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.
Work also plummeted after Obama's election for John Morgan, a Bush impersonator, and for Dale Leigh, a Bill Clinton look-alike. So they created a new act: "Bill & George's Excellent Adventure." "Hopefully it will have demand in the marketplace," Morgan says, "so we can keep doing this full-time."
All of which explains why competition among Obama impersonators is particularly fierce right now. Talent agents will book the various Obamas on the basis of looks, performance, and professionalism. A-list Obamas can charge up to $13,000 to emcee a trade convention, make an appearance at a corporate meeting, or hand out awards at an employee-appreciation event. The typical performance includes a half-hour speech mixing topical, family-friendly, bipartisan political humor with inside jokes at middle management's expense. Afterward, impersonators work the room, posing for photos with managers and the CEO. Lucky performers might get to star in a Japanese TV commercial.
C-listers, in contrast, work the parade-and-wedding circuit. They might make $500 a day.
"We're in the proving time right now, and the cream will rise to the top," says Randall West, an Obama impersonator and formerly the owner of a Ford dealership in New Jersey. "Who's gonna be the man? I think I'm gonna be the man."
According to talent agents, West and Butler are the top competitors for the coveted title of First Impersonator. "Most of these other guys aren't in the same league," says Greg Thompson, an agent in Orlando. Butler scores high marks for looks, act, and professionalism. But his TV work makes scheduling a problem, says Thompson.
West is more committed to Obama as a full-time career. His problem is the impersonation itself. West's smile is wide-open and constant, giving him all of the president's gregariousness but none of his reserve. Normally enthusiasm is good in an impersonation, says Thompson. "But for Obama, it's tricky."
Like political rivals, these impersonators are not averse to a little negative campaigning. "Have you met Ron?" West asked me. "He has no hair! And he's short. I'm a half-inch taller than Obama. When people get a load of me, I mean, Wow!"
As West's agent, Mendenhall schools his protégé on the craft's finer points. To add drama before making a grand entrance, some performers send German shepherds into crowded halls to impersonate bomb-sniffing dogs. True professionals buy their own springy earphones and get volunteers to mimic Secret Service agents.
And all the best presidential impersonators tell the same story, about the first day a stranger walked up and asked, "Do you know who you look like?" The ones who make it learn that to impersonate a president, a good business plan trumps a perfect face. "I keep telling Randall to focus on his marketing and promotion," Mendenhall says. "People need to remember that this is a serious business."