Change You Can Make-Believe In
The race to become Obama's top look-alike.
The first thing Ron Butler wants me to know, even though he's standing inside a crowded Las Vegas casino trying to look like President Obama, is that he is not a freak. We're at the annual convention of celebrity impersonators in a conference room at the Imperial Palace, not one of the Strip's more glamorous addresses. Beside us is a short guy with a blond-mullet hair weave who's trying to scowl like Dog the Bounty Hunter. A Britney Spears runs by searching for her lost riding crop.
"I see this as a chance to grow as a dramatic actor," says Butler, who prepares for each Obama show by affixing fake hair to his otherwise bald head. "Besides, it can be very lucrative."
Butler is a professional actor with a full-time job playing Oscar on "True Jackson, VP" on Nickelodeon. Now he is trying to break into a more specialized field. Top-tier presidential impersonators make appearances at conventions, corporate meetings, and the like. And the battle to become First Impersonator is real.
As is the money he stands to make. Tim Watters, the world's greatest Bill Clinton impersonator, has grossed more than $1 million in a single year and owns six boats and two beach houses. But just as every politician can't be a Bill Clinton, so every presidential impersonator can't be a Tim Watters. "There's A-list talent, and there's D-list talent," says Janna Joos, an agent who represents more than 2,000 impersonators and organizes the Las Vegas conference. "You can tell the difference instantly."
Presidential impersonation is a subsidiary of the larger industry of celebrity impersonation, which is worth millions annually. (Exact figures are hard to come by.) Yes, the field has its freaks—at the conference in May, I talked for an hour to a Kenny Rogers impersonator who refused to tell me his real name or use his own voice—but I also met some pretty rational (and savvy) entrepreneurs. "We take it seriously because this is our living," says Rob Garrett, a Neil Diamond impersonator who calls himself "The King of Diamonds." "Some months I might only play two gigs and still I pay my bills."
Among the world of celebrity impersonators, however, fake presidents stand apart. For one thing, their careers—like the presidents they impersonate—are term-limited. There are no George H.W. Bush impersonators working full-time anymore. The last good Reagan died recently. The former agent for one of the only Jimmy Carter look-alikes in the country says his client has either retired or moved. On the other hand, the industry is big enough to support still-current presidential runners-up. There are at least four Dick Cheneys, a John McCain, a bevy of non-SNL Sarah Palins, and a man named Frank King, who promotes "clean corporate comedy" and has his own Joe Biden act.
Presidential impersonators also are different because, to be blunt, they have to be better than other impersonators. "Presidential impersonators tend to be the best overall talent," says Brent Mendenhall, a top George W. Bush look-alike and an agent to other impersonators. "They get the most work and make the most money."
That's because impersonating the president is really hard. Most stars are surprisingly fungible—you'd be amazed how far a Marilyn can go with a blond wig and a push-up bra. Presidents are different. Barack Obama's face, with his cinched-together eyebrows and wide-open smile, is among the most recognizable in the world. His voice and manner of speech—those pregnant pauses between words, when you can almost see those giant gears grinding inside his head—are universally familiar.
"Everybody knows exactly how Obama looks and acts," says Butler. "I have to study his complete physicality."
And he has to be a quick study, because time is short. Throughout George W. Bush's administration, Mendenhall worked full-time, earning more than $100,000 a year. Eight months after Bush left office, Mendenhall's gravy train has all but stopped. "I might have to find another job," he concedes.
Christopher Maag is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times and Time magazine.
Photograph of Ron Butler courtesy of Butler. Photograph of Randall West courtesy of West.