The Surreal Life of an Obama Impersonator

An interview with the man himself”“at least, the guy who plays him in a new documentary.

Louis Ortiz in Washington.
National Journal
Rebecca Nelson
Add to Briefcase
Rebecca Nelson
Oct. 30, 2014, 7:49 a.m.

Louis Ort­iz watches MS­N­BC con­stantly. He’s al­ways voted Demo­crat­ic. And when he’s walk­ing down the street, he’s of­ten over­whelmed by the at­ten­tion he gets.

Ort­iz lives his life as Pres­id­ent Obama. But un­like the pres­id­ent, he doesn’t have a team of ad­visers brief­ing him on polit­ics and policy, or an army of Secret Ser­vice agents to pro­tect him from hos­tile crowds. And he votes for Demo­crats, he told Na­tion­al Journ­al, be­cause he’s a uni­on man”“not the uni­on of uni­versity law pro­fess­ors or Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents, but of phone com­pany em­ploy­ees.

Since 2008, when a friend poin­ted out his un­canny like­ness to the then-pres­id­en­tial con­tender, Ort­iz, an Army vet­er­an and a former Ve­r­i­zon field tech­ni­cian from the Bronx, N.Y., has made a liv­ing as an Obama im­per­son­at­or. From cer­tain angles, Ort­iz, who’s Pu­erto Ric­an, does bear a strik­ing re­semb­lance to the 44th pres­id­ent. They have sim­il­ar noses, laugh lines, the same fur­rowed brow”“he even shares those un­mis­tak­able ears, which he told Na­tion­al Journ­al he once con­sidered hav­ing sur­gery on to pin back. That was be­fore Obama hit the na­tion­al scene, though, and Ort­iz made his liv­ing on them. But he has un­der­gone sur­gery to look more like the pres­id­ent, vis­it­ing the dent­ist to close the dis­tinctly un-pres­id­en­tial gap in his front teeth.

When Obama was run­ning for reelec­tion, in 2012, Ort­iz told his story on NPR’s This Amer­ic­an Life, ex­plain­ing that be­fore he dis­covered his re­semb­lance to Obama, he didn’t really pay at­ten­tion to polit­ics. Now, know­ing about world events is a cru­cial part of his job. Though he told Na­tion­al Journ­al he mostly agrees with Obama’s polit­ics, he de­clined to elab­or­ate on ex­actly where he di­verges from the pres­id­ent. His im­per­son­a­tion bit is less about polit­ics, he said, and more about mak­ing people laugh.

Ort­iz teamed up with film­maker Ry­an Mur­dock for the doc­u­ment­ary Bronx Obama, which premi­eres Thursday on Show­time. He’s been trav­el­ing the world on the fest­iv­al cir­cuit, pro­mot­ing both the movie and his avail­ab­il­ity for hire. On an up­com­ing trip to Rus­sia, he may even meet Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin”“though he told Na­tion­al Journ­al that if that hap­pens, he’ll keep his jokes to him­self.

Smoothly mov­ing in and out of his much-prac­ticed Obama voice, Ort­iz chat­ted with Na­tion­al Journ­al about his take on the pres­id­ency; what it’s like earn­ing a liv­ing by im­per­son­at­ing a man with sag­ging ap­prov­al rat­ings; his most re­li­able laugh lines; and how he plans to handle Amer­ica’s re­sponse to Ebola (sort of).

Here’s an ed­ited ver­sion of that con­ver­sa­tion.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5367) }}

Na­tion­al Journ­al: Why did you make this a ca­reer?

Louis Ort­iz: It’s not by choice. Like Lady Gaga, I was born this way, born look­ing like the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent. Why not just go full force with it and find out about polit­ics?

NJ: Do people try to have polit­ic­al con­ver­sa­tions with you?

LO: Yeah. It’s good to be a little savvy. But once I start get­ting stumped, then that’s when I turn the ser­i­ous con­ver­sa­tion in­to a comed­ic con­ver­sa­tion.

NJ: What do you mean?

