What is it like to be a Donald Trump impersonator?

The conventions industry pays big bucks for impersonators – that’s why the comedian Dave Burleigh could clean up playing Trump with the help of a Hollywood makeup artist

Greg Beato
Tuesday 07 November 2017 18:06
Comedian Dave Burleigh impersonates Donald Trump
Comedian Dave Burleigh impersonates Donald Trump

Randy Nolen is a 66-year-old talent manager based in Indian Wells, California. He specialises in the meetings and conventions sector. His clients seek acts that can entertain, say, a thousand conference attendees who have nothing in common except that they work in the insurance industry.

Long ago, Nolen realised that everyone knows the president of the United States, and everyone likes to make fun of the boss. Thus, his bread and butter for the past 25 years has been booking and managing performers who portray the president. In the 1990s, he did well with a natural Bill Clinton lookalike named Tim Watters. In the 2000s, he hit it big with Steve Bridges, who used elaborate facial prosthetics to transform into a striking likeness of George W Bush.

While the corporate clients want unique and memorable performers, they generally don’t want anything risqué or offensive.

That’s why the buzzword that guides Nolen is “respectful”. He encourages the entertainers he represents to “poke fun” at the president, in a clever but civil way.

“Our objective is to make people chuckle and say, ‘Gosh, that was fun,’” Nolen says. “We’re not political people. We’re not going to change any policy with this. We’re entertainers. Our job is to make everybody laugh, in a way that even the president and his family will like.”

Burleigh looks nothing like Trump in real life but transforms into Trump with the help of prosthetics

A decade ago, Nolen achieved that with Bridges, who performed alongside Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006, and also at a private birthday party at the White House. According to Nolen, George HW Bush approached Bridges after his show, saying, “Steve, I just want to thank you. Your material is so gracious.”

Since the 2016 election, it sometimes seems as if half the comedians in America have added blond wigs and orange bronzing powder to their tool kits. But Nolen, who is a conservative, believes most of these would-be Trumps are doing it wrong – especially Alec Baldwin, whose portrayal of President Trump on Saturday Night Live won an Emmy, and Anthony Atamanuik, who plays Trump on Comedy Central’s The President Show.

“Alec Baldwin is playing a buffoon,” he says. “Anthony Atamanuik is mean-spirited. It’s like Dr Evil. It’s a demon-like character. The problem is, that’s not Trump. You’re playing him out of character and it’s not believable.”

In the early 1990s, Nolen had no interest in lookalikes. “There was no money in it,” he says. Because they showed up, waved, and then did meet-and-greets, the appearance fees they could command were limited. “They were getting $500 to $750 a night.”

Then, a colleague of Nolen’s insisted he meet a former real-estate salesman named Tim Watters, who had started making appearances at corporate events because of his resemblance to America’s new president, Bill Clinton. When Nolen’s acquaintance spotted Watters at a Motorola conference, he said the executives there were practically falling over themselves to get a photo with him.

While Nolen was sceptical, he agreed to meet with Watters. “From the nose up, he looked exactly like Bill Clinton,” Nolen says.

That still wasn’t enough. But when Watters agreed to develop an actual stand-up act that would allow him to charge more for performances, Nolen started booking gigs for him.

In their best year together, 1996, Nolen said he booked 177 dates for Watters at $10,000 a performance. When President Clinton was re-elected that year, Nolen urged Watters to expand his act, from 30 to 45 minutes, so that they could increase their fee.

Alec Baldwin impersonates Trump on ‘Saturday Night Live’ 

“Most convention and meetings planners want a full hour if they can get it,” Nolen says.

But Watters didn’t want to invest the money into writers who could help expand his act. “That’s when I said, ‘If I ever do this again, I’m going to find a guy who’s got the will and the talent, and then I’m going to find a prosthetic makeup artist and make him look like the president,’” Nolen says.

Burleigh has brown hair, hazel eyes, round cheeks and a puckish grin. At 48, he still looks boyish.

That started to change, however, as Kevin Haney, a Hollywood makeup artist, retrieved an individually cast silicone ear, an individually cast silicone eye-bag and so on, and methodically covered Burleigh in a thin layer of Trump.

“What is the toxicity of this stuff?” Burleigh asked, as Haney brushed a Q-tip dipped in denatured alcohol against the silicone replica of Donald Trump’s left cheek glued to Burleigh’s face.

“It’s all medical grade – completely safe,” Haney said.

