High life as a Trump impersonator
MOST ARE DOING IT WRONG, TALENT MANAGER SAYS
andy 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, he 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 last 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 said. “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.”
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 H.W. Bush approached Bridges after his show, saying: “Steve, I just want to thank you. Your material is so gracious.”
Plenty of bronzing powder
Since the 2016 election, it sometimes seems as if half the comedians in America have added blonde 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 Donald 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 said. “Anthony Atamanuik is mean-spirited. It’s like Dr. Evil. It’s a demonlike 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 said. Because they showed up, waved, and then did meetand-greets, the appearance fees they could command were limited. “They were getting $500 [Dh1,836] 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 said.
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 Clinton was re-elected that year, Nolen urged Watters to expand his act, from 30 to 45 minutes, so they could increase their fee.
“Most convention and meetings planners want a full hour if they can get it,” Nolen said.
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 make-up artist and make him look like the president,’” Nolen said.
In his natural state, Dave Burleigh looks nothing like Donald Trump.
Squint, and you might say Donald Jr. 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 make-up 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.
No challenge like Trump
Recruited by Nolen more than a year ago, Burleigh has made three brief appearances as 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 make-up 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 said. “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 FBI director.
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 said.
Burleigh, who impersonates a wide range of Hollywood celebrities, had never thought to include Joe Biden in his act.
But he did know all about the success Steve 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.
Crossing out Biden
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 Clinton’s “private email server.”
That, Nolen believed, enough to turn the tide.
“Randy had me over for dinner when I was doing a show in Palm Springs,” Burleigh said. “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.’” was
David Burleigh, a Trump impersonator, performs at a private dinner in Long Beach, California. Burleigh says people are already addressing him as if he is the president.
Burleigh performs at a private birthday. The impersonator plays President Trump in his schmoozy, self-satisfied MC mode.
In his natural state (left), Burleigh looks nothing like Donald Trump. He uses elaborate facial prosthetics (right) to transform into a striking likeness of the US President.