LO: [They’ll say], “What are you gonna do about IS­IS?” and “Do you think you should be do­ing more about Ebola?” And that’s when it gets a little weird, like, “All right, you do un­der­stand that I’m not the real pres­id­ent, right?” My re­semb­lance to the pres­id­ent is so strik­ing that it just com­pels people to con­verse about stuff that they would love to really sit down with the pres­id­ent, the real pres­id­ent, and have a con­ver­sa­tion about. I know a little bit, I watch the news vig­or­ously. I’m just not a politi­cian. So I look at people, like, “Come on, please, give me a break. Let’s talk about the Yan­kees, man.”

NJ: Do you find your­self caring more about what’s go­ing on in polit­ics now?

LO: I do care a little more. But I’ve also found that now, look­ing at polit­ics, listen­ing, my ear to the ground, I see that it’s just polit­ics. I pretty much try to stay away from it. There’s al­ways something bad. You can’t make every­body happy. You can’t. As an im­per­son­at­or, I can. As a politi­cian, I can’t. I got jokes for Re­pub­lic­ans, I got jokes for in­de­pend­ents, I got jokes for people that really think that I’m from Kenya.

NJ: Like what?

LO: I’ll tell ‘em straight up, [af­fects Obama voice] “Look. If I was from Kenya, wouldn’t I have won the New York City Mara­thon by now?”

NJ: Has do­ing all this made you think dif­fer­ently about Obama?

LO: In a weird way, yes. I look like him, and now I’m mak­ing a liv­ing, I’m trav­el­ing the world, just be­cause I look like him. It’s not ac­tu­ally just be­cause [I look like him], be­cause it takes work, ded­ic­a­tion. You gotta prac­tice the voice [af­fects Obama voice]. And you gotta talk about Sasha and Malia. Sasha and Malia, my two beau­ti­ful girls.

NJ: Has this made you think dif­fer­ently about what it’s like to be the pres­id­ent?

LO: It’s not all fun and games look­ing like him. I get called all kinds of nasty words. People hate me just be­cause they hate him. I am the light­ning rod for Obama. I at­tract love, a lot of love, and a lot of hate, as well. Due to the nature of my ca­reer, thank­fully, I can turn a Re­pub­lic­an, and/or a ra­cist per­son, in­to a laugh­ing bowl of joy. By the time I get through with them, they’re just laugh­ing, they’re shak­ing my hand at the end when I gotta go. And they’re, like, “Look, man. I hate Obama, but I love you, man.” And they’re wish­ing me the best.

NJ: How does the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al and pop­ular­ity af­fect your busi­ness?

LO: It var­ies. Some­times it’s just the way it seems: If Obama does good, I do good. People love me more. If Obama does bad, then I do bad. People some­times just don’t wanna hire me. But some­times, it’s the op­pos­ite. [If] he’s do­ing really good, there’s noth­ing to make fun of about Obama or something like that. When he’s do­ing bad, some­times I get a lot of re­quests. Like, “Oh, let’s have you come in­to this party of con­ser­vat­ives and talk about what a bad job you’re do­ing.” And they love it.

NJ: Where will you be trav­el­ing this year?

LO: I got a job in Rus­sia where I’ll be do­ing something with a Putin im­per­son­at­or. It’s all ap­proved by Putin, of course. And I might just be meet­ing the man him­self, Putin. My life is a movie. Lit­er­ally. It’s just in­sane. Two of the most power­ful men in the world, Putin and Obama. I look like one, and I just might meet the oth­er one. I’m just flab­ber­gas­ted. I’m in com­plete awe every day when I think about how this Rus­si­an job in three weeks just might hap­pen.

NJ: Are you go­ing to try any of your jokes on Putin?

LO: Let me tell you something. I am not mess­ing around. I will make sure I run any jokes by the people that I’m with. I do not wanna an­ger any­body out there.

NJ: Do you think you’ll still be able to do this in five, 10 years?

LO: This is it. I’ll be do­ing this for the next 15 to 20 years, be­cause Barack Obama is the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent. He’s icon­ic, he’s his­tor­ic, and he got two terms, so there’s enough ma­ter­i­al there for me to milk this cow all the way to the end.

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