Recruited by Nolen more than a year ago, Burleigh has made three brief appearances as President Trump at Southern California comedy clubs. Now, Haney is prepping him for his first official paid gig in the role, a private party in a restaurant.

Over the course of his long career, Haney has helped transform actors into monsters, aliens, apes, corpses and extremely old versions of themselves. In 1990, he was part of the makeup team that won an Oscar for their work in Driving Miss Daisy. He turned Courteney Cox into “Fat Monica” on Friends.

No character, however, has ever challenged him like Trump has.

“He has so many angles. He has so many odd things going on,” Haney says. “It’s the most difficult job I’ve ever done. I say this without any hesitation.”

Nolen believes he can blame it all on James B Comey, the former director of the FBI.

Like many people, Nolen had started paying attention to the 2016 presidential election well before the primaries got underway, though his interest was driven by a tragedy several years earlier.

While Bridges’s busiest year as President Bush was in 2006, he continued to get jobs for this portrayal well after Bush left office. In 2012, days after the 48-year-old Bridges had returned from playing Bush in China, he died unexpectedly.

US President George W Bush (left) with impersonator Steve Bridges (right) at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006 

“It was a complete shock,” Nolen said. “His brother told me the official coroner’s report said it was anaphylactic reaction, caused by a chemical in an herb.”

In the two years afterward, Nolen tried to develop other acts built around what he calls “likeness prosthetics”, but nothing came to fruition.

He decided to get an early jump on the 2016 election. “I really thought Hillary was going to get indicted,” he said. “The server thing. There was so much against her.”

And when that happened, he reasoned, the Democrats would have to replace her with a last-minute stand-in. So Nolen started looking for someone who could play Joe Biden.

In April 2015, after reviewing hundreds of comedians and impressionists, Nolen came across a YouTube clip of Burleigh’s 2012 appearance on America’s Got Talent.

“Within seconds, I could tell he was the guy I was looking for,” Nolen says.

But he did know all about the success Bridges had playing George W Bush. At his peak, Bridges had earned far more to play the president than the President himself earned in salary for the job.

Anticipating a similar payday, Burleigh signed a contract with Nolen.

Nolen was wrong about Biden. He was also wrong in initially thinking Trump didn’t have a real shot at winning.

Then, 11 days before the election, Comey announced that the FBI was reviewing newly discovered emails that he said “appeared to be pertinent” to an already closed investigation into Hilary Clinton’s “private email server.”

That, Nolen believed, was enough to turn the tide.

“Randy had me over for dinner when I was doing a show in Palm Springs,” Burleigh says. “He took out the contracts we’d written a year and a half earlier. And wherever it said ‘Joe Biden,’ he just crossed it out and wrote ‘Donald Trump.’”

On election day, Burleigh was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, drinking in the crew bar at 4am, after performing a gig that night.

Anthony Atamanuik plays Trump on Comedy Central’s ‘The President Show’

“There were all these people from all these different countries, just baffled,” he says. “This big Russian guy was sitting next to me, and he goes, ‘Now let me get this straight. This Donald Trump, he is reality star, yes?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘And he’s going to be president of the United States, yes?’ And I said, ‘Well, it looks that way.’ And he gets this big smile on his face and says, ‘Only in America!’”

The first time that Haney built a new face for Burleigh in July, Burleigh thought he ended up looking more like Liberace than Trump. “Randy kept saying, ‘This is just a test.’ But I was worried,” Burleigh says.

The second time, one of the other comics at the club where Burleigh performed just sat there and glared at him. “She was looking at Dave like he was some evil creature,” Nolen says.

With Bridges, Haney got so good at simulating the look of Bush that people sometimes thought they were meeting the actual president when shaking his hand.

Burleigh is not at that level yet, but in the meet-and-greets he has done, he said people are already addressing him as if he is the president: “‘I didn’t vote for you,’ they’ll say, ‘but my mom’s going to love this picture.’”

To achieve even that level of verisimilitude takes around four hours and a great deal of patience. As Haney blended the edges of various silicone pieces, Burleigh held a small red fan to his face to mitigate the fumes from the solvents.

“Can I get a tissue here?” he asked. “My eye is sizzling a bit.”

Once Haney finished applying the silicone, he started using a low-pressure spray gun to speckle it with tiny dots of colour – mostly reds, pinks and browns.

“I’ve done the super-orange Trump makeup on a couple other jobs,” Haney says. “But it’s distracting. I try to give a hint of that, but I don’t overdo it. I’m not going to make him into an Oompa Loompa. It’s not that kind of show.”

