit confusing. “Oh we’ve got stories!” chortles Doug Malm. “The other day, I saw my wife working at the kitchen sink, so I came up behind her and started nibbling on her neck. It was the wrong neck!”

By sundown, the festival thins out. We’ve had the big group picture, the Most Alike contest and the talent shows, and now the sets are heading back to their hotels to change into their party outfits. Because tonight is the big dance, and at the Twins Days dance, anything can happen.

It’s close to midnight at the Bertram Convention Center, in nearby Aurora, and the ballroom is heaving. First it was the Macarena, then the Harlem Shuffle and the Cha-Cha-Slide. Even the dancing is a group affair at Twins Days. The sets are all dressed up now, drinks in hand. The boy sets are chatting up the girl sets. Everything happens in twos – it’s no place for a singleton.

Katherine and Katrice, 25, are at the bar, watching the scene and the gossiping. “We’ve been coming here for 20 years,” says Katherine. “So we recognize a lot of people. We’ve heard of every kind of caper you name it. People using each other’s passports, driving licences – hell we do that! Sitting exams for each other at school. We never heard of twins swapping their boyfriends, but you know what, the night is young!”

There’s no shortage of gossip from Twins Days – the year a set was caught in flagrante under the stair well, for example, and what about that time there were four identical sets getting entangled all in the same room.

“Oh twins totally have a twin fetish!” she laughs. “Look around – everyone’s checking each other out.”

Then the Wobble comes on and the girls run out onto the dance floor. And a few sets down, there’s Rachel and Rhoda Jackson too. Who knows, maybe tonight is the night.