The business of being Obama, Romney fakes

2012-09-20 11:05
US President Barack Obama impersonator Louis Ortiz and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney impersonator Mike Cote at Times Square in New York. (AFP, File)

US President Barack Obama impersonator Louis Ortiz and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney impersonator Mike Cote at Times Square in New York. (AFP, File)

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New York - Americans who despair of ever seeing a civilised presidential campaign really should have witnessed Barack Obama help Mitt Romney iron his crumpled suit in a Manhattan hotel room last week.

Well, if only they'd been the real president and his Republican challenger.

Luis Ortiz and Mike Cote probably look more like Obama and Romney than anyone in the world, other than Obama and Romney themselves of course.

Ortiz has it all: The jutting ears, flashing smile, sonorous voice, even Obama's relaxed, athletic walk. When Ortiz puts on a dark suit and does that Obama thing of gazing slightly up, as if thinking great thoughts, he literally stops traffic. "Buses, armoured trucks, everything," Ortiz says.

Cote says his Romney is harder to get, especially the voice, but the grey hair at the ears, high forehead, eyebrows and beady eyes are good enough to fool many that they're in the presence of a multi-millionaire who may be about to take the White House.

"I've seen people come up to me shaking," Cote says. "You break their heart."

Bizarre double lives

The life of political impersonators can be as cutthroat and insecure as politics itself. But with the presidential election less than two months away, these are the good times for Ortiz and Cote.

Preparing for their latest gig - an appearance on Fox television - the two met with their manager in a hotel and spent about an hour getting into character.

And so here were copies of the two biggest political rivals in the United States sitting on a bed chatting about their bizarre double lives and helping each other get dressed.

"You spray the water and hold the iron right up close, but without touching," Ortiz instructed Cote as they tried to iron out creases in the blue suit jacket.

"You wouldn't really see Obama do this for Romney," Cote said. "Nothing gets done."
Ortiz, who lives in the Bronx, was an out-of-work Verizon phone company technician in 2008 when a friend noticed that under his moustache and goatee beard lay the spitting image of the then little-known, but rapidly rising presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Everything riding on election day

"I finally took [the beard] off and I could not believe myself. I looked in the mirror and saw a whole new light. I saw dollar signs," Ortiz said, shaking his head. "It's been a wild ride."

Now signed with a talent agency, he's been Obama in Australia - where he met the real Dalai Lama - Japan, South Korea and at a growing number of events back home where his manager Dustin Gold says a top-notch impersonator can command between $10 000 and $15 000 for a 30 minute appearance.

"People want to buy me drinks, food," Ortiz said. "I get the weirdest requests. I got offered some heavy money to do a porno [film]... I think they were really serious."

Like the candidates they're impersonating, everything for Ortiz and Cote rides on what happens on election day on 6 November.

"If he [Romney] becomes president, my life changes," Cote said.

Cote was in the drywall, or plastering, business until he turned 39 years old and took the radical step of becoming a stand-up comic, working his way up and down east coast venues. He still does a bit of plastering, but hopes the Romney act will end that.

'If Romney loses, it's done'

"I'm hoping I don't ever have to go back," he says.

According to Gold, an Obama impersonator will have some shelf life regardless of the election result. Ortiz has a more established rival, a lookalike called Reggie Brown, but "has the natural ability to be better than Reggie", Gold says.

But if Romney sinks, so do his impersonators and without the sweetener of the real Romney's fortune.

"If Romney loses, it's done," Gold said. "No one's going to ask for Romney again."

On their way to the Fox event, the two impersonators paused to dive into the crowd at Times Square.

"My fellow Americans. Today, we stand..." Ortiz began.

Double take

Mini-pandemonium ensued.

"Is it really him?" gasped Vicky Viaene, aged 25, visiting New York with her family from Belgium. "We were on the tour bus and we saw him. We thought it was Obama, and we got off the bus and ran here."

Locals were more savvy, immediately noting the absence of the security that would surround a real president.

But NYU Medical Centre administrator Monique Bailey said she did a double take upon spotting the fake Obama. "He sounds exactly like him," she said.

There's little down time in the business of being someone else. Cote needs to work on his Romney voice, and Ortiz is fine-tuning his imitation of the way the president crosses his legs when he sits.

"I think I own Mitt. The others are so far off," Cote said. "I have a picture of him in my bathroom right now."

"Only one?" Ortiz said. "I have, like, 25 of Obama on the wall. Different smiles and so on. I have mirrors everywhere."

His teeth shone in a perfect replica of the Obama smile. "I feel like he's been cloned. It's weird."

Read more on:    barack obama  |  mitt romney  |  us

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