Burleigh, too, has no intention of turning Trump into an Oompa Loompa.

“When all of this started, I was at lunch with one of my comedian friends and I told him about the project,” Burleigh says. “And he goes, ‘Well, if you can sleep at night.’ And I was like, ‘Comedians have been doing impressions of politicians forever, all the way back to the jesters and the kings. This is a form of entertainment.’ Then, he kind of gave it a beat and said, ‘Well, just don’t humanise him.’”

Bridges certainly did that with George W Bush. Indeed, as President Bush’s approval ratings dropped in the face of endless war and a slowing economy, Bridges’s popularity grew.

And, according to Nolen, his core audience was conservatives and Republicans, not liberals. In his portrayal of Bush as an endearing, simple, but occasionally sly regular guy, Bridges gave them a Dubya unsaddled by history – the folksy blue-blood cowboy who had once promised to help “make the pie higher” and sympathised with how hard it was for average Americans to “put food on their families”.

Tim Watters works as a Bill Clinton lookalike (Rex)

In the Trump era, when it sometimes feels as if we are no more than a tweet away from nuclear war, civil war or nuclear civil war, there are millions of people who have zero interest in a similarly sympathetic depiction of Trump.

And there are millions of people who are no doubt tired of seeing Trump depicted only as a sour buffoon or an evil mastermind. In a recent tweet, the president himself pressed for “Equal Time” on the nation’s late-night TV shows.

Now that possibility exists.

At 5:38pm, Haney finally steps away from Burleigh. After sitting with low-energy calm for more than three and a half hours, Burleigh burst into motion. He ducked into a nearby closet, where he put on a fat suit that gives him a pot belly and some larger-than-average junk in the trunk.

He slipped into a dark blue suit. He put on a pair of blue contact lenses and inserted a $7,000 set of alternative teeth, which were designed by Dr Rick Glassman, whose website notes that he “has more motion picture film credits than any other dentist worldwide”.

Finally, Burleigh slid on a wig that is essentially a horseshoe-like fringe of white-blond hair that leaves the top of his head bald.

It’s temporary – he is having a better one made, at a cost of $10,000, by a wig maker who has designed pieces for Cher and Jennifer Aniston. Her services are in such high demand that she won’t be able to complete it for several weeks.

That was why Burleigh was working in a baseball hat – the one Trump wore on his visit to post-hurricane Houston.

As Burleigh exited the hotel lobby and started to walk down the street, diners inside a nearby restaurant spotted him through the window and whipped out their cellphones to take photos. Passers-by slowed and did double takes.

After a couple of blocks, Burleigh broke left with statesmanlike authority, toward the staff entrance of the 555 East American Steakhouse. As he waited outside for his cue to enter, Mari Okumura, Haney’s assistant, dabbed at the left side of Burleigh’s face in a last-minute attempt to improve the contouring of his plump, patrician jowl.

Ten yards away, two women from the Netherlands looked on from a polite distance. “We were wondering, is it him?” one said. “We thought maybe he is here for the wildfires?”

A few minutes later, Burleigh strode into a private banquet room to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.”

Approximately 30 men, middle-aged and up, filled tables. Some showed obvious delight at the appearance of their surprise visitor.

“Good to be here. Great to be here,” Burleigh purrs from behind a podium at the front of the room. “I was expecting more people. My birthday party had a billion people.

“A lot of traffic getting down here tonight,” he says. “Didn’t these Hollywood liberals promise to leave the country if I got elected? Liars!”

Burleigh played the president in his schmoozy, self-satisfied MC mode – not rousing the rabble so much as nuzzling it.

As he made jokes about building a wall between Long Beach and Orange County, and the record he set at nearby Trump International Golf Course – “I shot an 18” – restaurant staff drifted over to watch, holding up their smartphones to take photos.

And when Burleigh closed his act by singing “Happy Birthday” to the 80-year-old guest of honour, everyone in the room joined in with great strength and stamina, buoyed by the bonhomie of Burleigh’s engaging presence.

It was a winning performance, with a notable subtext.

Not just because Burleigh effectively sanitised the President by avoiding topics of any controversy, but also in the way he elevated him.

He did not insult protesting athletes, or belittle a Puerto Rico mayor, or feud with war widows. Here at last was a leader with all of the discipline, decorum and empathy that many have traditionally associated with the office of the president.

For the meetings and conventions sector, that’s fantastic news.

© New York Times

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