My Life as Barack Obama

For an Actor, Impersonating the President Is an Exciting Gig, and an Unexpected Gift

Celebrity impersonators get a lot of strange press. They get blamed for crimes, sometimes falsely. In L.A., there have been recent stories about cop impersonators. Does this mean that the life of the ordinary impersonator is filled with drama and scandal?

I don’t think so. I suspect it’s more like mine. You’re an entertainer who stumbles into something for which you have an unexpected knack. Then you see where it takes you.

I first became Barack Obama in 2007.

I was taking a camera hosting class in L.A.—literally a class in which you learn how to host a show on camera. Every time I stood up to perform, my classmates would tell me I looked and sounded exactly like presidential candidate Barack Obama. Encouraged, I found myself practicing Obama’s voice and imitating his tics.

But it wasn’t until after he was elected president that I dared to play Obama in public. In January 2010, I attended college football’s BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I convinced four buddies to dress as Secret Service guys, another as a cameraman, and marched up to the stadium. Our goal was to get a funny scene of me, as Obama, not being let into the game. Instead, the stadium staff let us right in, for free.

After the football game, I created other Obama skits and filmed them for a YouTube channel, I have also been hired to play Obama for all sorts of parties.

Obama work is pretty lonely, even in L.A. But I connected with my fellow impersonators when I snagged an invitation to the Sunburst Convention of Celebrity Impersonators & Tribute Artists in Orlando. There, I met a Britney Spears and a Tiger Woods and a number of other Obamas. The vibe was friendly and supportive. After that and another impersonators’ gathering in Vegas, I found good booking agents who were able to get me gigs.

I’ve always been good at doing impressions, but growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, I never imagined I would help support myself by playing the president of the United States. But I did know I wanted to act, ever since the day when, as a young boy, I tagged along with my mother to a rehearsal of a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in which she was playing. I obsessively watched movies and TV shows, and, as a kid, I memorized every line of the Steve Martin movie The Jerk.

At the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in acting and played linebacker on the football team, I did impressions of football coaches that my fellow players loved. My best was of Bill Callahan, a fiery Chicagoan who at the time was coach of the Oakland Raiders and is now the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. Then, after three years of pro football in Europe, I decided to give comedy a try.

At the suggestion of the late Chris Farley, who was also from Madison, I moved to Chicago to learn improv and try out stand-up comedy. I loved to do impressions of animals. I also developed a pretty good Nick Nolte and Archie Bunker. But I wanted to be more than a comic—I wanted to be an actor. I moved out to L.A.

I’ve had small recurring roles on prime-time TV, mostly as police officers, in NCIS, CSI, 24, and Desperate Housewives. I belong to Robey Theatre Company, founded by Danny Glover and Ben Guillory. I’ve done some modeling. And I have a Subaru commercial coming out soon.

But while it isn’t my main source of income, my Obama work has set me apart and introduced me to all kinds of people around L.A. I think my impression is getting better. I sound like him—my voice is the strongest part of the impression. And I look like him, although I’m a little chunkier. (I like to say he got the height, and I got the butt.) And it’s a major rush to play the president; I just hope that I do not get shot some day doing it.

If there’s a weakness to my impression, it’s content. I didn’t go to Harvard or serve on the law review, and I don’t know much about politics or constitutional law. But I manage.

When someone asks a political question, I dodge it, by saying—in character, of course—“I’m not here to talk about politics.” (It’s probably for the best, anyway.) Then I turn the conversation to things I can talk about—football or movies. When I’m playing the president, I can talk about anything I want. I’m the leader of the Free World, after all.

When I’m not acting, or serving as president, I tend bar at a resort in Palos Verdes called Terranea. I love bartending because I can talk and be funny with people and work on new material. Some of my customers call me Obama. And, even in the face of war or gridlock in Congress, this president never backs down—or forgets how to mix a drink.

Aaron Norvell is an actor in Los Angeles.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo courtesy of Aaron Norvell.
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